An American in Reykjavik: The official guide how NOT to act like a tourist
Now that I have been permanently settled in Iceland for over 2 months, I am slowly making the metamorphosis from tourist to local resident. As a result of being in this subtle middle ground between foreign visitor and permanent occupant, I thought it would be wise to advise all incoming visitors how NOT to look like your stereotypical Icelandic tourist. In a country where tourism is a significant part of the local economy, it is quite easy to distinguish the local residents and the often confused, lost, foreigners aimlessly wondering the streets of Reykjavik. In full disclosure, I have made most of the following mistakes myself, but I hope that you can learn from my cultural incompetence.
Put your big cameras away. I understand that Iceland has countless scenic views, with picture-esque landscapes, which is probably the reason you to came to Iceland in the first place. That being said, the mountains aren’t going anywhere. No need to sling your HD Nokia camera around your neck like an American rapper rocking a new gold chain as you pace throughout the streets of Reykjavik. You might as well place a neon sign over your head that reads, “Please take advantage of me - I’m a tourist.” Therefore, leave your large cameras at home when you go for your stroll in Reykjavik and enjoy your surroundings without looking through a 2 sqaure inch frame. Plus, we all have cameras on our phones anyway.
Exchange your Dollars for Krona. Find the currency exchange at the Keflavik Airport, or make a stop at one of the Icelandic banks on your way to the hotel because handing out American dollars in Reykjavik is an easy way to illustrate your cultural ignorance. Some establishments will except dollars, especially the late night hot spots, however, with the exchange rate at $1 USD – 114 Krona, this is a great time to use the strength of the dollar to get more for your money. One other alternative regarding local currency options, is to apply for a European style credit card (I don't think that is what you actually call it). Most major US banks offer this card - I have one with Chase . You should look for the credit card with the chip located on the front of the card. Be sure to plan ahead and apply for the credit card at least 6 weeks in advance of your trip. Upon acceptance of your application you will receive a card which allows you to charge expenses in a foreign country without paying any foreign fees.
Don’t Tip. Another important part of the currency culture here – no tipping! Now when a beer costs $8, it actually costs $8, no extra $2 dollar tip. I love this part of the Icelandic culture. No longer is the tip in question at the end of the meal or drink because the tip and tax has already been built into the total price of the good or service. In the USA, a tip is often associated with your “character” or “reputation” and leaving a gratuity amount deemed inadequate can leave you looking like an asshole. In Iceland, the subjectivity of your additional charge is irrelevant because there is one flat rate for everyone. I also like the fact that tax is included in the originaly price of the item. In United States, gullible Americans are tricked into buying a good or service for $9.99, which ultimately ends up cost $16 after taxes and tip. In Iceland, if you attempt to tip you are setting off a tourist red alert, and despite the moral implications ingrained into Americans regarding gratuity, no one will think any less of you.
No need to tip in iceland, as all costs are already included in the final price.
Duty Free Shop at Keflavik Airport is your best friend. Everything in the city of Reykjavik is extremely expensive, just check out my price comparison of everyday items in the USA vs. Iceland. Therefore, you must take advantage of the tax-free prices at the Keflavik Airport’s duty free shop. Alcohol is almost 50% cheaper in the store, so save yourself some money and purchase the maximum (there is a limit on how much you can buy) amount of liquor and food you can support for your stay in Iceland. Make sure to also hit up the shop on your way out to get some of Iceland’s authentic alcohol, such as Brennivin, to take back to your friends. As an American, the idea that prices are actually cheaper in the airport is a difficult notion to grasp, but believe me, you'll be happy with your decision to stock up on tax-free goods ahead of time.
Get your alcohol early! In collaboration with my last point about stocking up on alcohol at the duty free shop, all liquor stores are controlled by the government here in Iceland. Therefore, most liquor shops have extremely limited hours with most establishments closing by 6pm. Buying beers at the bar can quickly clean out your checking account, thus, it is important you buy your alcohol sooner rather than later. Although prices will still be extremely expensive by American standards, the cheapest outlet that offers alcoholic beverages is the Vinbuðin store chain, which is located at a number of locations throughout Reykjavik. As for recommendations, you might have to skip the pre-game drinking festivities unless you want to drop at least $80 to buy enough beer to supply a party of 10 people. If you are going for the cheapest beer, you are probably best off buying Viking Lager, which will set you back around $41 for a 24 pack (yes, you read that correctly).
Don’t get to the bars too early. I wrote about my experiences with the Reykjavik nightlife, and one thing that surprised me was how late the crowd arrives at the bar. So if you show up to a popular nightclub at 11pm, chances are that the bar will be relatively empty. Be patient, because the general crowd won’t start showing up until around 1230 or 1am, as late night parties truly mean “late night.” Luckily you won’t have trouble locating your correct bar destination because all the bars in Reykjavik are relatively close together. Additionally if you're visiting Iceland in the summer, the sun will still be shining regardless what time you make it out on the town, so start chugging your caffeine because you will be up all night.
Stop asking about the Northern Lights and the Puffins. This statement is largely directed at myself. Once I learned I was coming to live in Reykjavik for the summer, I was most excited about my chance to see two of Iceland's most recognizable characteristics, the northern lights and the puffins. However, I failed to do my research because the northern lights can only be seen during the freezing cold, dimly lit, winter months. Additionally, Puffins are native to Iceland's Westman Islands, not the capital city of Reykjavik. Therefore, foreigners traveling to Reykjavik during the summer months should avoid questions about these two topics, because every Icelander is sick of answering questions about them - I should know because I have asked everyone here about 100 times!
Shop at Bonus for a cheap meal. Now I assume if you are coming to Iceland you had hopes of trying out numerous Icelandic restaurants in order to experience the local cuisine. This is a great idea, except you will need to find cheap meals in between your fancy dining experiences in order to offset the high price of eating out in Reykjavik. The local grocery store chain, Bonus, offers the cheapest deals on everyday food items, so you can pick up the necessary ingredients to make a sandwich or enjoy some cheap candy. There are a number of different Bonus stores located throughout Reykjavik as well as other major towns in more rural Iceland. Just look for the pig sign!
Bonus is your best option for cheap groceries.
You can still use Google Maps in Iceland. Standing in the middle of Reykjavik’s downtown with a large map of the city will only prove your guilt as a clueless tourist in the capital city. Fortunately, we now have the technology to avoid these embarrassing scenarios by simply searching out your destination in advance by using google maps. Most websites for popular tourist destinations and restaurants have an English page that will give a description of its location as well as the specific address. Put the directions into google maps and save yourself the trouble of stumbling around like a clueless foreigner. Iceland has the highest internet usage in Europe, so finding an internet connection shouldn't be a problem.
Track out your destination before leaving the hotel.
Don’t be caught unprepared for the weather. Like my native Chicago, Icelandic weather patterns can be highly unpredictable. Heavy wind and rains are not out of the ordinary so pack clothes to appropriately prepare for the weather patterns. At times I have had to exchange my shorts and tee shirt for a winter jacket and rain boots, all in the same day. Therefore, don’t get caught in summer clothes during a chilly, windy day, bring plenty of clothing options so you aren’t the one stuck in the shorts and tee shirt in the freezing cold rain storm. Furthermore, an excursion out of the city for hiking or exploring the scenery can yield an entirely different climate. Pack your clothes from home, you are not going to want to buy an extra jacket here because it will cost at least twice as much as your domestic prices.
Don’t be obnoxious! My last night out at the popular bar, B5, I noticed an extremely drunk group of guys making significantly more noise than everyone else in the bar (which was already loud to begin with). Due to the excessive use of the word “bro” and the fact that they were ordering bottle service, I immediately knew it was a group of American guys on a bachelor party trip. Now I understand that they were on vacation trying to have a good time, but it is important to be aware of your surroundings as a visitor in a foreign country. Have fun, get drunk, but don’t get to the point where you have everyone in the club hating on Americans (I would like to live here without every Icelander hating me).
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