How to travel in Iceland on a budget

I just came back to Europe from New Zealand, Hawaii and California, where everyone was raving about Iceland. Icelanders seem to have invested a lot in marketing their island. Since Iceland’s experiments in banking ended in a fiasco, tourism took over as the next big thing. It’s not hard to attract people to Iceland – it is easily one of the most beautiful places on earth and the culture is OK too:) Tourism always means easy money for some locals, but, hey, that’s not MY money and let it not be yours either.

Landmannalaugar is very popular and crowded. Lónsöræfi is similar but a lot quieter.

Landmannalaugar is very popular and crowded. Lónsöræfi is similar but a lot quieter.

First, for those who don’t know: I spent six full years in Iceland plus a few summers and I know the country inside out more or less. On the other hand, I haven’t been there for a year and a half now but my information is mostly up to date. I am going back this summer and I am excited.

Iceland is generally quite expensive and inaccessible and I have been thinking for a while about writing something for the budget traveler so here it is, at the start of the season. I hope it’s going to be useful and its also going to generate some clicks on my blog this summer:) If you are looking for 5-star hotel recommendations, you are going to be disappointed. If you are looking for a million star hotel (read camping) recommendations, read further.

In Iceland you can walk on glaciers but don't do it by yourself unless you really really know what you are doing. People (read Germans) have died trying this on their own. If you save enough money using my tips, go on a guided tour for this.

In Iceland you can walk on glaciers but don’t do it by yourself unless you really, really, REALLY! know what you are doing. People (read Germans) have died trying this on their own. If you save enough money using my tips, go on a guided tour for this.

First of all, to get an idea of how I like to travel –> I believe the whole world should have allemansrätt. Allemansrätten (“every man’s right” in Swedish) is something typical of the Nordic countries. Namely Sweden, Norway and Finland (not the Åland islands though – shame on you, Åland!) have this type of law that says that every person has the right  to roam, camp and – very importantly – pick mushrooms and berries as they please, even on private property (with few restrictions). In Iceland I have only seen some edible mushrooms around the university campus, but don’t eat those while hitchhiking please! Save them for when you are camping and need to talk to the flowers!Berries are abundant at certain times of the year and few people will stop you from picking them. But free camping is trickier. And in expensive Iceland, camping is the way to go if you wanna cut costs.

It’s either time or money that we don’t have; if you have neither, then you are doing something wrong. Being on a budget and in Iceland, I assume you have time and this is good because Iceland is so amazing that you will want to see everything. I have lived there for many years and still haven’t seen everything but I am getting there. If you are going to be camping, you will want to go in summertime – ideally July and August when the weather is at its most reliable and the highland roads are going to be open. The chances of it snowing are also low at that time. May, June and September (the shoulder season) might be an option (it’s mostly the tourism industry that will tell you so), but the possibilities are fewer. September is good because then it already gets dark enough for northern lights and it is usually not as overcast yet.

You don't need to be in the tropics to go snorkeling. But you will need a dry suit in Iceland.

You don’t need to be in the tropics to go snorkeling. But you will need a dry suit in Iceland.

===GETTING THERE===

Before camping in Iceland, you will need to get there. It is an island in the middle of the ocean but the sailing options are few. Unless you have your own boat, you are limited to a cruise ship (but then why would you be reading this?) or Smyril Line (http://www.smyrilline.fo), which is most of the time more expensive than flights but there is an option to break the journey on the Faroe Islands, which are beauuuutiful. If you want to take your own car to Iceland, this is your only option. Their cheapest cabins are next to the engine room, quite hot and noisy so bring earplugs and stay inside only when you need to sleep. In other places it is usually quite possible to hitch on trucks that board ferries and this way avoid paying the ferry fee. I am not sure how possible/doable this is for this ferry. They make sure to charge every single passenger and the journey takes 2-3 days so sneaking inside a truck for that long would make even the most intrepid traveler quite miserable.

the Faroe Islands

the Faroe Islands

I gave the .fo website for a reason. Smyril Line have websites in different languages – .dk, .de, .co.uk, .com etc. The prices are also different depending on which one you use to book. When I took their ship some years ago it was cheapest to book through the .fo website (prices are in Danish crowns). The ship will leave you in Seyðisfjörður (this is in Iceland), which is a great place to start your journey. Make sure you exit the ship quickly and walk out of town and hitch a ride with the cars coming out of the ship. Otherwise you might be stuck there, it is a tiny town.

This is the eruption at Fimmvörðuháls in 2010, a couple of weeks before the famous Eyjafjallajökull eruption. Me and my friend Csaba hiked up for six hours in -15 Celsius to get there but  it was incredible. Now if you do the Fimmvörðuháls hike, you will pass over the little mountain created by the eruption. It was still warm last time I passed by.

