Our trip to Iceland, 2018
Chances are, you’ve been hearing about everyone and their mother going to Iceland lately. What has people so excited about going there? A surge of affordable flights around the country from airlines like WOW Air & Iceland Air, and of course the amazing photos people have seen of the beautiful landscape. If you’ve been thinking about making the trip, now is your time! I’m going to break down some of our expenses, where we went, and how doing your research will truly help you save some coin in this crazy expensive country.
WOW Air just recently announced they will be offering cheap flights to Iceland among other European cities out of Cleveland! I was so pumped for this, because I flew WOW out of Boston to Iceland 2 years ago and loved them. They are a no-frills type of airline. Think the Icelandic version of Spirit. You have to pay for EVERYTHING. Extra leg room, choosing your seat, water, snacks, food, your carry on & checked bags..you name it you probably have to pay for it. You are allowed one personal item within a certain size range and that’s it. After paying for my flight with one carry on and one checked bag both ways, my total was $539.94. We did not pay for extra leg room, snacks, food or a specific seat. This breaks down to a very pleasing looking fare of $299.98 round trip for the no-frills flight until you add your checked bag and carry on for $119.98 each way. If you think you’re getting a good deal..look further because most likely there will be some extra hidden costs. I should also mention my husbands flight was separate and he only carried on one bag, didn't check one..this is just my personal cost. The flight lasts about 6 hours and if you take a red eye, you can try and sleep on the way there and wake up in the morning their time.
I have always been a planner when it comes to trips. I have serious FOMO if I don’t plan.. like I will miss out on something I was so close to and didn’t get to see. Planning our trip even though I had been there before, took me days and hours. I re-worked our plans a few times, made sure we were going to the right places in the right order to make the most of our time there, etc. I read tons of Iceland travel blogs and definitely did my research.
A couple of money saving tips..
Don’t stay in a hotel..opt for a hostel if you are doing this on the super cheap, or and Air B&B. We stayed on a family farm one day and it was an awesome experience! Plan ahead! Places to stay are few and far between since it’s a popular tourist destination right now. We started booking the trip in April-May and didn’t go til early September and we had very slim pickings.
Map out grocery stores along your route and cook or prepare at least 2 meals a day. Eating even fast food in Iceland will cost you roughly $30-50 USD for two people. Our average meal cost for a dinner was between $45- $80 USD for both of us..and sometimes more. We bought things to make peanut butter sandwiches, ham and cheese sandwiches..anything we could pack easily for a day trip to save money.
* Buy one bottle of water at the airport, then re fill it throughout the trip. Their water is the best in the world, so they all drink it straight out of the tap. It’s actually insulting to buy a case of bottled water there.
Hitch hike..we didn’t do this since we rented a car but Iceland is the safest place to do this in and you will see tons of backpackers hitch hiking on the main road.
* Don’t just stay in Reykjavik and take bus tours everywhere. You can totally drive the country easily and see things on your own without a guide if you do your research. This will save you literally THOUSANDS. Splurge on one super cool tour if you are there in season like an ice cave or volcano tour. We didn’t do this.
You don't need 4x4 if you plan on going when there is no snow and know your route won’t require any off road driving. Their main highway called the “Ring Road” circles the entire country. You can see it all in 10 days if you wish. Renting a car in Iceland is super expensive. Forgo renting while you are staying in Reykjavik since you can walk the entire city. We picked up our rental car on the third day of our trip. The total for a Mazda 6 to drive for 5 days was $461.27 USD. Save money and don’t get a 4x4.
Don’t shop in Reykjavik if you are on a tight budget. If you want to pick up a souvenir..opt for duty free in the airport and bring it home that way. Of course check out the shops there..they have some super cute and unique stuff if you are willing to shell out the cash. My favorite is Geysir. Think Icelandic Anthropologie. I’m obsessed with their wool socks that run about $29 USD.. a nice alternative to an Icelandic wool sweater that you’ll probably never wear that can run up to $300 USD. They also make beautiful wool blankets but they will run you $200 USD and up. Farmers & Friends is another mentionable favorite, carrying locally made jewelry, mugs and clothing. You’ll shell out about $80 USD for a mug and $300 USD for a necklace..but you’ll have a cool handmade keepsake. Orrifin is an awesome Icelandic jewelry store where you can actually see them working on pieces if you are lucky. Super unique and cool designs. I splurged on our last day and bought an amazing leather jacket from a boutique called Maia.
