Tours Worth Paying for in Iceland (and When to Save Your Money)

Volcano crater in Iceland
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There's no ignoring the fact that Iceland has become an “it” destination for travelers. It's got amazing landscapes, a cool culture, and a wealth of adventurous things to do.

But Iceland is NOT a cheap country to visit.

Flights to the Land of Fire and Ice might be affordable these days thanks to airlines like WOW Air, but once you get on the ground in Iceland you're basically in Scandinavia – and that includes Scandinavian prices.

While you can find semi-budget-friendly options when it comes to food and accommodation, I'll be honest with you: tours in Iceland are expensive.

Djúpalónssandur Beach in Iceland

BUT there are so many cool things to do and see in Iceland that I don't think you should forego taking any tours just because of their price tags.

Instead, let me walk you through which tours in Iceland I think are worth the money, and which ones you're better off doing on your own or skipping entirely.

Tours always worth paying for in Iceland

The following are activities in Iceland that I think are worth doing, but that you can really only do as part of a guided tour.

Snorkeling Silfra

Snorkeling Silfra in Iceland

Iceland is one of only two places in the entire world where you can see two of the earth's tectonic plates above ground. You can see the separating North American and Eurasian plates in Þingvellir National Park – and you can go diving or snorkeling between them in Þingvallavatn Lake! This is an epic adventure. The water is incredibly incredibly cold year-round, but it's also incredibly clear and blue. I promise that the frozen fingers are worth it!

The thing is, though, that you can't snorkel or dive here independently – you have to book a tour, which comes complete with the necessary gear and a guide.

Snorkeling Silfra in Iceland

My top tour picks: This small-group Silfra snorkeling tour from Reykjavik, or this diving tour (for experienced divers). Or you can combine snorkeling Silfra with touring a lava cave if you have a full day.

Why it's worth it: Because it's freaking amazing, and something you literally cannot do anywhere else in the world.

Read about it: Snorkeling Silfra: Swimming Between Tectonic Plates in Iceland

Ice caves / glacier hiking

Ice cave beneath Vatnajokull glacier

Iceland has lots of volcanoes, but it also has lots of glaciers (many of which sit on TOP of dormant volcanoes). This means that there are plenty of opportunities to hike on glaciers, and even explore glacial ice caves during the winter months.

Ice in general can be VERY dangerous, though – and I'm not just talking about the risk of falling on your butt. Glaciers are constantly moving, meaning cracks and fissures can shift around and open up relatively suddenly. Do NOT climb up onto a glacier or down into an ice cave on your own, especially if you have no experience navigating them and don't have the proper gear.

Mýrdalsjökull glacier in Iceland

Please don't climb up a glacier like this on your own!

Luckily, there are lots of companies in Iceland that offer glacier-trekking tours (year-round) and ice cave tours in the winter.

My top tour picks: This full-day glacier hiking and ice climbing trip from Reykjavik, and this Crystal Ice Cave tour from Jökulsárlón.

Why it's worth it: Because you don't want to mess around with safety. But also because the guides on these tours know all the secrets (like where to find the best ice caves), and will provide you with the gear you need to keep you safe on the ice.

Whale watching

Iceland is an island, after all, meaning that all sorts of cool marine life resides just off its coasts. In the summer months especially (April through September), Iceland has particularly good whale watching – you can see humpbacks, orcas, blue whales, and more. Whale watching tours also take place during the winter months, though you'll want to be prepared for cold weather and choppier seas.

My top tour picks: This whale watching trip in Reykjavik that runs year-round.

Why it's worth it: Because whales are pretty incredible, and seeing them in the wild requires you to be out on the water.

Horseback riding

Icelandic horses

Adorable Icelandic horses

Some very unique horses call Iceland home. The Icelandic horse is small and sturdy, and has a couple extra gaits beyond the usual walk, trot, and canter. These furry cuties are also directly descended from the horses the Vikings brought over to Iceland back in the 9th and 10th centuries, which is pretty darn cool.

Horseback riding in Iceland is unique both because of the horses and the landscapes you can see; riding across ancient lava fields is not uncommon.

Horseback riding in Iceland

Riding through lava fields

And, while you could perhaps swing a free ride if you happen to have a friend in Iceland who owns horses, chances are you'll need to book a tour in order to ride.

