**UPDATE** I received a lot of feedback after posting and would like to add clarifications. I still love Iceland and recommend it to tourists. However, I believe Iceland has developed incredibly high expectations. High expectations are doomed to disappoint, as I experienced first-hand. I encourage everyone to explore outside of Reykjavik. Please remain respectful to Iceland’s nature and be patient as the government adjusts to tourism growing pains. Click on the links included throughout the post for more information.
Let’s talk about a cold island country.
You know, that one country your mom, grandma, and grandma’s friend have all visited. The country which practically rules Instagram. Iceland, where everyone wants to go or has been.
Is Iceland overrated?
I, too, fell for Iceland while scrolling through jaw-dropping photos and hearing reviews raving over Iceland’s natural beauty.
Is Iceland Overrated?
You may be shocked to learn my experience in Iceland was less-than-spectacular.
The scenery was better in person than in the photos and the food was mouth-watering. What more can a traveler ask for?
Rumors circled before my arrival that Iceland is overrated. I partially disagree. Those remarkable and breath-taking Instagram photos do not lie.
It is also an island nation with a tourist population far greater than its own. Three things result — indistinctive culture, distinctive, extremely commercialized tourism, and insanely high prices.
One of my favorites parts of every vacation is being surrounded by a culture, people, and language different from my own. It is one of the reasons why I love learning languages and why London didn’t impress me.
Iceland may have lost its identity. Sure, having a foreign population speak your native language fluently makes travel easier. It also removes one of the most important parts of travel — cultural exposure. Without a distinct culture, displaying a different culture to travelers disappears.
While sitting down for breakfast, I realized every customer was American. All but two hostel guests were American.
Not quite the worldly experience I expected, and Icelanders raise concern too.
A peaceful lunch at Höfnin quickly swarmed with a large tourist group. The restaurant’s resources focused on pleasing the large crowd instead of the couple stragglers already sitting for a meal.
Meanwhile, those very guests complained about the small size of their whale watching boat. We were squeezing for room. Not what I paid for!
Tourism impacts nearly every aspect of Icelandic culture. Icelanders notice and struggle to keep up.
Höfnin served a fish I actually enjoyed…a seemingly impossible task.
High Cost of Tourism
Maybe five or ten years ago, before the huge tourism boom in Iceland, prices were more reasonable. Yes, Iceland was experiencing an economic flop. Yes, Iceland is an island nation, dramatically increasing costs. But spending 1800 ISK, or $18, for breakfast is considered a deal in 2017.
When I initially booked my flights to Iceland, I planned to stay six days. I knew Iceland was expensive, but I made expensive London do-able. Surely I could do the same in Iceland.
Once started researching tours and accommodation, I realized traveling on a budget is far from possible. Unless I planned only hiking Iceland’s trails, a budget does not exist in Iceland.
After much self-debate, I decided to cut my stay in half. My $150 flight-change fee was significantly cheaper than three additional days in Iceland. In total, my three days cost me $582.75. This includes one activity per day (one I didn’t even attend, which I’ll discuss later), one meal per day (I brought food with me for breakfast to cook), accommodations (which was actually the cheapest part of my trip, with one night’s stay cheaper than breakfast), and airport transfers. Yes, three days in Iceland actually costs as much as living in Russia for three weeks.
These high prices attract the exact type of traveler who allow removal of cultural integrity from a nation — group tours who are shuttled from place to place and never look from behind their camera lens, don’t listen to the history of the nation, and don’t care for keeping the land beautiful.
Several Icelanders expressed to me their concern for prices, too. Foreign companies are buying the limited available land, making accommodations for many locals unaffordable. This is one of the many concerns in regards to tourism.
When I made the decision to shorten my time in Iceland, I focused on the main things I want to do in Iceland to consider the time and money well-spent. These came down to riding an Icelandic horse and snorkeling in the Silfra Fissure. I planned and paid for both of these, but only completed one.
Now, this is completely a mistake on my end. I, for some reason, did not put together that I had booked my tour on the same day and time my flight departed. As soon as I realized this thirty minutes before pick-up, I emailed Arctic Adventures, the company I booked with to snorkel, and informed them of my dilemma. I told them I would not be attending the tour due to my own mistake and that I realized the short-notice would not allow me to receive a refund. I did politely ask if I could receive some amount of tour company credit so that I could attend a future tour at a discounted price.
Instead I received a rude email stating that I delayed the tour, set back the entire time schedule for the day, and that the company has no liabilities on this at all. Well shoot, I wasn’t trying to blame them! I 100% admitted my mistake. All I asked for was a consideration. If they had simply responded, “sorry we can’t do that for you due to company policy,” I would’ve brushed it off and moved on. Instead, I received a spiteful email from a supposedly well-respected tour company.
After discussing what happened with a few roommates, my interactions with Arctic Adventures aren’t abnormal; seemingly many Icelandic tour companies care too much about money.
What I Loved
Obviously I had a rough three days in Iceland, but it wasn’t all bad! The good times were really good.
My hostel, Hlemmur Square, was lovely and a short walk to downtown Reykjavik. In fact, I would say it is in the running as one of my favorite hostels. The staff were friendly and efficient and the residents were interactive. The buffet breakfast was extensive and fresh. Rooms and common areas were very clean, too.
My horseback ride tour was better than expected. I rode with íshestar on the two-hour Lava Fields ride. A competitive tour price and promises to accommodate to advanced riders swayed me in selecting íshestar. The tour guides paired each rider with a horse dependent on the rider’s comfort and experience. Obviously a spunky horse new to the farm and I paired well together. Mosí, my Icelandic horse, and I had a fabulous time together. After a few minutes of riding and familiarizing ourselves with our horses, the group split. I rode with the more advanced group and we were able to experience the Tölt several times. Oh yeah, and the scenery was absolutely breath-taking (if íshestar is reading this, I will work full-time in return for room & board! Please please please hire me). A few Americans complained the tour lasted too long, but I could have ridden longer!
A New Friendship
When I discovered my costly mistake of booking my flights and tours at the same time, a friendly French girl saved the day. We explored more of the city until it was time for me to leave.
Iceland did not meet my expectations.
What should I have expected, though, when an island welcomes 1.76 million visitors and their population is only 334,000? Iceland is experiencing growing pains.
What should I have expected when I had set incredibly high expectations? Travel is best accomplished with low expectations and many pleasant surprises.
Despite everything, Iceland does not turn me away. Oh no. Next time I go, and there will be a next time, I will explore outside of Reykjavik. Experiencing the nature and culture in Iceland seems best accomplished with a road trip, so road trip I will. Oh, and I’ll set a more realistic budget so I’m not crying every time I hand over my credit card.
What do you think? Is Iceland overrated?