Iceland has breathtaking views strewn across the entire island. The residents are laid-back and welcoming, and it’s easy to be a tourist there. Also, Iceland is expensive–fucking expensive. But there are ways to maximize your Icelandic experience while minimizing the impact on your wallet. Let me tell you how I did it, and what I would have done differently, if I knew then what I know now.
Before I went:
My trip to Iceland began when I came across a great deal on nonstop flights to Reykjavik through WowAir. ( As of 2019, this airline is sadly no more ) The flights were for mid-August which is between Iceland’s summer and winter tourist seasons. Going during this shoulder season meant lower prices and lesser crowds.
After booking my flight, the next step was lodging. One of the most important decisions to make when you’re traveling. I spent a few weeks looking up hotel and Airbnb options, but the more I looked the more I realized just how expensive lodging in Iceland is. It was looking like somewhere around $200 USD a night for a 2 1/2 to 3 star hotel. That would have put me at $1400 USD, and that’s before the car rental.
So I did some digging. That’s when I came upon the miracle that is Happy Campers. Happy Campers converts commercial vans into camper vans, and they’re awesome. They have a ton of different designs to fit however many people you have. The vans come with cooking gear, bedding, a mini fridge, WiFi, heating, and every add-on you could want. I went with the smallest option since I was traveling light. For less than staying in a sub-par room every night, I got lodging and a high clearance vehicle for the entire trip. From the time they picked me up at the airport, to seeing me back to the terminal, they were above and beyond helpful. The staff and product both rule. Even if you’re not planning a trip, take a look at their website just for fun. They do great work.
*Quick note about the campgrounds in Iceland. It is illegal to park your vehicle overnight anywhere besides a campground. Luckily, campgrounds in Iceland only cost about $25 USD. You generally get shower facilities, communal cooking areas, and a wicked view. I never reserved a spot in advance the entire trip, and it was never a problem.
Day 1: Landing in Iceland and Exploring Reykjavik
Once I landed in Keflavik, a representative from Happy Campers was there to pick me up and shuttle me to their location. They gave me great advice on the road, gave me a tour of the van, helped me plan my trip based on what I was wanting to see, and double-checked that I was all set before they sent me off!
*Insider tip: Get the gravel insurance.
While filling out the paperwork at Happy Campers, I spent a full 120 seconds shifting from foot to foot trying to decide if I should pick up the $17.33 USD/day gravel insurance. Three days later, I spent the rest of the trip wishing I had.
If you go outside the cities, there is gravel literally everywhere! A vehicle parked on a scenic view took off in front of us while we were driving and chucked a piece of gravel that chipped our windshield. You can be as careful as you want, but gravel happens.
$121 < $375
Reykjavik: Free parking!
When looking up Reykjavik online, one immediately runs across photos of Hallgrimskirkja. The beautiful cathedral towers over the city in a feat of impressive Icelandic design. This was definitely one of my favorite places in Reykjavik. Coincidentally, it also has free parking all day long and downtown is just two blocks away.
Take some time and walk around the downtown. The shops are mostly gift shops and boutiques. But there is a local art scene that subtly permeates through, and you can catch some great creativity.
After a couple hours in Reykjavik, I drove to my Airbnb just north of the town. Jet-lag is a bitch, and I knew I shouldn’t be driving in a foreign country on a sleep deprived brain. I recommend you do this too. Tourism is a heavy income revenue in Iceland, and the Airbnb hosts do it right. It was cozy, well-curated, and well priced. While my sleep was less than stellar, I cannot blame the room I got.
*Insider tip: To save $ avoid eating out, and check out the local grocery stores instead.
Don’t go to Iceland as a foodie. There’s nothing for you there.
If it’s in Iceland, it’s pricey. I sustained on a lot of PB&J and egg sandwiches. Another shout out to Happy Campers, they have a pantry where they keep leftover groceries. Hit it up. Seriously.
This might be my biggest regret of the trip. Your restaurant options are novelty American food or Fish and Chips shops. Frankly, it’s not very impressive.
Spend your food money on inexpensive groceries, and if you must try the local food, get a pastry from a bakery or local coffee shop.
Day 2: The Blue Lagoon
I started out my second day in Iceland with a visit to The Blue Lagoon. I booked an early morning slot months in advance on their website, and boy, am I glad that I did! I slipped right through check-in and by the time I left at 10:30 AM, the tourists were lined up by the dozens.
The Blue Lagoon was just as beautiful in reality as it looks in pictures. I was absolutely blown away by the place. Of all the tourist hot spots, this is a must see.
*Insider tip: If you want to see the Blue Lagoon, book your time slot in advance on their website BlueLagoon.com. Choose the earliest time to avoid the majority of the crowds.
Day 3: Diamond Beach and Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon.
Diamond Beach and Glacier Lagoon are right across the road from each other. You need to see them both.
