Trip Report: Iceland

iceland

The Travelzoo headline screamed, “Iceland RT for $250!”

That HAD to be a mistake, right? And if not, there HAD to be a catch, right?

I clicked on it and, nope, not a mistake. And nope, no catch. Turns out, you really can fly round-trip to Iceland from the United States for just $250. It didn’t take long for me to talk The Wife into an impulse trip to the northernmost country capital in the world!

PREPPING FOR THE TRIP

Turns out, Iceland isn’t nearly as small as you’d think. The aptly named Ring Road, which circles the island, is 830 miles long. And even if you didn’t want to get THAT adventurous, there are a number of regions on the more populated eastern/southern side of the island worth taking a look into, so with only four nights, we had some decisions to make. And we decided on two nights in the capital city of Reykjavik and two nights in “the country” near the most famous natural wonders. We probably could have used one more night in the city, but otherwise, I think our plan was solid. With a couple more nights, we would have headed to East Iceland and with a lot more time, would have pondered the Ring Road, but if you’re looking for a quick trip, four nights is sufficient to see all the highlights.

Despite its name, Iceland isn’t really all that cold, even in March when we went. But it IS colder than Florida, and most of Iceland’s treasures are outdoors, so we both made trips to the local Columbia outlet to add some warm and, more importantly, waterproof clothing.

Wi-fi is fairly easy to find in the cities. Most bars and restaurants offer it for free, though many will require you to check-in to Facebook to get access. It’s a bit harder to find in the rural areas, but the big tourist attractions offer it for a nominal fee.

The day before we left, some friends who had just returned gave us our last big tip. Don’t exchange money at the airport. You won’t need currency. And they were right. Credit cards we accepted everywhere, even at the street-side hot dog stand. We did exchange $20 worth at the airport – on the way home – to give to friends and family as souvenirs. The only place we wish we had some coins was to tip bartenders at bars where the credit card machines didn’t allow for tips. So, yeah, maybe $20 at the airport just for that. But be sure your credit card doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.

wow

GETTING THERE

That bargain-basement-too-good-to-true airfare? We can thank Wow Air for it. Wow is the discount airline of Iceland (who knew?), and as you can see from its route map above, it connects five U.S. cities to not only Reykjavik, but also several cities in Europe, so it’s a great, inexpensive way to get across the pond, no matter where you want to go.

I’ll admit I was a little hesitant. Even from Boston, where we left from, it was a five-hour flight. On a discount airline. But not long after we boarded, we realized this was no Spirit Airlines. The planes were bright and comfortable. Plenty of legroom and – gasp! – power outlets at every seat. Unlike Spirit Airlines, you had in-flight entertainment options – plenty of U.S. movies and TV shows to choose from to watch on your own devices or an iPad you could rent. Yes, you had to pay for all extras – checked bags, carry-on bags, snacks, drinks, entertainment, etc. – but a comparable flight on Icelandair, that included all of those things, was $589. Even with a fare increase because we delayed in booking, our Wow flight cost us about $360. There weren’t enough bags, drinks and food in the world that would have gotten us to $589.

Even more impressive was the airline’s efficiency – something all U.S. carriers could learn a thing or two from. Want a drink or a snack? Press your call button and a friendly flight attendant is at your seat in a jiffy. Also interesting: the airline has its own SkyMall-experience. Except you don’t order stuff and have it sent to your house. They have it all on board. Leaf through the catalog, order your perfume, hats, gloves and more from your flight attendant, and carry it off the plane with you. Really, really neat.

The only irritant with Wow is that the flight from Boston gets in literally in the middle of the night, so it might be difficult or impossible to find a hotel that will let you check in at 5 a.m. to get some sleep, which you’ll need after flying all night, without booking it a night early.

bab

After looking at all possible options, we actually ended up finding a really workable solution. We booked a room at the Bed and Breakfast Keflavik Airport, which is just a few minutes from the airport and offers clean, though Spartan, accommodations. (The photo above is from the hotel website, but our room was nowhere near as plush). It was about $80, but the power move is that they offer a very nice breakfast buffet starting at 4 a.m. So we landed, got our rental car, checked in, had breakfast and then got a couple hours of sleep. Since the airport is a good 45 minutes from Reykjavik, it also allowed us to start our Iceland vacation with the famous Blue Lagoon (more on that below), which is in between the two cities  so we didn’t have to back-track to do it. An added plus is that the Blue Lagoon is incredibly relaxing, so even if you didn’t get a good night’s sleep between the flight and the airport hotel, you had a relaxing day ahead of you to acclimate and rest up.

