How to Make Money Blogging and Why Focussing on Fam Trips is Bad

This is another post for my Indonesian readers. If you’re not Indonesian, it might not be so relevant. 

Terjemahkan dengan tombol ini.

A few days ago I wrote a big rant about how familiarisation trips (fam trips)/media trips in Indonesia were a big deal and everyone seemed to want to be a part of it. It makes sense. You enjoy writing. You enjoy travelling. Some big company or government agency wants to give you a free trip so you can enjoy the two things you love doing anyway!

It all sounds great until you figure out that you can’t pay your bills with free trips. And that means if you’re focus is on getting free trips, you’ll never really travel to where you want. You’ll always be travelling to where they want. And what do you get from it? A lousy free trip and a lot of homework. So I wanted to discuss today why I think focussing on free trips is a bad idea and what alternatives there are.

Everyone loves free things. Free trips, free food and products. Bloggers get this stuff all the time. The problem is that you can become a slave to the corporations giving those free things and you lose a lot of the flexibility that blogging is supposed to give you. So while take free trips and accepting free products is OK, I wouldn’t recommend this being the focus of your blogging efforts. If you really want flexibility while blogging, you should look at how to make money. (In other words, don’t suck up to tourism Indonesia, go out on your own and find new ways to make money)

There are few ways to make money blogging, but most of them also tie in with a big social media profile and a lot of visitors to your blog. With this in mind, you need to work on your personal brand, building a big following and getting the attention of lots of people (more on this in another post)

Sponsored Posts

Sponsored posts have a bad name in the blogging world because it basically means brands are paying bloggers to advertise their product in an editorial way. It’s often an endorsement. It’s sometimes just about getting backlinks.

In the old days of SEO, companies used to pay bloggers a lot of money to buy backlinks on their blogs. Why? Because google uses links as a signal to ranking websites. The more links pointing to your website from someone else’s website, the higher your ranking. But because this system was being abused by brands buying links on people’s sites in order to boost their rankings, google cracked down a few years back (by tweaking the algorithm). Paid links on people’s blogs have almost stopped, except in Indonesia. Lots of brands in Indonesia still buy links on people’s blogs in the disguise of a sponsored post. I don’t know why they still do it here, but they do.

So if you’re comfortable with doing these sorts of posts for brands, you need to decide how much to charge. We have had some brands offering as little as Rp. 100.000 for a post. We would never accept this. Why? Because when you accept these low offers, you are telling the world that you are a low class blogger. If you accept Rp. 100.000, you will be known as a blogger willing to accept anything. It’s a bad image. And once you have this image, it’s very difficult to then start charging Rp. 1.000.000

So what should you charge? I recommend to people to start at between Rp. 1.500.000 & Rp. 2.000.000 and negotiate. Sure, most brands want posts for Rp. 100.000, but I’d much rather have 1 sponsored post on my blog for Rp. 2.000.000 than 20 sponsored posts on my blog for Rp. 100.000. And the brand gets a lot more benefit from me if I’m only putting 1 sponsored post on my blog every few months rather than lots of them.

My best advice is: Don’t undersell yourself. Don’t be tempted by small amounts of money. Value your blog and your work much higher and people will also value you at the same level.

Advertising

There are all sorts of different advertising options for blogs, but Google Adsense is the easiest to implement. You will be paid based on how many visitors your blog gets, what sort of visitors they are (rich/poor), the type of website you have. You need a lot of visitors on a travel blog to earn Rp. 1.000.000 per month with ads. But most of the top Indonesian travel bloggers will easily get Rp. 1.000.000 from google ads, but they have a lot of page views per month.

Affiliate Sales

Affiliate sales is basically the system of getting a commission when someone buys something through your site. There a lots of affiliate programs you can sign up to, but you’ll have to experiment to see which one is the best for you. Again, it’s difficult to make a lot of money on this, but it is possible to get a little bit of side income. You should aim for Rp. 1.000.000 per month on this, but everyone’s results vary. It’s tough to earn good money here. Many online shops in Indonesia offer affiliate programs — just google “affiliate Lazada” or the name of an online shop and you can find out more.

Sponsored Tweets and Instagram

This is a big one in Indonesia. When we first started our website, we were told to offer our sponsored tweet services for Rp. 150 per follower. Back in 2012/2013, this worked so well and we earned a bit of money from this. But today, the situation is different and sponsored tweets earn a lot less money. Still, a lot of people are earning between Rp. 100.000 and Rp. 1.000.000 per sponsored tweet (some a lot more than this). The trend nowadays is to buy a packet of 10 tweets and you give the company a bunch of free tweets as well.

Instagram is similar, but the problem is that buying 10 instagram posts is impractical. Most people charge a lot more for an instagram post than a tweet. Maybe double or 3x.

You need to work on boosting your social media profiles. It’s hard to do, but it’s worth putting effort into.

Freelance Writing

Now we move onto earning money outside blogging. Freelance writing can really earn you enough money to give up your full time job, especially if you combine it with the money you earn above. The problem is, getting paid freelance writing work in Indonesia requires you to have a high profile. This means you need to increase your following on social media, get a lot more views on your blog and start pitching your articles to editors of magazines and newspapers. If you’re successful, it wouldn’t be unusual to earn Rp. 5.000.000 per month doing this.

So, there you have it. Another English language rant for my Indonesian followers basically throwing out there some ideas on how to make money from your blog rather than taking free trips all the time.

If you are earning money through your blog and no full time job, you can still go on lots of trips. It’s just that the trips will be to places that you choose, not to places some company or tourist organisation chooses.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments! You can write in Indonesian and I will understand it. :)

Yellow Fever in Colombia: Free Vaccination in Bogota!

One of the problems with travelling in South America is the number of vaccinations that you should get before you go. There are so many diseases which are endemic to many South American countries that it really is wise to see a doctor before you travel.

