Iceland is a bucketlist destination for many people. It is a photographer’s dream and an outdoor lovers paradise. We think the Land of Fire and Ice is also the perfect place to take your family. We have children from toddlers to teens, and they proved that Iceland is perfect for children of ALL ages! It provides unique opportunities to see some of the most incredible and diverse landscapes in the world, and it is the ultimate place for kids to roam, wander, and just be free.

Planning a trip to Iceland can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you are taking your family. You might be wondering where to go, how to budget for this notoriously expensive destination, what to pack, and if your kids will enjoy it. We are here to (hopefully) answer all your questions about creating the Ultimate Budget Friendly Family Vacation to Iceland.

Table of Contents

  1. Why Choose Iceland?
  2. Winter vs Summer Trip
  3. What to Pack
  4. Budgeting
  5. Link: Renting a Car and Driving in Iceland
  6. Link: Top Experiences
  7. Link: Complete Ring Road Itinerary Including Accommodation Suggestions

Why Choose Iceland?

Iceland Skogafoss

Iceland was on the top of our list for destinations to visit for a long time, but we wondered if it would be a good fit for our family trip. Would the kids enjoy being outside all day and hiking like we do? Are we going to spend significantly more money on an already expensive destination if we bring them? Will the scenery be enough to leave an impression on them?

There are so many factors that go into choosing a destination for your family trip. Ultimately, we decided to just take them with us. We were never ones for putting limitations on them because the destination might not be a popular choice in comparison to places like Disney, Hawaii, or even Italy. Some of the places that you least expect for kids to like end up being the BEST. I can tell you, we made the right decision!

We got to experience so many unique and unforgettable moments together as a family:

  • Drinking straight from a glacial river
  • Walking behind a waterfall
  • Standing in a rainbow, next to a waterfall
  • Witnessing amazing wildlife like puffins, whales, and Icelandic ponies
  • Watching a volcano erupt
  • Discovering a Viking Village and walk within its walls
  • Summiting a mountain
  • Relaxing in a geothermal lagoon
  • Playing on a black sand beach
  • Camping out in a lava field
Exploring a Viking structure in Iceland.

When to Go: Winter vs Summer

Winter

Winter can be a magical time to visit Iceland. Contrary to popular belief, winters are generally fairly mild in Iceland, although, colder than Icelandic summers. You still need to be prepared by bringing warm, winter clothing, but it is in no way comparable to the long, brutal winters we get in Wisconsin! Here are our favorite things about winter in Iceland:

  • There are much fewer crowds, so you’ll have many of the popular destinations all to yourself!
  • Accommodations and even restaurants tend to be much cheaper during the winter. If you are travelling on a budget, you will likely have a much easier time staying within strict spending parameters. Note that some hotels, restaurants, and even grocery stores may be closed or operating on limited hours during this time of year.
  • You have a chance to see the NORTHERN LIGHTS! Although northern lights are never guaranteed, the long periods of darkness during the winter months increase your chance of seeing them.
  • Winter brings the chance to capture dramatic photographs. The opportunity to capture unique scenery is endless in the winter. A frozen waterfall, the contrast of white snow against a black lava field, thick fog streaming over the cliffs at the black sand beach, and epic ice formations are all things that are possible in Icelandic winters.
  • The possibility to experience opportunities such as walking on a glacier or going inside a glacial ice cave is higher. Those are two things that were on our bucketlist, and both of those are possible in Iceland during the winter.

Iceland can also be a little more complicated to visit in the winter, and even dangerous at times. If you plan to visit Iceland during the winter, keep a few things in mind:

  • The days are much shorter, so you’ll need to carefully plan your days’ activities. December 21st is the shortest day of the year in Iceland and only gets about 4 hours of daylight. During the shoulder seasons, such as October or March the days are already quite long and you can experience a lot more during waking hours.
  • Pay close attention to the weather, as the wind and occasional snow storms can be unpredictable and traitorous to travel in. If the weather or road reports tell you not to drive, don’t do it! Even the main road in Eastern and Northern Iceland can be closed or unsafe during the winter. In fact, it may not be possible to visit those areas at all depending on conditions. If your visit is going to be centered around the Reykjavík area or South Iceland, you shouldn’t have to worry as much about road closures.
  • Always have food, water, blankets, and a full tank of gas just in case you were to get stranded on the road. In some areas on the Ring Road, it is common to not see anyone for hours at a time. The emergency number in Iceland is “112”. 

