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Hahaha just kidding. Iceland is not a budget destination, so just put that out of your head now. But… there are ways around the high price tag if you’re flexible and have a sense of adventure!
It’s ironic, you can fly on WOW air from the States for $99 each way, but you’ll pay $150/night for a private room at the City Hostel. Groceries and restaurants are half again, if not double, what you’d pay in the States, and around Reykjavik’s center it’s hard to find even shared houses on Airbnb for less than $100/night. Camping averages around $10/person/night and city campgrounds generally offer toilets, showers, and a covered spot to cook, but no cooking facilities other than a sink. The Reykjavik City Campground is nearly $18/person(!!), but does have great bathrooms, showers, common areas, full kitchens, and wifi, and enough grounds for probably a thousand people. They advertise space for 650, but we think that was for tents. 650 tents. You can imagine what that was like.
We found a reasonable rental car at $70/day, but cars can easily cost twice that, and campervans are triple+. Car rentals are so notoriously expensive in Iceland that oftentimes it’s cheaper for mainland Europeans to ship their vehicles over on a weeklong ferry than it is to rent while they’re in Iceland. Think about that, think about shipping your car to Hawaii for vacation. Granted, they’re probably staying a few weeks if not months, but still. It’s expensive. We wanted to keep our lodging and car budget around $100/day so we rented the cheapest car possible and pitched a tent every night but one on our road trip around the island.
Since we flew standby we couldn’t reserve anything in advance so that really cost us, finding last minute lodging. We can keep an eye on open seats on flights, so as soon as it looked like we were a shoe-in, I booked three nights on Airbnb in a shared house in Reykjavik. We would’ve been fine to stay just two nights in the city, but jetlag is catching up to us in our old age and that red-eye from JFK-KEF is just terrible. It leaves just after 9:00p (ours was delayed until nearly 11:00p) and gets into Keflavik at 7:00a, but the flight itself is less than five hours. And they have a meal service. Not that I’m complaining about any of that, but it makes for a really, really short night. By the time we landed both of us had only slept about five hours in the last 48.
Keflavik airport (Iceland’s main airport) is 50km from downtown Reykjavik and therefore requires a city bus, FlyBus, or taxi to get into the city center if you’re not renting a car directly from the airport. There are signs everywhere directing you to the luxurious FlyBus (free wifi and USB ports at every seat!) and we got two tickets for $45.57 total. The FlyBus can either take you to the central bus station (BSI), or to a few choice hotels. Our Airbnb was near the Grand Hotel so we paid extra to get dropped off 400m from our place (it’s 2.9km from the BSI).
I was in Iceland around the same time six years ago and one does not soon forget how ghastly expensive a place is. Why, I remember in 2009 in Interlaken, Switzerland my mother, sister, and I paid $41 USD for three ‘value’ meals at McDonald’s. WHAT. One does not also soon forget there are no McDonald’s in Iceland (apparently they pulled out after the 2008 financial crash), so we brought plenty of our own food from home. Basically we cleaned out our backpacking pantry. Think Ramen, tuna, and oatmeal. Lots and lots of oatmeal. I thank ourselves every day that we are not foodies. We like good food to be sure, but ultimately food does just serve a purpose and we are happy to look at it as a necessity instead of a luxury. That said, the thing we missed most in Iceland was beef. Big ol’ fatty Carrington, North Dakota ribeyes. But with fast food burgers at $15 apiece, we wouldn’t dream of going out for steak, so we stocked up on essentials as soon as we woke from our jetlag nap. We grill out almost every night at home and I try to stay away from carbs, especially wheat, but that gets really tough when traveling, and expensive. Bónus and Krónan are Iceland’s cheapest and seemingly most widespread grocery stores, and while Krónan is slightly more expensive they do offer fresh-baked bread and rotisserie chickens. For the record ‘roto birds’ as Greg likes to call them, are over $12 in Iceland, vs $2.50 if you get them half price at Walmart. Still, not bad for two meals for two people when you think about those $15 burgers.
When we weren’t hiking we shared a $3 tub of Skyr (Icelandic super-yogurt) with muesli or granola every morning and always had enough left over for a snack later. Skyr is thick and delicious and packed with protein; I miss it already. For lunches we ate everything bagels with cream cheese and mystery meats, or sesame crackers with cream cheese and pepperoni, and lots and lots of Bugles, Doritos, and Pringles. Look, they’re just better when you’re abroad, especially the Bugles. They tasted like Long John Silver’s crumbs, only not as greasy or depressing.
We bought bananas and apples to eat with individual peanut butter packs from the pantry, and caramel Digestives to keep Gregory happy. For dinners in Reykjavik we bought a bag of pasta, ½ kilo of ground pork, and a jar of spaghetti sauce that lasted us three meals, and on our last night in town we splurged and got two small frozen pizzas. We made another batch of pasta before we left for our road trip and ate it cold for three days on the road. With highs in the mid-50s and lows in the mid-40s we weren’t too worried about keeping anything refrigerated. The cream cheese got a little runny after a few days, but next time we just bought a smaller tub and it was fine.
Our friends Chris & Jo got us our travel plate and I took plastic cutlery from the plane. We use it as a plate but it’s actually a foldable bowl. Even better. Thanks C & J! We took all our backpacking gear in hopes of getting some hut beds for the 6-day Laugavegur trail but none ever came available while we were in Reykjavik, so we rented a car for 13 days with no plans whatsoever but to head north. Last time I was in Iceland we saw the Golden Circle, all the major sites between Rekjavik and Vik, as well as the Blue Lagoon, and all were great but I wanted to see things I hadn’t seen before and Greg was happy to oblige on his first trip. Our backpacking pantry included some dehydrated meals but we wanted to save them in case of the huts, and while we bought a canister of fuel in Reykjavik, we had cold dinners every night, so we never even used it.
