In October, we traveled to Iceland, and it was amazing. We were there 10 days, and we LOVED every bit of it! Every view, every experience, every waterfall, every pool, every meal, every rainbow, every craggy cliff, every sheep, every horse, every everything was utterly fantastic to us. We met some lovely people. We ate wonderful food. We stayed in interesting places. We learned so many fascinating things. We had one experience with bad/loud neighbors our first night in Reykjavik, bad enough to make us book a new place for the following 2 nights, but that actually all worked out well. And I dropped and broke my phone...thereby losing my camera and emails, reservations, etc., but we had my husband's phone and we made sure our son brought his phone (an older hand-me-down) for emergencies and we had brought one laptop for emergency access to information. I ended up using my son's old, hand-me-down phone for photos, and I think it was better than the one that broke. So, that too, all worked out fine.
It can be an expensive trip, but if you know how to plan and what to eat and where to go, you can save money and have enough for a few amazing splurges!
We did rent a vehicle because half of our trip was spent outside of Reykjavik exploring the countryside. Renting a vehicle is expensive, plus it's necessary (or at least a good idea) to get the insurance, and gas is extremely expensive (more on that below). So, the car took up a chunk of budget.
And yet, food was really not much more expensive, if at all, than what we see here in the Twin Cities. Which is to say, it is expensive, but we are used to that. If you come from a place that eating out is not exorbitant, then it may come as a shock to you when reading through a menu in Iceland, if you can quickly convert the Icelandic Krona to US dollars, that is. We found it best to be conservative in our ordering, but not convert the price and not worry too much about the cost. You have to eat, after all. We shared a lot of meals, and we did not eat every meal out. We do pack food, and we buy groceries when we travel. And we book apartments or homes or cabins that have full kitchens for preparing meals. Hostels often have a space for preparing your own meals, as well.
- Fly IcelandAir. From MSP and other locations, you can get a direct flight. Our flight was 6 hours long, overnight. The plane was plenty spacious and the crew very friendly. Kids younger than 12 actually fly for less and receive a box of food and a small backpack type bag with fun activities and ear buds upon boarding. We chose the option for 1 bag included with each person's ticket, but in the end had one extra bag. They weighed that one last and then called it a "carry-on" and checked it for no extra cost, each way. Note: They are VERY STRICT on the size of carry-on bags. They can't be more than the size of a backpack or large purse. Fortunately, we don't fly with large suitcase type carry-on bags. So, we were fine regarding the carry-on bags.
- Kids under 12 are free at most pools, spas, museums, tours, etc. I think the only places we had to pay for the kids were the Saga Museum, the Perlan and the performance at Harpa (see below).
- Eat Icelandic hot dogs at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. It's just a trailer. You'll see the line first. It's worth the wait. We went here two or three times. They are soooo good. Be sure to order them with everything! They are made with lamb…I think that is why they are so tasty.
- Eat Soup. Anywhere and everywhere. We had some good lobster soups. Generally, places have a meat soup and veggie soup.
- Braud & Co. is an AMAZING bakery! We got pastries here each day we were in Reykjavik and then stocked up on bread and pastries before we left Reykjavik to explore the country. While not dirt cheap, the pastries are so good and are not going to break the bank either. Get a variety and share them.
- Reykjavik Roasters is just a block away from Braud & Co. and has delicious coffee and hot chocolate to go with your pastries. This should be your first or second stop of the morning…or any other time you need some coffee.
- National Parks, waterfalls, geysirs, volcanoes, beaches, cliffs, glaciers, otherworldly landscapes and all natural wonders are free to explore to your heart's content. Our tip: if you see cars pulled over/stopped in a parking lot, pull over and check it out. One exception is Kerid Crater. This is on private land and it cost us a small amount, but it was worth it.
- When renting a car, choose a couple of companies and message on Facebook or email and ask for a discount. Then, go back and forth until you get what you want. I got a 10% off discount by doing this. And get the insurance – some companies include most of the insurance types in their prices. Be sure to let them know what season you will be visiting and where you will be traveling. That way, you can be sure you get the right vehicle for your travels; some areas require a 4x4.
- Buy groceries at Bonus or Kronan, the discount groceries stores. Buy local favorites and explore candy, bread, meat, cheese, skyr options. We LOVED the Isey brand skyr (Icelandic yogurt) and got some blueberry jam to mix into the plain skyr. We found that most of the Continental breakfasts we ate had skyr and jam, plus ham and butter and breads and a fish paste (similar to a tuna salad). So, we bought some of the things we had seen on the continental breakfasts when we bought groceries. We usually make sandwiches, eggs and toast, cereal, overnight fridge oatmeal and spaghetti for our cook at home meals with touches of fruits/veggies or cheeses or spreads or sauces or proteins that are local foods/tastes.
- Pack your own food to bring. Word of caution: Check with customs to see if there are foods you can't bring in or take out. For instance, Iceland does not allow any meat to come in, dry or otherwise. So, no beef jerky/meat sticks – something we usually travel with. We always bring things like trail mix, dried fruit, coffee, tea, crackers, dry pasta, granola/protein bars and chocolate.
- Eat pizza – it's easy to share and cheaper this way. We ate a lot of pizza. We love pizza! And it was delicious! Our favorite was Black Box in Reykjavik. It was mostly locals and the service and pizza were fantastic! Our next favorite was in Arnarstapi on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula at Arnarbaer. Flatey Pizza in Reykjavik was disappointing though and the service was equally disappointing even though the reviews and ratings were good. We would not go there again.
