Early arrival to Iceland’s KEF (Reykjavik) airport should be followed by a trip to the pool

Flights from the USA to Iceland typically arrive at KEF very early in the morning.

Though KEF is often referred to as “Reykjavik” airport for marketing purposes, it is actually 45 minutes outside the capital in the city of Keflavik. There is a smaller city airport that handles short flights from Reykjavik proper, but that is irrelevant to most international visitors except, perhaps, those from Greenland.

“Very early” on my two flights to Iceland meant before 6 am. At least in June unlike March, this was after sunrise.

Food & transport from the airport

KEF is a fairly nice airport. It is modern and well designed. Though it could use more water bottle filler fountains. Iceland, however, is a tiny island nation with a population of just a few hundred thousand people.

Keflavik isn’t New York City. This isn’t a 24 hour kind of town. Even Reykjavik itself, where the majority of the nation’s citizens live, doesn’t offer too much for the tourist before 8 or 9 am.

Sporty types who don’t suffer jet lag so badly could take a lovely walk or hike. Nature, in June, is open 20+ hours per day.

The wrong way to arrive: witless & unprepared

On our first visit, the kids and I rode the FlyBus from the airport to our hotel. Naturally, our room wasn’t ready yet just past 8:00. After all, typical check in times are in the early afternoon.

We sat in the lobby staring dumbly at the poor receptionist, and she did get us into our room by about 9:30 am. It was a miserable first couple of hours in a new place, however.

Icelandic pastry

A typical Icelandic pastry, according to our favorite tour guide, Steinthor

The kids were too tired to even go in search of pastries when the receptionist suggested a bakery nearby!

Better alternative: ready to meet bodily needs

Having a much better idea of what to expect upon arrival, I planned more wisely for our second trip to Iceland. Of course, it helped that it was just me and my now teenaged son. He’s reached a stage of offering more help than he requires, especially when it comes to schlepping heavy luggage about.

I was going to rely upon public transit options again, but decided on a rental car at the last minute.

We could have reached a public pool via mass transit and reasonable walks, but it would have been one nearer our lodging and after taking the FlyBus away from the airport.

Rental car freedom

The forecast called for chilly days (in the low 40’s F) and plenty of clouds and rain… in mid June.

There was also a museum I’d wished to visit on the first go ’round that remained just as difficult to access without a car. It was so tantalizingly close to the airport… but the city bus only ran from there back to Hafnarfjördur and Reykjavik every two hours. Missing it would mean a very expensive taxi ride, in the ballpark of the auto rental cost, or an unacceptably long wait.

If I found myself so exhausted from the flight that I couldn’t drive safely, I determined we would nap in the car for an hour or so before leaving the grounds of the airport. I felt better having a backup plan in place, even one in which I felt like a bit of a vagabond.

Even if you dislike driving a strange car in a foreign country, it is pretty manageable in Iceland. Traffic is light, eliminating the thing I hate most about driving near my suburban home in the USA.

Icelandic drivers rank, en masse, somewhere in the middle of the pack I’ve experienced worldwide for road manners; they aren’t as courteous as Oregonians, but behave less aggressively than New Yorkers. There’s none of the insanity of Rome or Israel.

While road signs are in Icelandic and can throw you for a loop, most turns on major roads are roundabouts, so you can just keep circling while your child navigator figures out the way, or rely upon the GPS who will mangle the Icelandic language for all s/he/it is worth so you can enjoy a good laugh while you are circling the rotary for the fourth time.

Between Iceland’s major airport and capital, road conditions are good. Consider that “possible weather events excepted,” of course, but, even in Iceland, those are somewhat less risky in June.

Breakfast at KEF: not many options

I’d already determined from my online research that buying an espresso and sandwich or pastry on site before heading out would be our likeliest spot for a very early breakfast. There is a Dunkin’ Donuts branded cafe after customs at KEF arrivals, co-located with a convenience store.

Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t open until 8:00. The people of New England will be outraged when they learn of this. Dunkin’ Donuts is bizarrely popular where I live.