STAYING THERE

We had hear from plenty of friends about how expensive Iceland was, so we were bracing for that cheapo airfare to end up costing us. And the country IS expensive, but oddly, not in every way. Lodging was surprisingly affordable. Kayak.Com found us a number of really nice hotel options right in the Reykjavik city center for about $110 night – affordable by almost all U.S. major city standards. But I kept digging and turned up a couple real gems on AirBnB that made our trip even more enjoyable – and less expensive.

reyk.PNG

We spent our two nights in Reykjavik in the fantastic apartment above. It was just a couple of blocks from the main drag of Laugavegar. It was a full apartment with a bedroom, full bath, full kitchen, roomy living area, breakfast nook and an outdoor balcony. It was a perfect base camp for exploring all that Reykjavik had to offer. We walked everywhere from there.

Reyholt

We spent our final two nights at this fantastic “summer cottage” in the tiny town of Reykholt, not far from the famous Geysir and other natural wonders. It was certainly unique. It’s divided into two small structures. The main had a full kitchen, and a combo living/sleeping area, plus a full bathroom. A wooden deck separated it from a  smaller structure that had a half-bath, a mini kitchen, and a small sleeping/living area.

It also featured an outdoor hot tub that you fill on demand with water heated by the volcanic springs, perfect for sipping some wine and seeing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), if the weather conditions are just right (they weren’t when we were there, about our only disappointment). It also had a basketball court and trampoline, and was stocked with games and a TV that gets one Icelandic station (ha!).

If you book this place, beware of this – there is only one restaurant in town (fortunately, a really good one – more below) and no stores in town. So be sure you make it back in time to make it to the restaurant, or stock up on food before you get back from exploring or you’ll starve.

Between these two AirBnBs, we were able to see all the top Icelandic must-dos without much effort.

mars

GETTING AROUND

Getting around Iceland can be a bit tricky, depending upon how adventurous you are and your budget.

One option is to take the convenient Flybus shuttle from the airport into Reykjavik, walk or use public transportation or cabs to see Reykjavik, and then book day tours to the natural wonders elsewhere in the country.

Reykjavik is a very easy town to get around in. We were able to walk everywhere. We never used buses or cabs, but both were plentiful everywhere in town.

We’re more of independent spirits, so we decided to rent a car. “Cars” are actually quite affordable in Iceland. Almost insanely affordable. But just as I was ready to book a cheap ride on Budget, I did a little more research. Especially in winter, you might need a 4×4 vehicle to reach some of the natural wonders. Since that was a big part of our trip, we elected to use rental broker Auto Europe and got the most affordable 4×4 we could, which was about three times as much as a car. (As it turns out, we would have been just fine with a car, but I wouldn’t want to chance it in the winter. I’d buck up the extra dollars to be safe in a proper vehicle).

The rental process was not as smooth as I’m used to, which I suppose is to be expected. One selling point with Auto Europe was that it included a free GPS unit. While we are T-Mobile customers have have free data in most countries, including Iceland, I wasn’t sure whether we’d have service in some of the more remote areas, so a GPS sounded like a good idea. Unfortunately, instead of just picking up a car with a GPS unit in it, you have to have the company send you the GPS unit ahead of your trip (at a charge), pay extra for it for the days it is in transit (no, really) and then return it via FedEx when you get back to The States (no charge for this. Seems like they missed a final revenue opportunity!). Alas, we declined the “free” GPS unit, figuring we could buy one in Iceland for less than the extra charges if we really needed it. (Turns out, we didn’t, though we learned to put our next destination in Google Maps anytime we had a wi-fi signal, as service was spotty).

