It's been over two months since we last checked in. I'm not sure how to explain myself other than to say we've been having so much fun that this blog got away from us.
If you've ever heard anyone say anything nice about Iceland (which I'm sure you have), my advice for you is to believe it and then magnify it by about x10 in your brain. Iceland is a certain kind of magic that words, stories, pictures, or videos will never be able to convey to you. In order to capture the magic, you have to behold it with your own eyes.
I'll cover some strategic planning topics we uncovered whilst traveling to Iceland here: what to pack (both food and clothes wise), what to expect with the weather, getting around, cost saving tips for camping, showering, and getting around
Getting to Iceland
We chose to go during summer for no particular reason other than it was cheaper to get from Central America to Europe by way of Iceland. I know, it's really weird to say out loud.
If you are flexible on when you're going, check Google Flights or WOW! airlines websites to see what dates are cheapest. You can find $200-300 fares from many main cities in the US if you fly mid-week. Our flights cost us $400 total from Boston.
Where to stay if you're on a budget
Iceland is expensive. Super expensive. And I live in San Francisco. There are Airbnbs around the island country, but they're scant. In fact, most guesthouses aren't advertised on the internet encouraging you to go directly through their tourism office. Hotels are gorgeous, modern, and captivating - but, again, they're super expensive.
We decided to go with renting a small campervan to reduce cost and give us more flexibility. We rented the van for 7 days and it cost us 151,800 ISK (around $1,400 USD / 1,200€). This was the best daily average I could find, better than hostels, hotels, or Airbnbs.
The van comes with:
- Automatic or Manual transmission: we chose automatic for ease, we're not as accustomed to manual)
- Heaters for overnight sleeping: we never used these; the sleeping bags were enough. The heaters won't drain your battery if you use them all night.
- Electric mini-fridge: great for keeping milk, cheese, and other perishables fresh!
- Table, chairs, plates, cuttlery, cooking stove with propane tanks, pots and pans: we used these constantly. They helped us drastically reduce our food costs. Also it was adorable to make meals together on a tiny one-burner stove.
- Comfortable full-size bed: The bed also folds up, should you want to use the back seat for sitting. We never did this.
- 11 litre carton of fresh water: this can be used for cooking, cleaning, and drinking. All of Iceland's water is the crispest, cleanest, clearest, best tasting water you can get. You ca fill up at gas stations or campgrounds for free anywhere you go.
- 'Black-out' privacy shades for all windows: This really helps to cut out sunlight, especially during summer when there's anywhere from 20-22 hours of it each day.
Where to camp?
Iceland is incredibly liberal with where you can camp. You can park overnight most anywhere, unless there are signs that say otherwise. The first night, we camped in a proper camping spot which meant that we had running water and bathrooms (this particular campground didn't have showers or a dining room - but many of them do). It cost us around $30 US to camp overnight. This particular place, North East of Reykjavik, was more crowded than we wanted our experience. So, after that night, we started pulling off the road at night to park. We never camped next to another car ever again. We were always alone, next to gorgeous waterfalls, or up on a mountain overlooking a fjord, or parked next to a glacier. It was 100% the best way to experience things.
We would explore all day, drive until we got tired and then start hunting for a good spot to pull off. Generally this would take us anywhere from 30m to an hour to find the "perfect place". Once you're parked, you can cook dinner on your one-burner stove, and tuck in for the night.
What's the weather like?
Summer means the highest temperatures and the least amount of wind (I hear spring and autumn are crazy windy; winter is pure snow.)
The hottest temperature we had was 21°C/70°F - this was always somewhere between noon and 3pm. It doesn't last too long, but it's a nice reprieve from the chilly nights. You can tell the locals were loving it, all the men were topless in shorts and Wellies. We would be out hiking and lightweight pants + a tanktop would work perfectly. That night, we'd be bundled in our Uniqlo puffy jackets and wool socks.
The coldest temperature we experienced was 9°C/48°F. When it was cold, we lived in leggings, wool socks, beanies, long sleeve shirts, and our puffy jackets. We didn't have a lot of warm clothes, which is why ALL of our photos have us looking exactly the same!
We thought the weather was perfect. Especially after traveling from Central America where it was 30-40°C/90-105°F. The weather was more akin to San Francisco so we were right at home!
How do you get clean if you're not staying at campgrounds?
All campgrounds which have showers will let you buy a shower. If you passby one, you can pay anywhere from $1-5 USD for a piping hot shower. Most all of Iceland's hot water comes geo-thermal heating, so when I say "hot" I mean "HOT".
Another alternative is to go to public swimming pools. You're required to shower before entering which means you get a hot shower and a relaxing soak in natural fed geo-thermal hotspring pools. Most of the swimming pools look exactly like large public pools in the states, complete with lots of fun slides, except they're all warm. All the facilities are clean and well kept. This was our favorite way to get clean.
One thing to note is that you're meant to shower naked, without a bathing suit. If you've known me for longer than 4 minutes, you'll know that this was no problem for me, but I hear that a lot of foreigners skip the swimming pools because they are afraid to get naked in the shower. If you have fear, the good news is: you'll never see these people again, but if you still have fear I can tell you I did notice a couple people still wearing suits. No one will hunt you down.
Funny side story: we just came from places where we were at the ocean every day so we were both SUPER tan, likely the tannest we've ever been. When I was showering all the kids were gawking at me - most likely because of the copious tattos and also because of the tan lines. EVERYONE there is the whitest form of white I've ever seen. Pale white skin, white blonde hair, and blue eyes. Exotic in Iceland is having red hair. I definitely stood out.