Joe & the Juice was doing a brisk business, though, and it was also quite near the car rental kiosks. A turkey and pesto sandwich (hold the mozzarella for DS’s lactose intolerance) helped kick start our groggy metabolisms. Yeah, the espresso helped a bit, too! A packaged caramel muffin proved a necessary adjunct for the voracious teen.

The museum was only 15 minutes or so from KEF, but it didn’t open until 8 am. Even taking our tiiiiiiiiime at the airport, we would be at least an hour earlier than the door opened. Plus, I knew I’d feel grungy and sore after sleeping in a cramped Icelandair Economy seat.

Note: the seats have really gone downhill on Icelandair between Boston and Keflavik. I think this was the worst seat I’ve ever had for legroom. I was disappointed, remembering this otherwise nice airline as much, much better a few years ago!

Does jet lag wash off?

The solution was the local pool, Reykjanes Swimming Center/Waterworld. It was only about ten minutes from the airport, and that includes time spent driving around a construction project that barred the GPS’s suggested route. Note: this is easy driving, too, with very light traffic. I hate using rental cars, but hardly minded it, even jet lagged, stiff and sore, and in a city I’d never visited before.

Americans, take note: this is more like your local YMCA pool than the “Waterworld” name might imply. Yes, there is one waterslide and a children’s activity room indoors, but both of those were closed during our 7 am visit. The facilities were quite nice and up to date, but nothing like a theme park.

There are a few major benefits to hitting the pool first thing. For me, having a chance to wash my hair before sightseeing was a big one. My morning shower is an integral part of my waking up ritual. It helps me to feel like myself.

Next in importance to me is having somewhere to go before I can check in to my hotel anyway. I’m not a skulker or “see what I can get away with” kind of a person. I’m careful and rule abiding. I don’t want to nap by the side of the road or in an airport, but I’m also not up to much more than a good nap after a night flight.

Visiting an Icelandic city pool offers a great insight into what regular, everyday life is like for people here. It isn’t just hardcore lap swimmers and toddlers taking lessons like I’d see on a weekday morning at my local YMCA. Icelanders are socializing and meeting up in the water.

There were more retirees represented than any other age group at this hour and in this neighborhood, though.

The abundance of cheap geothermal energy from the volcanic activity underfoot means outdoor pools are heated to comfortable temperatures no matter how cold the air temperature is that day. In addition to a moderately warm heated pool (cooler on the lap swimming side), there have been multiple hot tubs (locally translated as “hot pots”) at each facility I’ve visited as well.

Waterworld had three: 36-39 C in both shallow and deep varieties and 41-43 C with the deeper sitting depth.

I believe there was also a cold plunge pool, but the object I guessed to be such wasn’t labeled with a sign and there was no temperature posted to help me confirm my guess. One guy climbed into whatever that was, however.

Having traveled with so much discomfort up front that I failed to raise my arms high enough for the TSA cancer inducer body scanner to clear me as a terrorist threat, I was less than limber upon arrival. I spent every minute past the safety briefing of my too-short-for-a-night’s-sleep five hour flight in fitful sleep, but it wasn’t restorative. I struggled to reach my feet for the required soapy shower before going into an Icelandic pool.

At that point, the hot pots offered unmitigated bliss.

While our two night stopover in Hafnarfjördur, Iceland, was designed primarily to ease my travel related pain and jet lag (i.e., it wasn’t intense or highly scheduled), I do believe that hitting the pools provided a soothing balm to both of these maladies.

Warm water is obviously going to ease joint pain. So does reducing one’s experience of gravity due to buoyancy, of course. But the effect upon jet lag was just as profound and somewhat less expected. I suppose the combination of light exercise and being outdoors under the sun in the morning explains most of it.

Read more about what foreigners should expect at an Icelandic public swimming pool, especially for those of us with mild mobility impairments who wonder about handicapped or otherwise accessible accommodations in the facilities.