I recently arrived in Colombia without a Yellow Fever injection. No big deal because I don’t expect that I will get it, especially because I don’t have plans to visit the jungles. But the problem is, Yellow Fever is endemic in Colombia. That is, it is prevalent in many areas of the country and if you catch it, there’s a good chance you will die from it (I read somewhere like 10%).

The main problem for most travellers visiting Yellow Fever endemic countries is that if you want to visit a non-yellow fever country afterwards, that country will usually ask you to prove that you are vaccinated against Yellow Fever. If you can’t prove it, they may deny you entry, especially if you are not a citizen of that country. So in order to avoid any hassles on my future travels and to protect against the low chance of actually getting Yellow Fever, I decided to get vaccinated against it in Bogota Airport.

How to get vaccinated against Yellow Fever for free in Bogota Airport

Located on the second floor of the Bogota Airport is a vaccination counter. You’ll see it right next to the tourist tax refund counter and it is signposted. It is open between 7am and 7pm daily and is operated by Fontibon Hospital. All you need to do is visit the clinic, take a number, fill in a form (which is in Spanish, but they give you a translation) and they will immediately vaccinate you against Yellow Fever for free. No questions asked. After vaccination, they give you a yellow booklet which is your proof of Yellow Fever vaccination.

It took me about 10 minutes from when I took a number to when I left the clinic. It was so quick and efficient that I recommend that absolutely everyone does it, no matter what your nationality. You’re going to need that booklet at some point in your future travels in order to avoid a hassle with the immigration authorities.

Fontibon Hostpital
Level 2
Bogota Airport
7am-7pm daily
FREE

So there you have it. A quick an easy way to get vaccinated against Yellow Fever in Bogota Airport.

I Used SkyPicker.com and it Wasn’t a Scam

Recently during my trip around the world I was faced with a number of flight routes which simply could not be booked on the site of the airline itself and other routes which were inexplicably cheaper through an agent. So like any cheaparse traveller, I booked my Avianca flight from Bogota to Cartagena with an online travel agent, Skypicker.

I’d never heard of them before, but they were listed as the cheapest option by 50% on SkyScanner. I didn’t even think twice about booking my flights through them.

And then I got a confirmation email from them and it was kind of odd. Just not as professional looking as I had expected. Also, the booking wasn’t made immediately. In other words, they had taken my credit card details and not yet booked my flight. Just a confirmation email saying they were going to do it later.

So I searched online and I found post after post about Skypicker being a scam. And I was scared. So I contacted their online support and demanded they send through my airline reference number. They refused. The guy on online support was hopeless and said that I would never get that booking reference number because I wasn’t allowed to checkin online.

Because I had no other options, I just waited. And then a couple of days later they sent an email with a confirmed airline booking reference number and I was actually able to use the official Avianca website to see my booking in the system.

Everything seemed OK. So when I arrived at the airport, I expected everything to be smooth as well. And it was.

So while Skypicker’s customer service leaves a lot to be desired and their English is poor, they aren’t a scam company. My only advice would be to make sure you fill in everything correctly during booking and that you make sure you don’t have any complicated requests such as name changes, date changes, odd transits, etc.

Would I use them again? Definitely if the price was right. Have you had a good or bad experience with them? Let me know in the comments.

Fam Trip Madness in Indonesia

Recently in Indonesia the issue of fam trips has reared its ugly head once again. It’s a mess of jealousy, arrogance and bitterness and I wanted to comment on it from an outsider’s perspective. How am I an outsider when I’m married to an Indonesian traveller blogger? Because 99.9% of our travel is self funded and we very rarely seek freebies. That’s not because we don’t like free stuff, it’s basically because we are too busy doing our own trips.

The recent argument is similar to previous ones in the Indonesian travel blogger world. It’s about a select group of bloggers rolling in from around Indonesia to cover a particular city in Indonesia, Semarang. Ostensibly, bloggers from close to this region are unhappy that they weren’t invited. They argue they should be invited because they know the area better, that the bloggers who were invited are always invited and that bloggers from outside of Jakarta never get free trips.

While some of the sentiment sounds ok, I think the argument being used is wrong. There is only one broad argument to in my opinion and that’s whether government tourism authorities (Destination Marketing Organisations DMOs) should be selecting bloggers based on merit or not? And when it comes to merit, the main issue is statistics — pageviews and followers.

Fam trips are useful for destination marketing organisations in order to promote their message to a wider audience and have traditionally been given to traditional media. Traditional media usually has a massive audience and a 2 page article in a magazine has the advertising value equivalency (AVE) of 2 full page ads. Probably more because it’s part of editorial and readers respond better to that.

When a blogger goes on a trip, you’ve got to ask what return on investment (ROI) they are providing (as measure with AVE). And this is where things become tricky. To measure this is extremely difficult. But in order for an investment of airfares, accommodation, meals and tours to pay off, the blogger has to have a big readership, big Instagram following or big Twitter following — preferably all three. Why? Because if a blogger only receives 1,000 pageviews per month, only has 2000 instagram followers, only has 2,000 Twitter followers, there is no way that the massive investment of the fam trip is going to be paid back — that is, the ROI is negative. The AVE of a blogger with these stats is probably less than Rp. 1.000.000. In other words, you could just buy advertising on the blogger’s site without giving them a free trip for Rp. 1.000.000 and get the same coverage. So if the cost of the fam trip is more than Rp. 1.000.000, that is a bad investment and leads to negative ROI.

Clearly, you need to have a certain amount of pageviews and/or followers for the investment to be worth it. What that number is is up for debate. But I think the number is quite high because many fam trips are expensive!

Some people argue that stats are not everything. That engagement and tone is important as well. I agree. People with no engagement and a poor tone should not be selected for fam trips. But people with poor stats should also not be selected. Which leaves you with people with medium to big stats that also have a good tone and good engagement.

