An IcelandAir Stopover: Visiting Iceland on a Budget
Planning a trip to Europe? Check out flight deals from Icelandair. You just might find lower airfare AND a couple day stopover in the gorgeous country of Iceland! When my husband and I were researching our flights between France and the East Coast this summer, we found summer flights to be extremely expensive. I set a reminder on Expedia to keep sending me the best fares, but the rates never dropped. Then we remembered a friend told us about Icelandair stopovers. They let you stop in Iceland for up to 7 nights at no additional airfare – and often their rates are the cheapest.
We found a flight for $900 less for the two of us including a 4-day stopover in Iceland. I wish we had stayed longer than 4 days, but this very well might become an annual tradition. It was really healing for us to spend 4 days in a neutral location unplugged from electronics after spending 6 busy weeks in the US before diving back into ministry in France.
A few people told us that Iceland was very expensive, but overall we didn’t find this to be true. We regularly get “sticker shock” when we cross over into Switzerland, but prices were nowhere near Swiss prices. It’s very possible to vacation in Iceland on a budget!
We ate breakfasts at the hotel, picnic lunches and dinners “out” (which one night was a Quizno’s sandwich eaten by a waterfall). In the countryside, a sandwich from a fast food restaurant or bakery runs about $7-8 per person, though David and I shared the $9-10 larger sandwich and were quite full. For sit-down restaurants, we followed our Lonely Planet guide’s recommendations for mid-level restaurants, which meant the prices ranged from about $10-$30 per entree. We were quite happy with the selection of entrees in the $10-$15 range.
Icelandic Foods to Try:
- Pecan pastries
- Whole grain rolls
- Skyr (yogurt-like amazingness)
- Fish stew
- Hot dogs with fried onions
- Geothermally baked breads
There were other specialties that we didn’t try, like lamb, horse and fermented shark. I would have tried lamb if the price was right, but horses? No. They are my friends. And the Greenland Sharks are endangered, yet they’re still hunted for and consumed primarily by tourists. Greenland Sharks are pretty fascinating. They live to be 200 years old and many of them travel into Quebec each year via the Saint Laurence. Personally, I’d rather respect this creature by letting it live a long and peaceful life in those arctic waters.
Cheap Foods Found at the Grocery Store:
- SKYR! (Icelandic yogurt – but it tastes more like fromage blanc)
- Bottled fruit smoothies
- Starbucks Double Shots (these are like gold, because they’re so hard to find in France)
They also had pre-packaged salads and sandwiches, but since I have food allergies and don’t read icelandic, I didn’t buy any.
Our car rental was the most expensive rental we’ve gotten anywhere in the world, but it was peak season and we only booked a month or two in advance. In the off season it’s much cheaper – as low as $25 a day. Gas prices were about $6-$6.50 a gallon, which is only a little more than the $5.50 per gallon we spend in France. It adds up if you want to cover some ground during your trip, but other than a few bridges there aren’t many tolls in Iceland. The most expensive bridge we went on cost maybe $8 each way. The tolls are the killer in mainland Europe. It can cost us as much as $90 to drive 2 hours in France! Compared to tour bus rates though, $90 a day isn’t bad for two travelers. Most of the bus tours we looked at started at $80 per person. Plus you get to stop and see spots you wouldn’t otherwise see if you rent a car. One thing to note: if you use a Visa card, you should be covered for insurance. They tried to tell us that it didn’t cover damage caused by wind or ash storms. We asked the hotel manager about this later, and he said that this was a much bigger issue right after Eyjafjalla erupted, but it’s not really an issue anymore. It’s just a way for the car insurance companies to get some extra cash out of you.
Pumping Gas in Iceland:
In order to pay at the pump, you need a true chip-and-pin debit card which is virtually unavailable in the US. Chip credit cards are available, and even if your card has a pin, it likely is only for cash advances and requires a signature still. Don’t worry, you can still pay, you just have to get a pre-paid card inside the gas station.
Car vs. SUV
If you plan to drive up any mountains, into the highlands or parts of the Westfjords, you may consider renting a 4×4 vehicle. Regular rentals are not allowed on roads designated as “f” roads. There will be a sign at the beginning of a road if it is an f road.
What To Do While in Iceland
In just 4 days, we did all these stops based out of Hvgerdi, staying at the Hotel Hlid. The hotel was absolutely amazing. The owners were so nice and accommodating. Breakfast included freshly baked Scandinavian bread/rolls every morning with a selection of jams, fresh fruit, hard boiled eggs (from their own chickens), deli meats and cheeses, and even skyr parfaits. Oh boy. So amazing.