Kvikk Cafe at KEF airport is not so quick, but the server may fill your water bottle if you ask

Maybe Kvikk is Icelandic for, “Learn patience, grasshopper.”

I timed it: 13 minutes waiting in line to pay for a coffee drink I then needed to make myself at an automatic espresso dispenser at the Kvikk Cafe in KEF (Keflavik airport serving Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik.)

It wasn’t the best cafe experience I enjoyed during my second visit to Iceland.

At least a Kvikk Cafe purchase earns you a seat nearer to the C gates.

Like many European airports, there is no seating at most of the gates themselves. Presumably, you’re expected to wait and spend lavishly in the large commercial hall you pass through after the obligatory* Duty Free Cathedral Promenade.

Customer service in Iceland is usually very good and seems always to be given with courtesy and a warm smile. Servers at Kvikk Cafe may also fill your water bottle from their tap behind the counter if you ask nicely after the crowd thins out.

Tap water is Iceland is some of the best tasting water you will ever enjoy. Mysteriously in light of this fact, the Icelanders overlooked installation of bottle filler fountains when they upgraded their major airport in recent years to meet the demands of the tourist boom.

Perhaps they thought they weren’t needed since filtering wasn’t a requirement? But I saw no drinking fountains in KEF, either. I avoid buying bottled water on principle most of the time; in Iceland, the idea is positively outrageous.

If anyone knows of a drinking fountain anywhere in Keflavik airport, please share this information in the comments.

water fountain bottle filler - 1

Water fountain with bottle filler

Update: We found one bottle filler on our return flight via KEF! Look near the toilets in the food court.

Your alternative? The bathroom taps, but they are the automatic style and only dispense heated water. It will probably still taste better than what comes from my faucet at home, but isn’t what I want to put in the plastic water bottle I chose for my traveling convenience.

*Seriously so, IKEA floor directional arrows style. The direct route from security to gates is via the Duty Free Shop with its stink of imported perfume.
Note: I find almost all perfume to be merely a source of expensive, unpleasant odors, but I’m very chemically sensitive. I suppose local, organic Icelandic perfume would be no better.

Accessibility notes by a visitor to Iceland’s awesome public pools with hints for proper locker room & swim protocol

Icelanders expect you to follow the letter of their law when going for a swim: wash, naked, with soap before entering a public pool or hot tub.

I’m shocked by how many Americans post comments about washing first not being required at home. Actually, at my local YMCA in New England, a sign clearly states that “soap showers are required” before entering the pool.

It’s just that, at American pools, nobody enforces the law.

We have laws against jaywalking, too, but you’d never know it in most cities based upon enforcement.

Also, our instructional posters are plain English language ones without the helpful “red zone” graphics employed in Iceland.

Cell phone or camera use isn’t allowed in locker rooms thank God! so I’ll point you to others’ mysteriously captured photos for illustrations. Follow the links to pool etiquette articles, below.

Picture the typical men’s room sign “guy” infographic, then add big red circles glowing around head, armpits, groin, hands, and feet. Those are the parts it is mandatory to wash with soap before entering an Icelandic public swimming pool or hot tub.

I’m reinventing the wheel here, but it bears repeating again! since every Icelander seems to know that Americans (and Brits) arrive unprepared for proper Icelandic pool protocol. I read about a dozen “how to use a public pool in Iceland” posts myself, and yet, here I am reiterating much of the same advice.

IHeartReykjavik.net posted my favorite for average travelers (make sure to read some of the 133+ comments); IcelandWithKids.com is also very thorough, especially with information for families and parents traveling with children.

Those posts helped me, so I hope to offer the same to another reader. Good travelers respect the places that they visit by following the rules.

Access for visitors with mild physical impairments to Icelandic pools

Another, perhaps less common, thing I want to address is accessibility in Icelandic public pool locker rooms.

I did find one blogger who writes about access from the perspective of a wheelchair user, but he only seemed to visit the swanky Blue Lagoon spa. For over $40 per person, it darn well better be fully accessible!

