Written by Zach Grossfeld
In June 2019, I traveled to Iceland by myself. Despite heading across the Atlantic alone, I met tons of interesting people and shared great moments. Here are some things that I learned. Hopefully this can help someone on their next solo adventure:
Snowmobiles Once, Thinks He's Keanu Reeves
I breathed out slowly as my right thumb pressed down the trigger. Snow kicked behind me as I flew up the dune. Holy fuck. All around, an ice desert surrounded me surrounded, but I lasered in on the snowmobile tracks laid down by our guide, Peter, at the top of the dune. "Don't go above my tracks," Peter had told us before we pressed the gas. "There are crevasses, deep cracks in the glacier that you'll fall through if you go too high."
I continued to floor it to the tracks as the wind rushed past my cheeks. I should probably turn now. Once I hit the top, I leaned the snowmobile left, rocking slightly onto my right side, then raced full speed across, traveling parallel to Peter's tracks. After about 100 yards, I turned left again and booked it downhill towards the bottom. I don't know my max speed, but at one point, I glanced at the speedometer ticking past 170 kilometers per hour. This baby has more juice.
Get on the Plane
About 48 hours before snowmobiling across the Langjökull Glacier in Iceland, I almost stayed home in New York. I had never traveled alone outside of the United States and felt overwhelmed by everything that could go wrong. "Why did you book this trip?" I thought. "What the fuck were you thinking?" This negative mindset was scorching any exhilaration awaiting me. The pitfalls piled up in my psyche.
Then, I took a deep breath, and something entered my mind: Just get on the plane (Actually, it was "stop being a bitch and just get on the plane"). These negative voices are reasonable, especially on the verge of uncomfortable circumstances. I recognized this voice because I had heard it in podcasting. "You're not smart enough to speak with this guest," I'd think. "No one cares about what 'you're doing." Once you notice the negative mental cycle, it becomes easier to see this voice as a symptom, not a guide.
This voice colors our consciousness with darkness, invoking the worst case scenarios. Don't push this voice away. Know it will be there, feel what it does to your body, and learn to act with it. Noticing the voice diffuses its power because you see it for what it is, a voice.
So, I reminded myself of all the planning and research that I've put into this trip and hopped on the plane. Whatever happens, happens. The rest is out of my control. Let's fuck around.
Research, Research, Research
As an amateur solo traveler, I scoured the web months in advance to plan my trek to Iceland. Vlogs, blogs, podcasts, reviews, I ate it up. My confidence has always fed off of research. Whether it's gambling on sports teams, preparing for podcasts, or speaking to women (yes, I've written out "pick up" approaches in my iPhone notes) I want to know what I'm facing. I'm not great at riffing. Down the road, I plan to take classes in improv, but as of now, research is my best friend.
Avoid generic travel sites. You know the ones that I'm talking about. They say things like: Top 10 Hot Spots in Iceland, The Ultimate South Coast Travel Guide, or The Best Kept Secrets of Icelandic Locals. If it were really a local secret, it wouldn't be a top Google search hit. Dig Deeper. Look for personal travel blogs, YouTube channels dedicated to the area, online forums. Stay away from the sleazy sites that offer pop up deals before you can gather a breath.
One of the most reliable sources that I found was a YouTube Channel named Iceland with a View. A few years back, the woman that hosts the channel moved from America to Iceland. She then created an Icelandic travel blog and video series dedicated for people making the trek across the Atlantic.
On her YouTube Channel, I took notes on everything from day treks to Reykjavík to electrical socket adapters. She wasn't trying to sell me, convert me, or overwhelm me with unnecessary details. Look for platforms, like Iceland with a View that humanize travel, make recommendations based off of experience, and keep it simple.
You Will Fuck Up
Even with mountains of research, you will still find ways to make mistakes. That's okay. Embrace it. So you got duped by a taxi driver or turned a 15-minute trip into two hours. Get over it. You're still exploring a different part of the world, which many others don't have the opportunity to do.
Recognize what went wrong to avoid future fuck ups. Traveling, like most things in life, is a muscle. The more you use it, the more you'll build a solid foundation and learn from errors. The first time you step in the gym is the most nerve-wracking. Uncomfortability will be present, but more reps will teach you to work through the nerves, and even run towards it.
Speaking of fuck ups, My third day in Iceland, I had a South Coast tour planned for 7 am. The night before, I sat down at a fancy, intimate bar next to a gentleman from Denmark. We soon started going back and forth on Trump, gun violence, and his two sons. I'm always interested in what people not from America think of America. After two rounds of top-shelf whiskey, the gentleman kindly footed the bill and returned to his accommodations. He had an early travel day ahead of him with his two boys. It's 11pm.
So, I walk out the door to grab one last drink (famous last words..) at a spot closer to my Airbnb when the bartender from the previous bar taps me on the shoulder. "Hey!" he says. "You should come party with us." He pointed to a table upstairs. "Okay!" I replied.
I walked up the spiral staircase and met a group of five guys and five girls, all locals. The thought of waking up in less than six hours weighed on my mind. What the hell. I'm only in Iceland for a few days and what better way to experience nightlife than partying with locals. We jumped from club to club as I got to know this cast of characters.