If you’re ever in Iceland, remember that Olís gas stations offer free wifi and free coffee, which is probably the best deal in the entire country. Of course we hit up every one we came across. When there wasn’t an Olís in our town we drank hot tea and instant coffee we brought from home. Now get this: There are no water-treatment plants in Iceland. All their drinking water comes straight out of the ground, off the glaciers, or from the rivers, and is delivered into buildings ice cold and delicious or geothermally piping hot and a bit sulfury. That water was so hot we never had to boil any for tea and coffee, we just took it straight from the tap. Another interesting tidbit: All of Iceland’s electricity is generated by the land- either from water, steam, or wind. But maybe the most interesting: They’re slowly becoming a cashless society. We took out just under $10 cash the whole time we were there, and that was to use coins in a washing machine, otherwise we put it all credit cards (which we paid off immediately as soon as all the charges came through). What a Warcken kind of country!
Things have definitely gotten more crowded since I was there in 2010, and not for the better. Easy access unfortunately means more idiots and when you can get to a new country for just $99 each way, there are going to be a LOT of idiots. Normally crowds don’t bother me because they’re there for a reason, but after seeing all the obnoxious line-cutting, toilet paper-dropping, rope-crossing morons at Jökulsárlón and Skógafoss I was ready to leave the south part of the island for good. My advice? Stick to the north, go in the off-season, or stay nocturnal (or all three). There’s no way Iceland can handle the influx of visitors it started receiving after the March 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. Parking lots I remembered as empty are now overflowing, and trails to major sites have become veritable multi-lane highways. Iceland seemingly doesn’t believe in switchbacks, so multiple trails straight up mountains are sure to create more erosion that the already fragile plants can’t handle. Campgrounds are crowded and over-used, even in the backcountry, and with specific instruction not to bury toilet paper, all along trails there are piles of used toilet paper that people have refused to pack out. Ever heard of drip-drying, phlegmwads? Greg is convinced the septic systems can’t handle the onslaught of all the hikers and I’m just sure giardia is on the horizon. So much for the cleanest drinking water on Earth. Iceland has a population of just 330,000 and we heard that if you combine all the Icelanders in history, they still wouldn’t number over a million, which is still far below the number of visitors annually. You can imagine the infrastructural headaches that creates.
Iceland is definitely not for everyone. With most major attractions requiring walking, if not hiking, to get to, it’s not great for the physically inactive. It’s expensive, and the weather is notoriously crappy and cold even in the height of summer, and the winters are dark and dreary. But………..
Everywhere you look in Iceland are verdant hillsides, thundering waterfalls, kaleidoscopic wildflowers, Farrah Fawcett-maned horses, fat woolly sheep, Others’-eyes-blue glaciers, ancient lava flows, active volcanoes, and hot springs. Did I mention puffins? It’s impossible to tire of its beauty, yet you find yourself bypassing “yet another 100 ft waterfall” or “just a glacial lagoon” on your way to bigger and better ones. The country is safe (as in, safest in the world even with all those volcanoes) and clean, and its people are some of the most beautiful and friendly we’ve ever encountered, not to mention honest and trustworthy. So honest and trustworthy in fact, a farmhouse to the southeast of Reykjavik was recently renovated and made into a supplemental prison. A farmhouse next to a major highway with no bars on the windows or (I’m assuming) locks on the doors. The inmates placed there are kindly asked not to leave until their sentence is up. Can. You. Imagine?! What a friggin’ country!
The Financial Breakdown
For 17 days we paid:
Lodging: $609.79 incl three nights Airbnb, 2 nights hostel, one farmstay.
Camping: $710.27 incl five nights in campgrounds, five nights in huts.
Gas: $169.85 at kr199.00/liter which is about $1.66/liter or $6.28/gallon. That’s US dollars, people.
Misc: $167.46 incl going out to eat twice, museum, guidebook, souvenir (just one), and luggage storage.
Transportation: $849.79 incl 7 days rental car, FlyBus to and from airport, bus to and from hostel to trailheads, and airfare to and from Iceland. Don’t balk at me, I’ve tried to talk everyone I know into going to work for an airline. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink champagne in first class.
Miles & Points
In addition to lifelong memories and endless joy, we earned:
Chase Ultimate Rewards points: 288
AmEx Membership Rewards points: 50,513 (minimum spend met)
Citi Thank You points: 564
Marriott Rewards points: 82,196 (minimum spend met)
Booking.com cash back: $42.00
Virgin America Elevate points: 308
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles: 1,050
post script: I turned Of Monsters and Men on the morning after we got home and immediately started crying for wanting to go back. Iceland is one of my most favorite places on Earth, and when the sun is shining I cannot imagine any place more beautiful.
Alright, it’s pretty good either way.
A little vid I put together:
5 thoughts on “Iceland on a Budget!”
What brand/model of tent is that?
It’s the Mountain Hardwear Skyledge 3 DP. We LOVE it, hands-down our favorite piece of gear.
Also, everything in this post of completely awesome, thank you.
Awww! Thanks! I do find my own work extremely entertaining so I’m glad to hear when someone else does too.