The company that actually provided the rental wasn’t at the airport to pick us up, and didn’t have a counter at the airport. After a couple calls to our U.S.-based Auto Europe representative, we were told they were on their way. When we got to the rental place, our first big decisions of the trip were on. In The States, I decline all rental car coverage. Between my personal car insurance and the credit card I use, I (and most people) am sufficiently covered. And, also to my delight, Auto Europe includes optional coverage in our rental. But then I started looking at the huge map of the country of Iceland, and all the “sandstorm” areas (are we still in Iceland?!?), many of which were close to some of our destinations. Sandstorm damage is not covered under any insurance. I got spooked. We booked it. (Turns out, there were no sandstorms our trip. In the future, I might decline it).

We were also advised of the many roads in which our 4×4 was not permitted to travel on. Surprisingly, it was most of the middle of the country, not that there is anything to see there anyhow.

After a frigid, middle-of-the-night inspection of our car, which showed a number of stickers covering small scratches, and not-so-cheap sandstorm coverage, we were off to our hotel. It was at this point that I saw the big sign that plastered the passenger-side glovebox. “Wind Damage Is Not Covered Under Any Coverage.” Hmmmm, I wondered ….

car

On our second to last day in the country, we booked a hiking tour on Solheimajokull Glacier (more below). We arrived early, and I was walking around the area when I heard Laura screaming. I ran over to our 4×4, and saw the driver door had broken its hinge. Laura had opened the door to answer a question from another tourist when a wind gust ripped the door out of her hand. We had no idea at the time, but our tour had already been canceled because of high wind. And now we had a second casualty of the day. We were able to finally cram the door shut, but the rest of the trip Laura, our driver, had to climb through the passenger seat to get to her seat, since we weren’t able to open the door.

We dropped the 4×4 back off at the rental counter, prepared for the worst. As it turns out, the representative was super nice, told us the damage was minor and our card would be charged in a few days. Fearful that we were looking at hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars of damage, we were pleasantly surprised when the final bill was about $140. Whew.

(Side note: That coverage your credit card provides is invalidated if you accept any optional coverage, which Auto Europe conveniently included at no charge. Except wind damage. LOL. I probably could have pressed the issue with my credit card company, but decided that it probably wasn’t worth it.)

One more tip I wish we had known: Europe uses Chip-and-PIN credit cards, and while U.S. cards now are coming with chips, we had no idea what our PIN numbers were, or even whether we had one. This wasn’t a problem in bars and restaurants and shops, but it WAS a problem at gas stations, where you’ll need your PIN to pump gas. The first station we went to was in a small, rural town and fortunately the attendant over-rode the system so we could fill up without a PIN. But the second time – when we were getting close to needing to be at the airport – we learned that there was only one gas station in all of Keflavik that will sell you gas without a PIN number. Fortunately, it was close to some other stops we just made and we got to the airport without issue.

THINGS TO DO/SEE

Iceland, as you might imagine, has some of the most breath-taking natural phenomenons you’ll see, so you’ll spend most of your time exploring outdoors. But there are few indoor things not to miss.

lagoon

Blue Lagoon

Yes, this is a tourist trap. But not all tourist traps should be avoided. And certainly not this one. This large, geothermal spa between Keflavik and Reykjavik is truly incredible. Reservations are required, so be sure to book well in advance.

There are four price points for tickets, and we chose the most popular – Premium. That got us into Blue Lagoon, use of a towel, robe and slippers, a free drink, a reserved table in the restaurant and a glass of sparkling wine there. The meal was delicious, but for travelers on a budget, it’s an easy skip since you’ll have many more wonderful meals during your trip.

view Cod.PNG

We started with our meal, and then went to our separate locker rooms to change. At check-in, you’re given a high-tech bracelet. It acts like your wallet (they scan it anytime you buy a drink or food) and your locker key (which is really neat, because you don’t need to remember your locker number. Just scan your bracelet in the center console and your locker opens). After changing into your swimwear, you then tip-toe into the chilly outdoors, find a hook for your towel and robe and then wade into the naturally heated, 102-degree water. It is an incredible experience and very relaxing. The lagoon is quite large, so even at peak times, it’s easy to find your own space away from the crowds. You can wade up to a bar to get a drink if you want, and a basic mud mask is included in all admissions. (Those with Premium or Luxury admissions get an extra algae mask, which was really neat but, again, not worth the upcharge for travelers on a budget.) There are also natural saunas on site if you want to stay warm, but not be submerged.