Now to the good stuff...what we did!
The last time I was in Iceland, we planned a trip from the airport straight to the Blue Lagoon. This was the perfect start to the trip especially after a flight.. so this is precisely what we did again this time. You can book your time at the lagoon on their website and choose from a few different packages. They have you store your luggage..so pack your swimsuit and flip flops in a backpack to bring in with you. The bus will pick you up right at the airport and take you to the lagoon. It’s a quick drive and the buses are sooo nice. Our trip to the lagoon for 2 of us with the lowest priced package was $293.37. This package includes your bus transfer from the airport to the lagoon, then from the lagoon to a stop near your hotel or where you are staying, one face mask at the face mask bar and your first drink. The Blue Lagoon is a must do if you are going to Iceland, even though there are some really cool natural hot springs in other parts of the country. It’s very luxe and relaxing. TIP..don’t pay to eat there at the restaurant or grab and go food place. Get food at the airport before you leave for the lagoon..it will save you a ton.
From the Lagoon, we went to check into our Air B&B in Reykjavik. We stayed somewhat close to the harbor..about a 10 minute walk. Two nights in our cute little city B&B cost us $316.33 USD. As I had mentioned before, you can walk the city easily so don’t rent a car til you need to. The first two days we just explored the city and shops, and checked out some attractions around town. Some mentionables you must see while in Reykjavik.. The Harpa, their concert hall/convention center, the harbor shops and brewery (Mike found his favorite beer here. We are convinced beer tastes better in Iceland because the water is amazing. I also found the best pizza in Iceland at Flatey in the harbor. Delicious brick oven pizza! I got one with potatoes and truffle. the Hallgrimskirkja church, their parliament, and their art museum. I was convinced the food in Iceland sucked the first time we were there. I was dead wrong and must have been eating at all the wrong places. The food is amazing and there are tons of great options. If you like seafood, try the Arctic Char. It’s basically a milder version of salmon and is absolutely delicious. Their fish and chips are also delish.
We checked out of our Air B&B and took a cab to pick up our rental car. A cab 15 min away is roughly $30 USD. From here, we headed to the grocery store. Iceland has a few different grocery stores..Bonus is their version of Aldi..so expect less selection but lower prices. We found Netto and shopped there. We picked up some essentials and snacks and were headed to the famous Golden Circle region. I had read in blogs that there are 3 main attractions along the Golden Circle, as well as some smaller attractions along the way. I mapped out about 36 minutes from our rental car spot in Reykjavik to the first attraction on the list, Thingvellir National Park.
Here is some geology info for ya..Iceland is divided by the Mid-Atlantic Rift: some parts of it such as the Westfjords and Reykjavik, are on the North American tectonic plate, while others, such as Vatnajokull glacier and the East Fjords, are on the Eurasian plate. Iceland is the only place in the world where this rift is above sea-level, and nowhere can you see the edges of both plates as clearly as Thingvellir. As you enter the park from Reykjavik, you descend a steep cliff into a valley. Looking upon the face of this cliff is to look at the edge of North America. If you drive through the park, you will ascend on the other side adjacent to another wall..this is Eurasia. The valley in between, in which Thingvellir is contained, is the rift valley. You can actually scuba dive in between the plates here..but it will cost you a small fortune.
Our second stop on the Golden Circle was Geysir, a 55 minute drive from Thingvellir. Your one hour drive can feel like 20 minutes when driving through Iceland. The scenery changes so suddenly and dramatically, it’s truly like you are on another planet.