This is the eruption at Fimmvörðuháls in 2010, a couple of weeks before the famous Eyjafjallajökull eruption. Me and my friend Csaba hiked up for six hours in -15 Celsius to get there but it was incredible. If you do the Fimmvörðuháls hike now, you will pass over the little mountain created by the eruption. It was still warm last time I passed by.

Most people fly to Iceland. I have been looking at flights to go to Iceland this summer and the options from Europe seem to be more than ever before. I am almost overwhelmed. I remember the times when only Icelandair flew to Iceland. Now, (May 2015 – things change quickly) it’s Wowair, Easyjet, Wizzair, Transavia, Norwegian, SAS, AirBerlin, Germanwings and I am probably missing other airlines. You will have to do your own research but here are some tips:

– I have never seen super cheap tickets for the high summer season. I mean like 30 euros one way cheap. 100 euros one way is quite doable though in summer and should be easy in low season.

Icelandair. Oh how much I hate that bitch! The first time I ever flew to Iceland I had this super expensive ticket from Copenhagen to Iceland (someone else paid for it, thank God) and Icelandair spends a lot of money on marketing so people think it is a good airline. All I saw was aloofness that is easily mistaken for rudeness. Since then they have stopped serving the cold potato salad they used to call lunch and have replaced it with a free entertainment system – one of those where you have to push really hard on the screen for something to happen, if the screen is working at all… And they did this just as everyone and their mother was getting a smartphone and a tablet but I have given up trying to understand Icelandair… They are very expensive but have these deals sometimes. Same as Smyril Line, they have different prices and offers for their different websites. I am subscribed to their Hraðtilboð (quick deals) on their .is website. They send you an email and you have 24 hours to book the cheap fares. These are usually for months in advance but it is worth trying. Use google chrome with google translate.

Wow air is the new low cost Icelandic airline (after Iceland Express went down the drain). They have offers quite often, mostly for the next couple of months. Again, subscribe to their newsletter. And again, they have different prices for different language websites. The other day I was looking at a flight from Reykjavik to Boston, one way, 16000 ISK (around 100 euros) whereas the same flight on the .com (English) website was more than 300 USD. Again, Google Chrome and google translate can do the trick. Read carefully their ridiculous hand luggage policy.

– The most competitive routes are London and Copenhagen from Reykjavik, with Oslo lagging behind. Easyjet has flights from quite a few places in the UK this summer. Unless on offer, flights to other countries (Germany, Italy, Spain) are quite pricey normally, but check them out.

– The airport in Reykjavik is actually in Keflavik (pronounced Keplavik) (airport code KEF) and the buses from the airport to the city are – you guessed it – very overpriced. If you arrive during daylight hours (anytime in summer) try hitching to the city. Spending the night at the airport is possible for early morning flights out, but bring your Homer Simpson glasses and read this before: http://www.sleepinginairports.net/europe/reykjavik.htm

– Flights to the US and Canada. Icelandair has an almost complete monopoly on that market but in their defense, they fly to some pretty awesome destinations: NY, Boston, Washington, Orlando, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, Halifax, Edmonton, Anchorage (and probably some more). These flights are usually criminally overpriced. Look for the promotions. Since recently Wow air flies to Boston and Washington. Delta flies to NY in the summer, but they are always super expensive, is it money laundering or what?

– Icelandair has this stopover in Iceland thing for people who fly between America and Europe. Some people seem to get great deals. I am not sure how it works, but I don’t think it allows for a long enough stopover to actually see much of the country.

– Finally, Air Iceland (Icelandair’s domestic airline) flies to the Faroe Islands and Greenland. Atlantic Airways (from the Faroe Islands) flies between Reykjavik and Tórshavn. These flights use the domestic airport in downtown Reykjavik (airport code REK).

===GETTING AROUND===

my hitchhiking hat

my hitchhiking hat

Most people rent cars, vans, go on bus tours or take the bus to get around Iceland. There are a few bus companies with bus passes etc. All of these options are expensive, by any standard so I am going to focus on hitchhiking. There is actually not so much to say but here are a few tips:

– I have hitched all over Iceland and it works, it’s easy and especially in summer there are many people driving around, including many visitors like you.

– In Iceland there are roads and roads. Ring road number 1 is the main road, it is paved most of the way and usually open year round. Other reliable roads are the roads around the coast. The highland roads are tricky. They involve river crossings, big rocks, floods and whatever else you can imagine. Never forget that you are in the Arctic! Hitching on highland roads would be more difficult since people have less space and some people are reluctant to take responsibility in case something happens. But in recent years there is a lot of traffic on those roads too so why not. I’d say: plan for a looong hike with food, gear etc. for many days and if you get a ride here and there consider it a bonus. It’s not fun running out of food or dry warm clothing in the middle of the Icelandic highlands!!!! All roads in Iceland are normally open in July and August. Some highland roads are also open in June. The road from Egilsstaðir to Kárahnjúkar is paved and open year round normally. Check road.is for road conditions.

