Iceland. The land of waterfalls, ponies, natural hot springs, and names of places I'll never be able to pronounce. Since gaining international exposure in 2010 from their volcanic eruption, this country has seen an exponential rise in tourism. And I don't know about you, but in the past few years it's felt like every other person traveling has been posting pictures from Iceland! - but rightfully so. It takes only a few photos to convince the adventurous why it should be at the top of their travel bucket list! It truly is one of THE most beautiful countries in the world!
Ahhh, but what about the outrageous costs!?!
Most people hear about the $200 per-day average spent in Iceland and quickly determine it's out of their price range. Well I'm here to tell you that saving money in Iceland CAN be done! If you're willing to rough it for a little bit with a group of friends, keeping the costs down is extremely doable! I'll show you how I kept my budget around $75 a day (flight price not included)! But first, check out the adventures we had and then I'll break down our costs and budget tricks at the end!
PLACES WE WENT:
This was a great way to kick off our trip. We saw this view on our way to the Western Fjords on our very first day! It has become the most popular photo spot in its region."Mt. Kirkjufell (463 m) is the most prominent mountain in Grundarfjörður and a landmark of the fishing town. The mountain is free-standing and referred to as the most beautiful mountain on the Snæfellsnes peninsula - some even say the whole of Iceland." (1) This destination is not a common one for many tourists who generally only have time for the southern portion of Iceland. We had 9 days though so were able to do a ton! Though I don't think 9 days was necessary, it did allow us additional time for crappy weather. So if you're planning a little bit of a longer trip, I highly recommend this spot! You can find out more on this destination here!
Did you even go to Iceland if you didn't go to Seljalandsfoss?! With its 200 ft drop and its ability to be fully encircled, Seljalandsfoss waterfall has easily become one of the most visited locations in all of Iceland! It has even made appearances in Justin Bieber's 2015 music video I'll Show You - (which was actually deemed by Lonely Planet as "What NOT to do in Iceland" lol). But it was actually this waterfall that inspired me to originally look into what Iceland had to offer!
Pro Tip: Don't miss the hidden beauty of Gljúfrabúi Waterfall located just down the path from here. You'll have to be willing to get a little wet for this location though, as you have to walk in the water through a narrow entrance in the cliff.
Eldhraun Lava Fields
These lava rocks are covered in this gorgeous moss. For miles you can look in each direction and see the vast green overtaking these unique moon-shaped rocks. In fact, "the impressive Eldhraun lava field is the biggest lava flow in the world. It occurred during the Laki eruption in the late 1700s. The enormous site which is 565 square kilometers (218 sq mi) is where the Apollo 11 crew came to train for their impending moonwalk." (2). This spot can be found right off the Ring Road before the village of Kirkjubaejarklaustur.
This was the first glacier that we saw on our trip and it left me in complete awe. I couldn't believe how incredible the blue ice was up close! Though we didn't choose a guided tour, a guided glacier walk is an option for those willing to spend money on excursions. See Extreme Iceland's website if this interests you. The great news though for those on a tight budget is that none of the places we visited required you to pay.
Similar looking to Seljalandsfoss (and not far from it), this waterfall is unique in that it's right beside a campsite and it offers a short hike up to the top where you can view the falls from above! And as you can see, you can even walk right up to the falls. I also recommend stopping in at the restaurant right beside the campsite and grabbing some of their coffee - we all agreed it was some of the best we've ever had!
This massive waterfall is found in the southwest part of Iceland as well and is another one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland because of the waterfalls enormous size - though this picture unfortunately fails to capture. With a combination of the constant Iceland rainfall and the glacial runoff, Gullfoss is said to actually have the largest volume falls in all of Europe! There is also a great chance you'll see a stunning rainbow as soon as the sun peaks out behind the clouds. But this happens rather fast so be prepared for a quick capture!
If you're looking for a great hike with an epic view, I recommend Hvannadalshnúkur! We actually ended up randomly stopping and trying this trail - not knowing what to expect. This particular mountain is actually the highest peak in Iceland, though we of course did not complete the entire trek up the peak. We were satisfied with this section of the mountain that offered this incredible 360 view. And the hike to this spot only took about an hour to the top. There are sections of the trail that are steep and also has loose gravel, so if you prefer a steady incline this trail may not be for you.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Ah the beautiful Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon - Iceland's most popular filming destination! This also happened to be my personal favorite spot. Both of these views are located in the same area, just across the street from each other. On one side you'll see the chunks of icebergs coming off of the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier flowing at impressive speeds under the bridge through a short waterway. And on the other side you'll see and be able to touch these glistening blue ice chunks sitting on the beautiful black sand - what is now known as Diamond Beach. This is truly a magical place and is at the top of my recommendation list!