Summer

Summer is our favorite time of year to go to Iceland, and the remainder of this article will be based around summer adventures and conditions. Here are a few of the reasons we recommend Iceland in the summer:

  • There is increased daylight hours. The closer you get to summer solstice (June 21st), the longer the days will be. In fact, from about the end of May until the beginning of August, it never really gets dark. Even in the middle of the night there is a glow in the sky, and sunset seems to blend right into the sunrise. This yields three big positives, in our opinion…
    • You have more daylight to experience more activities. Although it can be extremely exhausting to do a lot each day, every day, you can see and do so much more in one day in the summer than you can in the winter. This is really what makes doing the Ring Road in 7 days, possible.
    • You don’t have to adapt your sleep schedule. We experienced very little, if any, jet lag travelling from the United States because we could sleep until 11am Iceland time and still have 12 hours of daylight upon waking up to do the things we wanted to do.
    • Golden Hour lasts for hours! This is every photographers dream, and allows for capturing stunning lighting in their photographs.
  • The temperatures are more comfortable. It never gets really warm in Iceland, and I always recommend bringing a variety of clothing, including moisture wicking layers and windproof shells. However, you have generally less extreme weather. Don’t let that give you a false sense of security though; Icelandic weather can change on a dime even in the middle of summer!
  • Places such as the Highlands and F-roads are accessible during the summer. Make sure the rental vehicle you get is approved for F-road use, and always be prepared before venturing out onto the backroads. River crossings and rough terrain are common.
  • Animal sightings including seeing baby animals are much more common during the summer. You have the chance to see arctic seals, Icelandic ponies, nesting puffins, and herds of Reindeer. This is also the best time to do whale watching tours, as migrating whales make their way back to the water near the deep fjords for the summer.

In contrast, summer is known to be more expensive, more crowded, and limits your ability to see or do things like the northern lights or walking in a glacial cave.

What to Pack for a Summer Trip

Iceland’s average summer high temperatures are about 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit (10-13 Celsius) in most areas; however, it can get as high as the mid-70s. This is also dependent on the elevation of where you are staying. Also check the weather forecast before your trip and plan accordingly. There is always a high possibility of experiencing multiple weather patterns in one day. We have experienced snow in the morning, a warm sunny afternoon, followed by torrential rainfall and wind storm an hour later, and then a mild, sunny evening. That being said, we have compiled a general list of items you should pack with you for your trip:

Waterfall at Thingvellir National Park in Iceland

Clothing

  • Waterproof hiking shoes/boots. Proper footwear in Iceland is essential in my opinion! Iceland’s terrain can be rocky, muddy, sandy, and wet. A good pair of comfortable hiking shoes/boots that protect you from the elements is key. In order to enjoy many of the sites in Iceland, you will need to walk a fair amount. Trust me, nothing is worse than having wet feet or blisters after the first day. The proper foot wear does not need to be expensive. While I prefer Danner boots or brands like Keen and Columbia for the kids, we have purchased cheaper shoes from Amazon and have been satisfied for the price. Check out our Family Hiking Clothing Guide for examples of our favorites in all price ranges.
  • Wool socks. Some people get waterproof or other moisture wicking types of socks for their trip to Iceland. Those are good options. We prefer thin wool socks in colder climates. Wool is a great insulator, even when wet, so feet stay warm.
  • Base layers. Our favorite base layer is a set of Merino wool thermals, both top and bottoms. We prefer thin garments that sit close to the skin, wicking away moisture and providing insultation. Merino wool is typically more expensive than synthetic base layers, but we believe it is well worth the extra cost in durability and comfort. Also, they look good, so many times if it gets too warm, we will take off our top layers and just wear the Merino wool shirt. Quick dry short sleeved shirt might be necessary if you are expecting exceptionally warm weather during your trip.
  • Sweaters or Thermal fleece. We always bring a couple sweaters or thermal fleece shirts to wear as an insulting layer in case the temperatures are lower. This will definitely help to keep you warm. Iceland has a lot of stores that sell Icelandic Wool clothing items. They can be quite pricey, but I did splurge on a beautiful wool sweater while I was there and ended up wearing it almost every day. It kept me warm even when we travelled up into the snowy mountains.
  • Waterproof jacket. A water and windproof outer shell jacket with a hood is an essential when travelling in Iceland. Wind and rain is almost a guarantee during at least one part of your trip, especially if you are completing the Ring Road. Even if the weather is nice and warm, if the wind picks up, it can feel really cold. Don’t bother bringing an umbrella, as the wind can be quite extreme and the umbrella would likely not hold up or serve its purpose.
  • Hiking/Athletic pants (quick dry) or waterproof shell pants. I do not recommend bringing jeans with you to your trip in Iceland unless you are bringing them for a day in Reykjavik or another major city where you will not be hiking. When jeans get wet, they get cold and heavy. We wore athletic style leggings and joggers during our entire trip and it worked well for us.
  • Gloves, winter hat, neck buff/scarf. Even if the weather is supposed to be nice, I recommend bringing these items just in case. They don’t take up a lot of space and its better to be prepared and be comfortable than cold and miserable on your hikes.
  • Swimming suit, towel, and flip flops. No matter what time of year you go, these are essential if you plan on stopping by any hot springs or geothermal lagoons during your trip (which I HIGHLY recommend). Highly absorbent microfiber or Turkish towels fold down to a small size, and are great options for travel.