– check out www.hitchwiki.org of course.

– I have traveled by bicycle in Iceland and it’s an option if you know what you are doing. It gets pretty windy. There are plenty of blogs around the Internet.

Cycling in northern Iceland

Cycling in northern Iceland

This is what a typical highland road looks like.

This is what a typical highland road looks like.

Sometimes you will need to cross rivers and you need to know how to do it. They are freezing cold all year round.

Sometimes you will need to cross rivers and you need to know how to do it. They are freezing cold all year round.

===SLEEPING===

You have never tried camping but you think it sounds romantic sleeping in a tent in the midnight/midday sun? Forget it! Iceland is not the place to learn camping. It can get cold, windy, rainy. Last time I camped by Herðubreið it snowed on me at the end of July and some days later there was a horrible storm that lasted two days. Don’t let that put you off though.

Hiking in July in the Icelandic highlands. Come to Iceland please but come prepared.

Hiking in July in the Icelandic highlands. Come to Iceland but, please, come prepared.

You are allowed to wild camp anywhere that is not private property or a national park. It’s a beautiful and clean country so respect all the rules of wild camping. If you don’t know the rules, don’t do it. Otherwise there are paid campsites (normally 1-2,000 ISK per night), huts here and there and campsites in the towns or tourist attractions. These are normally cheaper than sleeping in a hotel or hostel but still overpriced. Since it is such a short season, accommodation in Iceland is very overpriced in the summer. Sorry. There are hostels and also something called ”Icelandic farm holidays” but you need to book in advance which is hard to combine with hitchhiking. In Reykjavik you can try camping at the Reykjavik City Hostel campsite or sneak and wild camp somewhere outside of the city. There are plenty of swimming pools for showers and such.

Some waterfalls are hot, if you feel like you need a shower. No soap please!

Some waterfalls are hot, if you feel like you need a shower. No soap please!

===COMMUNICATIONS===

Most cafés and hotels have free wifi. Last time I was in Iceland there were three mobile operators – Síminn, Vodafone and Nova. Their coverage seems to be very similar, at least judging from the maps on their websites. Buy an Internet package for your smartphone and off you go. Just make sure your phone is unlocked from home and has a sim card slot.

===FOOD===

Icelanders are big on junk food. The local pizzas, hamburgers and Thai burritos (!!) are good but nothing to travel all the way there for. The cheapest way to feed yourself is to buy things in the supermarket and cook.

Bónus is by far the cheapest supermarket. Check their website for locations. Krónan is the next cheapest. Then there is Hagkaup and Nóatún, which are bigger but pricey and 10-11 and 11-11 which are very overpriced, but sometimes open 24 hours a day. It’s basically the local grocery mafia that consists of two companies that run one of each store in each price range. There are a few other chains but most of the time they are in places where you don’t have any other choice. If you are in a bigger town, go for Bónus.

Camping gas (propane) is available at most gas stations.

If you really need to eat out, Subway has a sub of the day that will keep you going for a few hours and everyone tries the famous hot dogs in Iceland – Bæjarins beztu. On weekends there is a flea market in Reykjavik where you can taste shark and other things that most people find too disgusting to actually buy.

Some prices:

All lists like this start with:

A bottle of water… Don’t buy bottled water, anywhere, let alone in Iceland. The tap water in Iceland is better than any water, anywhere. When there is no tap water, river water could work too, but watch out for the sheep so bring a little bottle of iodine just in case and learn how to use it. Glacial rivers carry a lot of sediment so let it sit still and go to the bottom and/or filter it. Collect rain water – it will probably be raining anyway. In one word – water is free in Iceland.

Then lists like this continue with…

A Big Mac. There’s no McDonald’s in Iceland. Which doesn’t mean there is no junk food in Iceland. There’s plenty and it’s not worth it.

Coca Cola. It’s cheap in Bónus. Apparently it is “the best Coca Cola in the world” (many things in Iceland are apparently “the best in the world” and Coca Cola tops that list by far) – again due to the quality of that same free water. But Coca Cola is shit by definition so stick to free water, please.

Some prices in Bónus (very approximate, there are cheaper and more expensive options):

a bag of rice – 200 ISK

a bag of pasta – 200 ISK

a packet of cookies – 200 ISK

packed sliced rye bread (Pompernikel) – 300 ISK

bananas – 200 ISK per kg.

skyr – 150-250 ISK depending on the taste, for a big package

dried fish (harðfiskur) – up to 1000 ISK for a pack but it is 77% protein!

smoked salmon – aroun 2500 ISK per kg, great for sandwiches.

chocolate (100g) – 150-200 ISK.