So what would be the minimum stats I would recommend for an international fam trip? Well, for an Indonesian blogger, I would expect a minimum of 30,000 pageviews per month. I would expect a minimum of 8,000 instagram followers. Twitter is not as important these days, so it’s a bonus. Of course, if you’re pageviews are a lot higher than 30,000, you would be able to lower the Instagram number. And vice-versa. If you’ve got 30,000 Instagram followers and only 10,000 pageviews, that would be good too.

For a local trip within Indonesia, the expenses are lower, so I think it’s OK to select people with lower stats. 20,000 pageviews per month would be OK as well 5,000 Instagram followers. In Indonesia, there are LOTS OF TRAVEL BLOGGERS WITH THESE STATS. So they should be chosen first if they meet the criteria of good engagement and tone. Again, these are rough numbers because a fam trip to Raja Ampat is much more expensive and you would want someone to have very good stats for that sort of trip. But for a trip to DuFan, you might not care about stats at all.

I get the impression that in Indonesia, people are scared of stats. People believe it to be sombong to ask about stats. But without these stats, how can someone’s performance be measured? It’s none of my business what your stats are. But it should be the business of the DMO. They should ask for people’s stats and select people based on those stats.

Just so you know, there are lots of Indonesian travel bloggers who regularly receive more than 50,000 pageviews per month. I’m guessing here, but there would be more than 10 who receive more than 100,000 pageviews per month. Are there some with more than 150,000 per month? Yes. Aside from this, there are lots of instagrammers with more than 20,000 followers. Lots.

The counter argument to what I have talked about here is this: “why should fam trips be reserved for people with big stats only?” The simple answer is that people with low stats simply aren’t worth the investment — that is, if you choose them, you get a negative ROI. You will not increase the number of visitors to Pangandaran if a traveller blogger with 2,000 views per month writes about it. The same goes for an instagrammer with 2,000 followers. It is better to spend that money on advertising directly on a blog rather than sending a blogger to the destination.

The other argument is that it’s not just about that one blogger, but all the bloggers in combination which promotes a destination. For example, a big group of bloggers might get a destination to be a trending topic on twitter, might collectively get more exposure for the destination compared to bloggers just going one by one — therefore you can’t single out smaller bloggers. They are all part of a team. I accept this argument. But why not fill the trip with bigger bloggers for bigger impact? That is important to ensure a big ROI.

Diversity in Fam Trips

One thing I have also noticed with fam trips is that marketing people are sometimes lazy and they sometimes just pick the same bloggers as were picked last time. This is a problem. Why? Because if there is no diversity in fam trips, you end up with the same people promoting 20 destinations in a year. This means that their audience gets bored of all the advertorial style blog posts about why xxx destination is so awesome when we all really know that everything is awesome when it’s free! (you see this with food bloggers all the time). The other problem with lack of diversity is that people who aren’t included in fam trips get jealous.

So I think diversity in bloggers should be high on the fam trip list of requirements to ensure the DMO message gets across more broadly and without the audience becoming blind to endless PR posts from the same bloggers. But also to ensure those people who are good enough to go fam trips, actually do go on fam trips.

Please please comment on this and put your view forward. English or Indonesian is welcome. I write in English because it’s easier for me, you can write in Indonesian if it’s easier for you. I will be able to understand it. But please also keep the discussion civilised. Any nastiness will be deleted. But I do welcome opposing views.

I am not taking sides. I just want the money from the government to be spent wisely and fairly so that Indonesian tourism can really benefit. No KKN, no waste, no abuse.

Visiting Teotihuacan Independently

How to get to Teotihuacan Independently Without a Tour

One of the things you’re going to want to do when you’re in Mexico City is go to Teotihuacan. Located about 1 hour out of town, it’s an easy place to visit on a half day trip by public transport. Why visit Teotihuacan independently vs taking a tour? Because it’s much cheaper and much quicker. Tours generally cost about 300 pesos, take all day and include lots of stops at shops. Visiting independently costs 167 pesos including entry tickets and all transport to and from your hotel in Mexico City.Teotihuacan

How to visit Teotihuacan from Mexico City Without a Tour

  1. Catch a metro train to Autobuses del Norte for 5 pesos. This metro stop is right at the northern bus station, so you don’t need to worry about walking anywhere. Just get out of the metro station and you’re at the bus station. You can also catch an uber there from central Mexico City for about 50 pesos.
  2. From Autobuses del Norte, search for the Teotihuacan counter. It’s located right next to gate number 8 inside the bus terminal building. Ask for a ticket to Teotihuacan (there will probably be other people asking too) and they will give you a return ticket as well. It costs 46 pesos each way and the price is clearly marked on the ticket they give you and the sign behind the counter. This price will rise as time goes by, so don’t be surprised if it’s 60 pesos each way by the time you read this.
  3. Go through gate 8 and look for the Teotihuacan bus. I didn’t know which exact platform my bus was at so I had to ask. It turns out it was about 5 platforms away from the very end of the terminal (the end that gate 8 is located). There will be a sign on the front of the bus which says Teotihuacan.
  4. Hop on the bus and it takes about an hour to get to Teotihuacan. Staff will shout out that you’re at Teotihuacan when you arrive at Gate 1 so you don’t have to worry about missing your stop. You will know.
  5. Get off the bus and pay your entrance fee of 65 pesos. This price is continually rising and is displayed at the front so you don’t get ripped off. Again, prices will probably have gone up by the time you read this.
  6. Enjoy the day at Teotihuacan. Plan on minimum of 1 hour, maximum of 2 hours.Teotihuacan without tour
  7. Find your return bus. This is where things can get confusing. My ticket stated that the bus picks up from gate 2, but this isn’t true. The bus actually picked up from gate 3 because there was roadwork blocking access at gate 2. Whatever the case, go to either gate 2 or 3. If gate 2 isn’t operating, the touts will tell you go to gate 3, 300m up the road. Buses will come by every 12 minutes and will have “Teotihuacan” in big writing on the side. There will be other people waiting for the bus.
  8. From here, the bus will travel into the nearby town and pick up a bunch of passengers before heading down the freeway to Autobuses deal Norte.Dogs at Teotihuacan

And there you have it. An independent visit to Teotihuacan without taking a tour!

Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe

If you want to add to your daytrip, you can get off your return bus at Deportivo 18 de Marzo and catch the metro 1 stop to La Villa – Basilica (in the direction of Martin Carrera) where you can see the fantastic Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Note: you will walk about 500m inside Deportivo 18 de Marzo station because you will be catching the train on the red line whereas the entrance you will come in through is closer to the Olive line. This is easy to follow as it is well signposted inside the station – simply follow the signs to Martin Carrera. No problemo! Deportivo 18 de Marzo is 1 stop on the bus after Indios Verdes. If you miss this stop, don’t worry. You can also catch the Metro from Autobuses del Norte, but it takes just a little bit longer.Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Teotihuacan is a top day trip from Mexico City. With a side trip to Basilica Guadalupe, it’ll be awesome and cheap because you did it without a tour.

Lookout near Vik

The Secret to Travelling Iceland on a Budget: $50 per day is possible!

If you haven’t already, also check out my posts on Driving Iceland’s Golden Circle, Guide to Hiring a Car in Iceland, Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland and Driving Iceland’s Ring Road in Winter.

One of the things I read about Iceland before arriving was how expensive it is. And you know what? It can be expensive. But so can every other country. If there’s one thing I’ve learned while travelling the world is that there is always a cheaper way to travel a country and the way of doing it might not always be obvious. So I’m here to tell you just how it is possible to travel Iceland on a budget.

Transport

The first major expense when visiting Iceland if you want to get out of Reykjavik is transport. I have seen some websites recommend catching the bus around the island as a cheap alternative to tours. But the problem with catching a bus is that you are stuck when you arrive at each of the towns you plan to visit. And the bus doesn’t stop at the wonderful waterfalls or ice covered landscapes along the way. Catching the bus around Iceland is an awful idea, because you will have to pay for tours once you reach each town if you want to see the natural beauty of the place.Self-driving Iceland's Golden CircleThe cheapest way to get around Iceland is to find a cheap rental car. I managed to get my near new rental car for €20/$22/£16/AUD$30 per day. Even petrol wasn’t that expensive because the fuel efficiency of the car was incredible — about 4.8L/100km (more than 50mpg). If you’re travelling as a couple that is just $11 per day plus a bit of petrol. I only spent 16,660ISK ($131/€117/£92/AU$174) on diesel for the entire 1400km trip. This was at the extreme end of how much you would spend on petrol per day because I drove further than most people would. That’s $9 on petrol per day per person.

Transport cost per day – $20

Accommodation

You can really burn through cash on accommodation in Iceland depending on where you stay. Firstly, if you camp in random spots around the island, there is no accommodation cost whatsoever. Things means bringing your own tent and sleeping bags and pitching at rest areas and other spots along the side of the road. Easy to do, but not everyone’s cup of tea, especially in winter. But entirely doable! $0Iceland Mountain Pass in WinterLet’s just say you’re like me and you prefer to have a roof over your head, you’re going to have to find hostels. And there are lots all around the island, even in small towns. Because of this, you are going to need to plan your itinerary based on where these hostels are, because outside of these areas, accommodation can be quite pricey, comparatively.price accommodation icelandThe cost of a standard hostel, depending on how early you book and the time of the year will set you back $20/€18/£14/AUD$26 for a dorm bed. You can often get a private room for 2 for slightly more than this.

Accommodation cost per day – $20 (or free if you camp)

Food

Food in Iceland can be expensive, but you have to be selective about what you want and where you buy it. Some places charge about $5 for a large pre-made sandwich and some places $3.50. Some places can sell you a whole loaf of bread for $2… So if you want to make your own sandwiches, you can really save a lot of money. Just make sure you choose the cheaper ingredients for your sandwich as some items are horrendously expensive and others not so bad. You can easily get away with under $4 per meal if you’re buying your own groceries and making sandwiches, eating pasta and doing the cheap eating thing. That’s $10 per day for food, but some people not used to travelling on a budget may want to put aside a little more than this.

Food cost per day – $10

Activities

The great thing about activities in Iceland is that most of them are free. All the waterfalls, geothermal areas and natural beauty are free and you don’t need to spend a cent. $0.

Of course, you could always shell out $50 for the Blue Lagoon, but it’s not necessary in my view. Try some of the more local thermal pools, some of which are free.Myvatn Hot SpringBe aware that all paid tours and activities are horrendously expensive. If you really want to do these, just be prepared to shell out a lot of money.

Total Cost of Travelling in Iceland

Car Hire – $11
Petrol – $9
Hostel – $20 or Camping – free
Food – $10

Total – $50 (or $30 if camping)

As you can see, it really is possible to travel to Iceland on a tight budget if you’re willing to sacrifice some creature comforts such as private rooms and pre-packaged or restaurant meals. The most surprising thing in my view is that hiring a car is such an economical option — more so than catching the bus. Check out the deals from Holiday Autos to see if you can get a car for $20 per day like I did.

Choose the right season

Choosing which season to go to Iceland in is so important to your budget. As with everywhere in the world, summer is the busy season as the whole of Europe is on holiday. Just be aware that in summer all the cheap places are booked out well in advance and you will be left with expensive options only — in other words, you’ll need to camp to make the trip cheap.

In Winter, it’s a different story. Not only do you get to see the Northern Lights, you also get much cheaper accommodation and rental car prices.

One last tip. Make sure you pick up your rental car from the airport even if you plan to stay in Reykjavik for a night or two because you will save a fortune on the bus ticket to and from the airport which is akin to highway robbery.

