Iceland on a Budget

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Iceland is beautiful!  No wonder there are record number of tourists visiting Iceland (millions per year in 2017… for a country of roughly 330,000 inhabitants) they are even considering adding a tourist tax due to the amount of people flying into the remote country.  Although Iceland is beautiful, it is notorious for being expensive, especially for food and accommodation.  People in Iceland are really lovely and friendly, and very tolerant of the influx of tourists in their country!

Here's how to do Iceland on a budget:

Getting There

There are two main flight operators, Wow Air and Iceland Air. Our flight wasn’t considered budget, but it was less than $1000 CAD. Sometimes you can get flights from Vancouver to Iceland for $600.

Accommodation

To save money on accommodation and food, we opted for Airbnb and guesthouses found on Hostelbookers that had shared kitchen facilities. In general our accommodation cost $130 CAD per night for the both of us which isn’t cheap (Iceland is known to have high prices for accommodation and food) but was the cheapest we could find apart from sleeping in a dorm.

Getting Around

Basically to get around Iceland, it’s best to rent a car. The roads are well maintained and easy to drive on.

Sadcars cost about 43 Euro a day for a 4WD and 10 Euro a day for a GPS. It was certainly very sad looking and it had over 400,000km on it. However, it did the trick though and ran well. The GPS was well worth the extra cost as we did not use Google Maps or have Internet reception to drive around Iceland with. The navigation through the multiple roundabouts and knowing where to go when cars are zooming past you made the 10 Euro per day pay back in dividends.

One way to save money on both accommodation and car rental is to use Happy Campers camper van rental. We didn’t use it ourselves but saw a few of these on the road. However, you’ll have to find your own bathroom, as they aren’t included in these camper vans.

Sights and Attractions

Reykjavik

In Reykjavik, the relatively new Harpa is free to walk around in and a beauty to look at, the Hallgrimskirkja church costs a few euro if you want to go up to the tower, but otherwise, it’s free to visit inside to look at the gothic architecture.  It's also nice to walk up and down the hilly streets and marvel and the colourful buildings.

Blue Lagoon

Apparently heading to the Blue Lagoon tops millennial bucket lists, and beat out seeing the pyramids in Egypt. Blue Lagoon is near the Keflavik airport is recommended to go here when you get into Iceland or leave Iceland as it’s closer to the airport than to Reykjavik. Frankly it’s kind of a tourist trap and cost about $65USD for admission (the basic standard package, which includes admission and a silica facemask). Bring your own towel and sandals to avoid paying for extra unnecessary costs.  We found that identical towels and bathrobes and flip flops were strewn everywhere, so even if you paid extra, you might not even be able to find the items you paid for.  There's a very short walk from the change rooms to the pool so you don't really need a bathrobe.

The Golden Circle

Iceland on a BudgetThe Golden Circle is a doable day trip from Reykjavik and includes Thingvellir, Haukadalur (Geysir and Stokkur), Gulfoss, and the lesser known Kerio Crater.  All of these attractions are free except for Kerio Crater which had a small admission fee.  Thingvellir National Park sits in a rift valley caused by the separation of two tectonic plates, and you can also snorkel or dive in Silfra, and swim between two tectonic plates.  Geysir is, you guessed it, a geyser, and was a little overrated and kind of touristy but nice to see.  Gulfoss was a beautiful waterfall and very scenic.  Kerio crater is a crater lake near Selfoss and you can walk around the entire rim of the crater and even walk down into the crater (though this latter feature was not an option for us due to slippery snowy conditions).

Jokulsarlon

This is probably the most beautiful spot in Iceland, is the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon.  You basically see blue white icebergs in the lagoon floating into the sea, and also large broken off iceberg pieces that look like diamonds glistening in the sun on the black sand beach at the nearby “diamond beach”.  It is about a 5-hour drive from Reykjavik on the South Coast of Iceland.

Aurora Borealis

Finally, this was the highlight of my trip, getting to see the northern lights dance in the sky!  The Aurora Forecast for Iceland was the best website to check for cloud cover and aurora activity, on the map white indicates clear skies.  On a moderate “3” night with clear skies, we drove out of the little town of Hofn and into a dark spot and saw the northern lights dance for about 1.5 hours, it got more and more green as the evening progressed.  Unfortunately by the time I figured out how to take off the ‘autofocus' on my camera, I was only able to get some weak pictures.  That's fine though, because the memory will always be with me!  Best of all, it was free!

You can pay about $60-100 USD for a bus tour to take you out aurora hunting, but given the dark skies and our trusty rental car, we decided to go ourselves.

