“Iceland is rugged. Iceland is beautiful. But be warned, Iceland is expensive.”
Any time I’m asked how I liked Iceland, this is typically my response. Whether it was the constant rain, or the lack of places open in the lesser-traveled locations, Iceland just didn’t speak to me the way it does with practically everyone I talk to about visiting. It’s scenic and bizarre in a great way, but something just didn’t do it for me. I had a great time regardless, but it just didn’t rank in my top places I’ve ever been. With that being said, I’ve had plenty of readers email me asking for some tips for their upcoming trip.
Don’t get me wrong here, I still believe it’s a great place for solo travelers to start. It’s different from your typical, all-inclusive for spring break. It can be an amazing roadtrip adventure, but you truly have to sit down to plan out if it works for your wallet. But whatever your budget, I’ve compiled a quick Iceland guide of things that will help you if you’re planning a visit in the near future. I’ve included our daily cost of travel in Iceland as well at the end. This is just to give you a bit of an idea of how much to save, depending on your style of travel of course.
It IS possible to see the Northern Lights right from Reykjavík, but also don’t bank on seeing it during a booked tour in the highlands.
The weather can be quite unpredictable. For us, it ended up raining every day we were there except for the last. The sky was finally clear enough to see the Northern Lights right from the city. Reykjavík even turned off their city lights off a better view. We didn’t make this our primary goal, but do realize it’s often a mixed bag and our viewing was free. If you’re looking to book a tour, I’d say check out a few companies that take on last-minute reservations as the weather can quickly put a damper on things.
Caffeine addicts, beware.
Every coffee shop, gas station, and hostel we encountered only carried a slightly larger version of a Dixie cup when serving coffee. This proved pretty detrimental to the night drives I signed up for, especially when we were hugging the side of a cliff at points. I kind of wish I had brought a collapsible travel mug to fill up at our hostels.
Speaking of cliffs, the Westfjords are home to many.
Definitely worth a visit if you’re looking for scenery that exists only on Mars and roads that can make any confident driver nervous. It’s certainly worth a visit if you have a bit longer to spend, but beware if you’re on a tight schedule as the rocky, dirt roads can slow your progress quite a bit. Along the way, you’ll find a few abandoned wonders such as triangle homes and even a ship.
Things to note: the Westfjords are best visited during the summer. This is where we encountered more than one restaurant/attraction closed for the season (and we went mid-September..) If you’re looking to get up close and personal to some puffins on Látrabjarg, the largest bird cliff in Europe, definitely visit in the summer as well, we missed them by a few weeks.
Really and truly, do not stop on the side of the road.
I couldn’t understand why people kept warning of this. In the United States and Canada, the roads are wide and the breakdown lanes plentiful. But in Iceland, the roads are all raised off the natural land and the breakdown lanes are essentially non-existent in most areas. The Ring Road or Route 1 certainly has a lot more places to pull off, but just keep in mind when you see something beautiful find a safe place to stop.
We found the Icelandic sheep to be quite comparable to the deer in parts of America. For the most part they roamed free and not usually one to care if they stop in the middle of the road. Definitely something to be mindful of when zipping along. Their glowing green eyes at night are a bit startling, but a great built-in warning device!
If you’re not map-savvy, spring for the Wi-Fi hotspot
We were given one by the car rental company for having to wait almost two hours for our rental. And boy did it save us on numerous occasions. Some of the hard-to-reach places in Iceland left me and my travel partner with no service, despite having an international plans through Verizon and Sprint. Plus, the maps we did have were not detailed enough to contain some of the roads we
got lost found ourselves on. It’s a bit extra a day, but it was a life-saver for us.
Reykjavik can be easily explored in a day or two.
Some will disagree, but I found Reykjavik very walkable and easy to explore in a few hours. That’s not to say I could have spent more time at some of the delicious cuisine options, but we managed to fit in a bit of thrifting, hotdog-eating, bar hopping, and visit to the Harpa concert hall in a day. The mirrored ceiling and glass exterior inspired by the basalt columns, giving it a honeycomb-like appearance. The effect definitely made the concert hall on a sunny afternoon easily one of my favorite stops. Definitely worth exploring on an off-day and lounging about when you’ve run out of money (AKA us.)
Don’t expect to see people out until 1 am on the weekends.
Listen, Icelanders go hard. This may be true for most of Europe, and the land of fire & ice is no exception. We were warned several times by the hostel staff to not expect to see the bar scene pick up until then. And they were right. Note that beer is expensive, around $8-9 across the board. Cocktails can set you back more than some Manhattan bars. Pre-gaming is definitely your friend here!
You absolutely have to get butt-naked before entering the pools.
Icelanders truly love their public pools. So much so, you must undress and use the communal showers before putting on your bathing suit. The pools mainly have a low amount of chlorine in them, opting for salt water. Because of this, showering beforehand ensures the place stays clean. I’ve also heard of some people encountering shower guards that look for people trying skipping this step as well. For someone who isn’t all that used to being naked in public, this was interesting. But in all honestly, most of the people we ran into were only concerned about their own bodies. Don’t be afraid to let loose.
Note: You don’t go swimming naked, please remember to put your bathing suit back on after showering.
Most travelers who opt for hostels are typically early risers.
If you couldn’t tell by my recent post, I am not great about getting up early. At quite a few of the places we stayed at, all the lights would be off in the room by 9 pm and half our dorm-mates already asleep. So if you’re looking to party all night and sleep in on a rainy day, a multi-dorm hostel room may not be the best fit for you. I’d opt for a single room, Airbnb, or even hotel if you’re looking to catch some extra ZZZ’s.
Iceland is extremely expensive.
Listen, Iceland will most certainly be one of the most expensive places you can travel. It certainly tops New York City with their gas prices and beers during “happy hour.” There aren’t many true “cheap eats” in the country, and one can’t simply just eat the hot dogs everyone raves about in the capital. When burgers run for around $22-30 and soup $15, this made the inner-foodie in me cringe.
Our travel style was definitely budget-to-mid traveler. We skipped some expensive activities and meals, but chose to rent a car and upgrade a few of our Airbnb’s a touch. With all this, we managed to keep our daily expenses at roughly $105/day each. This didn’t include any guided tours, expensive restaurants, or going out drinking too often. I’ve seen people be able to get by in Iceland as little as about $50/day. But this usually includes a bit of hitchhiking, camping, and mainly supermarket picnics.
Some tips for keeping costs down:
- Buy all of your alcohol at the duty-free shops. It’ll pay off in the long run.
- Stay in hostels, couch-surf, camp, or find cheap Airbnb’s in advance.
- Eliminate sheet rentals by bringing your own. We only ran into this at a hostel in Reykjavík, but it’s apparently fairly common.
- Splurge on one meal a day and try to make the rest of your food via the supermarket. Or opt for appetizers at fancy places.
- Get as many people as possible into a SUV or van to split the costs. This definitely softened the blow on the rental price of our little Suzuki Swift by splitting it in two.
- Go for less days. I know this is contradictory to most traveler’s advice, but I think I would have enjoyed my stay if it were shorter. Plus I could actually have splurged on some of the gourmet restaurants.
If you’re interested, I made a spreadsheet of my daily expenses I’d be happy to email if you’re looking for a more detailed report. I definitely spent more on gifts/souvenirs for myself (roughly $200 not included in daily expenses rate, I know I’m a sucker) than I would have liked, but at least you can get an idea of what a low to mid-budget looks like.