arts

Harpa

You’ll be amazed blocks away by this striking building, day or night (but especially at night when it’s lit up). The opera house and cultural center is a must-do and also offers a good warm-yourself-up break while exploring chilly Reykjavik. The guided tour is  must-do, and takes you throughout the entire building, which is open to the public during the day as a place to just relax or read a book. Big-name shows are booked here, as are little ones, as there are a number of different venues or all sizes. It also had a David Bowie photograph exhibit during our visit.

parliament

Government buildings

If you’re a history nerd like me, you’ll love how accessible all of the government buildings are in Reykjavik. Above is Parliament, which just a few days after our visit was the scene of massive protests as the country’s government crumbled in a scandal. We also visited the prime minister’s office and Hofdi House, where the famous Reagan-Gorbachev summit was held.

dick

Icelandic Phallological Museum

Yes, that’s a whale penis behind me. So, yeah, this museum is not for everyone. But before you think it’s nothing but shock factor, let me tell you this – it was fascinating. The museum was created by a guy who has been collecting preserved boy parts for most of his lifetime. Some kind of prurient interest? Perhaps. But the collection is presented in a scientific manner. It claims to have a penis of all species of mammals that inhabit Iceland or the waters around it. Yes, even human. (Turns out, some people are so enamored of the museum, that they bequeath their organs to it). There’s also some pop cultural displays, but largely, it’s a museum where you’ll learn stuff rather than giggle at stuff. (Now, the museum shop is another story …)

park

Thingvellir National Park

After two nights in Reykjavik, it was time to explore the country’s natural beauty in the region known as “The Golden Circle.” As mentioned, getting lodging in the northern end of the Golden Circle worked well for us. We got to hit all the big stops the first day, and had a convenient base camp to get to the glaciers the next day. The first stop, not too far outside of Reykjavik, was this breath-taking national park. Have some comfortable hiking boots on, because you’re going to want to explore this entire park. Plenty of waterfalls, but also a remote church and cemetery and plenty of water made for a great day of scenery.

geysir

Geysir

The next stop is the “Old Faithful” of Iceland. Every so often like clockwork, one of the geysers will blow its top and people will clap. It really was neat to see, and it takes you a couple of eruptions to get your timing down to get a good video.

waterfall.PNG

Gullfoss Waterfall

We ended our first day of exploring at the “Niagara Falls of Iceland.” Depending on the time of year you visit, it could be mostly frozen over or lush green. We got a little of both. The national park, Geysir and this stop are completely doable in one, non-rushed day, if you’ve picked lodging in the northern end of the Golden Circle.

glacier

Solheimajokull Glacier

Day 2 in the Golden Circle was almost exclusively dedicated to glacier hiking. You can’t go to Iceland and not get on a glacier! There are a number of guides that do hikes. We picked this one, which was about a two-hour drive from our cottage. Along the way, we stopped at a bunch of waterfalls, so it’s a really scenic drive. Unfortunately, high winds forced our tour to be canceled, but even without a guide, you can hike out to the beginning edges of the glacier. Since the tour was $114, budget travelers might want to skip that and just park and do a little self-hiking. You’ll eventually reach warning signs, but there’s plenty to see before you get to that point. (And, remember, be careful opening the doors to your rental 4×4. lol)

rock

Icelandic Museum of Rock ‘n Roll

This was a nice gem just a few minutes from the airport. When you think of Icelandic music, you think of Bjork. But there’s actually more that you’ll recognize. Plus, they have a studio where you can rock out on guitars and drums, and that’s always cool.

THINGS TO EAT AND DRINK

HERE is where your Iceland trip starts to add up. There’s really no enjoyable way around blowing your budget on food and drink. (You can stock up on snacks at supermarkets, but what fun is that?) You just need to grin and bear it and remind yourself you are on vacation.