Driving Iceland’s Golden Circle — A Magical Day Trip from Reykjavik

In my previous posts I wrote about the practicalities of renting a car in Iceland, chasing the northern lights and driving the ring road right around Iceland. Today I’d like to focus on one of the most popular activities in Iceland, the Golden Circle.Self-driving Iceland's Golden Circle

The Golden Circle refers to the loop road that many tour buses and day trippers take on daytrips out of Reykjavik. Along this road are a variety of different things to see and it makes an easy day trip if you’re based in Reykjavik. Self-driving the Golden Circle in your own rental car (I rented mine through Holiday Autos) is definitely the way to go as it’s far cheaper and you can stop wherever and whenever you want and for as long as you want. The Golden Circle can be wrapped up before lunch and you can even continue along the south coast to some other places of interest and even make it all the way to Vik by nightfall if the weather is good.

How long is the Golden Circle?

If you do the entire Golden circle and return to Reykjavik that afternoon, it’s about 230km (143 miles) and takes about 6 or 7 hours at a leisurely pace. If you continue on to Vik, it is a long day as there are a few more waterfalls to see along the way before reaching Vik. The distance is 280km and you won’t arrive in Vik until about 5pm. This is what I did and it was a perfect distance for me and not too rushed.

Stop 1 – Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) – 40km (25miles) from Reykjavik

Almost everyone stops here as their first stop on the Golden Circle and I highly recommend getting here early so that you get a moment of peace and quiet before the tour buses arrive. The tour buses started arriving at about 9:10am and the park officially opens at 9am. Try and get here by 8:30am — you’ll still be able to go to the lookout and if you’re there at the right time of year, you’ll even get to see the sunrise with only a few other people.Thingvellir Sunrise Iceland Golden Circle

Þingvellir is the site of the first Icelandic parliament some 1000 years ago. It’s also where two tectonic plates are splitting apart from one another creating large rifts in the earth. But for me, these two things were minor attractions. I actually really loved this place because the views at that time of the morning are stunning and it’s nice to go for a walk along the nearby river on your own in the cool crisp air while most of the tour buses are buzzing in and out of there really quickly.

Stop 2 – Strokkur  & Geysir Geysers – 100km (62miles) from Reykjavik

Some 60km(37miles) on from Þingvellir are the geysers of Strokkur and Geysir. Geysir is where the English word ‘Geyser’ came from, but this geyser hasn’t been active since around 2000 when a nearby earthquake shut it down. Strokkur is a smaller geyser and erupts roughly ever 5 minutes. It’s pretty impressive to see that puddle of hot, bright blue water occasionally bubble up and erupt into a massive jet of water 25m (75ft) tall. Most people stick around for about 4 eruptions and then continue on to Gullfoss.Strokkur Iceland Golden Circle

Stop 3 – Gullfoss – 109km (68miles) from Reykjavik

This waterfall truly is an impressive site and would be worth visiting on its own. A wild, raging river with a massive volume of water thunders into a ravine creating the mighty Gulfoss. In winter you get a lovely frozen landscape, but I’ve also seen photos of Gullfoss in summer and it looks completely different, but no less stunning. It’s only 10 minutes down the road from Strokkur and you could come here first and visit Strokkur on the way back if that suited you better.Gullfoss Iceland Golden Circle

Stop 4 – Kerið – 165km (103miles) from Reykjavik

Kerið is the remnants of a collapsed volcano which now houses an impressive lake. It’s a b-grade attraction and is probably one you can skip if you don’t have time. It’s actually on the road to Selfoss which is convenient if you’re looping back to Reykjavik. But if you’re continuing on towards Vik, you might want to take route 30 from Gullfoss rather than Route 35 as it will shave off about 30km, but also skip Kerið completely. That said, if you’ve got lots of time in Iceland or are just travelling really slowly, Selfoss does make a good overnight spot.

Accommodation

I stayed about 20km before Vik in a lovely modern farmstay called Guesthouse Vellir. The breakfast in the morning was fantastic and the price of the room for 2 people was €79/$88/£62/AUD$117. Check the price on booking.com. 

Guesthouse Vellir

The place I had originally considered in Selfoss was Selfoss Hostel which cost €47/$52/£37/AUD$70. A good option in a good location at a fantastic price. Check the price on booking.com.

The Golden Circle is a must-do activity when in Iceland despite it being the most heavily touristed. That said, with your own wheels you don’t have to worry too much about the crowds as you can set your own agenda. We got a fantastic Hertz rental car for about €20/$22/£16/AUD$30 — but we booked it through an agent who was able to get us the car for about half the normal price available on the Hertz website. Check rental car prices on Holiday Autos.

Iceland Car Hire Tips

Hiring a Car in Iceland: Practicalities & How to Get a Cheap One

Before my recent trip to Iceland, I was really curious about how much it would cost to rent a car in Iceland. I had heard it was going to be really expensive and in winter perhaps a little dangerous. Wrong! It really can be cheap to rent a car in Iceland and it doesn’t have to be dangerous. Just follow these tips. Also read my posts about Driving Around Iceland’s Ring Road in Winter: Practicalities and Itinerary and Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland: A Practical Guide

Iceland Car Rental

Which Car Rental Company to Choose

Deciding which car rental company to go with is a difficult decision to make. The main factors are: location of pickup/dropoff, how many free miles are included and daily rental price.

Location of Pickup/Dropoff

I originally planned to pick up my rental car from Reykjavik city rather than the airport (which is 50km/30 miles away) because I thought it was silly to have a rental car sitting on the side of the road parked in the middle of Reykjavik for 2 nights not being used. But there are two reasons why I ended up picking up and dropping my car off at the airport. The first reason was that the daily rental price I got was much better at the airport. The second reason was that the cost of the bus to and from the airport is so expensive and in my case worth the equivalent of 2.5 days care rental. I saved money by renting the car from the airport even though I didn’t use it for 2 nights. Tip: Factor in the price of the bus to and from Reykjavik in your rental equation. Check the Flybus website here.Iceland Car Hire Pickup Keflavik Airport

How Many Free Miles are Included in the Rental?