Along the drive I saw a sign for something called “The Cave People” and wanted to check it out. We drove a long winding road until we were right at the base of some mountains, and were greeted by a small wiener dog (If you know me well, they are my FAVORITE!) and two bothers dressed in early 1900’s garb. They said “Are you here for the tour?” And we said maybe, explain it to us! They explained that in the mountain ahead of us, a family made a tiny home into the side of the cave and lived there years ago and they tell their story. We thought it looked cool so we paid roughly $40 USD each and said let’s do it. We had a quick hike to the cave where one of the brothers told the story of the first family in the cave and how they used to keep their cows and sheep warm in there in the winter months. Next to the cave, they re-built the home using only a old photograph and they did an amazing job. As we went inside the home, it felt like you were really living outside but inside. The walls and ceiling were mossy and green, and the floor was wood. All of the antiques were placed just as they would have been originally in the home. It was such a cool story and we were glad we stopped. There was a story about how the woman living in the cave needed to have her first baby in a snow storm so they couldn't leave the cave to get her midwife in town, so she had it right in the cave. After having the baby, she would have dreams of someone else living in the cave telling her it was alright to leave the baby in the crib with the bible while she went outside to work in the garden, and that she would protect the baby. I guess one day the woman tried it and came back after her chores, and the baby was safe in the crib. Later in the childs life, she was seen speaking to someone who wasn’t there, almost like her protector. Interesting stuff! Definitely worth the stop..it was cool.
Now, on to Geysir!
Though Geysir itself is rarely active these days, the area around it has a ton of hot springs and geysers, including Strokkur. Strokkur shoots huge jets of boiling water from 65 feet to 130 feet high about every five to ten minutes. Geysir is much larger, but can go years in between eruptions. It has been said to erupt up to 230 feet high.
On the way to the third and final big attraction along the Golden Circle, is the famous Secret Lagoon. About 30 minutes from Geysir, is a swimming pool type lagoon heated by geothermal energy. You can choose to pay to go in, or just take a walk around and check it out. We opted for checking it out and moving on to our next destination, Gullfoss. If you don't stop at the secret lagoon, Gullfoss is a quick 10 minute ride from Geysir. Gullfoss is very impressive in size, and is extremely beautiful.
Some photos from the Secret Lagoon, Mike with an Icelandic road beer, and mighty Gullfoss
From Gullfoss, we checked out the stunning Kerid Crater. Scientists believe that Kerid was once a cone-shaped volcano. Upon eruption, it is widely believed that the volcano depleted its magma reserve, causing the foundation to fall in upon itself and result in the formation it has today. Of course, this was two thousand years before settlement, so no one is truly sure. Keri is approximately 180 feet deep and 558 feet wide, as well as 886 feet in circumference. You can walk a path down to the craters edge and take the full walk around the lake that has formed at the bottom. A small $3 USD fee is charged to help preserve the grounds of Kerid since it is on private land.
In the grand scheme of the trip..I would have skipped the Golden Circle and just saw Kerid and maybe gone to some other lesser known spots. With the Golden Circle being the largest tourist destination in the country…you surely feel that. Busses upon busses of tourists are being dropped off by the minute and you are definitely not alone..not even close to it. One of my most favorite things about Iceland from the first time I went was how serene and vast it felt due to the lack of human life. For me, personally, it’s harder to enjoy attractions with hundreds of people around. Kerid was a bit farther out from the typical route, so far less populated.
From Kerid, we drove to our Air B&B for the night in Austurey *$181.12 USD. This was one of my most favorite nights of the trip. I had a really great feeling we would see the Northern lights this night because it was so clear, buy we didn't end up seeing them. Down the road about 10 minutes was a pleasant surprise we didn’t know about..Laugarvatn Fontana. This STUNNING and sleek lakefront spa features natural steam baths, outdoor mineral pools & a sauna. You can even get out of the steam bath and run into the lake that the spa overlooks for a cold plunge. Super swanky and private, this lesser known spa was my favorite part of the day..and I would even say I enjoyed it more than the Blue Lagoon. There were a few small places to eat in town, so we had dinner prior to going to the spa for the night. I tried a reindeer burger..it was surprisingly delish! The spa was so beautiful at night and the perfect end to a long day full of sightseeing. An hour before they close, spa attendants bring out huge lanterns with candles in them and set them all around the spa. It was literally the most breathtaking and relaxing experience of the trip watching the sunset from the candlelit baths. For roughly $35 USD per person, this was worth 10x what we paid.
