The One with Fire and Ice
…and they’re not joking about that tag line. I rented a car on the last leg of my Iceland trip. On our drive from Vik to Reykjavik, we experienced sun, hail, rain, wind, everything within an hour! Which made driving through single-lane bridges, mountains, and big snowstorms quite challenging. I’m happy to report this was the only “hiccup” on this trip and for that I’m grateful.
On my first visit to Iceland, I went right after I moved back to NYC from Germany. Apparently, I couldn’t stay away from Europe for very long. I once bought a coffee table book called “Make the most of your time on earth,” which I highly recommend. In this book, one of the things they recommended was snorkeling with Orcas (killer whales) in Norway. If you’ve been following along on my journey, you know how much I love the ocean! If it weren’t for my love of writing, I would have gone to school for marine biology. So naturally, I put this as a top priority on my bucket list. I’ll do a separate post on Norway but when I knew I was traveling to Scandinavia again, the first time was Sweden, I immediately thought of Iceland. It’s been a dream destination of mine for quite some time.
I remember hearing through the grapevine that Iceland Air was offering free layover stops, in Iceland, if you were flying to a neighboring European country. I believe they still have this deal so if you’re interested definitely check it. Of course, you know I am the cheap flight guru and I found a great deal through Wow Air, $250 round trip from NYC. However, I decided to keep my original plan. So, I spent two days in Iceland, then flew to Norway for three days, then came back to Iceland for another 3 days. It wouldn’t be a vacation for me unless I took an obscene amount of flights to a remote, hard to reach island halfway across the world.
If you’re thinking of planning a trip, you’ve probably heard by now that Iceland isn’t the cheapest place to travel to. The US dollar doesn’t stretch as far when converted to the Icelandic króna. Of course, it’s still possible to visit this beautiful country on a budget. Here are some of my tips and recommendations. In addition, to everything, you may need to know about beautiful Iceland.
When to Go
The most popular time to visit Iceland is during the summer months from May to September. The sunlight is almost 24/7 as Iceland experiences the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere. I went in January during the winter months, from November to April, where I experienced significantly less sunlight. It was snowy and much colder in the winter months, but I personally don’t mind the cold. When packing, definitely bring snow appropriate attire. The summer months are warmer ranging around the mid-50s, so layers and rain gear are a MUST.
If you’re trying to catch the Northern Lights, the best time to go is during the winter months, however, you need complete visibility to see them—AKA no clouds. Most guides recommend you stay at least two weeks to see them. The bests months to see them are in September or March/April (when cloud visibility is significantly less). Gray Line Bus Tours offers a Northern Light tour that allows you the opportunity to re-book if you don’t see them the night of your scheduled tour. My best advice would be to double-check your tour company’s cancellation policy before you commit. There’s plenty of apps and local websites that track and estimate the cloud percentage/chance of light visibility, so do some research and always ask the locals!
Lastly, bringing the proper camera gear is crucial for capturing the Northern Lights. You won’t be able to capture a good picture on an iPhone so a DSLR camera is recommended. My best advice would be to get as far away from the city as you can. You need complete darkness with minimal light pollution. I’d also recommend bringing a tripod, although some tours provide them, and, most importantly, a shutter release for steady pictures. To capture the lights you’ll need to adjust your camera settings manually. Your ISO should be set to 800+ and your aperture should be set to the widest setting, between f/2.8 and f/5.6 with a shutter speed between 15-30 seconds.
Getting There and Getting Around
As a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, your only option to getting to Iceland is to fly. As I mentioned before, Icelandic Air runs a deal that allows you to book a long layover in Iceland at no additional cost. This a great option to explore the main city of Reykjavik and get a quick feel of this beautiful country. Although I’d highly recommend staying for a while and checking out the rest of the country. I ended up flying with Wow Air who offers great deals to Iceland.
From the airport, we used the Gray Line bus from the airport to our hotel. We then booked our tour for the next two days through Gray Line buses. The first day we did the Golden Circle Express tour and the following day we took their bus to the Blue Lagoon. Tours are a great way to get around if you don’t want to drive yourself. You can even find tours that schedule everything for you and include your own private driver.
Of course, if you’re looking to stretch your dollar, you could always rent a car. We did this on our second leg of the trip when we came back to Iceland. I booked through Enterprise car rentals. Our car was fine and we drove during winter and although we had some crazy weather, we had no problems. I choose Enterprise because you don’t have to put a deposit down, which is not the norm for renting cars in foreign countries. We used Kayak to book, very simple. At the end of the day, my best advice would be to choose the cheapest options with the best reviews.
Whether traveling alone or just looking for a great budget option? Try staying at a hostel! Hostels are my go-to when visiting expensive cities. I stayed at the Reykjavik City HI Hostel just a few minutes away from the downtown area. I stayed in a four-person mixed dorm, which I thought was perfect. The hostel was conveniently located in front of a public bus stop that you could take to get downtown, which was fairly easy to navigate. The staff was helpful, the rooms were clean, and the common room and breakfast buffet were lovely. So I’d highly recommend this location. They even have a campsite in the back if you really want to rough it.
