What makes a destination family-friendly? And what makes a destination easy for first-time international travelers? A short list of factors we think are important shows Iceland as a clear winner. Our ideal starter destination would be: safe, easy to get to, English-speaking, and easy to navigate. It would also have a kid-friendly culture and lots of cool stuff to see (and, more importantly, do). How does Iceland stack up in those categories? We will mostly compare to travelling to the UK, as that is another frequently suggested starter trip.
The US Department of State actually has fewer warnings about safety in travel to Iceland than about safety in travel to the UK! Iceland has very, very little violent crime. The BBC published an article in 2013 speculating on “Why violent crime is so rare in Iceland.” More importantly for our purposes, Icelanders feel safe letting their children roam free: Our tour guide in Reykjavik (population 120,000) mentioned that she will sometimes pass her 8 year old skateboarding in downtown Reykjavik when she is giving a tour. In how many big cities in the US would parents feel comfortable allowing an 8 year old to wander alone?
Easy to get to:
The flight time from the East coast of the US to the west coast, say NY to CA, is approximately the same as from NY to Reykjavik. From the continental US, it takes much less time to fly to Iceland than to anywhere else in Europe! With antsy kids on a crowded plane, this can be a big advantage. And there is no lack of flights—though the main carrier is Icelandair, both Delta and WowAir also service Keflavik airport. (Nearly all European airlines do as well.) In addition, unless you plan to be in Iceland for more than 90 days at a time, US citizens don’t need a visa, just a valid passport.
One of the big fears for many travelers is “what if something is wrong and no one understands me?” Shouldn’t a country where English is the official language be the first choice? Icelanders certainly do have Icelandic as their first language. However, their school system requires them (every single one!) to study English, usually beginning at age 8 and continuing until at least 16. The Icelandic national curriculum guide states as an objective: “[I]t is essential to have a good command of English right from the beginning of university studies as most study material in Icelandic universities is in English.” So the goal is for all students to be competent in English by the end of compulsory schooling (age 16!). One tour guide asked our group if anyone had ever met an Icelander who did not speak English—she followed that up with “If anyone does, you should get their autograph because you’ll never meet another!” In our experience, that has been true! Plus, because English isn’t the first language here, your children will be exposed to a new language.
Easy to navigate:
Here Iceland wins out again over the UK. Consider trying to drive a rental car in either the UK or Iceland. In both cases you will be driving on unfamiliar roads with unfamiliar signage. However, in the UK, you will be driving on the left! My husband’s first experience with driving in a foreign country other than Canada was in a left-hand driving country. I think he still has nightmares about trying to go around a traffic circle the wrong way! You may wonder about the signage, but the Icelandic Transport Authority has produced both a helpful brochure (in English!) and an accompanying 9 minute video that give you the basic rules and important signs. As a fairly sparsely populated country (about 1/200 the population of England), you are also much less likely to be caught in a traffic jam—though both in England and Iceland you may be delayed by sheep on the road!
This is a difficult one to judge objectively. Some things we see in Iceland that make us think it is kid-friendly: Free admission for children to many museums. One museum let our kids in free even without a paying adult! At another museum, we were told that local kids frequently show up by themselves for a couple of hours after school. It seems standard here to only charge half price for children on tours as well. According to this article and my experience, breastfeeding in public doesn’t seem to faze anyone here. In addition, at pools other women have offered to hold my baby while I get dressed/put shoes on/etc.
Things to see and do:
Yes, there are cool things to do in any country in the world, but there is a very high concentration of amazing natural sights in Iceland. Is there any other country in the world where you can see volcanoes, geysers, glaciers, the Northern lights, and walk between two continental plates? And all of this in an area slightly smaller than Kentucky! The Mars-like landscape is unlike anything else I’ve seen—and there are so many amazing waterfalls that you might get tired of them! But if that all sounds like too much hiking, Iceland also has geothermally heated pools and spas by the score. There are dozens of history museums (land of the Vikings, don’t forget!), and there is chess everywhere! All of this, plus for animal lovers, there are seals, puffins, reindeer, eider ducks, Arctic foxes, whales, and unique breeds of both sheep and horses!