For food, expect a minimum of $20 for an entree, and often much more. And even items that aren’t imported, like fish, didn’t offer much in the way of savings. We found pizza to be the value move pretty much everywhere, usually $10-$15. And it was uniquely tasty. You WILL expand your taste buds in Iceland, and that’s a big part of the fun. We didn’t get as adventurous as we could have, but you’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so. Several restaurants offer Icelandic tasting menus for about $80-$100 per person.

For alcohol, you’ll want to plan most of your drinking during happy hour. Fortunately, that’s a wide window at most places. But even at happy hour prices, you’re looking at about 10 bucks for a beer or glass of wine. The one mistake we made in this regard was in passing up the duty-free booze at the airport when we landed. I figured if we decided we wanted to drink in our apartment or cottage, we’d just pick something up at the store. First, grocery stores only sell near-beer. For all alcohol, you have to go to a liquor store/wine shop, and they have very odd and restrictive hours. Usually something like 2-6 p.m. daily. Miss it, and you’re out of luck. But if you make it, prices are ridiculously cheap. Like $10 for a bottle of wine that would cost you $50-$60 in a restaurant. Prices are also low at the airport, so stock up there and then be sure you research the liquor store location and hours to replenish your stocks.

Here are a few our favorite places:

creme catfish

Sjavargrillid Seafood Grill

Even though we didn’t get AS adventurous in our eating as we pondered getting (no, we didn’t eat puffin), we did want to challenge ourselves a bit, especially with seafood. This restaurant was highly rated, so we made a reservation and decided this would be our “fancy” night out. Despite service that we found to be unattentive to outright rude (extremely rare in this very friendly country), our meals were wonderful. The grilled lobster and spotted catfish dinner was delicious, but the highlight was the creme brulee, which I still maintain is the best dessert I’ve ever had anywhere.

risotto pizza

Primo

This Italian restaurant provided us one of the most affordable meals of our trip. I had the lobster risotto, which was the cheapest entree and delicious. Laura opted for the pizza, which came with jelly! The various cheeses on the pizza were a difficult taste, so the jelly actually helped “cut” it a bit.

fish

Icelandic Fish & Chips

You can find fish & chips most everywhere, so the trick is to find the BEST. While I can’t say for certain this restaurant in the harbor area was the best, I’d love to see the challengers to the title. You had your choice of two kinds of fish (whatever came off the boat that morning) and a number of sauces to choose from. Plus, they make their own unique lemonade!

hot-dogs

Baejarins Beztu

You can’t go to Iceland and NOT get a hot dog. All of your travel guides will tell you this is the “national” food, and they dress their dogs uniquely. The best toppings? Remoulade sauce and crunchy onions! So good. Hot dogs are also one of the power moves to avoid the high prices of restaurants. This stand is the most famous, and is down near the harbor, so it was perfect for a lunch break on a day of exploring.

dillon

Dillon Whiskey Bar

We came to Iceland to experience Iceland, not America, but every once in a while, it’s nice to be reminded of home. Dillon had a really American feel to it, right down to our bartenders, who were Americans who had moved to Iceland. Beer was affordable, by Iceland standards, and they had an impressive list of whiskeys and scotch and a number of different flights of each.

lebowskibar

Lebowski Bar

Another spot that will Americans feel like home. The entire bar is themed around the classic movie, “The Big Lebowksi.” I suppose it would qualify as a “hipster” bar for those who like that kind of thing. I don’t, but this was a fun spot and I’d return.

pizza2 lobster2

Restaurant Mika

As mentioned, the tiny town of Reykholt has only one restaurant. Fortunately, it’s a phenomenal one. It starts with reasonably priced wine (for Iceland) and only gets better. Plus, it has a real mom-and-pop feel, but with gourmet food. Best of all worlds. For starters, you have to get the lagoustines (little lobsters) in panko breading with white chocolate chili dipping sauce.  For entrees, it’s Italian, but once again, the pizza was the power move, both in price and in deliciousness. They have several to choose from.

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