If you only have a few days in Iceland, these are some great day trips from the Reykjavik area. Just an FYI: Iceland is big. A loop all the way around the ring road take 18 hours, and most travel guides recommend at least 3-4 weeks for that trip. There’s so much to see along the way. We’re still kicking ourselves for not finding this natural bridge in Southwest Iceland, and not stopping to take a picture of a mountain reflected in a glass-like lake.
Day 1: Keflavik Airport to Hveragerdi/Selfoss to Geysir Hot Springs and Gulfoss Waterfall
After arriving from our flight, we were able to get some breakfast and take a nap at our hotel before heading out.
1. Geysir Hot Spring Area
Strokker Geyser was pretty incredible, erupting every few minutes and reaching heights of 80-100 feet.
The English word for Geyser is actually derived from the Icelandic name of the Geysir in this region.
2. Gulfoss Waterfall
And of course, there would be a rainbow over this already gorgeous sight.
If you have time and stay in Hveragerdi or Selfoss, you could do the hot springs hike in Hveragerdi easily the same day (described further)
Day 2: Hveragerdi Hot Springs to Hjálparfoss to Haifoss
1. Hveragerdi Hot Springs
Just about a mile outside of Hveragerdi, the trailhead for the hot springs begins. The path is well-worn and the terrain is smooth, though it does get steep at times. Skip the horse-guided trails for this one. We followed a tour group “on horseback,” but they had to walk their horses through the steepest parts and then hitch the horses way before they arrived at the stream. Plus they attracted tons of flies and gnats. Eww.
It passes gorgeous waterfalls like this one.
And quite literally boiling pools like this.
The sheep don’t seem to be phased.
With amazing flora like these.
And crazy looking water like this at the source. Don’t touch! It’s hot.
The hot springs feed into a cold stream, creating warm water further downstream.
But, since I was 12 weeks pregnant, I could only stand in the water for a few minutes. Still an incredible experience, but I guess that means we have to go back another time to soak in the stream…
Next, we carried on to Hjálparfoss on the way to Haifoss. We’ve heard that on warm days people swim in this pool. It wasn’t a warm day.
Then we braved the potentially “f” roads to see Haifoss waterfall. We did not see any signs saying that the road there was an f-road, but it sure felt like it. Our Chevy Volt rental somehow made it up with David’s mad driving skills. Looks flat right? Yeah, I didn’t get pictures of the actual road. I was paying too much attention to not violating our rental agreement with any visible scrapes to the undercarriage.
Haifoss is the second tallest waterfall in Iceland, and it’s quite majestic. It’s worth the drive, or if don’t trust your driving skills, you could hike from the hostel at the base of the mountain. The hostel was really cute and had a nice bathroom. They also sold handmade wool products and baked goods. They only take cash though, so come prepared – they do have a small service fee to use the bathrooms.
Southwest to Southeast Iceland
Day 3: Seljalandsfoss to Skogafoss to Vik with views of Eyjafjallajokull volcano
If you didn’t figure it out yet, foss means waterfall.
You can actually walk inside this waterfall and look up at the falls.
Or you can just enjoy the scenic views on the very short hiking path.
Cross to the other side of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, and you’ll find the amazing Skogafoss waterfall.
Look familiar? It was a filming location for the Secret Life of Walter Mitty…but it was posing as being in the Himalayas in the film.
We had a hard time leaving this spot. I took a nap…David took pictures. We at a lazy lunch under the “warm” Icelandic summer sun.
We were crazy and kept going on to Jökulsárlón, another 2 hours away. I’m glad we did it, but it made for a long 4 hour trek back.
Hours of open road in front of us.
Past ash and lava fields.
Through about 2 hours of similar landscapes to this, with no bathroom in sight, FYI. Plan to use the bathroom somewhere in Vik or wait til Jökulsárlón.
But, who can complain when you come across sights like these?
Especially when you see crazy glacier fields like this.
David wished we’d rented one of these to explore the highlands.
Then finally, we reached our destination.
The majestic Jökulsárlón.
Where icebergs break off the glacier and float to sea.
It was definitely worth the trip!
I saw some crazy dude in flip flops wade into the water. He asked me how much money I’d give him if he jumped all the way in.
I preferred that everyone stay warm and dry.