What to Eat

The key to saving money while traveling in Iceland is to bring a suitcase full of food! A soup and a non-alcoholic drink can cost about $20 USD here!  We pretty much cooked most of the time and ate out only three times.

The Seabaron Lobster Soup in Reykjavik with bread and butter was 1,350 Kr. It was pretty good, but not as good as the Yelp reviews says it was, and frankly I found it a bit salty when I ran out of bread to pair it with.

Viking World which was close to the airport had breakfast buffet with admission included was 1800 Kr (about $1 8USD), it was a nice pit stop after the early morning flight arrival to settle in and have some food.

In Hofn, there was a little drive through casual restaurant near the harbor called Hafnarbudin. They had langoustine sub sandwiches (langoustine is sort of like a smaller lobster-like creature) with delicious sauce for 2000 Kr ($20 USD), pretty expensive but the langoustine was delicious and a nice treat.

Those were pretty much the only times we ate out. We brought a suitcase full of pasta, granola, canned goods (canned salmon and even gasp, Spam), and of course a can opener to save money on food. We bought eggs, some fruit, milk, and delicious Skyr yogurt/cheese (apparently it’s a cheese but it tastes like yogurt) at the Bonus grocery stores (the yellow logo with the pig), these are the cheapest grocery stores and are found throughout Iceland.

Readers, have you been to Iceland before? Any money saving tips you would like to share?

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Young is a writer and former owner of Young and Thrifty and the main "twitter' behind Young and Thrifty's twitter account. She lives in Vancouver, BC and enjoys long walks on the beach, spending time with her anxious dog, and finding good deals. If you like what you read, consider signing up for email updates.

5 Comments

  1. Ben on May 1, 2017 at 4:30 pm

    One key budget friendly travel consideration (and this applies to all destinations) is the use of off-line map apps such as maps.me. Save yourself the gps rental costs. You simply download areas ahead of time and can then access them and use them for navigation without networks or wifi. It worked great throughout the remote highland areas of Iceland. They are battery drainers though so I would recommend a car charging cable.

    Although not budget friendly, the dive through Silfra was the highlight of our trip and I would do it again in a heartbeat!



  2. Owen @ PlanEasy on May 2, 2017 at 7:15 am

    Iceland is beautiful. We were there in 2011. We had a hotel that included breakfast so we filled up in the morning, had a snack in the afternoon, and then ate dinner out. That kept food costs down.

    We also found a great pylsur stand (Icelandic hot dogs) that were amazing and we probably ate those at least 3-4 times over the course of the trip.

    We also bought alcohol at the duty free in the airport.

    Only saw a faint aurora borealis though. We would skip that next time we go.



  3. Murgull on May 7, 2017 at 3:12 pm

    Costco is opening later in may, so hopefully that will bring prices down a bit

    Also, at least us locals consider the swimming pools far better deal than the blue lagoon



  4. Greg on May 7, 2017 at 8:04 pm

    Great review of Iceland, and it was a close summary of our 5 night trip two weeks ago!
    We traveled from Keflavik around the golden circle to Fludir (which has its own hot spring lagoon that is beautiful and much less expensive than the Blue Lagoon), through Vik to the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, and back to Reykjavik for 3 nights at an AirBnB one block from Hallgrimskirkja. We saved by opting for the aforementioned SADCars rental of a very used Subaru Legacy with 420,00kms. With gas at $2.50/liter, you don’t want/need a jacked up gas-guzzling SUV. We stocked up on essentials and started every morning with Skyr and granola, hit up a bakery mid-morning for a coffee and a treat, made sandwiches mid afternoon, then split an entre at a restaurant in the evening. This meant we were still able to sample the local cuisine, we were never hungry, and didn’t go home crying to the poor house. For entertainment, pick up a free paper in Reykjavik and check out the local entertainment section because there are often great blues and jazz bars with free cover.
    Lastly, skip the grand excursions. Iceland is beautiful, and the vast majority of destinations are natural wonders that are free of charge. You could spend $1000/day in Iceland on travel, food, accommodations and activities without breaking a sweat. Or, you can spend that $1000 over 5 or 6 days, have a great time, and spend the next 3 months relaxing and planning your next adventure instead of stressing over how you’re going to pay for those horse riding or dog-sledding lessons.



  5. DivGuy on May 11, 2017 at 9:31 am

    Thank’s for sharing this! We have many travels in mind when we’ll come back from this one year trip! 😉 I also know that my sister-in-law is preparing a trip in Northern Europe this summer. I’ll share that with her!

    Cheers,
    Mike



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