Oh dear, what a year! 2020 was definitely not an easy year for travelers. COVID-19 appeals to the nerves of anyone who has a trip planned. To the point where almost no-one dares to plan any trip to anywhere any more. COVID-19 messed up countless travel plans and brought the travel industry on the verge of collapse. In this article I will share a personal story of our Iceland travel plans and trip in COVID-19 times. A bumpy ride!
Iceland was on my bucket list for many years. Last January I finally convinced the boyfriend we should book flight tickets to Reykjavik (KEF) with our Flying Blue Miles. Enthusiastically I started to set up an itinerary for a 12-days trip in August. And then, late February, COVID-19 hit Europe. We heard what happened in Asia, but who thought it would come this far? My goodness that damn virus has tossed 2020.
In the course of spring, our scheduled trips to Ukraine (April) and Georgia (May) got cancelled. We started to wonder: is our Iceland trip doomed to suffer the same fate because of COVID-19? A sequence of events made me wonder whether I ended up in an episode of an odd soap opera. In chronological order.
When the borders within Schengen opened up for tourists again by mid-June 2020, we felt lucky. Both our next destination (Iceland) and our homeland The Netherlands are part of Schengen. A glimmer of hope that our planned trip to Iceland might go ahead after all, despite COVID-19.
The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs changed the travel advice for Iceland from orange to yellow because of the improved COVID-19 situation. Yellow means you can travel there for fun trips, taking into account some special precautions. Mid-July Iceland added 14 other counties to the list of those allowed to enter because of their improved COVID-19 situation. Things seemed to go in the right direction. Fingers crossed!
Late July new COVID-19 restrictions for gatherings were announced in Iceland. At the same time the number of COVID-19 cases started to rise again in The Netherlands. More and more countries started to close their borders again for tourists from The Netherlands.
As a result, the travel advice for countries like Bulgaria, Baltic States, Croatia, Finland, parts of Spain, Belgium, France, etc. all switched back to orange. This means you can only travel there for absolutely necessary travels, not just for ‘fun trips’. Travel insurances no longer cover your trip when orange or red travel advice is applicable. Which country would be next? Was our Iceland trip in jeopardy again because of COVID-19?
I closely monitored the Icelandic news and several Iceland specific Facebook groups on a daily basis for COVID-19 related developments. Every two weeks, the Icelandic authorities holds an official press conference, announcing the latest developments and decisions as a result of the latest COVID-19 situation. At first, step by step the rules were loosened when the number of COVID-19 cases were decreasing.
But when COVID-19 cases started to rise in Iceland in summer, the rules became stricter again. A COVID-19 test done at the home country before flying was no longer accepted by the Icelandic authorities. The new rule was a COVID-19 test done upon arrival before entering the border, or 14 days of quarantine, as you prefer.
2nd test requirement
Late July a second mandatory COVID-19 test was added to the chore by the Icelandic authorities, to be done on day 4, 5 or 6 after arrival. So not only upon entry at the border, but also a 2nd test became mandatory. Only six countries were exempt from this rule, not The Netherlands. Bugger. We figured that a 2nd test, paid by the Icelandic government was worth it.
But what would be announced by the authorities in two weeks’ time (Aug 17)? That would be two days prior our scheduled departure to Iceland (Aug 19). Any additional requirements on top of that 2nd test? Or would they perhaps close the Icelandic borders for more countries with a rising number of COVID-19 cases, including The Netherlands? Lots of uncertainties to deal with. Time would tell.
What we could do in the meantime, as a consequence of these recent developments, is to have another look at our scheduled trip and our options. No-one could predict the future, but it wasn’t looking too good. We evaluated and limited the risks of the trip, especially in terms of costs and cancellation deadlines. I started to sort out where the 2nd test could be taken? And sort out how our itinerary should be adjusted based on where/when that 2nd test could be squeezed in?
Switching to another country crossed my mind, but only for a few seconds; I was determined to go to Iceland – as long as the COVID-19 situation was acceptable for travel.
One of the first things I started to look at was our rental car, a significant cost item of any Iceland roadtrip. Luckily I booked our rental car with Sunny Cars again. Their flexible terms allowed me easily to change the rental to the uncertain situation. To limit the risk/costs in case we would test positive upon arrival, we decided to split up our car rental in two parts. It would be a serious waste to have a EUR1000+ rental car standing there outside, while you have to go in quarantine for 14 days, right? Did not want to risk that.