Over and over again on this trip I said “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Including puffins and sea lions, though they kept bobbing up and down through rough waters, so I didn’t get a photo.
Be sure to check out the black sandy beaches on the other side of the bridge. Definitely no sunbathers on this beach.
We ate dinner in Vik on the way home at the Strondin Bistro, which came in recommended from Lonely Planet. I had a very filling chicken & sundried tomato salad and David got the fish stew. The restaurant has great views of the black sand beaches with rock formations further out in the ocean. We ate pretty late and saw a few groups of Icelanders go out to see the sunset on the shore – all bundled up in wool hats and winter jackets of course.
Day 4: Eldborg to Snæfellsjökull to Stykkishólmur
As if the previous day hadn’t been enough, we set out to Stykkisholmur, “only” 2 and a half hours away from our hotel.
The problem is that there’s just so much to do and see on the way, that it’s impossible not to stop and sit in awe of each wonder.
Like this volcano. Quintessential, isn’t it? We noticed the lava fields first and wondered where the volcano was…but we didn’t have to wonder for too long.
We ate our lunch perched on the edge of this volcanic crater.
Then carried on toward our destination.
The Snæfellsjökull was where Jules Verne set “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”
Back when the volcano erupted (estimated at the first couple centuries A.D.), it blew the pointed top of the mountain apart, leaving jagged spires. The cavity is now filled with solid ice.
Solidified lava runs off the mountain until it meets the ocean, forming cliffs like these.
I just wish I had dressed warmer for this part of the trip.
Temperatures were in the 40’s with wind coming across glaciers and arctic waters.
But the views made it worth braving the cold.
From there we continued on toward Stykkishólmur where we planned to eat dinner.
There was no rush to get anywhere with 20 hours of daylight in August. Do drive slowly through this section – there are lots of birds nesting here that don’t pay attention to cars. Sadly, many of them get hit here.
Iceland, you are awesome for these amazing colors.
We had burgers at the classy Plassid restaurant in Stykkishólmur. Their hollandaise sauce was to-die for and they had Einstock beer on tap.
Then we explored town a bit, though again, I wished I was wearing 2x as many layers.
How to Pack for Iceland in Summer (July or August)
When we stepped off the plane in Iceland, we looked around for the Sixt rental agency we had booked our car hire through. The shuttle driver told us it was a short drive away, and that we’d want to dig out our jackets from our bags before leaving the airport. Since it had been 90 degrees in Newark, our jackets were pretty well buried, so we ignored his advice. It was freezing though. Everyone at the rental agency was dressed in winter coats and wool hats – and this was on July 30th. Winter garb was very commonly worn by icelanders, and I just wish I had brought a winter jacket, cute wool sweater and wool hat. Think of temperatures of coastal New England in November to help you plan what to pack. I had packed a light (softshell) jacket and light gloves and hat, but next time I’ll remember a thicker coat and lots of wool – especially a scarf. I think I just might look a little harder for an icelandic wool scarf next time. The first time I saw one I couldn’t translate the currency in my mind since the numbers easily climb into the thousands. I opted not to buy it, though it would be really fun to have one of those brightly colored knit icelandic scarves…and they’d make great gifts too! Next time…
Other Helpful Info:
Generally you can find a bathroom anywhere you would in the U.S. – places that serve food, gas stations and tourist destinations. Sometimes they ask for non-customers to pay to use the restrooms, so it’s a good idea to get out a few kroners for this. (We take cash out from the ATM while traveling in foreign countries vs. going to currency exchange places). I always found the bathrooms to supply soap and toilet paper, but it doesn’t hurt to carry those around with you since they might occasionally run out. In France on the other hand, I never expect either of those things. Many restrooms here don’t even have a spot to hang toilet paper…and we won’t even talk about the prevalence of squatty potties in France. Not cool for pregnant women!
If you need to store luggage instead of bringing it everywhere with you, you can arrange luggage storage at the Keflavik airport next to Sixt and Geysir just outside of the airport terminal.
You will love Iceland if:
- You love road tripping through gorgeous scenery
- You enjoy outdoorsy activities (in small or large quantities)
- You don’t mind the cold (November temperatures in August)
- You like Ikea (lots of stores feel like Ikea)
You might not like Iceland if:
- You prefer the beach…where you can actually swim or sunbathe. Not much of that in Iceland.
- You like to bar hop (alcohol is expensive)
- You like to stay in one place your whole vacation
- You aren’t comfortable renting a car and driving in a foreign country