Found just 40 minutes on the Svartifoss trail, it's easy to reach for those wanting a spectacular view with a quick turnaround. These black hexagonal basalt columns were absolutely incredible to look at up close! They're unlike anything I had ever seen outside of Iceland.
Skaftafell National Park
Further up the same trail from Svartifoss, you can continue hiking to this epic glacial viewpoint. In Skaftafell National Park, there are actually many trails to choose from - you can see the full list of options here. We chose to do the Svartifoss and Sjónarsker trail, which only took about 2 hours total. Other than the steep climb right at the beginning, this specific hike was enjoyable because of its easy inclination, making it suitable for almost all types of hikers. From Svartifoss you can walk up to Sjónarsker viewpoint, and then continue the path back down, never having to double back. It was rainy and superrrrr windy when we got to this point so we didn't spend much time there. But on a sunnier day, this probably would have been one of my favorite spots!
In the southernmost point of Iceland, situated between Vík and Sólheimasandur, you will find this viewpoint at the Dyrholaey overlook. From here, you can see the black sand beaches and the natural arches of this gorgeous rock. Though the section of the arch overlook is too dangerous to walk out on and is blocked off from tourists, there are still plenty of spots to see a spectacular view of the crashing waves from above. Also to note, the lighthouse has been turned into a luxury hotel residence. Though we didn't get to see inside, more information on booking the lighthouse can be found on this website.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
Another popular spot I had been dying to go to was Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach where these enormous basalt columns are located. - which was actually rated by National Geographic as one of the Top 10 non-tropical beaches to visit on the planet. Not only does this spot boast these magnificent columns, but the roaring Atlantic waves crashing against them with the volcanic black sand below is a sight in itself. We watched (and laughed - we couldn't help it) at all the people who got a little too close to the water and quickly realized they underestimated the height and speed of the waves that were about to make them cold and drenched. But on a serious note, these waves are no joke. Definitely don't want to risk it for that epic Instagram shot. Not worth the chance of getting swept out in the ocean. Think smart and be safe (sorry not sorry for the mom vibes lol)!
Yes, Iceland has ponies everywhere. However, I personally thought that this specific spot in Tröllaskagi was the best view of them I saw the entire trip. We literally were just driving through on our way to Akureyri (the northern "capital" of Iceland) and decided to take the longer, more scenic route. This allowed us to view epic snow-capped mountains while encountering little to no other drivers on the road. For this shot, we literally just pulled over on the side of the road!
This canyon had quite the hike to get to this view. It's 3.5 km in length and 1.1 km across, with walls up to 100 meters high! It is said in Norse mythology that this canyon was created in the shape of horseshoe by the hoof of the god Óðinn's 8-legged horse, Sleipnir. Though I did think this spot was pretty cool, it was extremely windy this day so it made the experience a little less enjoyable. However, I was happy we kept going past the original point we thought was "the middle". It was certainly a great view, but one of my least favorite of the trip. So if you're crunched for time, I would say to spend it at a different Canyon - which leads me to...
Hafragilsfoss / Jökulsárgljúfur View Point
This epic canyon was actually a complete surprise for us! It easily became one of my top recommended destinations in all of Iceland, ranking in at my second favorite! You can find this spot just up the road from Dettifoss and Selfoss. There's also a walking trail below near the river. Unfortunately, since it was our last full day in Iceland, we were unable to fit it into our schedule. But I'm telling you, make this spot a priority if you're going to North Iceland!
Selfoss is the smaller of the two waterfalls right next to each other. I would recommend hitting this waterfall first and then saving the path for Dettifoss last. In this way you can enjoy the beauty of Selfoss without comparing it to Dettifoss' grander size.
This is the best view you can get of the Dettifoss Waterfall due to its tourist platform. So though bigger in size than Selfoss, I personally liked the smaller of the two better, but only because we were able to get much closer to Selfoss.
Hverir near Lake Myvatn
This remarkable view is found near Lake Myvatn in northern Iceland and is most visited for its touristy destination at the bottom where you can clearly see the geothermal activity smoking out! However, though gorgeous and incredibly unique, it certainly does have its downside - the stench. Think rotten eggs mixed with a gym locker bag. This of course is just the natural smell of the sulfur coming from the geothermal activity. All that to say, if you don't have a strong stomach, this may not be the hike for you. However, it's Mars-like feel was certainly worth the smell in my opinion! If you choose to go, make sure you wear your hiking shoes. This short hike was quite steep and had areas with little traction!