Some photos of Laugarvatn and our adorable Air B&B
Our 4th day we were headed to the southern city of Vik. I had toured Vik briefly the first time I was in Iceland, and it was the city that made me want to return for more. In Vik, you feel a bit more secluded, and the sightseeing options are endless. We woke up and drove an hour and a half to Vik to our first stop, Sejalandsfoss waterfall. My personal favorite waterfall of the trip, Sejalandsfoss has a 200 foot drop that can be fully encircled..meaning you can walk behind it. Be sure to wear your waterproof gear for this one..because you will get wet. This breathtaking waterfall is super close to the ring road..so you can’t miss it. I did this the first time, and remembered to do it a second time to remind myself how lucky I am to visit this magical place..I made sure to stop and take a few deep breaths in and let the water hit my face. It’s such an easy way to practice mindfulness and remind yourself that there are so many wonderful things in life that are bigger than you. Seeing these amazing waterfalls is a truly humbling experience.
From here, we drove down the road to hike to the DC plane crash site. My first experience hiking to the plane was far different from this one. The first time, I was there in April. Vik is known for rapidly and dramatically changing weather, and boy did we get caught in it. You have to hike 2 and a half miles on lava rock and black sand to reach the plane. Two years ago, there were no trail markers and no parking lot..so we had to use GPS coordinates to reach the plane in super strong wind and rain pelting us in the face. Since the plane is on private property, you cannot take a car. This time, there was a clearly marked parking lot with a sign preparing you for the dangers you may encounter on the hike, and a clearly marked path to the plane..which meant a ton more tourists. We arrived to the lot and it was almost full even early in the morning. I still wanted Mike to experience this, since it was one of my favorite things I did during my last trip. Although less of an “adventure” this time, it was still as awesome as the first time. The US Navy DC plane crashed on the black sands of Sólheimasandur in 1973 when it ran out of fuel. Thankfully, no one died. They never removed the wreckage since it was on private property, and now it is a lesser known tourist stop along the ring road. I’m obsessed and fascinated with ruins and dead things..I know..a little morbid..but the plane was a bucket list item for me.
After the plane, we headed to another bucket list item of mine, Reynisfjara black sand beach. This spot is a tie breaker for our favorite thing on the trip. The drive back to the beach is beautiful. There are a few attractions within the drive back such as the Dyrhólaey Lighthouse which boasts a stunning and different view of Reynisfjara and rock formations that look like the back of a dinosaur. Anyway, back to Reynisfjara. OH. MY. GOSH. It is amazing. From the jet black sand to the incredible rock formations, this place will literally take your breath away. Use great caution..the waves are called “sneaker waves” and are known to sneak up on you and quickly pull you out to sea. The last casualty there was actually early last year. They are no joke! This is one place that you truly have to see to experience the greatness of. Photos won’t do the size and shape of the rocks justice unless you are there in person. This place is full of rock, sand and basalt sea stacks that have multiple Icelandic myths about them. Do yourself a favor and make this a part of your trip.
Photos from the black sand beach and a cool abandon farm on the road there
After the beach, we were on to the next waterfall, Skogafoss. There is a huge climb up some stairs on the side of the waterfall to reach the top for a different view and hike. By this time..I was pretty wiped and it took the last bit of energy in me to make the climb to the top. I made it, but couldn’t get down fast enough. Low on energy from a busy couple of days, I nearly passed out. Moral of the story, Skogafoss is stunning, but be ready for a climb.
At the end of our long day, we made our way back to the Air B&B we were most excited for, a stay on a family farm in Vik. As we arrived, we were greeted by our host’s husband, the dairy farmer. He said his wife Annika was inside and would help us with our things. We met Annika, a sweet Icelandic farmer’s wife, and she showed us to our room and gave us a brief history of the farm. Her husband is a 3rd generation farmer and had grown up on the farm. The farm had been in use since the 1600’s. She got us settled in and gave us a few food recommendations for dinner. We made our way down the road to a luxury resort hotel called Skalakot for dinner. This dinner was for sure our splurge. The hotel had been recently updated and had the cutest farmhouse style decor..right up my ally. I opted for a classic Icelandic dish of lamb, which was a bit tough, but delicious. Just for fun we looked up the price per night at Skalakot..and a base room started around a whopping $530 USD per night. We were much happier on the farm for $158.07. They did have the most delicious home made bread, though! After dinner, we turned in for the night to the farm.
Photos from the farm we stayed on, Skalakot and it's fab Icelandic Farmhouse decor. I also have a thing for floors.