===WHAT TO DO OR SEE===

EVERYTHING. If you like nature, it’s like heaven on earth. Here are some of my favourite places by region (do your own research as well though):

South – waterfalls (Seljalandsfoss, Skagafoss), Jökulsárlón, Skaftafell, Lónsöræfi (camp at the Stafafell farm)

Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

West fjords – Látrabjarg, Hornstrandir, Dynjandi

West Iceland – Snæfellsnes and Snæfellsjökull, Glymur

Reykjavik – Esja, Laugardalslaug, Perlan, Sólfar, get a bike and get lost

Sólfar (the Sun Voyager) is a statue of a ship in Reykjavik at a place where many magnificent sunsets can be seen over Esja, the mountain. What's interesting (ironic, sarcastic, depressing?) about this statue is that it is pointing north, i.e. the only point on the Reykjavik horizon where the sun is never seen. Being at 64+ degrees north, the sun always sets in Reykjavik. Even on the longest day, June 22, the sun still sets even if it's just for a few minutes, and it sets in the north. You need to be at the Polar Circle (66.6 degrees) or further north, in order to be able to see a day where the sun never sets and makes one full circle around the sky. So the Sun Voyager is aiming at the point where the sun is never seen in a journey of hope/hopelessness. That's how I see it. Maybe the artist just had some spare pieces of steel lying around and welded them together and this is where they had some spare space. I am not sure.

Sólfar (the Sun Voyager) is a statue of a ship in Reykjavik at a place where many magnificent sunsets can be seen over Esja, the mountain. What’s interesting (ironic, sarcastic, depressing?) about this statue is that it is pointing north, i.e. the only point on the Reykjavik horizon where the sun is never seen. At 64+ degrees north, the sun always sets in Reykjavik. Even on the longest day, June 22, the sun still sets even if it’s just for a few minutes, and it sets in the north. You need to be at the Polar Circle (66.6 degrees) or further north, in order to be able to see a day where the sun never sets and makes one full circle around the sky. So the Sun Voyager is aiming at the point where the sun is never seen, in a journey of hope/hopelessness. That’s how I see it. Maybe the artist just had some spare pieces of steel lying around and welded them together and this is where they had some spare space. I am not sure.

North – Mývatn, Ólafsfjörður

East – travel along the fjords, Kárahnjúkar (there is a nice hot waterfall a few km further on the dirt road from the dam)

Highlands – Askja, Herðubreið, everything along the Kjölur road, Þórsmörk, Landmannalaugar and the hiking trails in that area, where everyone goes.

The Blue Lagoon is so popular that it needs a separate article. There was a time when the Blue Lagoon was just a lagoon of blue water that filled cracks and nooks in the lava close to a geothermal power plant. The water in the lagoon is the one they pump out of the ground, although you will read everywhere that it is “natural” – it wasn’t there until they started drilling for the geothermal plant. Then a company got the concession for it, built some fancy changing rooms and took a loan in foreign currency before the 2008 financial meltdown. Mix that with bad management and aggressive marketing and you have some criminally high prices. How to deal with it? The best way would be not to go there. Try the “blue lagoon” in the north of Iceland near Mývatn, the water is just as good and generated in the same way. You are really on a budget and even that’s too expensive for you? Don’t miss the swimming pools in Reykjavik and the other towns (which you shouldn’t miss even if you are going to BL anyway). Laugardalslaug is the best swimming pool in Reykjavik.

===WINTER===

You decided to go to Iceland in winter anyway? The ring road will still be open but there might be few hours of daylight to enjoy the views. You can always just chill in the swimming pools and hope for clear weather and solar activity to see some northern lights. And mingle with the cool people of Reykjavik (don’t talk to the uncool people though!). There is a better chance of finding a host on couchurfing in winter too. Check northern lights activity here (you will also need clear weather to actually see northern light).

===USEFUL LINKS===

Don’t trust everything I say, everyone is different. Besides, I haven’t even mentioned some very popular things that everyone needs to see, because I assume you will find plenty of information about them elsewhere. A useful link is:

http://www.google.com

Some really useful links:

http://www.hitchwiki.org

http://www.weather.is is the local weather website, but I prefer http://www.yr.no

http://www.road.is

http://www.openstreetmaps.org

http://www.wikiloc.org

bonus.is, kronan.is

Please comment!

Reykjavik Gay Pride is in the beginning of August and attracts more people to the streets than even National Day.

Reykjavik Gay Pride is in the beginning of August and attracts more people to the streets than even National Day.

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