Housing & Transportation
This incredible trip definitely couldn't have happened without the help of Kuku Campers being both our housing and transportation. We had an amazing experience with them and I highly recommend choosing them if you're considering to go the camper van route (must know how to drive a manual). Now of course, this option is much more affordable with several friends splitting the costs. We actually had 5 people fit in this, though it only comfortably sleeps 3. The way we pulled this off is by squeezing 4 on the bed in the back while my brother thankfully chose to sleep in his tent outside - he preferred it (he's crazy like that) so we didn't complain lol.
So most gas stations had free WiFi (N1 and Ollies), but we actually rented a portable WiFi hotspot so that we could have it even in the remote places of Iceland. If you're using WiFi just for Google Maps though, no need. If you haven't tried it yet, you can actually download portions of maps you need offline by using the app! But if you want to communicate/use social media, we had a great experience with Trawire Rentals (unlimited 4G for $9 a day). It was super easy, both pick up and drop off and the WiFi service did work all around Iceland! Check out their website:
"Rent a portable WiFi hotspot and be connected to fastest available internet in Iceland. Up to 10 mobile devices are connected via 4G without changing SIM card in your current mobile device." (3)
Weather in Iceland
We chose to go in May, which is just the start of their summer months. This meant that we still experienced some of the colder days coming off the end of their winter - ranging from sun, rain, wind, snow, and even hail. (Though some of the locals did say that it was a strange May). So just be prepared for it ALL! However, the weather did change frequently, which is why Iceland has a saying "If you don't like the weather, wait 5 minutes" lol. So even though it did rain a lot (more so in the southern part than the north), it didn't rain the entire day. But a completely sunny day was definitely a rare sight.
Break Down of my Personal Costs
- Flight: $270 roundtrip (WOWAir)
- Bags: $80 roundtrip (1 carry on)
- Camper Van: $370 for 9 days!
- Gas & parking: $130
- Camp Sites: $60
- Food: $100
- Hot Springs: $25
- Coffee: $20
- Total costs: $1157 for 9 days!
- Around $130 per day (flight and bags included), or $88 per day IN Iceland expenses
Note: The camper van ended up being more expensive for me because we originally were splitting it 5 ways, but only split it 3 ways for the last few days because 2 of our friends had to leave early. So this price could have been even lower!
Tips & Tricks to Save Money
- Buy groceries, DON'T eat out: So you might be wondering how I kept my food budget to around $100. Well, this is because we never ate out at a restaurant, not even once. We actually brought dehydrated meals along with couscous and ate these for lunch and dinner.
- Shop at BONUS or KRONAN: Okay, so dehydrated meals is a little too far for you? No problem, just stock up on groceries in Reykjavik for the week at the Bonus or Kronan. These are the discount grocery stores in Iceland. I found that their prices were relatively similar to what I found in the States, whereas everywhere else was much more expensive.
- Drink the TAP water! No need for the boujee bottled water while in Iceland. You'd be missing out on some of the purest glacial water available. All the additional trace minerals found in Iceland's water is extremely good for you - we even drank directly from the streams on our hikes! So whether you're staying in a camper van like us, or in hostels, the tap water comes from the closest source of glacial water, so make sure you take advantage of this!
- Skip the Blue Lagoon: Try free hot springs instead! The Blue Lagoon is a tourist trap, and though gorgeous, there are so many other options in Iceland if you want a hot spring experience that doesn't cost $70! There are natural water springs all around the ring road and you can check the availability for FREE options on this website called Hotpot Iceland.
You Absolutely NEED to bring
- Sleeping bag (preferably a 20-degree DriDown bag)
- Rain boots
- Rain Coat
- Rain Pants
Not preparing for the rain was clearly my biggest Iceland mistake. If you can bring a pair of waterproof pants, you will thank yourself later! I didn't have a pair and instead wore a pair of pants over leggings every day (some days even over 2 pairs of leggings) - definitely not the most comfortable experience I've ever had.
- Adapter/Car Charger
- Iceland Travel Guide
Lastly, you're going to want to purchase a travel guide. We used the Lonely Planet's travel guide and it was extremely helpful! Not only did we learn all kinds of cool historical information, but we would've missed some key sites without its recommendation.
Here are some clickable links to some of the products that I highly recommend: