Iceland is magical to visit. Where else can you see countless waterfalls, the midnight sun or the northern lights, and landscape that looks otherworldly?
When planning a trip to Iceland, naturally one of the first considerations is which season to pick. There are pros and cons to each, and having gone in the peak of summer in July and in October, right on the cusp of fall and winter, I have some thoughts on when to travel to Iceland and why:
Weather: Iceland’s winter weather is, of course, cold; however, it is not nearly as frigid as you’d expect – thank you Gulf Stream! The temperature typically hovers between 20 and 30 degrees Fahrenheit, so while you should prepare for cold, wind, and snow, know that the winter weather is on the mild side – for the Arctic.
Keep in mind that Iceland only sees 3 to 5 hours of daylight in the winter, however this is perfect if you want to catch the northern lights!
Average precipitation: The winter season sees an average of around 15 inches of precipitation (liquid equivalent, melting down any sleet and snow), about 3 inches per month. While it does precipitate in Iceland year-round, autumn and winter tend to see more precipitation than other times of year.*
Pricing: Flights and accommodations tend to be much cheaper in the winter months than in the summer months. In fact, some prices even drop to half of what they would normally be in peak season.
Booking ease: Booking a place to stay and reserving spots on tours and excursions is significantly easier in the winter than in the busier months. Not only will you have no problem finding availability, you will pay a much cheaper price than you would at other times of year.
Road conditions: Some routes will be closed this time of year, like Iceland’s highlands. Major attractions like the Golden Circle, however, should still be mostly accessible. Be aware of icy roads and high winds, and remember that daylight hours are few. Oh, and watch out for reindeer!
Major attractions availability: Few of Iceland’s major attractions close for the winter. In fact, many of them are actually more enjoyable in the winter! For example, natural hot springs might be the most fun in the colder months, and popular natural features are all the more stunning when not overcrowded with tourists and frosted with snow. Also, the island’s ice caves can only be visited from November to March. You even have the highest chances of seeing the northern lights in the winter due to the sky being its darkest.
Weather: The spring months bring somewhat warmer temperatures, but many days still see rain or snow and usually range from 30 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Springs sees significantly more daylight than winter.
Average precipitation: The spring season experiences about 4 inches of precipitation (liquid equivalent), an average of 2 inches per month (a little more in April, a little less in May).*
Pricing: Tourism is still sparse during the spring, as many travelers want to visit Iceland in the summer when the sun is out late at night. As a result, a springtime trip is significantly cheaper than a summertime one.
Booking ease: Crowds do not begin to collect until the end of May (the start of summer tourism), so finding accommodations is easy in the spring, especially in April. If you book well in advance and choose dates in early or even mid-May, you’ll be able to enjoy a combination of warmer weather, affordability, few crowds, and lots of daylight!
Major attractions availability: Spring offers a wide variety of attractions and activities; however, it is important to note that a few winter attractions might not be available for the whole of spring. For example, the ice caves close at the end of March, and after mid-April, brighter night skies make the northern lights harder and then impossible to see. Still, this is a great time to camp along the Ring Road with fewer people around and better weather than in the winter months, especially if you rent a camper van with a space heater.
Road conditions: Driving in Iceland is certainly safer in the spring, and many roads are more accessible as the temperatures warm up. However, routes in the Central Highlands remain closed, and roads could still be dangerous if the snow and ice persist further into the spring months.
Weather: Summer in Iceland means that the sun is out all the time, even late at night. Temperatures are at their warmest, averaging from 45 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but not uncommon to experience days well into the 70’s (all time record of 87 degrees F). Cold, windy days are still a possibility, though.
Average rainfall: The summer season sees about 6.5 inches of rainfall, with roughly 2 inches each month through June, July, and August.
Pricing: Prices will be at their highest in the summer, as this is peak tourism season in Iceland. Everything from hotel rooms to rental cars to guided tours will significantly jump in price.
Booking ease: Booking for this season isn’t easy. Accommodations and activities are expensive and fill up quickly. The key is to plan your trip well in advance for maximum availability.
Road conditions: Roads are their best in the summer, when the ice has melted off and closed routes have opened back up. While there will be more cars on the roads than in other seasons, summer is the best time to drive around Iceland.
Major attractions availability: The only downside to Iceland’s list of attractions in the summer is that both the northern lights and the ice caves are not one of them. With the sun out nearly 24 hours a day, the sky does not get dark enough for the lights to be visible, and warmer temperatures prevent travelers from touring the ice caves. That said, it’s the only time that’s feasible to hike the Laugavegur and Fimmvorduhals trails, given their very short hiking season of July and August. This is an experience worth having! Better weather and plenty of daylight ensure that you can try plenty of the countless other things Iceland has to offer.
The weather starts to cool off in the fall, with temperatures, on average, hovering around 50 degrees Fahrenheit in September and lowering towards 30 degrees at night through October. Daylight hours narrow significantly as winter approaches, but September still does see a good amount of sunshine. By October, you’ll experience almost an equal amount of light and dark, making this an ideal time to travel the Ring Road (here’s an itinerary) in search of the northern lights. Personally, the fall is my favorite time in Iceland for the changing colors, smaller crowds, and lights.
Average precipitation: Autumn receives around 6 inches of precipitation (liquid equivalent) in all, ranging from 2.5 to 3.5 inches per month.
Pricing: Fall marks the beginning of “off-season,” so most prices will drop a great deal the first week of September. In fact, some off-season prices can drop to less than half of what they would be during peak season. This goes for everything from tours and excursions to flights and accommodations.
Booking ease: As the “midnight sun” begins to disappear, so too will the crowds. It is much easier to book flights, places to stay, and activities in the fall, and the later in the year you visit, the fewer tourists there will be.
Road conditions: Some areas will begin to become inaccessible as the weather changes. However, September is still fairly warm, so roads won’t start closing until ice and snow become a problem.
Major attractions availability: Fall might just be the best season for Iceland’s attractions. The northern lights reappear in September, and Iceland holds a film festival in late September. Most of the activities available in summer are still available in the fall, plus the ice caves open back up in mid-October.
What we can take away from this is, there’s no bad time to visit Iceland. Thanks to the milder temperatures than what the rest of the Arctic tends to experience, it’s cold but not unpleasant throughout most of the year. And unlike the rest of the Arctic, Iceland doesn’t get mosquitoes in the summertime, either! So if you want the perfect combination of beauty and comfort, Iceland is ideal. And if you ask me, it doesn’t get any better than visiting in the autumn months, unless you want to hike, then you’ll just have to go back again like I did!
*All temperature/precipitation data is based on statistics for Reykjavik, Iceland