Therefore, we reduced our first rental period back to the first 36 hours of our stay. In that period of time our COVID-19 test result of the test at the border should have been known. And as a consequence, whether we should extend or end the rental period when having to go in quarantine. Fortunately Sunny Cars has a 4 hours’ cancellation deadline, making us as flexible as possible. The extension of the rental would be only a phone call away. It would not be busy with tourists on Iceland anyway due to the COVID-19 border restrictions, so enough rental cars available.
Extra test beforehand
The week before our departure I planned on doing a COVID-19 test back home first. This is not mandatory by the Icelandic authorities, but a way of limiting risks – for ourselves and our fellow travelers. I’d rather know I have COVID-19 when I am still back home, than just after arrival on Iceland (and then having to go into quarantine there). I felt like I should not step on a plane without knowing for sure whether I have COVID-19 or not.
If you have asthma, hay fever, allergies etc. you may have several symptoms similar to COVID-19 throughout the year. So I felt like testing beforehand was a smart thing to do. And simply to minimize the risks of testing positive for COVID-19 upon arrival. That would not only ruin our holidays, but potentially also that of the people sitting next to us on the airplane to Reykjavik. Who wants to end up in quarantine for 14 days? No-one. We would quarantine ourselves between the test and flight.
The week before my holidays, I was terribly busy with finishing up with work. Therefore, I could only take the COVID-19 test on the Friday morning before our scheduled departure on Wednesday. Boyfriend already took the test on Thursday and got his results back on Friday, within 24 hours. Smart man.
Friday afternoon, while I was waiting for my COVID-19 test results, the Icelandic authorities made a new announcement. All tourists coming in on Wed Aug 19 or after, would have to go into a 5-days quarantine before being able to travel anywhere. Oh no! This would replace the rule that allowed tourists to travel in between the two tests, only avoid busy places. Our flight from Amsterdam to Reykjavik was scheduled for Wed Aug 19, the day these new rules would become applicable. Shoot, now what?
We can actually pretty easily work from home. So as long as we would have good wifi, working from an Icelandic wooden cabin or hotel in between the two tests would be a possibility for us. However, to be able to do the full roundtrip as planned, we would have to extend our trip with 5-7 days more, with all extra costs involved.
Therefore, we decided that it would be best to fly to Reykjavik at least two days earlier (Mon Aug 17) than our original departure date (Wed Aug 19). Because the new Icelandic COVID-19 border rules would not be applicable yet on Mon Aug 17. And we had to hurry because it was Fri Aug 14 already!
That same Friday I received the terrible news that a former colleague of mine, who I was still friends with, passed away after a heart attack. She was only 59, so way too young to die. She was so full of life and had so many plans… Bizarre. Fortunately I was able to show my last respect to her on Sunday afternoon. Two weeks earlier, an uncle of mine also passed away after struggling with cancer for 7 years. This shows once more that we have to enjoy life as long as it lasts!
Saturday morning, 24 hours after the test, still no test results back. Without the results, I did not want to reschedule our flights yet. On the other hand, if we would wait too long, the seats might be full or become too expensive. Stress! I knew the chance of testing positive for COVID-19 was small. But I did not want to take the risk of rebooking a flight, while not knowing 100% sure (yet). So we had to wait. Wished I had booked this test with Vaccinaties op Reis. Lesson learned.
Meanwhile, the Saturday filled itself with contacting the airline, accommodation, etc. I (double) checked our possibilities, revised our itinerary, etc. Why did I not book this trip with my friend who owns a travel agency? That would have been so much easier. But we wanted to use our frequent flyer miles this time, so booked this trip by myself, so also had to do the rescheduling now the situation was changing. Plus we had to start packing our stuff. The flight we wanted to take would leave Monday morning early already – it would definitely not wait for us!
Monday departure instead of Wednesday departure meant two days extra on Iceland! We felt blessed having this opportunity and still be able to go.
The test results finally came in on Sunday morning. Of course I was free of COVID-19, as expected, yet very happy with the results. This meant we could finally reschedule our trip to tomorrow departure, yeah! Luckily all the accommodation we had booked were flexible to reschedule and available for our new check-in and check-out dates. Oh and I should not forget to tell my boss I am leaving already on Monday instead of Wednesday…
It was a long and hectic day. Changing our travel plans, doing the last bits and pieces to finish up with work, checking in online for the flight, pre-registering our arrival with the Icelandic authorities, pre-paying our KEF airport COVID-19 tests online, downloaded the Icelandic COVID-19 app and packing my bags. Not my favorite part of the holidays to be honest, but hey, I could not complain. We are going to Iceland! And sadly, saying goodbye to my former colleague and friend Bettina at the funeral home. What a rollercoaster.