I was looking for an affordable, family-oriented experience more akin to what average Icelanders might enjoy with their own kids.

Also, my needs are far less intensive than those of a pool user who requires a lift (hoist) to access the water. I have arthritis and chronic pain due to an autoimmune condition. My accessibility needs are variable, but often minimal, and most relate to twisting and pushing with the hands.

Sometimes, however, hip or knee joint stiffness makes it hard for me to reach my own feet. Heck, I couldn’t get my arms high enough overhead (shoulder stiffness) for the requisite TSA scan when I departed from Boston the night before I visited my first Icelandic pool.

Some days, aside from morning stiffness in my fingers, I bend like a healthy person; other days, not so much. This is a big part of what drew me to the famous geothermal hot pots of Iceland during even a brief stopover.

When my joints are stiff, I’m also more prone to balance issues and potentially falling. My limbs don’t always respond the way I’m expecting to the commands sent from my brain.

I had questions before my first visit to a public pool in Iceland to which I couldn’t find answers online. I’ll try to enlighten those of you with similar concerns according to my own experience as an English speaking tourist with about two weeks’ experience in that country.

Continue reading

Take your children to Iceland

…and bring your rain gear

Iceland reinvented itself as a hot tourist destination after the financial meltdown of the late aughts left their economy a mess. It’s so cool to visit Iceland that you might hesitate to go as a family. How can a hipster paradise be a good fit for kids? I was surprised by what a perfect match it was.

Traveling to Iceland for ten days in 2014 on my own with my early elementary aged kids was actually inadvertent. Suffice to say we’d purchased affordable, non-refundable, tourist class tickets with Icelandair via Keflavík to join DH on a European business trip. His schedule changed leaving him unable to travel on our dates. Rather than cancel altogether and lose the money spent on plane tickets, we persuaded Icelandair to drop the connecting flight to Europe without voiding our Boston – Keflavík legs and I put together a last-minute vacation for three in the land of fire and ice.

Even though I love to travel and am confident enough to go it alone internationally , I hesitated before I made this trip. Aside from Canada—which is awesome but comfortably similar to home—this was the boys’ first voyage abroad. I was taking on a new country about which I knew little and in a language I’d never heard spoken. It was a much bigger stretch, culturally and linguistically, than our 12 day trek across Canada from Pacific to Atlantic two years before, and DH was with us for part of that trip.

You will find better travelogues and more stunning photos elsewhere on the internet, but here are some ways Iceland was a uniquely perfect introduction to global travel for our family.

Children were graciously welcomed everywhere we went

Admittedly, I didn’t attempt to go bar crawling with the kids, but we did alternate between museums, group tours, and wandering around on our own. I felt welcomed everywhere we went, and was amazed by the ready provision of family friendly amenities in public places. A museum had a little potty standing ready in the WC, presumably trusting users to clean it properly after use. (Frankly unimaginable in the US.) Children’s areas in museums were comprehensive and present in both the smallest and the most rarefied establishments. Not only were there accommodations made to entertain and educate children in most establishments, but they also had English language versions of kids’ materials. Families were never made to feel like afterthoughts, even families of tourists.

Iceland potty in Museum Reykjavik 871

Little red potty, there in the museum if you need it

Icelandair goes so far as to feed children—gratis!—on their flights while adults in Economy class buy their food à la carte. I believe this extends to other extras like headphones and blankets, too. These are little things that are very supportive to traveling families, and likely make for a quieter, more pleasant trip for all passengers. That kind of thinking is everywhere in Iceland.

Icelandair kid meal

Icelandair child’s meal

Our favorite site in the country was Ásmundarsafn, one of three buildings that comprise the Reykjavík Art Museum. This former live-work space of pioneering artist Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893-1982) is a beautiful building full of amazing works of art surrounded by an outdoor sculpture park. A museum guide told us that the artist himself specified that a sculpture of a famous lady troll from Icelandic folklore should be accessible for children to climb upon. I think that sums up the regard given to the value of children in Iceland.

