Updated: 4th January 2021
Can you see the Northern Lights in the middle of nowhere with no other tourists around? Are there ice caves off the beaten path? Will the black diamond beach be filled with people as well as ice? Is there a quiet time of the year to visit Iceland? Is the Golden Circle too touristy? How can I see the midnight sun in solitude? These are the questions that will be addressed in our How to avoid the crowds in Iceland post.
In the midst of COVID-19 and at the forefront of the vaccine being shared around the globe, this post is ready for an update. I’m updating this now mainly because despite the fact that Iceland is practically empty at the moment we know that travellers will return. We don’t expect anywhere near the same numbers as before (see below) but there will certainly be a resurgence of some sort (hopefully soon). And we’re acutely aware that the first of the travellers to Iceland will expect solitude, social distancing and avoiding crowds more than ever before. So read on to get an updated version of how to Avoid the Crowds in Iceland.
There seems to be a fallacy that Iceland was overcrowded prior to the pandemic. At Hidden Iceland we completely disagree. Even at tourism’s peak back in 2018 we believe there was a ‘right way’ to travel to Iceland and see the hidden gems.
Sure if you fly into the main city of Reykjavik in the height of the summer and follow the big bus routes to nearby sights then it will certainly feel busy. But in a country almost the size of England there were only 2.3 million visitors in 2018. 2 million in 2019. And don’t get me started on 2020, the less said the better. Compare that to the 85 million annual tourists in France or the 10 million to a much smaller Hawaii and it’s quite clear that there’s still plenty left to explore.
It would be rather silly to predict the tourist numbers for 2021, 2022 and beyond right now but I am bold enough to say that ‘mass tourism’ in all its big bus glory will be the last to return to Iceland. Iceland will return to its former glory but with a few new regulations stopping it from ever being ‘overcrowded’ again. With new regulations and the death of mass tourism will hopefully mean a far more spread out tourist market for the foreseeable future. Sounds good to me.
So, if you’re willing to travel a little further, join small groups, go off the beaten path, and be strategic with which company you travel with, you can often enjoy even the most popular sights with only a few other people around (if you’re lucky).
HOW TO AVOID THE CROWDS IN ICELAND AND STILL SEE THE MOST POPULAR SIGHTS
Step 1: Use small group travel companies
Hidden Iceland only offer private trips and small group tours with experienced guides. We never ran big bus tours before and in the ‘new world’ we won’t be starting any time soon. So when the COVID-19 regulations took place we were actually in a pretty good place to tackle the maximum group numbers since we were already there. Our small group tours have a maximum of 12 persons in spacious Mercedes Minibuses. We aim to treat our guests like friends and family so that it feels more like you are sharing a sunset over the glacier lagoon with an old friend than with some driver telling you what time to be back on the bus.
Small groups, aside from being more pleasant, are the cornerstone of our environmental agenda too. Lack of group management, inadequate education of the customers and overused resources are a leading cause of localised degradation. At Hidden Iceland we want to keep each place as pristine as when we first found it.
Step 2: Timing is everything!
The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is famous for a reason. Just because there are other tourists there doesn’t mean you should skip it either. As much as we love sharing the hidden gems in Iceland we know it’s important to see the most famous places too. The Black Sand Beach along the South coast is a great example.
Thankfully, Iceland isn’t particularly overcrowded anyway. It just suffers from a bottle neck approach at times. All the big buses would travel at the same time to the same places each day. If you go stuck at the Black Sand Beach at 1pm you’d think it was Disneyland. Arrive 1 hour earlier and the numbers are greatly reduced. Arrive 3 hours later and you’ll be sharing the beach with just a handful of other tourists. The trick with these areas is to be more strategic, not avoid them. Know when the surges are expected and plan accordingly. That’s what we do for all our tours.
For example, we intentionally do the Golden Circle tour in reverse so that we arrive at the Secret Lagoon hot pool when it’s empty (at sunrise) and finish at the Thingvellir National Park for the sunset while making sure we play with the Icelandic horses and eat at the Fridheimar tomato farm between the tourist spots along the way.
As an update for the post COVID-19 world, I’d say that ‘timing’ will be less of a priority for many travellers. As I said before, the big bus companies and mass tourism was the reason for the apparent bottle neck effect. I suspect these surges will be a thing of the past for many years to come.
Step 3: Travel a little further. Day trips often aren’t enough.
Many people make Reykjavik their base. Sadly, this limits you to a small cross section of Iceland. As a company, we are getting far more requests to spend ‘as little time in the city as possible’. This is undoubtedly due to social distancing priorities. For us, it is a welcome trend change. After all, some of the best (and quietest) places are just that little bit further away.
In fact, even a one night stay in a quaint guesthouse in the South East of the island can open up a whole host of places such as the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon or Black Diamond Beach. We want to take you off the beaten path and show you some hidden gems like to the Westman Islands to meet rescue Puffins or to hike on a glacier in the South East of the country on our 2 day Glacier Lagoon trip. Or even into a less explored ice cave in the winter months. All our overnight trips conveniently sleep us in the middle of nowhere so it’s a great time to spot the northern lights or chase the midnight sun.
No doubt you will still be eager to explore Reykjavik too. I would say that 1 day on each side of your adventure is enough to get a good feel for the cities uniqueness. Most customers who allocated 4 or 5 days will tell us they wish they’d spent more time in nature. That is what Iceland is known for after all.