My top tour picks: This 2-hour riding tour is a great option for beginners.

Why it's worth it: Because of the landscapes and the sweet, shaggy horses. (And if you're a horse fan, getting to try out the unique gaits of an Icelandic horse is pretty special, too!)

Read about it: The Horses of Iceland

Tours sometimes worth paying for in Iceland

The following are tours that I think *can* be worth the price, but mostly only if you're not renting a car in Iceland (which is totally possible, by the way – check out my itinerary for a winter Iceland trip without a car!).

Hraunfossar in Iceland

Northern Lights

During the winter months (generally September through March), the Northern Lights often make an appearance in the skies above Iceland. You aren't always able to see them because winter in Iceland usually means lots of clouds, but if you hit on a clear winter night, your chances of an aurora sighting are pretty high.

If you have a rental car (or if you're staying somewhere away from bright city lights), it's not difficult to see the Northern Lights on your own on a clear night.

BUT, if you don't have a car to help you get away from light pollution, or if there's significant cloud cover, then booking a Northern Lights chasing tour is probably worth it. I've gone on aurora-chasing tours in Norway (the weather has never cooperated during my Iceland trips!) and the benefit of going on a tour is having guides adept at reading weather and aurora forecasts in order to get you in the right place at the right time.

My top tour picks: This Northern Lights tour from Reykjavik, or this small-group tour in a Super Jeep. You can also book a Northern Lights cruise, but I wouldn't recommend that option if you want to try to get good photos.

Why it's worth it: Because you'll have the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights – and sometimes the guides will even help you take photos!

Golden Circle

Thingvellir National Park in Iceland

Thingvellir National Park

Iceland's Golden Circle is probably the most famous route for tourists in the country. It features three main attractions: Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, and the geyser area at Haukadalur.

If you have a rental car, you should absolutely not book a tour of the Golden Circle, as all the sites are very easy to drive to on your own.

But if you aren't renting a car, then this is definitely a tour option to consider. Even though the sites are famous in Iceland, they're still super cool! I mean, Þingvellir is where Iceland was first settled, and Geysir in the Haukadalur geothermal area is literally where the word “geyser” comes from.

Strokkur geyser in Iceland

Strokkur geyser erupting

My top tour picks: This classic Golden Circle tour is pretty affordable, while this one also includes a soak in the Secret Lagoon.

Why it's worth it: Because it's iconic Iceland and there are lots of tours to choose from (many often combined with another activity).

Read about it: Iceland's Golden Circle

South Coast for waterfalls / black beaches

Skogafoss waterfall in Iceland

The other super-famous route in Iceland is the drive along the South Coast, past Vik and on to the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon and Vatnajökull National Park. Along this drive are several famous waterfalls (including Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss), and a couple famous black beaches (like Reynisfjara). Again, this is a trip best made in two days if you have time (and can be combined with a glacier hike or ice cave exploration).

If you have a car at your disposal, you can fully explore this route, stopping at every waterfall, beach, and cool vantage point. (The advantage of having a car is that you can also check out spots like Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon and hike to Svartifoss waterfall, which are two stops not usually included in any tours.)

Jokulsarlon in Iceland

You can also spend more time at Jokulsarlon if you drive yourself.

No car? No problem. There are quite a few tours that will explore the area from Reykjavik in either one or two days, too.

My top tour picks: This one that focuses on waterfalls and beaches, and this one that includes a visit to the glacier lagoon.

Why it's worth it: Umm… you heard the part about waterfalls and black sand beaches, right? Definitely must-sees in Iceland! And going on a tour means not having to drive or navigate yourself.

Read about it: The Sights of Iceland's South Shore

Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Arnarstapi on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in Iceland

The village of Arnarstapi

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula can be found in Western Iceland (north of Reykjavik) and is often called “Iceland in Miniature” because it contains all the most famous aspects of Iceland, from waterfalls to glaciers to black sand beaches. There's a lot to do and see on the peninsula – definitely enough for an overnight trip if you have the time.

Once again, this is an area you can explore on your own if you have a car; there aren't that many roads that go around the peninsula, and they're drive-able even in winter.