Iceland statue Ásmundur1

If you sculpt it, they will climb…

I saw little groups of kids, maybe seven or eight years old, taking the city bus short distances together or playing on a playground conveniently placed outside of a large supermarket. It was clear that no adult was actively supervising these kids. I commented about this to our favorite tour guide, Steinthor, and he readily agreed.

“Of course,” he said, “because everyone is looking out for them. No adult would let these kids get into trouble.”

The prevailing attitude in Iceland, perhaps due to the small population and citizens’ high degree of inter-relatedness, is one of community support. It’s a really nice feeling for any visitor, but an outstanding one for a parent.

Children’s discounts abound, and they are significant

Yes, Iceland is expensive. Isn’t it crazy to bring the kids to one of the more expensive places you might ever visit?

Surprisingly, the kids were something of a bargain.

Make no mistake, you will feel physical pain from the size of the bill every time you feed the kids in an Icelandic restaurant, but that’s mostly a result of servers earning a living wage. Supermarket prices are also high, but nowhere near as stratospheric as the cost of a sit down meal. If you stay in a rented apartment or have a kitchenette in your hotel, you can keep these costs comparable to “nice vacation” costs back home. We ate breakfast for free at our hotel, ate out for lunch, and made sandwiches or add-hot-water soup for dinner in our room. Easy, healthy, portable snacks like baby carrots and cherry tomatoes could be found even in convenience stores.

Iceland hotel breakfast buffet

Breakfast might be included at your hotel, but kids may experience culinary culture shock at the buffet when they see fish instead of Cheerios

Low children’s admissions prices at public institutions such as museums weren’t surprising, but even commercial tickets, like seats on group tours, were half price. On one popular airport shuttle, adults cost around $40, teens get a 75% discount, and kids ride free. City bus tickets for youth (12-17) are 36% of adult fare; kids aged 6-11 pay 16%. Compared to our family trip to similarly remote, expensive, tourist-centric coastal Alaska in 2016, these price breaks added up to huge savings and they didn’t take any extra work like clipping coupons or booking ahead. Affordable prices for families seem to be part and parcel of Icelandic culture.

Products sold in Iceland are often made… in Iceland!

The high cost of imports to a remote island nation means you see a lot more products on Icelandic shelves that are actually made in Iceland. Where else have you gone as a tourist and seen that? Consistently, when my kid nagged me to buy a wooden sword or a game in the gift shop, I found the item to be of good quality and locally made. I’m usually a tough sell for souvenirs because, unless I’m in China, I don’t want a Chinese bauble, but I found it harder to use that excuse in Iceland. For once, the souvenirs felt like real pieces of the culture we were visiting. While not inexpensive, most items did seem to be a good value considering their quality.

Iceland Viking Hotel outside

Viking Cottages at Hotel Viking, Hafnarfjordur

Against my usual type, I opted for a hotel with a theme for our trip, and I didn’t have very high expectations. I did some TripAdvisor research, found a good area for us, and the price was right, so I figured I would give the kids a thrill and choose a cottage at the Hotel Viking in Hafnarfjordur, about midway between the airport in Keflavík and the capital, Reykjavík. The decor was a bit over the top, and the theming extends almost everywhere, but the “Viking Cottage” interiors were full of natural, hand carved wood and whimsical touches based upon Nordic folklore. It felt the opposite of Disney-esque. It felt authentically something, if not exactly full on Viking. The kids loved it, and, actually, so did I. It was also a really comfortable space for a family with sleeping loft, bunk beds, and a dining table. We made excellent use of the electric kettle for our modest, in-room dinners every evening.