Step 4: Come back again!
If you’re willing to really explore the forgotten areas of Iceland we’ve created longer itineraries geared at second and third timers, such as heading up to the far north west of the country on a 4 day trip to the West Fjords. The West Fjords are home to very few locals, and even less tourists. But what they lack in people they more than make up for in nature and wilderness. Spotting puffins, seals, arctic foxes and the odd whale off the coast is just some of the fun that can be done while driving through the glacier scarred Fjords over a 4 to 5 day journey.
We recently wrote a great blog post about travellers who are Returning to Iceland. Second timers tend to favour solitude even more than those exploring for the first time. Thankfully, these remote parts of the country found a new customer base in 2020…the locals. This helped them stave off the ill effects of the pandemic. Places like the Westman Islands, the Eastfjords and even the rocky highlands saw an influx of Icelanders exploring their own nation for the first time. Don’t worry though, this new found love by the locals won’t create a new crowd. There are only 350,000 of them to be fair.
Step 5: Come during the quiet months – April/ May/ September/ October
The great thing about Iceland is that there is no ‘wrong’ time to come. For example, you can still see the Northern Lights in early April and late September when there are less people around. It doesn’t need to be during the holiday season when it’s at its darkest. Ice Caves trips are only accessible in the winter so you may have a few other tourists to contend with. But glacier hikes can be achieved all year round with unique ice sculptures being formed daily in April and May. September and October are when the farmers are most active, retrieving the lost sheep from the mountains, a sight to behold. But even outside of these months it is far from overcrowded.
One additional thing to note though. During the quiet period during the COVID-19 pandemic, Iceland got to work regulating and professionalising the industry. As of winter 2020 both glacier hikes and ice cave tours will now have a maximum number of tourists allowed to explore at any one time. This means that coming during the quietest months isn’t as important now since steps have been taken to keeping numbers at a more sustainable level going forward.
Step 6: Week days make a difference
A lot of the current influx of tourists is from the stop over offered by airlines like Icelandair. As airlines scramble to entice people to fly again in 2021 and 2022 I suspect these types of offers will be even more prevalent. So this is a more important point than pre-COVID-19. Additionally, many tourists see Iceland as a long weekend break. Since it’s such a small island and flights are surprisingly quick (5 hours direct from New York), a lot of travellers will just try to squeeze in as much as they can in a short space of time. This often means Friday, Saturday and Sunday can be really quite different from Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays in some locations.
So, if you looking to avoid the crowds in Iceland then perhaps a weekday trip is for you. Or at the very least extend your trip to include those days. As much as we love to make our trips action packed, we still suggest to our customers to stay for at least a week. That is especially true when Northern Lights are involved too. Oh, and you’re more likely to find accommodation and last minute tours if you come mid-week (though this is admittedly less of an issue these days).
Step 7: Check the Reviews
Finally, it is so important to check the reviews if you want to avoid the crowds in Iceland. Many companies promise the world when it comes to the trips they run. Sadly, not all live up to expectations. For example, finding yourself stuck on an ‘off the beaten path’ northern lights trip only to realise your big bus is simply lined up with other bus companies at the same ‘secluded’ spot is pretty painful. That’s actually one of the reasons we only run Northern Lights trips as part of a combined itinerary, often using off the beaten path farm guesthouses as our chosen viewing place.
So, checking Facebook reviews, TripAdvisor and simply asking friends and family will go a long way to help you get an authentic experience. Even if a chosen company gets the odd bad review we always recommend reading the company response to the guest as well. Oftentimes, the way a company reacts can often show the care they have for their guests.
Oh and one more point on this. If you see any tours suggesting that you can go to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and back to Reykjavik in one day, run for the hills. You will spend a minimum of 11 hours bouncing around in the back seat of a bus and only 40 minutes at the lagoon itself. This should always be run as a 2 day journey, trust us.
DO THE ‘CROWDS’ RUIN THE EXPERIENCE?
These simple steps that we follow teach you how to avoid the crowds in Iceland, in the most part. However the fact is sometimes you get unlucky, and the Christmas week with low daylight hours is particularly tricky. Summer can be difficult too, though more daylight hours help. But even then, the idea of it being overcrowded is greatly exaggerated. There are no big queues, even in the Golden Circle. There are plenty of vantage points. And even more hidden spots that punctuate the more celebrated areas each day. Remember you are a tourist too, and everyone is here for the same reason as you. With the addition of the lull in tourist numbers thanks to COVID-19 we expect there will be very few people travelling to Iceland who will ever consider it overcrowded ever again (as long as you follow our rules).
Either way, if you are with a small group who are led by a passionate guide then each place you stop will be special regardless of who else is there. We promise!
If you want to learn how to avoid the crowds in Iceland, join our crowd beating trips into the more remote locations of the country. Check out our Hidden Iceland tours run carefully and passionately by us.
Hi, I’m Ryan Connolly; Co-Founder, Glacier Guide, and Marketing Manager of Hidden Iceland.
I’ve guided in multiple countries around the world and stepped foot on all 7 continents. I’ve made Iceland my home for the past few years. My passion for science, the outdoors, nature, glaciers and volcanoes has led me to study many aspects of my adopted home, Iceland.