Check out our Family Travel Packing Guide for examples of our favorite essentials in all price ranges.

Accessories

  • Sunscreen and Sunglasses. When driving near the ocean or in the snow-capped and glacier covered mountains, the sun can reflect making it really difficult to drive without sunglasses. Also, since you will likely be spending a lot of time outside, sunscreen is always recommended.
  • Sleeping Mask. Many times you will get one on your flight. I recommend hanging on to it, just in case you have a difficult time sleeping in the Land of the Midnight Sun. In the months surrounding Summer Solstice, the sun never seems to fully set, meaning there is no darkness when you are trying to sleep.
  • Cash to exchange for Icelandic Krona currency. Almost everywhere across the entire island accepts credit cards, but we always exchange about $100 just to be safe. Note that many gas stations are pay at the pump only, and require a chip and pin type card. Our United States bank debit card worked just fine, but be sure to check on your banks policy on foreign transaction fees.
  • A backpack or bag to bring with on short hikes or day excursions. We packed our with water, snacks, and camera gear.
  • Reusable Water Bottle. Tap water in Iceland is safe to drink, and you’ll be using less plastic by using a reusable water bottle during your trip.
  • European power adapters for all your electronics (don’t forget chargers)
  • Toiletries. I always say less is more. If you plan to stay at hotels or AirBnb’s, most will have shampoo, body wash, and a hair dryer. If you forget something, most stores will have what you need.
  • Camera Gear (see below)
  • Important documents: Don’t forget things such as passports, International Driver’s License, Vaccination Card, etc…
  • Miscellaneous Items: Depending on what you are going to be doing during your trip, you may want to bring specific hiking or backpacking/camping gear.

Camera Gear

For our trip to Iceland, we planned to pack fairly light since we knew we would be mainly road tripping and moving every day. Here is the gear we decided to bring:

  • Smartphone: Smartphone cameras have become really good in recent years and we use our smartphones for pictures and videos frequently. This comes in handy when we need an ultra-wide angle lens for a photo. An example is when you are standing in the cave portion behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall in southern Iceland. The wide angle lens on our smartphones allow us to capture both the waterfall and people on the path behind the falls in the same shot.
  • DSLR: We bring our DSLR camera, a Canon 90D as well as a 24-70mm lens for the most versatile photographs. There were a few instances where we wished we had had a good zoom lens, but we were not disappointed in any of the photos we took without it.
  • DJI Mavic Air drone: Iceland is one of those places where a bird’s eye view is totally worth it! Some of our favorite photos and videos were captured using the drone to get a shot from above. Note: The black sand beaches contain sand with magnetic properties. Be very careful when flying your drone in these areas as the sand can get lodged in the gimbal or motors. Unlike normal sand that can generally be blown out of the drone, the magnetic sand will stick to the magnets in the motors even with air flow. Also, high winds in canyons and around the ocean can “catch” your drone and cause it to be taken away or crash.
  • Tripod and Bluetooth Remote: This is crucial to actually BEING in your photos. We love our Peak Design Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod. It is light weight and folds up to a convenient size for travelling. It’s carbon fiber design prevents rust after being exposed to water/snow. We have also found that the tripod is extremely stable for our heavy DSLR camera. The bluetooth remote brand is less important. We found a cheap remote on Amazon and it has worked just fine for us. I recommend practicing first so you know how the remote operates and how far of a reach you can actually get.
  • Extra Batteries. This is always a good idea, especially if you are going to be in colder climates as batteries do not hold charge as well when they are cold.
  • Extra SD cards. Iceland is so beautiful and its easy to fill up an SD card in a few days.
  • Computer and Hard Drive. Although this technically is not camera gear, I recommend bringing this to empty your SD cards everyday and organize your photos and videos.