Nature’s playground for the whole family

When I mentioned earlier that you should bring your rain gear, I wasn’t kidding. We visited Iceland in March, and we experienced snow, rain, fog, sun, sleet, mist, rainbows, warmth, bitter cold… all in the same day! Dressing appropriately will make or break your enjoyment of a long day touring this gorgeous country. Once you’ve got wet jeans, you’re going to be uncomfortable back on the bus, so wear technical clothing or layer inexpensive rain pants over your everyday trousers.Iceland weather cold wet walk

I would actually recommend visiting during the less crowded off season, like we did. Tourists outnumber native Icelanders now, at least at peak times. That’s not what I want to see when I go somewhere new. Less crowded tours and attractions make me happier, and they are better for families. We enjoyed our small group tours even more because only one of them was fully booked.

In Iceland and everywhere else, I would always recommend taking a minibus tour (or smaller) instead of the big bus lines. Getting a dozen or so people in and out of a minibus is pretty manageable and costs a lot less than a private tour, but waiting for 50 tourists to unload at every site wastes too much precious vacation time.

I’ve heard that car rentals are a good option in Iceland. Certainly, roads were in good condition and traffic seemed manageable compared to the gridlock of major American cities I’ve navigated. As a mom alone with a pair of kids in early spring, however, I felt more comfortable sticking with a group and a guide. We took three tours during our ten day visit: the Golden Circle, the South Coast, and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

Even in March with poor weather, the Golden Circle sites were pretty crowded. Gullfoss was almost completely obscured by fog, and Geysir was interesting, but mobbed. Thingvellir National Park was the highlight for me, and I will definitely go back there when I return to Iceland someday. Walking through the literal gap between two tectonic plates is awesome.

Iceland weather sun waterfall rainbow1The South Coast tour gave us our day of wildest weather, but was a great overview of some different elements of the Icelandic landscape. It was a long day, but with plenty of stops with lots of room to roam and run by glaciers, rivers and the sea. Throwing rocks was really popular with my boys, and there was plenty of room to do so without hitting any other tourists.

Snaefellsnes Peninsula presents more variety and makes a nice complement to the South Coast tour, though it was a day with even more driving time. This can work out well when your younger one naps in car! Snaefellsnes seemed to show us more birds and fishing villages and yet more interesting geological features. The long tunnel beneath a fjord was fun in and of itself for my engineering-oriented kid.

We alternated busy days with quieter ones.We found plenty to see in Hafnarfjordur, including its small museum, culture center, and the Elf Walk tour in Hellisgerdi Lava Park. We visited the local library twice (they have books in English as well as Icelandic and several other languages) and found time to select a favorite bakery. A short city bus ride into Reykjavík let us access two out of three branches of the really excellent art museum I mentioned earlier, Reykjavík 871±2 Settlement (archeological) Exhibition, National Museum of Iceland, the sculpture court of the Einar Jónsson Museum, and the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church. Aside from a little bit of shopping and rather more bakery-induced nibbling, we spent very little on excursions outside of the costly—but worth it—group tours.

Looking back, what stands out about this vacation was how extraordinarily good everything was. I say that as a mom who routinely blows her top when things go wrong, who dwells upon her own oversights, and who often gets more out of planning a vacation than actually taking it. While, yes, there was the incident where DS1 left his iPad behind at the Hafnarfjordur library and my heart stopped until we ran all the way back several blocks and retrieved it, safe and sound, from a librarian who seemed surprised I was so worried, and, of course, there’s the funny (now!) story of how the FlyBus whooshed right past us and I thought we would miss our flight home until the Hotel Viking receptionist saved the day by calling a taxi and arranging for the FlyBus company to cover the expense because we had a reservation and we were standing by the road in plain sight…

These little hiccups—which always happen when we travel, which can be the germ for great stories later or the strain that spoils a trip—are also the very key to why this adventure was so amazing. The people I met in Iceland seemed almost uniformly inclined to help, and welcoming to a stranger. There was a sense of people “all in this together” that pervaded situations as mundane as riding the bus and grocery shopping, but has been more eloquently displayed in times of trouble during Icelandic natural disasters at home or when they sent the first search and rescue team to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there.

Iceland is a place you want to visit for its natural beauty and unique culture; it’s a place you’ll be glad you brought your family because of its people.