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.
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.The 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
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! $0Let’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.The 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 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
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.Be 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 current 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 current rental car prices on Holiday Autos.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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 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 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.
We really loved our hotel in Reykjavik. We could park in the next street over for free, you could see that big crazy church (Hallgrímskirkja) from our window and the hotel itself was just perfect. The name of the hotel is Loki 101 Guesthouse and we booked on Booking.com for $130 for 2 nights. Check current prices on Booking.com.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Don’t book your accommodation until the day you are planning to arrive. You just might not make it.