Monday morning August 17, 4am, our alarm clocks went off. We had to get up to catch our early morning flight. Shower, get dressed, grab the last few things and go go gooo! We parked our car at my secret free spot, got on the bus to Schiphol – my second time ever with a face mask on. Having to wear a face mask in public transport still felt so new and unusual then.
At Schiphol airport there was surprisingly just one long line for all Transavia flights that morning. Fortunately the line solved pretty quickly and we were able to drop off our bags within 30 min or so. Would recommend to arrive at Schiphol airport at least 2-3 hours before departure. We had a flight at 07:15h. Don’t want to think about how busy it might have been a few hours later. Also glad we did not fly with Iceland Air, who fired most of their air staff and cancelled most flights between AMS-KEF.
At Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport most of the convenience shops were open. So we treated ourselves with some hot coffee and fresh juice, and waited at the gate for our flight. The good thing is that the boarding process goes by zones now. I hope all continue will adopt and continue this process post-COVID-19!
Next to the plane door, a basket full of individually packed hygienic wipes was made available. In case you want to clean your seating area once more. Whoever paid to sit in a certain seat on the aircraft felt scammed. The flight was as good as full. Pretty much everyone had someone sitting next to them. Bummer! Paid seat reservation is a rip off anyway. Better just pick a seat for free when checking in online. Although of course I can imagine – especially in these times – that you prefer to sit next to your travel buddy and not a stranger. Who cares about EUR 11 then? Oh well. Off we go.
Damn, it’s hot, I can hardly breathe, it itches… I honestly hate having to wear a face mask. Sure, I am glad to be able to travel. Whatever it takes to keep everybody as healthy and safe as possible, I’ll stick to the rules. But it is annoying anyway. I quickly developed a strong preference for the re-usable, fabric face mask over the disposable face mask.
Most people kept their mask on during the flight. Only when drinking or eating you could take it down. No food or drinks were served during the flight. So I was glad we got ourselves some snacks and water for the 3 hour flight from Amsterdam-Schiphol to Reykjavik-Keflavik International Airport (KEF).
Getting off the airplane went pretty smooth. There seem to be less pushy people on flights these days. Everybody awaited their row’s turn patiently. KEF airport is rather small. You quickly come to the area where they start asking for your bar code for the 1st COVID-19 test. Luckily we arranged this online already. Paying the airport test in advance online is cheaper too (ISK 9,000 vs. ISK 11,000). 2 meters distance and face masks are encouraged by signs and airport staff members.
The line for the ‘test street’ (8 booths) was pretty short, so things were moving fast. It did not last more than 15 minutes before it was our turn for the COVID-19 test at KEF airport. You scan your test bar code, sit down or keep standing up and they do the nose and mouth swap. We know the routine by now, it remains unpleasant, but absolutely do-able.
After the COVID-test comes the customs’ passport check. Then you can continue to the luggage belt. From the test to the luggage belt took us less than 15 min. The early morning Transavia flight is great. We went through passport control before 08:30h, so we had a whole day still in front of us! Sure, we were a bit tired after the short night and the travelling. But also so happy we were finally here! We switched on the Rakning C-19 app the Icelandic authorities encourage to use and the journey could begin.
After leaving the airport, the only other times we had to wear a facemask during our Iceland trip in COVID times was at the 2nd test location and during the whale watching boat trip.
Tax free alcohol
Tip: at KEF airport, before grabbing your baggage off the belt, I would recommend to stop by the Tax Free Shop. This because you cannot enter the shop with luggage. You will have to wear gloves in the shop and a face mask. The bottles of wine here are the price of one glass in a restaurant (about ISK 1299, ± EUR 8.30). ISK 1599 for a 10-packs of 0.5L beer cans. So definitely worth checking out.
The best wines can be found in the back of the shop. For hard liquor like rum and vodka the price difference is even bigger. Besides, you should know that on Iceland alcoholic beverages are not sold in supermarkets, only in governmental controlled shops and restaurants.
I would also recommend to pick a wine bottle with a screw cap, and preferably red wine. This because many accommodation lack wine openers and refrigerators. Most beers are 0.5L cans so easy to open, Viking and Gull are popular brands. Icelanders happen to have a strange taste with beer, mixing with fruit and even yoghurt we once discovered during this trip. Candy and chips are overpriced at the Tax Free Shop.
