In this article I’ll be sharing my tips and experience in planning a surprise trip to Iceland for 2 people. A little background beforehand: having grown up nice and well, I decided it was time to thank my parents for the best opportunities they offered me growing up. Since there is nothing more enriching that discovering other countries, I immediately thought I would offer them a trip abroad that would tick as many items off their bucket list as possible.
Choice of Destination:
To make my choice I was guided by the main item of my dad’s bucket list, a desire to see the northern lights once in his life. There are quite a few countries up north where the northern lights can be observed such as Finland, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, Canada, Russia… I picked Iceland because my dad is a lover of all things nature and animals. Another factor towards Iceland is the Blue Lagoon, having seen pictures and read about this extraordinary place, I just couldn’t let it pass. It was a close call with the Ice Hotel in Sweden but Sweden doesn’t have the same appeal to a nature lover like my dad.
I also wanted something completely different from where my dad had already been: Mexico, Spain, Portugal, Vietnam, Guadeloupe, Romania and England. Finally, the fact that Iceland is less than 4 hours flight from Paris means you don’t have to break the bank on plane tickets.
Choosing an Agency
Once the destination has been decided, it was time to make it happen. I started my research almost a year before the trip, it was a little too early and I would reckon 6 months is enough but I needed time to save up the money for the trip.
Choosing the agency is very important and my main criterion was customer satisfaction. I also wanted a small agency and not one of those giant tour operators as I wanted something unique, totally tailored to my dad’s taste and my budget. To that effect I used some online travellers’ forum and communities.
One agency’s name came up again and again, always with excellent reviews over quite a few years. I checked out their website (you can too by clicking HERE) and their packages, it was perfect. IslandsTours is a 2 men business and the couple who run it are travellers who fell in love with Iceland and are now making it their job to make you love it as well. They offer a variety of trips all years round to discover the country in many different ways. And, most importantly, they are happy to tailor any package to your need. You can absolutely pick and choose the length, the activities, the type of accommodations and everything else.
Delphine (INFO@ISLANDTOURS.FR) is the one who took me under her wing to make it happen for me. From the very first email, she was extremely friendly and professional, she never tired of answering my endless questions, she always returned my email promptly. She went out of her way to make the whole process easy and convenient for me, even sending the final bills and package to different addresses in France and in the UK. I have nothing but praise for the way she handled the whole project.
Choosing the dates:
The northern lights being a winter phenomenon I researched the best times to see them in Iceland which is when the nights are longest. The longer the night the more chance you have of witnessing their amazing display. I wanted something intimate so I avoided school holidays periods too. I finally decided on mid November which gave me about 7 months to save money. My dad is retired so I had complete freedom there.
Choosing the perfect package:
IslandTours offers a wide selection of Winter packages for Iceland, from group trips to whale watching programme and much more. However it must be noted that during the winter months, most of the country is locked in snow and therefore inaccessible. As I mentioned I wanted something intimate for my dad and my brother (who went with him) so I wasn’t interested in group trips. I opted instead for a 8 days, 7 nights road trip along the south coast of Iceland.
I wanted them to see as many different and extraordinary sights as possible so I mapped the route along volcanoes, waterfalls, iceberg beaches, black sand beaches, earth craters, geysers…. and of course the famous Blue Lagoon. I left the afternoon at the Blue Lagoon for the last day. I thought it would be nice after 5 days driving and the last memory to take away with them back to France the next day. Finally since it was their first time in Iceland, I also set aside one day in the capital, Reykjavík.
Accommodation was in small family owned bed and breakfast (I didn’t want any big hotel). The choice of accommodations was made by the agency and again it was all perfect. The owners were welcoming, helpful and very friendly, rooms were clean and comfortable, and food was beyond expectations. They were treated to so much delicious dishes (including reindeer meat) at breakfast and dinner that they often skipped lunch.
IslandTours offers all-inclusive packages so once you’ve built up your perfect trip, they take care of everything else. This is my package for 2 adults:
• Airfaires from Paris to Reykjavík + airport transfers
• 7 nights accommodations in small hotel (1 night) and B&B with breakfast and dinner
• All inclusive car rental (a Mitsubishi 4×4) for 5 days with free GPS, road maps and insurance for 2 drivers
• Entry fees and towels at the Blue Lagoon
• Personalised tourist guide with all the major sites and activities along the route we had agreed on
• TOTAL for 8days/7nights for 2 people = 2400 Euro
Time for the surprise:
Once everything had been organised and paid for came to time to tell my dad about his surprise. My brother already knew about it and had been helping me, he’s the one who received all the documents the agency sent for them in the end.
Although my dad had travelled abroad before, he is a home-sweet-home kind of guy and somehow reluctant to leave his house, which is why we waited till everything was wrapped up to tell him. We organised a skype call around mid October (about a month before departure)and my brother pretended they were calling me for my birthday. My brother had previously bought some items they would need on the trip such as heavy winter coats, hiking boots and some swimming suits for the Blue Lagoon.
During the call, my brother pretended to show me (on the camera) some presents he had bought for me. My dad was asked to open them and he was a little surprised by it all but never guessing those were really for him. In the end we told him it was all for him and that those items would be needed for a trip the following month. We even made him guess the destination based on the items. Despite the mix clues of swimming suits and heavy fur hats, he guessed almost immediately he was going to Iceland. At this point he became speechless.
I told him how I had remembered all these years something he told me when I was no more than 10 years old, that he would love to see the northern lights one in his lifetime. He had made many of my dreams come true so it was now my turn to make his dreams come true as well. I didn’t get to see Iceland but seeing how happy my father was was more than worth it.
Your turn now, here are a few tips and advice to organise a trip for you or someone else.
Solo vs Agency?
It is possible to organise a trip to Iceland on your own and you’ll read many accounts of people who have done so. In my case, I was abroad and I didn’t have the time to organise all the aspects of the trip and I couldn’t logistically oversee everything so I was happy to let someone else do the work. However if you have the time and a little experience it can be done without agencies.
Some handy tips:
• if it’s a surprise wait til the participants are retired so you’re not restricted with dates and length
• Make sure the travellers have valid travelling documents
• If passports or visas are required allow more organisation time
• Europeans travelling in Europe don’t need passports, this means you can keep the surprise longer
• Don’t send someone alone, wait until you have a budget for 2 people, it would be kinda sad experiencing the trip of a lifetime without anyone to share the excitement with.
If you’re wondering why I didn’t send my mum to Iceland too, it’s simple, she would not have enjoyed a 4×4 road trip, besides she wasn’t retired yet and since my parents have totally different tastes, a trip for the two of them would have meant of a lot of compromising and I aimed for the perfect trip. However, the year she retired I organised her perfect trip too. To read about the time I sent my mum to Russia, just a little bit of patience, it's coming…