I can’t even believe we are already to our 5th day. Time truly does fly when you’ve got so much to fit into a week! We woke up early and said our goodbyes to Annika, and she said we could take a look at the cows on the way out, so we did. Another guest was going to milk them, but we wanted to get a head start on the day since we had another full one. Our morning started with a quick peanut butter sandwich on the way to Fjaorargliufur. This was one of our longest drives yet at an hour and a half from Vik. The drive was breathtaking, and we passed the most drastic landscape changes on this day. From moss covered lava fields to eerie black sand for miles and everything in between, this was a stunning drive. Once we made it to Fjaorargliufur, we had a short hike up to the canyon. What awaited us was plunging cliffs of green moss, a bright blue river and gorgeous waterfalls. It looked like something out of a movie, absolutely breathtaking. Along the hike there were many stops to take to look over the canyon down to the river below. Small paths jutted out of the cliffs, but were roped off for safety. This place was definitely the most beautiful thing we were going to see on our trip.
The stunning cliffs of Fjaorargliufur
Onward to the town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur! Let’s call it Kirk, for short. This town’s name means Church, Farm, Convent. This small town was the next little bit of civilization with 3 restaurants and some cool spots to hike. On our way we stopped at a natural rock formation called Dverghamrar, who's rocks are believed to house Dwarfs. The name actually means “Dwarf rocks.” It was a neat quick stop along the 20 minute ride to Kirk for a photo op, since you can walk right up on the basalt rock stacks.
From here, we continued our journey to Kirk, and drove around the tiny town (which took about 2 minutes.) We found an entrance to a park that looked like the perfect opportunity for a hike up the mountain side. At the bottom, the waterfall that was cascading down the side of the mountain crashed gently into a small stream. We climbed the mountain, and at the top it was absolutely breathtaking. We discovered Lake Systravatn or “Sisters Lake” at the top which feeds the waterfall down the side of the mountain. Since the water in Iceland is so pure, we stopped at the edge of the waterfall to take a drink from it. There is a story about the lake and how the nuns used to bathe in it, among other myths about the lake which is pictured lakeside. We found this after drinking from the falls and joked that we had drank “the holy water.” Along with the lake, sprawling fields of grass at the top overlooked the city of Kirk. The amazing views along with the falls were just stunning. If you are planning a trip to South/Southeast Iceland, make a stop here and climb the mountain. You won’t regret it!
As we were making our way to the bottom of the mountain, the weather started to look a bit questionable and we were getting hungry for lunch.
Just as we made it inside to eat, it started pouring rain. We stopped at a small restaurant at the bottom of the mountain, and it ended up being one of our favorite meals on the trip. So much in fact that we ended up going back for dinner that night after the rest of our day. Their homemade bread was so good I bought a whole loaf and ate some of it over the next couple of days. After lunch, we were on the road again to see another waterfall, Svartifoss. These falls are in Vatnajokull National Park in Skaftafell. Since we were there in the off season, we couldn’t take a look inside the Skaftafell ice cave because it is too dangerous. Tours begin for the ice caves in late October early November, when the temps have dropped enough for them to fully freeze. I’m not going to lie, I was getting pretty exhausted at this point and we had seen a ton of incredible waterfalls, so we took a quick glimpse and left quickly so we could see our final destination before dark. Svartifoss was beautiful, but nothing like some of the falls we had already seen. If you are going to Skaftafell, obviously go see it, but try to go towards late fall early winter so you can go into the ice cave! I’m sad we missed out on that.
From the national park to our next location, Diamond beach. This beach gets it’s name from the pieces of crystal clear ice that break off from the icebergs and float downstream and litter the black sand. They truly look like little diamonds against the harsh black. Since this was our first anniversary trip, we had to take a photo of our rings on the ice!
Just across the bridge is Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, which belongs to the Vatnajokull glacier national park. The glacier's name is Breiðamerkurjökull glacier and huge blocks of ice (more than 1,000 years old) are continually breaking from it and large chunks of iceberg float in the lagoon. The ice chunks take on so many forms and colors, ranging from transparent, to white, to the most amazing blue color. Some of the ice is black, it is truly amazing. And remember that only 1/10 of the iceberg is visible, which makes this an even more thrilling experience. Seals swim from the stream into the lagoon and rest on the icebergs. I actually cried because it was so beautiful. Icebergs, Seals, Glaciers!? My little brain couldn’t even handle all of the beauty. If you were going to stay in Reykjavik your entire trip and just drive to see this lagoon, it would take you almost 5 hours. Another reason why it’s so great to stay in multiple places!