- Shop at Kolaportid – the indoor flea market in Reykjavik. I got an Icelandic wool sweater and an original watercolor for a great price there. It's the one place you need cash. There were so many cool things here. It's open only on the weekends.
- Walk as much as possible and conserve gas. It is EXPENSIVE! I think walking is the best way to explore and not miss anything anyway, but sometimes you must drive, of course, if you are exploring outside of Reykjavik. So, when you plan your trip be aware that gas is quite costly. We paid about $300 total and it was the equivalent to a full tank of diesel.
- Stay in a hostel, when possible. Some have family suites with private bathrooms. We stayed in a variety of types of lodging during our 10-day trip. One of them was the Base Hotel, a hostel that used to be the NATO Base barracks for families. We booked a family suite with private bathroom. It had two rooms with a total of 4 twin beds and one queen with a private bathroom for about $140 for the night. There was a game room, arcade games, a huge magnetic chessboard, a pool table and a library, a small café and a bar all with a cool, funky style and variety of travelers.
- Book a Free Walking Tour. You pay what you can/what it was worth to you at the end of tour. It's an awesome way to get to know the city and its culture, government, food, the must dos and don'ts, etc. We do this kind of tour in any city we travel to that offers it.
- Consider a Reykjavik city card for discounts. For us, and what we were doing and the age of our kids, it did not add up to a discount, but it's worth checking out.
- There is no tipping at all in Iceland! (other than the free walking tours)
- Talk to people, whether visitors or locals. They will give you tips and information that is invaluable.
- Research and read everything you can find on Iceland. I found local blogs, TripAdvisor comments, maps and local Icelandic guide websites very helpful.
- The Geothermal Bakery Bread Tour in Fontana Spa in Laugarvatn. We enjoyed the geothermal pools at the spa the night before we went on the Geothermal Bakery Bread Tour, and really enjoyed everything about the Fontana Spa. The bread tour was absolutely fascinating – at least to me – and quite affordable. We lucked out with our guide as it was her grandmother's bread recipe that they use and has been passed down for generations. The dark, dense, slightly sweet bread is baked inside a pot that is buried out in the hot sands where the hot springs are. After seeing how it is baked, we were served warm bread that was just dug up from the hot sand with thick slabs of butter. Our tour was just our family since no one else signed up for it, and we ate as much of the bread as we wanted.
- The Blue Lagoon. The kids were free here, but for two adults with the basic package (towels, lockers and adults get 1 free drink) the total was still $200. This was our second stop after getting off the plane (first stop was a continental breakfast at Viking World). We were exhausted, and the blue lagoon was relaxing and rejuvenating! We spent 4 hours here. It's not to be missed. Word to the wise: Make reservations before you arrive! It does sell out. This is one of my favorite things I have EVER done. The locals tend to poo poo it, but it was an amazing experience and beautiful and unique and such a wonderful memory!
- Omnom Chocolate Factory Tour. The kids were free, but it was still about $80 total. We loved it! It was quite interesting, the chocolate was amazing, and the people were lovely. You get to taste all of their chocolate! IT IS FANTASTIC CHOCOLATE!
- How to Become Icelandic in 60 minutes at Harpa. Harpa is the performance center in Reykjavik and the architecture alone warrants a visit. It is beautiful and the outside tiles continuously change colors. We went to this performance on our first night. We were exhausted by the time difference and no sleep, but we laughed our heads off and loved it. While it is silly and fun and delightful, it is also quite an education and provides a fascinating look at the Icelandic culture and history and people. Make reservations before you go. It was a full house when we were there. (Be warned if you have young and/or sheltered children: There is some "language" as Captain America says and some topics are a bit savory, but our kids loved it, and we did not feel that it was inappropriate or regret taking them – our kids are not sheltered from "language" or information though)
- Lunch at Fridheimar Tomato Farm. Everything about this place made us happy! Of course, we all love tomatoes. The food is delicious. The warm, golden light of the green house feeds the plants and your soul and gives you a happy buzz. Service is friendly and impeccable. If you get just the soup buffet, it won't break the bank either. It's all you can eat tomato soup with butter, sour cream, julienned cucumbers in vinegar and basil for topping said soup and mounds and mounds of various delicious, rustic, made on site bread and coffee or tea to end the meal. Of course, you can order a few other tomato-based dishes too…and we did. So, this ended up being our most expensive meal, but it was my birthday and a splurge was in order. Oh, and it's best to make a reservation.
- The Saga Museum. It is a wax figure museum that tells the tales of the most famous Icelandic Sagas or stories. We each had an auditory guide and went through the fairly small museum at our own pace. It was beneficial for understanding many stories, locations, tours, etc. throughout our trip.
- The Perlan…or the Pearl. This is a wonderful museum for understanding the geologic formations and phenomena on the island. We found it quite educational. Additionally, there is a manmade ice tunnel/cave/glacier that is kept below freezing and made from ice. We took a guided tour through and it was really interesting. There is a deck around the top of Perlan that offers a wonderful view of the surrounding area.
If you have the chance to travel to Iceland, do it! It is such a wonderful trip, no matter what season you choose to go. I have other tidbits about places to stay and where to eat, and maybe one day I'll get around to writing those posts.
Where are you headed?