Rental cars in Iceland often come with a limited number of kilometres you can drive in them before you start getting charged penalties. The penalties are so stiff that if you plan to drive any signifcant distances such as circumnavigating the island, you absolutely cannot rent a car that doesn’t have unlimited miles. Make sure you check this aspect of your car rental.

Daily Rental Price

I searched on a lot of rental car company sites for a good deal on car rental and I thought I got one for about €300 for 7 days of hire. But then I came across a car rental agency called Holiday Autos.

I’d never heard of them before, but their prices were incredible. They were basically able to aggregate all the special deals from all the different rental companies in Iceland to the point where they offered me a car with Hertz for 7 days for €166!! ($186/£130/AU$246) And on top of that, it had unlimited miles. Luckily for me, the car I booked was out of stock, so they upgraded me at the airport for free. In the end I got a medium sized 5 door hatchback with winter tyres, seat warmers, diesel engine and in perfect condition for just over €20 ($22/£16/AU$30) per day. What’s more, the fuel efficiency was out of this world with it averaging 4.8L/100km. I only spent 16,660ISK ($131/€117/£92/AU$174) on diesel for the entire 1400km trip.

And how much does gas/petrol cost in Iceland? 186ISK/L ($5.60/gal) for petrol (regular gas) and 169ISK ($5.08/gal) for diesel.Iceland Fuel Price

Anyway, the rental agency is Holiday Autos and they are very responsive to any enquiries you have and even let you cancel your rental agreement in many cases. I originally booked an even cheaper car, but changed my mind when I realised that it didn’t have unlimited miles. Please let me know if you book with this mob as well. I would really like to hear if you also have a good experience so I can share with my readers. Check Prices on Holiday Autos.

Damage to Your Rental Car

I have heard some horror stories about rental car damage in Iceland and some people even claim there are scams operating in the country, but I didn’t experience that. One “scam” is that after there have been high winds, the rental car company will inspect the paint on the car when you bring it back and claim that it has been damaged by sand. In fact, the companies even have a specific sand damage insurance cover so you don’t get trapped. My advice would be to just keep the car away from the ocean when the wind is blowing hard. I was lucky to be inland when there were strong winds and noticed no issues with my paintwork.

Other damage which is said to be common is chipped windscreens. I can imagine this happening on some of the more distant dirt roads you come across in Iceland for sure. Cars go fast along these dirt roads… and these dirt roads are often major thoroughfares, so you don’t even have to be going off the beaten track to experience them. Just drive slowly and hope other cars do too.

Road Conditions

Road conditions across the island are affected by weather. Two sites you absolutely have to visit are vegasja.vegagerdin.is/eng/ and www.road.is. As well as those sites, read my post about driving the Iceland Ring Road in Winter.Cheap Iceland Car Hire

Speed Limits

The speed limit in Iceland is 90km/h on sealed roads and 80km/h on dirt roads. No one sticks to these limits and I had people passing me at 150 a lot. They drive fast. Still, I did see the police pull over one driver for speeding and there are a number of speed cameras around the island, mainly in the west and northwest. I can’t remember seeing any in the south, but maybe that’s because I was going too fast! Nevertheless, drive to the conditions and you’ll be fine.

Renting a car in Iceland is easily the best decision I made for my trip to Iceland. It gave me the freedom and flexibility you absolutely need in a country so big as weather impacted as Iceland. Good luck with your Iceland Roadtrip!

Iceland Aurora

Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland: A Practical Guide

The Northern Lights, otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis, are something that many people want to see at least once in their lifetime. Today, you’re going to learn about the best way to see the Northern Lights when visiting Iceland!

Also read my other posts about Driving Around Iceland’s Ring Road in Winter: Practicalities and Itinerary and Hiring a Car in Iceland: Practicalities & How to Get a Cheap One.

Best Months to See the Northern Lights in Iceland

Although there is much discussion online about when exactly to see the northern lights, it all comes down to having enough darkness in the sky for the lights to actually be visible. This means that anything is summer is out because there is almost 24 hours of sun in Iceland in June/July.

So to increase your chances, you really want to be heading there between November and February when you have the most dark skies, although September/October and March/April are also worth it because the weather is often better than in deep winter.Iceland Northern Lights

Choosing a Spot to View the Northern Lights From

Once you’re in Iceland, you need to decide where to view them from. The first recommendation is to get out of Reykjavik as the city lights will lighten the sky and make the aurora less intense. This means you will need your own transport such as a hire car from Holiday Autos or take a tour.

Secondly, you need to have clear skies. This website –http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ – is the official weather website for Iceland and it includes a page on aurora. You must look at this site. The most important aspect to seeing the aurora is to have no cloud cover — if there are no clouds, the aurora will appear, it’s as simple as that. The second most important aspect of this site is the KP or intensity level. Anything of 2 or more will look awesome. If you get 4 or 5, it’ll be mind-blowing.

So once you know where the clear skies will be, start driving to a place which is both out of Reykjavik and has clear skies. You may have to drive all night if the clouds are opening up on the other side of the country! Remember, the lights usually start around 10:30pm and last for a few hours. Sometimes longer, sometimes shorter.Iceland Aurora

Photographing the Northern Lights

Seeing the aurora with the naked eye is an almost spiritual experience. But most people want to capture it with their camera as well. Here is the gear you will need:

  • Wide lense (20mm equivalent with a low F number – I used 12mm (18mm equiv) F2) so you can capture the vastness of the aurora.
  • dSLR or mirrorless camera because you need to use manual controls and good low light performance.

Next, the settings. The settings on your camera really depend on how bright the aurora is and whether it is in intense lines or more spread out across the sky, so you will need to experiment a little bit. But this worked for me.

ISO 1600, 13 sec, F2.

I also tried longer exposures, but for me the sky ended up being a little washed out from there being too much residual light from the aurora. I found shorter exposures showed off the intensity of the bright spots of the aurora while keeping the sky relatively dark.Iceland Northern Lights Tips

Chance of Seeing the Aurora in a Short Trip to Iceland

If you are simply stopping over in Iceland for a couple of nights on the way to Europe or the USA, you have to be really lucky to see the Aurora mainly because of weather. I was in Iceland for 7 nights and there were only 2 nights when it wasn’t cloudy. Even then, I have heard of some people heading just to Reykjavik for a week and not getting a break in the weather. So you really do need to be mobile and you need as much time as possible to get the best chance to see the Aurora Borealis.

So there you have it, my guide to seeing the northern lights in Iceland. I’d be happy to answer questions you might have!

Iceland Ring Road in Winter

Driving Around Iceland’s Ring Road in Winter: Practicalities and Itinerary

After recently completing a roadtrip around Iceland’s ring road in winter, I just had to share how I did it and what my itinerary looked like.

Before setting off on this adventure with Susan, I was scared. Real scared. Mainly about how winter conditions in Iceland affect the roads, your ability to travel around and what you can see and do. In the end, I needed have been worried because it is definitely possible to travel around Iceland in a rental car in winter. I hired a small two wheel drive Toyota and it was fine. I used Holiday Autos who were cheap and awesome.

Also read my other posts about Hiring a Car in Iceland: Practicalities & How to Get a Cheap One and Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland: A Practical Guide.Rental car in Iceland in Winter

Weather and Road Conditions on Iceland’s Ring Road

The first thing you do after picking up your rental car (I will write an article specifically about renting a car in Iceland later) is to check weather and road conditions are there are a few fantastic website which help you to do this.

The first and most important website is one which shows you road conditions throughout the island – http://www.road.is

Road conditions change quickly in Iceland and a sudden snowstorm can really put a dent in your plans. I was particularly worried about seeing lots of roads coloured blue on this website. The website labels these roads as “slippery”. Needless to say, I found even blue roads quite drivable despite the road being entirely covered in ice for over 100km at a stretch. For some reason, it just didn’t feel slippery and I was doing speeds of between 60 & 80 km/h while locals were doing in excess of 100km/h. Take a look at the conditions:

This green. Clear and open road with absolutely no obstacles. Go as fast as you like.

Iceland Green Road

This is yellow. A bit of snow on the side of the road an very occasionally a patch of ice on the road, but off the driving line.

Iceland Yellow Road

This is blue. Usually the road is fully covered in ice, but it’s not too slippery. Just check by jamming your brakes on at low speed to see what happens. If no skidding, you’re right to go!

Iceland Blue Road

The next website to visit often is http://vegasja.vegagerdin.is/eng/ – this awesome website shows two really important things. How many cars have passed that section of road in the past 10 minutes and since midnight and gives you live cameras from around the island’s road network. Some of the roads, particularly between Egilsstaðir and Myvatn are iced over for long periods of time and the camera view from here looks like antarctica. Wait till you get there — it feels exactly the same! But not scary, honest.

The last source of info I recommend is the Iceland weather Bureau’s app – https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/ve-ur/id673177417 – I found this app to be really excellent at predicting things like wind speed and general weather conditions. Wind speed is really important to ensure a safe trip around the island as anything about about 15m/s is quite strong.

Snow Tyres

Now, cars in Iceland must be fitted with winter tyres in winter, so your rental car will be too. These winter tires look like normal tyres, but have metal studs in them which really help grip ice. I rarely slid except when in a couple of icy car parks.

How many days do I need to drive Iceland’s Ring Road?

It depends, but I think in ideal weather you could rush around it in 5 days and still have a good time (including the Golden Circle). But a more realistic timeframe is 6 days like we did. If the weather is bad, 6 days won’t be enough, so just pray for good weather like we had!

Planning

Car Rental

I got a great deal from Holiday Autos. Only €20 per day! Check the price of rentals on Holiday Autos.

Petrol Stations

Petrol stations are scattered around the island and you won’t have any problems finding one. The price of petrol was around €1.20 per litre. I spent 16,660 ISK (€120) for my entire trip around the island. The car used less than 5L/100km.

Groceries

Groceries stores are in every town, big and small. The problem is that prices vary greatly between towns. I found Reykjavik to be the cheapest place to stock up on groceries.

Accommodation

Accommodation in Iceland is expensive and many people choose to stay in youth hostels. We only stayed in one of these and it was the worst place we stayed in, but still OK for a night. The farm stays are the best places to stay, although some are really expensive. A hot tip is to only book your accommodation on the day you plan to arrive at it because weather conditions aren’t always favourable. Of course, the opposite is true in Summer when accommodation is at a premium and you might miss out if you don’t book ahead.

Northern Lights

The northern lights are in the sky every night. It’s just that most nights in winter are cloudy so you don’t see them. Check the website — http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ — for the latest cloud cover forecast and stay awake after 10:30pm to see them!

Itinerary

Day 1 – Golden Circle

We set off to visit the sites on the Golden Circle early in the morning before the sun rose (I will write a more detailed post about this later). It’s Iceland’s most popular route and most people do this on tour buses. So in order to beat the tour buses, set off early to get to Thingvelir at opening time – 0900. From there, head to the geysers and Gullfoss, an amazingly powerful waterfall.Gullfoss

We were going great for time, so we decided to try and head to Vik for the night. On the way we checked out Urridafoss, Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss — all which were worth the visit.

We stayed at a farm stay called Guesthouse Vellir — really fantastic rooms, clean and massive shared bathrooms and an all-you-can-eat breakfast which included waffles, cold meats, cheese, cereal, juice, tea and coffee. So good. Price: €79. Check the current price on Agoda.

Day 2 – Vik to Djúpivogur

Dyrholaey Lookout

Guesthouse Vellir was a great place to start the day’s exploration as it is really close to Dyrholaey lookout and the rock arch. Unfortunately, the road up to the lighthouse and viewing platform at Dyrholaey lookout was closed due to snow, so we were only able to go to a nearby lookout just up the road. But that lookout alone was worth it. Simply magnificent.Lookout near Vik

Black Sand Beach

Next stop was the basalt rocks and black sand beach just before Vik. You really see the power of the ocean when you visit this beach and one unfortunate soul lost their life just a week before we were there.

