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25 Mistakes Tourists Make While Visiting Iceland

If you spend any time on Instagram, you’ve likely noticed that Iceland has become a very popular travel destination ― and for good reason.

The Nordic island nation boasts some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world, with its glaciers, waterfalls, black-sand beaches, geysers and more. It’s easy for tourists to explore the hip city of Reykjavík, check out the popular Blue Lagoon geothermal spa and follow the Golden Circle sightseeing route.

While locals have been very welcoming of tourists, they’ve also observed them making quite a few mistakes during their stays. We asked people who live in Iceland to share some of these faux pas.

From packing the wrong clothes to getting into dangerous driving situations, here are 25 miscues tourists often make while visiting Iceland ― and some advice for avoiding these errors during your travels.

1. Buying Bottled Water

“There are few things that irk me more as a local than seeing groups of tourists coming out of the supermarket with stacks of bottled water. Not only is all that plastic bad for the environment, but it’s also completely unnecessary because we’re blessed with some of the best drinking water in the world right from our taps. Plus you don’t have to pay for it!” ― Auður Ösp, blogger and tour guide at I Heart Reykjavík

2. Forgetting To Layer

“Don’t be fooled by the forecast in Iceland. It can easily change by the minute, and you can easily experience all seasons during 24 hours. So make sure to pack warm layers and rain/winter coat ― even if you are visiting during the summer months.” ― Inga Kristjansdottir, blogger at Tiny Iceland

“So many tourists don’t bring proper clothes in summer and winter. You need layers to keep you warm and a waterproof layer to keep you dry.” ― Leszek Nowakowski, owner of Iceland Photographer

3. Trying To Cram In Too Many Activities

“Because Iceland is small in size when you look at it on a world map, people tend to think they can see all of it in a couple of days. However, distances in Iceland are deceiving, and combined with the myriad of things to see and do, narrow roads and unpredictable weather conditions, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment by trying to do too much at one go.” ― Ösp

4. Not Respecting The Weather

“Iceland is still a wild country. One of the biggest mistakes is not to respect the weather. There are great resources where you can check the weather daily. Pay attention to weather warnings, and check the areas where you will be traveling. Winter is especially hard and unpredictable.” ― Nowakowski

“I think visitors often don’t fully realize how severe the weather can get in Iceland in winter. The two things that surprise them the most is how strong the wind can get and how quickly the weather changes. You can experience the sun and blue skies and hurricane-force snowstorms, all on the same day. The good news is that we have very capable meteorologists and civil protection authorities that usually warn us about such weather and if you just follow their advice, you shouldn’t have any problems.” ― Ösp

5. Buying Expensive Alcohol

“The best tip is to buy alcohol after arriving in the duty-free store. Don’t try to buy alcohol in supermarkets. What they have is 2.25% pilsner, hardly alcoholic. There are special alcohol stores all around Iceland, called Vínbúðin. It’s expensive to drink in Iceland, but you can get by for example during happy hour and use a coupons app (e.g. Icelandic Coupons app).” ― Kristjansdottir

ChrisHepburn via Getty Images

Some common mistakes involve visits to Iceland’s swimming areas.

6. Skipping The Shower Before Swimming

“You must shower, completely, with soap, naked, before going into the swimming pools, hot pots, geothermal baths ― anywhere that you are getting into a place people swim. If you’re jumping into a completely natural bath in remote areas, try to shower and clean yourselves as much as possible. And no, no one gives a shit that you’re naked. Nudity is not a big deal here. Having full on conversations in the locker rooms while being naked is a completely normal thing. And for people with long hair it must be pulled up.” ― Steph Zakas, photographer at Zakas Photography

7. Not Trying The Real Local Food

“For some reason, travelers who visit Iceland seem to think all we eat are boiled sheep’s heads and rotten shark. Although those things were a part of our diet many moons ago when we didn’t have access to all that is available to us today, I don’t know a single Icelander who eats those things on a regular basis. We have some of the amplest fishing grounds in the world all around Iceland and our restaurants, run by accomplished chefs, are full of the freshest fish imaginable. Another local ingredient you should try is the lamb. Our sheep roam free around the mountains all summer long, eating wild herbs and grass.” ― Ösp

8. Tipping At Restaurants

“Tipping a server is not common in Iceland, so no need to calculate what to tip the waiter. It’s something locals never do, so the waiter is not expecting it.” ― Kristjansdottir

9. Renting A Car Without Experience

“Do not rent a car in winter with no driving experience in winter conditions. Getting a 4×4 car will not help if you don’t know how to drive on ice, snow, with limited visibility and strong winds … Driving too slow and unpredictably is also a risk! You will be better off with a bus tour or a private tour.” ― Nowakowski

10. Failing To Check Road Closures

“Check for road conditions and road closures. Especially in winter. Do not ignore them! They can save your life.” ― Nowakowski