For my second portion of the trip, we rented a car from Reykjavik and drove down to Vik to see the black sand beaches. It’s a great hop-off point on the southern coast to go see the glaciers, the lagoon, and the beach. Of course, you could always do a day tour from Reykjavik as it’s only a few hours away. Vik is a popular destination and can get pricey during peak times. Even in Winter, a lot of accommodations were booked up and we ended up staying at the Puffin Hostel. Basic accommodations, great service, and great breakfast. We stayed in a two-person private room which was lovely.
What to See
Iceland is a beautiful country with vast landscapes that offer everything from stunning waterfalls to glaciers to volcanoes. Hence the popular coined term, “Land of fire and ice.” As I mentioned, I started my trip from Reykjavik. On our first day, we took the Golden Circle Gray Lines Express Tour. However, you can always rent a car and drive this yourself as well.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle tour we did consisted of three attractions: Thingvellir National Park, The Geysir, and the Gullfoss waterfall. The Thingvellir National Park sits in a rift valley caused by the separation of 2 tectonic plates, with rocky cliffs and fissures like the huge Almannagjá fault. The landscapes are absolutely stunning! If you’re really brave you can even snorkel the Silfa, between the two tectonic plates. Drysuit anyone?
The Blue Lagoon
The next day we took another bus over to the infamous Blue Lagoon. The day we went to the Lagoon, it had been raining on and off, however, we didn’t mind since we were already in the water. The Blue Lagoon is a bit on the pricey side. There are tons of other spas and hot springs in the area if you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option. To justify the bigger price tag, I decided to spend the entire day there to really get my moneys worth. This would be a great option in combination with the golden circle for a quick day or layover in Iceland. My number one tip would be to buy tickets in advance to get your desired entry time before it’s all booked up.
Vik, Reynisfjara Beach
Formed from volcanic rock, the black sand beach offers miles of dramatic coastlines as far as the eye can see. From staggering columns to volcanic sea caves, this beach is an adventure travelers’ dream. In the summertime, you may even be able to spot a puffin or two. I went during the winter, so no puffins and definitely no sun. It actually snowed. The first time I can say I’ve been to the beach while it’s snowing. Something to keep in mind, the water at this beach can be deceiving and quite rough. In the week I was in Iceland, someone had passed away because they got too close to the water and unfortunately couldn’t recover. Look for signs regarding safety and always be respectful of mother nature.
Jökulsárlón & Diamond Beach
Also known as the Glacier Lagoon, Jökulsárlón is probably one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen. I could have sat there for hours listening to the sounds of glass breaking as one glacier collides with another. On the other side of the bridge, after the melting icebergs exit into the ocean, you’ll find remnants of shattered ice scattered all over this shoreline at diamond beach. Another notable mention, which comes highly recommended from friends, is the boat ride onto the lagoon. There you can get an up-close and personal view of the lagoon and, if you’re lucky, you may even be able to spot a seal or two.
Although home to several glaciers, the Vatnajökull glacier is not only the biggest glacier in Iceland, it’s the biggest in the world. From ice caves to ice hikes, this glacier offers everything. I did a tour with Glacier Guides and had the best time! I did the half-day glacier hike combined with an ice cave tour. You must go with a guide to hike the glacier as it’s extremely dangerous to go on your own. You can even do a full seven-hour extreme ice climb. I didn’t do this here but I did in Alaska and it’s a lot of fun. In the summertime, I’d also recommend a stop to the Fjaorargljufur Canyons for a great “non-ice” hike and stunning dramatic landscapes.
Some of the best I’ve ever seen, Iceland is brimming with waterfalls as far as the eye can see. As I mentioned earlier, in the golden circle you can find the Gullfoss waterfall. The most famous one would be the Skógafoss waterfall. In the summer, when the light reflects onto the fall it creates rainbows. You can even walk behind the waterfall and climb up to the top. Other notable waterfalls would include the Seljalandsfoss, Svartifoss, and Goðafoss.
Where to Eat
Although Iceland is not the cheapest country in the world it’s not difficult to find a decently priced meal. One of my favorite budget bites is the Icelandic hot dog, at the famous chain Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. It doesn’t taste quite the same as the American hotdog, I actually think it’s better, and you can customize and choose your toppings. My second favorite meal was a Nordic classic, Icelandic Fish and Chips. Freshly caught fish with a flakey buttery crust and deep-fried potatoes, yummy! Of course, if you do plan on indulging a bit, definitely check out the Grillmarket, try the trio of Reindeer. I had my first taste of Reindeer in Sweden and it’s delicious. It tastes like a cross between venison and veal, in my opinion. Highly recommend!
Any other suggestions or questions? Drop a comment below! Hope you enjoy Iceland as much as I did!