As I stepped across the threshold of our final stop, I felt the sunlight beam across my chest and half-unbuttoned shirt. Over the summer, the Icelandic sun never wholly sets. I had no concept of time. "5:05 am," read my phone. I parted ways with the local crew and smoked a bummed cigarette on the way back to my Airbnb. Fuck, what a night.
Before my dome crashed against the pillow, I set the alarm for 6:30 am. I don't know why. I didn't have a single cell in my body that believed I would respect the wake-up call. I snoozed, and snoozed, and snoozed, before disabling the alarm.
Finally, my body left the bed at 11:30 am, slightly hungover, but blissful. Though, part of me was angry at myself for missing the tour. $120 down the drain. You're such a bum. But I wouldn't trade that night for the most beautiful of day tours. The bender took on a beauty of its own.
Salvage the Fuck Up
So, what can I do with this day? Don't waste it. I had a note saved in my phone detailing the route to a local, natural hot spring by the town of Hveragerði. Peter, my guide for snowmobiling, had given me his favorite spot to enjoy the warm baths. I stopped at a coffee shop, battled back against the hangover, and hopped a taxi to the hot springs.
The driver dropped me off at the base. After a forty-five minute hike accompanied by the shrills of baby lambs, the valley opened up into a gorgeous natural spring. A few groups sat scattered, cracking beers, and some families made their way down to the valley. The space felt open. I plopped my belongings, walked down the ladder, and sat waist deep in the most relaxing water that has touched my skin.
For the first hour, I couldn't stop looking around. Peaks swallowed the skies around me, and there was little me in the middle of it all recovering in Mother Nature's version of a hot tub. Since it's already warm, no one will notice if I pee.
I'm sure if I had made my bedtime the night before and been on time for the morning hike, the South Coast would have been beautiful. It would have been easy to beat myself up for missing the trek and waking up with a hangover. But I don't regret it. I couldn't have asked for a better night with locals. I got a taste of the unfiltered, Icelandic nightlife, which wouldn't have been an option had I packed it in after the top shelf whiskey. And the hot springs were divine. Sometimes, it's better to freestyle, which brings me to my next point.
Leave Time Unplanned
Research and planning represent the backbone of a good trip, but a great trip leaves the right amount of wiggle room. I planned two-thirds to three-quarters of each day around day trips, hikes, and local landmarks. From around 8am to 6pm, I knew where I needed to be. Then, I wandered. I roamed around my home base of Reykjavík for bars, restaurants, shops, and good conversation.
One night, I sat down at The Sand Bar. I ordered wine, appetizers, and chatted up the other patrons for two-plus hours, which set the stage for the hangover as mentioned earlier. Another night, I put in my Airpods, cued up some Post Malone, and walked the entire Shore path along the water and back. On my return route, I stopped at a food truck and ate an impossibly good lamb sandwich. I slammed it on the go so I could stop by the Hallgrímskirkja Church and colorful neighborhoods of Reykjavík.
It's intimidating to leave time open. I'm a control freak and like to know what I'm doing. But scheduling unscheduled time will lead to some of the most fun, spontaneous moments on your trip. It's okay not to know what you're doing. For whatever reason, I feel more alive when I stumble into a good time rather than planning it.
When Traveling Solo, Always Eat & Drink At The Bar
As a solo traveler, a seat at the bar is your best friend. You are guaranteed a chat with the bartender, and you'll most likely make a few friends alongside you. If you sit at a table by yourself, you are assuring a solo meal. No one will sit next to you, and the most in-depth talk that evening will be when the waiter takes your order.
At the bar, everyone's in it together. It's not weird to interject into a conversation three stools down because a couple is talking about the game you watched last night. Do that from a table by yourself, and you'll draw looks of mental instability. The bar is a gathering of wild cards. It's a place for people to walk in without a reservation, sip on a drink, and start exploring the night. The bartender becomes your friend, maybe even slips you some extra pours, and the conversation gets interesting.
In the heart of downtown, I spoke to the Kosovan bartender about his MMA training, which spawned a martial arts conversation between ourselves and four other stool-goers. We ended up drinking at happy hour prices for the entire night and had a few drinks knocked off of our tab. It was hard to contain myself when I saw new patrons walking in and getting charged nearly double for the same drinks with a weaker pour.
The next night, I sat down at a pub where a former Icelandic model told me about getting her helicopter license. After her modeling career ended, during which she graced the covers of Playboy, Maxim, and Cosmo (she took me on an Instagram journey), she started her own helicopter company that shuttled hikers to and from the West Fjords. For two hours, she educated me on the positives and the pitfalls of the modeling industry. Sit at the bar.
Start Traveling Young
Like I mentioned before, traveling is a muscle. If you don't stress it consistently, it will atrophy. And the longer you take a break, the harder it is to get back in the routine. Avoid soreness. If you don't get in the habit of traveling now, you won't just flip a switch when you're 55 years old and the kids are out of college.
How many times have you heard people talk about setting up safaris in Africa, walking The Great Wall of China, or sipping Sylvaner in Germany and never execute? Don't talk about it, be about it (I think a rapper said that once). Flex the traveling muscle. Make memories and mistakes. Going on a trip can be stressful, but you'll learn to handle yourself better each time you go.
You don't need a massive sum of money and loads of free time. Plan a weekend getaway. Take two days off here and there. Start to build a base of confidence that will pay off down the line. If you do too much planning, too much worrying, you might just freeze up and psych yourself out of an Icelandic getaway.