Gatklettur arch in Iceland

Gatklettur Arch

But, also once again, if you don't have a car I think booking a tour to this part of Iceland is more than worth it.

My top tour picks: This Snaefellsnes Peninsula day tour, and this 2-day Snaefellsnes tour.

Why it's worth it: Because it's not as touristy as the Golden Circle or South Coast, but just as beautiful.

Read about it: The Wild Beauty of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Other tours that will sometimes be worth paying for in Iceland are specialty tours like a Game of Thrones tour, or a snowmobiling tour. These tours won't be for everyone, but if they're for you then they are probably worth paying for.

Tours not worth paying for in Iceland

And now for the Iceland attractions that you DON'T need to book tours for.

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon in Iceland

The Blue Lagoon at sunrise

You'll find lots of Blue Lagoon tours for sale in Iceland. And, generally, I'd say you don't need to pay extra for these unless they're combined with another activity you want to do. I DO think the Blue Lagoon is worth visiting while you're in Iceland, and especially recommend it upon arrival after your international flight. But you don't really need to go on a tour.

How to do it on your own: You can pre-book your Blue Lagoon ticket online (recommended so you can avoid the line inside), and either drive yourself there (it's very close to the airport) or book a ticket on the FlyBus to/from the airport with a stop at the Blue Lagoon.

Read about it: Relaxing at Iceland's Blue Lagoon

Reykjavik city tour

Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik from Perlan

You'll also find lots of Reykjavik city tours for sale; there's even a hop-on, hop-off bus version. And while I love a good city tour, the truth is that Reykjavik is a small enough city to explore on your own – and most of it on foot!

How to do it on your own: You can walk from any central accommodation to all the major sites in Reykjavik, including the Hallgrímskirkja church, waterfront, and Opera House. The only place you might not want to walk to is Perlan, a museum/observation deck/restaurant that sits on a hill just outside of the city. You can drive there if you have a car, or take bus #18 from Reykjavik, which stops close by.

Read about it: 48 Hours in Reykjavik, Iceland

ESSENTIAL ICELAND INFO

Wondering what to pack for Iceland? Check out my Iceland packing list.

Curious about where you should stay? In Reykjavik, my pick is the Rey Apartments.



Booking.com

And check out more of my Iceland posts here.

Have you done any tours in Iceland? If not, which one(s) sound best to you?

 

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The best tours worth paying for in Iceland

 

Best Tours Worth Paying for in #Iceland

28 Comments

  • Sarah says:

    I did a tour with Extreme Iceland earlier this year (glacier hike, waterfalls, black beach). As we were coming down off the ice our guide had to stop a young couple from walking up onto the glacier in their trainers, telling them they probably wouldn’t come down alive. I don’t know what possessed them, I was nervous about going up there with crampons and a helmet!

    • Amanda says:

      Unfortunately people often underestimate nature, and those “danger” signs are easily ignored because most people have a “oh, I’ll be fine” mentality. But yeah, after having been on some glaciers myself, I know how dangerous they can be!

  • Mindy says:

    I totally agree! I rented a car and the *only* tours I booked were snorkeling at the Silfra fissure, a horseback ride (I stayed overnight at their farm, too – and since it was just past prime season, I had the entire place, and tour, to myself!), and a glacier hike. Renting a car and driving was definitely the way to go! It saved a ton of money, and made it easy to change plans anytime I wanted (I got to discover so many places I hadn’t planned on going, thanks to locals and fellow travelers/hitchhikers pointing me in different directions!). I even got a fun surprise when I stayed overnight in Vestmannaeyjar – over 300 baby Puffins landed on the island that night! Some of the best parts of Iceland are free. : )

    • Amanda says:

      Renting a car is definitely a good idea in Iceland. I’ve only gone in winter, though, and have always been wary of driving in snow/ice there – but next time I plan to rent a car for sure!

  • Theresa says:

    I agree with your suggestions! I’m chicken when it comes to driving in a foreign land so signed up for several of the standard tours (Golden Circle, South Coast). We also signed up for the Northern lights and went chasing it for 3 nights withstanding the bitter cold but with no luck! I think if you have a car and are driving around on your own, you may have better luck spotting them. However, be sure to bring a ton of thermal dynamic wear and layer yourself because at night it is cold and I can’t imagine sleeping in a camper with no heat and the wind blowing!