Jökulsárlón

From Vik, we made a beeline for Jökulsárlón and to be honest, there’s not much between Vik and Jökulsárlón except for a few rivers and photo ops.

Jökulsárlón itself is an interesting place to see icebergs, seals and icebergs stuck on the beach. There honestly isn’t that much to see or do here, so you don’t have spend too much time hanging around. Free toilets at the cafe in the carpark.Jokulsarlon

From Jökulsárlón, most people turn around and head back to Reykjavik which means the roads clear up a lot as you travel east. Hofn is a popular stopping point after Jökulsárlón, but the weather was so good that we decided to keep going to Djúpivogur and I’m glad we did because that night we saw the northern lights.

In Djúpivogur we stayed in a fantastic private cabin for the price of a hostel — they upgraded us for free. Not only that, the lady at the front desk was so so lovely. Price: €63. Check current price on Booking.com.

Day 3 -Djúpivogur to Mývatn

Day 3 was another stunning day with hardly a cloud in the sky. Given that Egilsstaðir was so close, we decided to try and make it all the way to Mývatn which we did with ease as the road was much faster to drive on than I had expected despite being one massive ice sheet.

Rugged Scenery

The drive from Djúpivogur heads through a massive tunnel at one point and then over another mountain covered in snow as you descend into Egilsstaðir. I was shitting myself at this point and the locals must have thought I was an old grandpa driving so slow. Anyway, the views were amazing.

The Mountain Road

We stopped in Egilsstaðir for petrol (a pretty big town) and kept driving towards Mývatn. It’s here that the road in winter is often poor because of cold temperatures and high altitude. It was -8ºC as we went over the mountains, but it’s often a lot colder than that. The road condition was pretty good despite being covered in ice for about 100km. All the fresh snow had been ploughed away and the ice was packed hard, but still rough enough to get grip on. I did between 60 & 80km/h, but I was overtaken by big trucks and a fast sports car. People were doing way over 100km/h at times. It wasn’t slippery, but I was cautious anyway.Iceland Mountain Pass in Winter

Hverir Geothermal Area

Just before Mývatn is the Hverir geothermal area. For me, it wasn’t a big deal as I’ve seen lots of this sort of stuff in New Zealand and Indonesia already, but those who haven’t seen this sort of stuff before, it’s definitely going to be interested. Steam vents expelling hot gas, hot mud pools… you know… volcanic stuff. One point to note was that the access road was covered in snow and it was deep. We still got through though as did other 2WD cars.

That night we slept at Vogahraun Guesthouse which also has a pizza joint. Pizzas are expensive, but delicious. A really complete breakfast was included. Price: €90. Check current price on Agoda.

Day 4 – Mývatn to Blonduos

Mývatn Nature Baths

We came to Mývatn because I really wanted to try the hot springs here and I am so glad we made it. We arrived at opening time, 12 midday, paid our 3,500 ISK (€25), had our mandatory naked shower and hopped in the pool. We were first in! Let’s just say that it was absolutely freezing outside and perfectly warm in side the pool. So cold outside in fact that the temperature gauge read -6ºC. After an hour or so of splashing around here, we set our sights on Akureyri via Godafoss.Godafoss

Akureyri

There’s not a whole lot to see and do in Akureyri itself and some people even make a detour before getting here up to Husavik to do whale watching. We took a look at the church here as it’s supposed to be the little sister of Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik. Umm… A bit of a disappointment to be honest. Don’t be afraid to skip it.

Blonduos

We ended up in Blonduos where we got a massive 2 bedroom cabin with hot tub. It was -8ºC outside at this stage, so even though I set the hot tub temperature to 42ºC, it was only luke warm by the time it had filled up. -8ºC combined with wind and wet, naked skin is a disaster. My hair was already frozen and I ran straight from the hot tub into a hot shower in the cabin — a truly Icelandic experience. To cap it all off, the northern lights fired up again. Price: 10,000 ISK (€70). Check current price on Agoda.

Day 5 – Blonduos to Borgarnes

Hvitserkur

Because we were making such good time on our roadtrip, we decided to take a few detours today. The first was to head out along the peninsula to Hvitserkur. The road was a dirt road, but you wouldn’t know it because it was covered in ice. Temperature outside was -11ºC.Hvitserkur

Snæfellsnes Peninsula

The next detour was the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. We had intended to go right to the end of the peninsula, but it was just taking too long and we didn’t have enough time. So we got to the small town of Stykkishólmur, took a few photos and cut across the peninsula. That meant we missed out on some good sightseeing opportunities further down the peninsula, but you can’t do it all.Stykkishólmur

We arrived at the Borgarnes Hostel with enough time to head to the supermarket and cook some dinner. The hostel itself was just OK, but it was cheap. Price: €47. Check current price on Agoda.

Day 6 – Borgarnes to Airport

We had planned on this day to visit the Blue Lagoon, but we didn’t realise you had to book in advance. Not only that, the price is €40 which I think is a bit much. Not sure whether it was a good idea to skip it or not, but in the end we had no choice. We didn’t book. So we instead headed back to Reykjavik to get something to eat, to have another couple of coffees at the awesome Reykjavik Roasters and see Perlan.

At this stage it was time to take the hire car back to the airport and wait for our flight out of Iceland. All my fears about circumnavigating Iceland in winter were unfounded. Of course, the great weather really made our trip much fast and much safer. No one knows what the weather is going to be like when you visit, so you have to play every day by ear.

Tips:

  • Don’t book your accommodation until the day you are planning to arrive. You just might not make it.
  • I relied on Booking.com and Agoda.com for my bookings and both worked well.
  • Buy a sim card in Reykjavik before you hit the road so you can check road and weather conditions in advance.
  • You don’t need a four wheel drive.
  • Test your brakes every now and then at slow speeds when on the ice to get a feel of how slippery it is.