For a list of our favorite travel gear for kids, see our list Top Travel Gear for Kids.

For a list of our favorite camera gear, see our list Favorite Camera Gear and Electronics.

Budgeting For a Trip to Iceland

Iceland is known to be a more expensive destination, but it can be done on a budget! We have a few tips to help you stay within budget while you are on your vacation in Iceland.

  • Flights: Always shop around for your flights or use rewards points/miles from your travel cards. Skyscanner is a great app that help you find great deals on flights.
  • Car Rental: We have always wanted to rent one of those big, beefy off-road SUV’s for our road trip in Iceland (it’s still a dream), but we knew we needed to stay in budget so we really had to evaluate our rental car situation. During our visit we were unable to go into the highlands because the roads were not yet open to tourist travel for the season. Because we weren’t venturing deep onto the F-roads, we opted for a 2WD car with snow tires. Our car easily handled the entire Ring Road, as well as all the side roads that we took to our various destinations. Further, our vehicle required diesel rather than gas and was a manual transmission. Both of these things helped with up front rental costs, as well as gas mileage/ fuel economy. For specific information on car rentals and driving in Iceland, check out our post, Renting a Car and Driving in Iceland.
  • Accommodations: Accommodations can really make or break a budget. Some people opt for campervan rentals which is a really unique way to see Iceland. It combines the cost of a rental vehicle and accommodations, which generally keeps costs low. Other accommodations can come in the form of hotels, AirBnb’s, or camping. Obviously tent camping is going to be the lowest cost, but keep in mind the weather, as well as campground rules and locations. Hotels and AirBnb’s can be found all throughout Iceland and come in every price range. Shop around for the best rates. If budget is the main concern, remember that many times you are just sleeping in an accommodation and your time will be spent outside, so does it really matter how big or how many amenities the accommodation has? This is something you really have to ask yourself. For examples of where we stayed on a fairly tight budget, check out our post, Epic 7 Day Family Road Trip Around Iceland.
  • Food: Food in Iceland is super expensive! Expect to pay somewhere around $25-35 for a cheeseburger meal at a restaurant and about $10-13 for a gas station sandwich. To keep costs down we bought most of our food at grocery stores. Grocery store food is still more expensive than what we are used to in the United States, but it is much better than eating out at a restaurant in Iceland. We bought a cheap cooler (which we donated when we left to go back home) and went to a grocery store to load up on supplies about every other day. We made a lot of sandwiches, such as turkey and cheese, and ate things like tuna salad, jerky, and salads.
    • Note: We were conscious of supporting their economy post-pandemic and purposefully ate at some local restaurants while we were there. If it is within your budget, I recommend just keeping it in mind.
  • Water: Bring a reusable water bottle with you. Not only does it prevent unnecessary use of plastic water bottles, but it also saves money. Icelandic tap water is incredibly safe to drink, and we even filled up with water from streams numerous times while we were in the mountains. There is mixed opinions on this, but we took a chance at every opportunity we could and found that the water was incredibly refreshing and cold. It was actually one of our kids favorite things to do while we were on the mountain roads. That being said, I have heard that there is always a chance you may not agree with the substances in the natural glacial streams.
  • Experiences: While most of Iceland’s main attractions are essentially free, there are some experiences that are quite costly. I recommend that you set a budget for experiences and choose the ones that are most important to you, that are within your budget. Our post, Top Experiences in Iceland, for a list of unique experiences in Iceland.

Renting a Car and Driving in Iceland

Renting a vehicle and getting around Iceland is much easier than you would think. For specific information on car rentals and driving in Iceland, check out our post, Renting a Car and Driving in Iceland.

Top Experiences

Check out our Top Experiences in Iceland blog post to help you plan your Ultimate Family Vacation to Iceland.

Complete Ring Road Itinerary Including Accommodation Suggestions

Check out our 7 Day Itinerary Around Iceland’s Ring Road including accommodation suggestions.