Next to the luggage belt there is also an ATM where you can get your first ISK cash. I did experience Iceland as a ‘plastic country’ though; most places seem to prefer card payment (not cash).
Rental car pick-up
After getting our luggage off the conveyor belt, we moved outside KEF airport. Damn this airport building is ugly! Some of the well-known car rental companies like Hertz and Europcar are located in the arrivals hall. Other rental companies are located outside, which can be reached via a free shuttle bus ride. The bus driver waited for us and did not ask us to wear a face mask, but we did it anyway. It is clearly indicated on the bus where the bus stops, for which car rental company you have to get off where. Alamo is the 5th and last stop.
At the car rental company there were no lines now, but I can imagine that normally it can be pretty busy here. Since we rented our car with Sunny Cars for the first 36 hours beforehand, we quickly received the keys to our car. Just in time for my last conference call for work. So there I was, sitting in the back of the car with my laptop and headset on, getting driven through a landscape of moss-covered mountains, while I talk to my colleagues about the latest updates on work stuff. Let the holiday begin!
Our first accommodation Hotel Eldhestar was lovely, the staff turned out to be very helpful. First of all, they allowed us to check-in early. This hotel is a great spot for horse lovers, it’s very easy to join one of the daily rides in the area. Second of all, we could have dinner inside since the results did not came back yet.
Since our test at KEF airport was done before 9 am, we were hoping to receive the test results the evening of our arrival. Unfortunately we received our text message only that we had “not been diagnosed with COVID-19” at 00:32h and 03:00h in the night of Monday to Tuesday.
In addition, we received an email message at 01:07h am that night from the Icelandic authorities. The email named “Instructions for the 2nd test” said that we should take our 2nd COVID-19 test on Sat 22 Aug between 13:30-15:00h in Reykjavik. Say what? Are you kidding me?!
This was a very unpleasant surprise. The current rule (applicable for everyone arriving before Aug 19) was to test on day 4, 5 or 6 after arrival. Since we arrived Monday morning, we were planning to do our 2nd COVID-19 test on Iceland on Friday (day 5) in Höfn. This is a small fishing village in the southeast of Iceland, which was on our roundtrip route (highway 1 counterclockwise). I knew that the test center in Höfn would not be open on Saturday. It seemed like we were forced within the new rules already, while we arrived when the old rules were still applicable. OMG, now what?!
Ready for action
If we would be forced to go to Reykjavik for our 2nd COVID-19 test on Sat Aug 22 between 13:30-15:00h, instead of test on Fri Aug 21 at 9 am in Höfn, we would have to completely change our plans again. From Höfn back to Reykjavik is a 6 hours’ drive by car. And our next destination scheduled for that Saturday was in the opposite direction, Seydisfjordur on the east coast of Iceland, another 3.5-4 hours’ drive from Höfn. So that would mean ±16 hours in the car or having to change the route.
I decided to be brave and replied to the test email to seek approval for doing the test on Fri Aug 21 in Höfn instead of Sat Aug 22 in Reykjavik, explaining our arrival date/time and roundtrip schedule. The hotel manager provided me with the best email address for this topic: [email protected]. Where we did not know about because we did not receive this passenger info paper at the border. This email address is where we received a reply back from within 2 hours (on a Tuesday). Plus they sent us the bar codes for the 2nd test a few days later – excellent governmental service!
Before receiving the reply I realized I should also try and call. The clock was ticking towards the end of our first car rental period. What to do? I decided to call the Icelandic Office of the Medical Director of Health (Tel. +354 510 1900) and the Heilbrigðisstofnun Suðurlands in Höfn (Tel. +354 432 2900 or +354 470 8630). Luckily, I could convince both to confirm that it would be OK if we would take the 2nd test on Fri Aug 21 in Höfn. What a relief!
Rental car extension
Now we could finally extend our car rental, before it would end that evening. But that was more hassle than I thought. Unfortunately Sunny Cars could not make a new booking without a flight number, which we did not have because we were on Iceland already. Alamo NL could not make a booking within 24 hours in advance timeframe (we had <±6 to go), and has the same flight number issue. Now what?
I was hesitant to contact Alamo at KEF airport for the extension. Because when we picked up the car Monday morning, the guy behind the counter gave me his business card and a ridiculous price offer for the extension. I knew that on for example Alamo.nl the price offer was less than half of the amount he had mentioned. But rental extensions cannot be arranged online… Grrr I hate paying too much. And I guess this is one of those examples that shows doing your homework in advance helps to save unnecessary costs when traveling.
