When Iceland’s economy buckled under the pressure of a crumbling currency back in 2008, the island instantly became accessible to travelers with a more varied spectrum of budgets.
Now, 10 years later, the nation has experienced an eruption of tourism, as travelers became increasingly exposed to the ethereal — and highly Instagrammable — landscapes of ancient glaciers and rugged fjords.
Prices have duly exploded as well, and the mirage of the inexpensive Scandinavian vacation is no more.
Finding that perfect price-value ratio is nothing short of a feat when traveling to Iceland. And travelers should also be aware that what you do and see on your Iceland trip will almost entirely determined by what time of year you visit. So don’t buy those cheap WOW Air tickets before first consulting this comprehensive guide.
The Best Months to Visit Iceland
The summer months — July and August — are Iceland’s warmest, and have long been the most popular time to visit. And June, with its 24 hours of daylight, sees just about as many tourists as the peak of summer.
But even during this season, bad weather (rain and intense winds) is not uncommon. The island’s fickle climate often means you can experience all four seasons in a single day.
Iceland can stay relatively warm through the first week of October, so planning a September visit can be ideal (most of the crowds have thinned as children return to school). May, too, provides ample daylight for sightseeing and warmer temps. But if you’re keen on exploring some of the more remote hills and fjords, it may not be the best time to visit, as some roads remain closed as they thaw from winter’s snowy cover. For serious hikers, the best time to visit Iceland is the summer, when all the mountain roads are open and all of the most famous trails are accessible.
The Best Time to See Whales in Iceland
According to Icelandic marine biologist Dr. Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir, the peak months to whale watch in Iceland are June and July. In the north of Iceland, you’ll have a wider window to enjoy visits from humpbacks, minkes, and dolphins, which ply the Atlantic from May to August; a few humpbacks even stick around until the end of the year. Blue whales pass through in June, too.
The summer months in Reykjavík see promising numbers of minke whales and dolphins, while orcas congregate in West Iceland along the Snaefellsnes peninsula during the first half of the year.
The Best Times to Visit the Hot Springs
Iceland’s hot water baths are one of the most essential components of the local culture, both for social as well as wellness benefits. Reykjavík’s public pools are open all year round (and are especially invigorating in the dead of winter), but the island also has hundreds of hidden “hot pots” that tap directly into the geothermal activity under its lava-ridden surface.
Expert Icelandic mountaineer and co-founder of Midgard Adventure, Sigurdur Bjarni Sveinsson, offers the following advice for hot water hunters: “Check them out during the month of September or, even better, the first half of October when they’re all still accessible by mountain road, but the crowds of tourists have significantly died down.”
To travelers who want to visit the most famous geothermal spa, the best time to visit the Blue Lagoon is during the the off and shoulder season, when crowds are thinner (hundreds of thousands of people flock here every year). It’s also better to schedule your visit during the evening, after most guests have already come and gone.
The Best Time to Visit Iceland for Northern Lights
You’ll need three essential factors to see the Aurora Borealis: darkness, clear conditions, and a surge in solar activity. Viewings are often elusive, like seeing curtains of neon wind, especially when forecasts predicting roaring flares are marred by transient clouds. To avoid disappointment, travelers should never plan their trip to Iceland solely for the Northern Lights, because the island’s weather is too capricious (statistically, there are more clear nights in Yellowknife, Canada, for example.) The best way to optimize your chances of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland is by visiting from mid-October through March, when you have extended hours of nighttime, and getting out into the remote countryside to reduce the ambient light pollution.
The Worst Times to Visit Iceland
Sadly (but logically), the warmest months of the year are easily the worst time to visit if you’re hoping to avoid the onslaught of tourists. The month of July and the first week of August see the highest number of travelers, with big-ticket attractions like the Blue Lagoon, the Golden Circle, the South Coast, and Jökulsárlón being particularly overrun. If you are planning to visit during that time, consider exploring more remote corners of the island like the Westfjords or East Iceland, which have their own cache of fjords, vistas, and waterfalls that are just as impressive as the natural attractions surrounding the capital — if not more.
The Cheapest Times to Visit Iceland
When tourism was an emerging industry in Iceland, there was a sharp divide between the summer months and the rest of the year. But now that the nation has secured its spot as an It destination, winter accommodation discounts are mostly limited to the darkest and coldest months of the year: November through February.
Flights can soar upwards of $1,000 during the peak travel months, so it’s best to keep an eye on flight deals and flash sales from Wow Air and Icelandair. During the off and shoulder seasons, tickets can be purchased for $200 round-trip from the United States.
Once you arrive in Iceland, however, there are very few discounts to be had.