    • Amanda says:

      Yes, winter camping in Iceland is no joke! As for chasing the Northern Lights, it usually depends totally on the weather. Even if you have a car, you won’t see the lights if it’s cloudy (or if it’s cloudy where you are at the time).

  • Ijana Loss says:

    I would love to do the car-free version one time and then another time rent a car to just kind of explore. Cause I kind of hate driving but would love to have the freedom that renting a car affords. And to be honest, I would love visiting Iceland no matter how I decided to do it XD

    • Amanda says:

      I’ve gone twice without renting a car, and still had an amazing time! Booking tours is more expensive, yes, but if you can afford the convenience it’s kind of nice! (When I go again next year, though, I’m planning to finally rent a car!)

  • Dominique says:

    I’m happy we booked a 3-day tour last winter to see some of the sights, because there was a pretty intense snow storm on the days we were there. I do agree that I wouldn’t pay for a tour to Blue Lagoon and Reykjavik city!

    • Amanda says:

      Yeah, the weather in Iceland in winter is just so unpredictable that I’ve never wanted to risk it with a rental car! (The last time I was there, there was also an intense storm and I was SO glad I wasn’t driving!) Next year I’m going back in September, though, so may finally rent a car and see some things independently!

  • Mamalimai. says:

    Hi Amanda. I am absolutely fascinating about your story and experiences about Iceland.That makes me want to go now.What are the summer month in Iceland?Thank you for sharing.

  • Clemens says:

    Awesome, this post comes just right Amanda, as we plant to travel to Iceland next year. Bookmarked!

  • Hayley says:

    The only tour we paid for was our glacier hike at Skaftafell with Glacier Guides (highly recommend). The rest of the time we either explored on foot or drove ourselves. Driving in Iceland was very easy in October; there’s little traffic and the roads are in fairly good condition. We did end up having to adjust our plan to check out Snaefellsness because we got hit with the tail end of a hurricane and didn’t want to drive in that!

  • I like this post Amanda, as it sets out the facts, clear and straight!

    I haven’t yet been to Iceland, but when I do, I’d do a tour for volcanoes and glaciers. I know the value of having a good guide for a small intimate group ‘cos when I went to Bali a few years ago, I hiked up a live volcano! Not only did I not prepare for it, but I found it extremely difficult, and burst into tears! Thankfully, the guide was very helpful and understanding, carried my daybag for me, and practically held my hand until we got to the top, 3.5 hours later!

  • Anne says:

    I did a tour to Askja in the middle of Iceland which was well worth it. I wouldn’t have been able to do this on my own even with a hire car. The guide was so informative and we made lots of stops as well as having time to swim in Askja crater lake. Definitely worth paying for.

    • Amanda says:

      Sounds like a good one! I generally find that most tours with local guides give lots of insights you wouldn’t ever get if you were traveling on your own!

  • Carolyn says:

    I’m currently planning my itinerary for my visit to Iceland in June so this post is very timely! We plan to hire a car and visit many of the places you’ve mentioned so it’s good to know that we won’t need to do yours for most of them. We would like to do a boat ride amongst the ice at Jokulsarlon Glacier. Do you recommend pre-booking this or just buying our tickets when we show up?

  • Great tips, I totally agree with all of these and the categories you’ve put them in. I think snorkelling Silfra is at the top of my Iceland list now! I did a quad biking tour as well which was AWESOME! Ahhh man. I wanna go back now!

  • Sean Mahan says:

    Even though it’s a bit expensive, it’s such a beautiful place! So worth it!

  • Matt Fly says:

    We’ve just returned from Iceland! What an amazing place. Blue lagoon was fantastic, and I can confirm that you don’t really need a tour! We were travelling on a budget and thought the 4800 ISK (£35) fee was pricey enough without paying extra for a tour! We had tried to see the northern lights as well, but failed miserably going solo! Not sure if we weren’t looking hard enough, or we were just unlucky!

    • Amanda says:

      The Northern Lights can be really tricky, especially if the weather’s not great or they aren’t that strong. Most people assume they’re always bright green like in all the photos, but the reality is that you can only see that green color with your eyes if they’re very strong! Which is why I recommend a tour, at least for your first time!

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