After the lagoon, we stopped at one more spot close by to check out a different view of the glacier coming out of the mountains.
From here, we had a 2 hour drive back to our Air B&B for the night. We stopped back in Kirk at the same restaurant for dinner, then continued our drive.
We also stopped at an old bridge that had been shut down which was an old portion of highway 1. It looks like a road to nowhere! We parked on the opposite side of the road, crossed the highway and walked to the bridge for some photos.
By this time, it was getting dark and we didn’t realize how far of a drive off the main road our Air B&B actually was. As we turned down a winding gravel/rock road I wasn’t sure if our Mazda 6 could handle it, but it did. However, we got lost. Siggi, our host sent a map but it was a bit confusing and unclear..especially in the dark. We called him and luckily he was awake and willing to show us in…on his enormous tractor. He hopped off once we got there and came to our car window to greet us. He was a very attractive young farmer and I joked with Mike that he could come stay with us. The B&B was situated just up the hill from his farm. It was so cute! A little tiny house with an awesome patio and view onto all of the farm land. Of course, we didn’t see the view til the morning since it was so dark when we arrived. Our stay at Siggi’s place cost us $269.95 USD.
Above: Siggi showing us in on his tractor in the dark, our tiny house b&b on his beautiful property.
I can’t even believe we are to our second to last day here. My heart is breaking for I know we have to leave soon. We packed up our things and headed back to the Vik area to see some things we weren’t able to fit into our planned day there. I’m telling you, stay in Vik. It is a great central location between Reykjavik and the Southeast coast, and the things to see are endless. We stopped at an interesting field of rock formations called Laufskalavarda. This site was a farm years ago before it was destroyed in year 894 by an eruption from the volcano Katla. There are some historical notes at this site about why there are stones placed there, and each passerby is supposed to leave one to bring the people from the farm good luck on their journeys after the farm was destroyed. We took a walk through the area and placed our own rocks on a mound.
Adding our rocks to Laufskalavarda.
Our next stop was Dyrholaey. Dyrholaey’s most famous attraction is the massive rock arch, a result of centuries of erosion. In fact, this natural feature is so large and dramatic that one daredevil pilot even flew through it, back in 1993. Boats can easily go through its opening. At the top of Dyrholaey stands a historical lighthouse, and incredible views of Iceland’s southern most coast.
Views from Dyrholaey
After this, we stopped for some waterfall side fish and chips at a food truck near Skogafoss and had a bite to eat. From here, we drove back down a road to a parking lot where we would hike to a local swimming pool. Seljavallalaug was built years ago into a mountainside in Vik to teach the locals how to swim. You can’t drive back to it, you have to hike about 20-30 minutes back to it through streams and rock. As we came upon it, it was like something out of a fairy tale. Situated right up against the mossy mountains, next to the rushing stream, we saw the swimming pool. There were only 2 people in it at the time, for it was a bit cold and the changing rooms were absolutely disgusting, but it was still worth the hike back to see.
Waterfall side fish & chips + our hike back to Seljavallalaug swimming pool
Right down the road in Vik, there are two massive glaciers. We hiked back to see the Solheimajokull glacier. You can only hike up to a certain point without a guide and crampons. It was cool, but nothing like the glacier lagoon. From here, we checked into our final Air B&B that was just around the corner in Vik. This one we splurged on a bit because the location was prime time for seeing the Northern Lights. At $334.43 our tiny cottage was one of a few cottages situated at the bottom of a large hill near the actual city of Vik. After checking in, we freshened up and headed into the city to check out a place for dinner and to walk around. We found a spot for dinner but didn’t love it, so we headed to a brewery after and split a burger and a beer. After dinner we headed back to our B&B to relax and plan out our final day before we had to get to the airport. As the darkness settled in, we would go outside every couple of hours to check for the Northern Lights since it was a clear night. We saw a glimpse of them, but nothing truly photographable. To photograph the lights, there are lots of things you have to set up properly in order to actually see the vivid colors in a photo.