Make it happen
So I went to the hotel reception and asked for advice. They came up with the idea to ask Alamo to bring the new rental car to the hotel, instead of having to drive back to KEF airport to switch it. Brilliant suggestion that would save us 2x 75 min drive by car. So I called Alamo at KEF airport and
- explained my request to extend the car rental for another 12 days
- mentioned I checked prices online for one class cheaper car than what we had been given
- asked whether something could be arranged to prevent having to drive to the airport now
Without any hesitation the Alamo lady on the other side of the phone line asked what price I saw online. She matched it immediately, including extension of the Sunny Cars conditions and we could keep the car we already had (one class better than I wanted to switch back to). She asked for a credit card number, sent us a confirmation of the rental extension in PDF, which we had to sign on our phone and sent it back by email. That was it! Great service, a lot easier than I thought! Now we could finally start our holidays and enjoy the Golden Circle for the rest of the day.
Golden Circle & South Coast
In future articles I will tell you what we did on sightseeing at the Golden Circle and the south coast of Iceland for example. Keep an eye on the Iceland Blog Archives, follow my Facebook page and/or subscribe to my monthly newsletter not to miss any new Iceland articles published on this website.
That Wednesday the news came out that, as a consequence of the new 5 days’ quarantine rule, the Dutch government switched the travel advice for Iceland to orange. We were so glad we went two days earlier, best decision! Otherwise we would have had to cancel the entire trip.
Orange travel advice in The Netherlands means that you should only travel to that country if absolutely necessary (not for a fun trip). Plus the travel insurance does not cover repatriation for example. The Dutch travel advice for Iceland and the travel restrictions for Iceland that became effective on Wed Aug 19, 2020 (the day we initially planned to arrive) are still effective.
Please check the latest status before making plans to travel to Iceland. Luckily, we could finish our trip as planned. We did not have to go into quarantine when returning back to The Netherlands either. This depends per country. Our flight back KEF-AMS with Transavia was almost empty! I guess most people go shorter than 14 days to Iceland.
2nd test in Höfn
The 2nd test on Friday in Höfn went completely fine. Appointments are not scheduled, you just go to the health center and wait in line for the test (wear facemask). We took the COVID-19 test around 10 am, after which we continued our journey in northeastern direction. The Höfn COVID-19 test center was open until 11:00h (instead of 11:30h or 12:00h as mentioned online). The test results came in the next day at 15:57h and 18:00h via text message, so app. 30-32 hours after the test.
Please be aware the above described happened in August 2020. Always familiarize yourself with the latest set of rules for visiting Iceland. Still some people on our flight AMS-KEF were not aware. The main information sources I used and can recommend to check the latest developments:
- Covid.is including the pre-registration form (max 72h before arrival) and Rakning C-19 app
- Facebook groups such as Travel Iceland
- RÚV English Facebook page and website
- Landlaeknir.is (MOH Iceland) PDF passenger info (as of August 19, 2020)
- Iceland Monitor news
- Icelandic Tourist Board
- The latest travel advice for Iceland by your country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for residents of The Netherlands the official source is: nederlandwereldwijd.nl
- Your airline’s website (to check if your flight is still going)
Conclusion: despite the hassle and the stress, it was all worth it! We felt extremely lucky we were able to make it to Iceland this year. It took some effort but it was well rewarded. We enjoyed visiting this beautiful country very much. The fact that, as a result of the COVID-19 travel restrictions it was everywhere on Iceland quieter than normal, definitely contributed to that. Accommodation prices were reasonable and it only rained 3 out of 14 days! An amazing experience we will never forget. Let’s hope Iceland can open up again soon.
Disclaimer: this article is not aimed to promote travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. It does show that sometimes against all odds dreams can come true. Please be a responsible traveller and only travel for fun when allowed by your government! The fact that Iceland is such outdoor oriented destination, and the low number of COVID-19 cases on Iceland at that time, helped in our decision to travel to Iceland last summer, which trip was planned before COVID-19 hit Europe. This was our last trip in 2020, while normally I travel about every month.
Interested to read more articles about Iceland? Check out the Iceland Blog Archives! More articles will follow soon.
I wrote several articles about COVID-19. Want to read those? Check out the Corona Blog Archives.
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Last Updated on 12/28/2020 by Flitter Fever