11. Disturbing The Animals

“Don’t pet the horses and livestock. People trespass onto farmers’ land, jumping or opening fences (which sometimes lets out the horses).” ― Zakas

12. Ignoring Signs

“Obey rules! Many attractions ― stunning waterfalls, geysers, glaciers, mountains, black beach ― can be dangerous, and travelers should always follow paths, read signs and listen to guides. Many people have lost lives going too far getting the right photo, which is not worth it. Follow the weather and road conditions online.” ― Kristjansdottir

“Many tourists ignore safety signs. Crossing ropes, lines and boundaries is common behavior … usually to get ‘good Instagram pictures.’” ― Michalina Okreglicka, Iceland elopement photographer

13. Stopping In The Middle Of The Road

“Our roads don’t have a shoulder, so if you pull over, part of the car is usually still on the road. That’s super dangerous.” ― Zakas

“One of the most dangerous mistakes is to stop on the road just to take a photo. This is very dangerous and you should never do that. Find a place where you can leave from the road and shoot away. Imagine driving in poor conditions, you are fighting to see something or trying to stay on the road. Suddenly there is a car stopped on the road because the driver decided to pet a horse. You just died. This happens more often than you imagine.” ― Nowakowski

Andrea Comi via Getty Images

It’s important to be respectful of Iceland’s environment.  

14. Off-Roading

“There is no off-road driving in Iceland. It’s illegal, and you can be fined.” ― Zakas

“So many tourists are doing off-road driving, which is the most terrifying thing for locals. It’s destroying soil and nature. The damage is almost impossible to fix.” ― Okreglicka

15. Getting In Unsafe Water

“Don’t bathe in glacier lagoons. They are unpredictable, and you could die … Don’t go on floating ice. You could die.” ― Nowakowski

“Don’t get close to the waves, especially at Reynisfjara, as that beach is VERY dangerous. There are signs, but people still do it and die. The waves here are intense … Don’t sit on ice chunks, especially at the ‘glacier lagoon,’ as they get taken away from waves and then people get taken out to sea.” ― Zakas

16. Camping Anywhere

“People think they can camp overnight anywhere when it needs to be in a campsite. Also, camping in the later months of the year is highly discouraged.” ― Zakas

17. Driving Without The Right Lights On

“This has become a big problem in Iceland over the last few years, with a huge amount of rentals that are fairly new cars. … You are obliged by law to have your headlights and taillights on. Please check the car manual to figure out how to do it. As of 2020, police can fine you if your taillights are not turned on (which happens almost all the time when using the auto setting).” ― Nowakowski

18. Skipping Gas Stations

“There are some areas, like Wesfjords, which are free of towns and villages. So if you’re traveling around there and see a road sign telling you to fill up your gas tank to full, don’t hesitate to follow it, in order not to get stuck somewhere with no people around and (possibly) even no mobile service!” ― Jane Iskra, photographer at Iskra Photography Services

L. Toshio Kishiyama via Getty Images

Many common mistakes involve driving in Iceland. 

19. Driving The Wrong Kind Of Car

“Trying to cross rivers in unsuitable cars is a common mistake. Going to F-roads [rugged mountain roads] with small two-wheel drive vehicles is illegal and dangerous. Four-wheel drive cars are required there.” ― Okreglicka

20. Harming The Environment

“Many tourists use the bathroom wherever they please and also leave toilet paper. Boo. Don’t trample the moss, or create those stone stacks. That’s bad for the environment, as it changes the ecosystems in the soil/sand. Don’t go off trail or cross ropes or other barriers. They are there for not only human safety, but also for the nature. The flora is very delicate here and gets ruined easily. Making a donation to ICE-SAR or a charity to preserve the nature is always a nice touch since ICE-SAR is who rescues the tourists.” ― Zakas

21. Carrying An Umbrella

“Using umbrellas is basically pointless here with the wind.” ― Zakas

22. Sticking To The Crowded Areas

“Iceland is overcrowded with tourists, almost all year round, but the funniest thing is that most of the busiest locations like Reynisdrangar black-sand beach are overcrowded in just one or two spots, while all the other sides of the beach are almost empty. So to avoid crowds, just don’t be lazy and walk a little.” ― Iskra

23. Dunking Your Head In The Blue Lagoon

“Dunking your head in the blue lagoon is kind of a faux pas because it makes your hair feel like straw and the locals know not to do it.” ― Zakas

24. Walking Around With No Traction

“Sidewalks, even in Reykjavik, are very icy in winter. But there are special spikes you can put under your shoes. You can do it in most shops and petrol stations. They will save your holidays!” ― Nowakowski

25. Blindly Following Google Maps

“Don’t blindly follow Google Maps or other navigation systems! They can lead you through roads that are not meant for your cars. Help from the rescue services is very costly.” ― Nowakowski

Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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