Jokulsarlon is serenity incarnate. A waterway carries glacier pieces softly into the Atlantic. The blues are indescribable. The biting cold wind is a fitting companion and sets the stage for a surreal, meditative scene. There are fellow onlookers littering the beach, but somehow, even that can’t keep you from being moved.
Diamond Beach is the juxtaposition. The glacier pieces are caught and thrashed in the tides and chunks break off and wash up on the black sand. Here, the ocean air doesn’t carry the same bitter wind. It feels subdued. If Jokulsarlon is serenity, Diamond Beach is melancholy.
Of all the towns I came across, Vik was my favorite. I drove through it on my way to the Black Sand Beach, and backtracked just to stay the night in it. On top of being a few minutes from the beach Reynisfjara, it’s close to the waterfalls Skogafoss and Helgafoss. Make sure to check out the little path coming from behind the church that leads to one of my favorite views in Iceland.
Day 4: Helgafoss, Skogafoss, and that beach from Game Of Thrones
I spent the day exploring Helgafoss, Skogafoss, and Reynisfjara beach. The unfortunate reality of these places is that, while they are beautiful, they are also overrun with tourists. Sword fights with selfie sticks and big smiles wrapped in ponchos were far too distracting to take in the grandeur of the scene.
But I couldn’t just walk away. So I patiently waited for my turn, and I was able to get a shot or two.
Day 5: The long rode to Akureyri.
Ring Road is a highway that circles the island. From Vik to Akureyri is the longest leg of the trip. It’s an 8 hour drive that took me 13 because I encountered some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen.
The further I drove from the tourist hot spots, the more breathtaking the scenery became. The popular sights are fine to see. But the essence of Iceland flows through it’s landscape. Iceland is perfect symbolism portraying how much the world has to offer outside of it’s beaten paths.
Once I passed Jokulsarlon, Iceland’s raw and natural beauty unfolded around each curve in the road; small seaside villages, ice blue bays, remote black sand beaches with ocean overlooks that made me squeal in delight (Yes, I actually squealed in delight.), waterfalls that took my breath away, and sweeping vistas through glacial carved valleys. I would have missed out on all of these sights if I had just taken a tour.
I didn’t actually make it to Akureyri that night as I had planned. Partly due to how many times I had stopped, and then an unforeseen tunnel closure forced me to call it a night. Around midnight, I stumbled onto a campground near the tunnel.
Day 6: Akureyri at last!
The next morning, I was eager to make it to the the second largest city in Iceland. Also, I was desperately in need of charging up my camera and some fresh brewed coffee.
The drive into town follows a two lane road that winds it’s way down the mountain and the town comes into view set against a back drop of sparkling water. It’s beautiful.
I arrived before the campground opened, so I made my way into town to seek out some outlets and caffeine. That’s when I stumbled upon Kafe llmur. This two story cafe set on a hillside was everything I had been hoping for. The staff was friendly. The Swiss Mocha was incredible. And with free drip coffee refills to boot! Wifi was fast and complimentary. And, last but certainly not least, they had an 11 A.M. brunch buffet that blew my mind! The food selection was good, everything tasted fresh, and they had some of the most delicious desserts that I have ever tasted.
If you’re itching for some city life on your trip, I recommend holding out to Akureyi. The city is compact and modern and carries a lively vibe.
*Insider tip: Get the Swiss Mocha and the Saturday brunch at Kafe Llmur in Akureyri. It is worth every penny!
Day 7: Sunset in Akranes
Because this was my last full day in Iceland. I wanted to be close to Keflavik airport, but I didn’t want to spend the night in Reykavik. On a whim, I decided to check out Akranes. Akranes is a northern coastal town with not much to show for it on Google. But as luck would have it, the campground sits right next to the beach! And just a five minute walk brings you to towering ocean side cliffs. It’s a sleepy town with a remarkable view. And it was the perfect place for the last day on my trip.
I’m so glad I visited Iceland, and I genuinely loved my time there. But I wish I would have done a few things differently. So, please, learn from my mistakes:
First, hit the ground running. The cities don’t have much to offer. Start driving the island and give yourself ample time to wander and roam. I backtracked after Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach when I should have just spent the night north of Glacier lagoon. Or I should have split the drive to Akranes into two days. For as many spots that I stopped for a photo, there are at least two that I passed up due to a time crunch.
All because I was trying to trying make up for lost time in the cities.
And lastly, just get the gravel insurance. That one still hurts…
1: Gas station coffee is quite good. If you bring your own thermos you can get three times the amount for the same price.
2: Bring as much food with you as you can. Because it’s gonna cost around 2-3 times as much in Iceland.
3: If photos are what you’re after, skip the tourist spots. If you must hit a tourist attraction, get up before the crowds.
4. Plans most of your trip to be spent from Jokulsarlon on. Especially if you’re a photographer.
5. Pretty well all the bridges are one way. So pay attention coming up on them, and be polite.
6. If you see a rock on the side of the road charging towards you as you’re driving, it’s a sheep. They’re everywhere, and they’re idiots. Watch out.