What about doing laundry?
Most campgrounds have places to do your washing. A handful of them also have dryers, in case it's wet outside or you're on the move so hang-drying is out of the question.
What to bring?
For the car:
- Car outlet charger for your phone: we had one with 2 USB plugs to charge all our devices.
- Car outlet power converter: we forgot this, and wish we had it! This one looks awesome!
- Extension cord: this may be one of the most vital things we've brought on our year round trip. It allows us to charge multiple appliances even if we only have one outlet. The one we have doesn't take up much space, either.
- AUX cable: for road tripping tunes! Remember to download those Spotify playlists before you get on the road!
- Phone stand for navigation: not a necessity, but a nice to have. The ones that fit into the air vents would be perfect. I used a flexible tripod stand which doubles as a tripod for my phone & camera. Sometimes it would slide around on the dash, but for the most part, it worked out.
- 'Just Add Water' foods: We heard that Iceland has not great food for a very expensive price, so we went to the grocery store before we left and bought a bunch of packaged dehydrated foods. Sure, it's not the healthiest - but you won't be finding fresh vegetables for a reasonable price anyway. Buy things in soft packs like tuna, chicken, chili, mashed potatoes, soups, etc. If you leave enough time to plan, you can probably find healthier options. We picked them up last minute, as is our usual chain of events it seems.
- Salt and Pepper / Hot Sauce: These will save you and your food if it is boring you.
- Don't worry about water purifiers: It's the cleanest, crispest, coldest water you'll ever taste.
- Thick wool socks: Are you hiking? Yes of course you'll want to hike. Wool socks like these are incredible. They wick away moisture, you can wear them for a few days in a row, and they hardly smell after days of use. Plus, they dry fast so you can wash them in a sink if they get too grody.
- Good sturdy hiking boots: You could probably get by if you don't have these, and don't want to invest the money, but the weather is ever changing and these will give you what you need to climb whatever terrain you encounter. Plus, the boots we have are waterproof, which came in handy for a couple of days when there was rain.
- Rain gear: yep! Even though it's Summer, you're supes close to the Arctic Circle, brah. Weather changes on a dime. Also - waterfalls. Like, THE MOST WATERFALLS you've ever seen in your life. Probably millions? You can get close to them and sometimes walk behind them, you'll want to keep yourself from getting soaked.
- Layers: I only had two pairs of yoga leggings and I needed more. Jeans aren't really the best idea as they don't retain heat very well, and they take a million years to dry. We were there for 10 days with maybe 5 days worth of warm weather clothes and 3 days worth of cold weather clothes. It wasn't enough. I felt like I could smell myself at day 7 and I really wanted to wash my puffy jacket, but I didn't have anything else warm to wear while it dried, so I just smelled instead. haha
- Eye mask!! Goodness gracious it's light outside ALL the time.
- Dish soap (washing up liquid): bring a small bottle of it, you'll only find large bottles in the grocery store. While it's cheap, who wants to waste a shit ton of soap? We donated our leftovers to an Airbnb we stayed at in Reykjavik at the end of our trip.
- Liquor: If you can buy liquor somewhere in Iceland, we didn't find the store. I hear they have dedicated liquor stores but they're only open until something like 4 pm so it's inconvenient. Bring liquor with you from the Duty Free shop in the airport. It feels like you're going through a massive IKEA. We bought a bottle of whiskey and it was cheaper than in the states. $15 USD for Johnny Black.
Buy when you're there:
- Perishables: we bought eggs (of course), milk for coffee, butter for cooking/condiment, cheese for everything. The dairy products there are top-shelf because there's TONS of cows everywhere. We also managed to find some relatively cheap apples for something like 4 for $8 USD. I'd cut them up into slices and put them on sandwhiches with cheese and tuna or chicken salad that I brought in packages. A good mix of packaged + fresh.
- Paper products: toilet paper (bring this if you can fit it in your luggage) you'll need it for the 95% of the time you take a leak on the side of the road. Iceland prefers that you not poop in their nature as it disturbs some of their native moss that grows there. Reflecting back on it, I can't remember if we broke those rules. We were eating packaged starches the whole time, I'm sure we pooped 3 weeks after the trip. But enough about our poops!
What to do while in Iceland?
Oh man, where to begin. Drive off in any direction. I guarantee you that you'll stop every 10 minutes because you'll witness "the most incredible/beautiful/amazing thing" you've ever seen in your life. We got to the point where we had to audibly profess that we'd stop saying the aforementioned statement, since it was a blanket statement that applied to everything.
The Golden Circle VS All of Iceland
You may have heard people talk about 'The Golden Circle' in Iceland. We did, but we didn't research what that meant before hopping in a car. We assumed that it meant you drive around the entire country. False. You can find a couple of tour companies who will take you on day tours out and about this ring in the South East of the country. While all of Iceland is gorgeous, I would suggest you get out and see more than just this ring. The Fjords are special, which are north of the Golden Circle, as is the North - which looks like Mars, and the West (our favorite) which looks like Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings.
We only had 7 days to drive around the country and it 100% wasn't enough. We thought people were joking when they said you'd need 10 days to 2 weeks. The country is no bigger than the state of Ohio! but it's topographically diverse and you will want to spend time with all the things you see. It's too beautiful to rush.
If you are short on time, don't want to rent a car or a camper van, or would rather go the guided tour route -- then stay in Reykjavik and do day tours out along the Golden Circle. But otherwise, go be free and adventurous and carve your own way. Experience as much as you can!
There are two different ways to whale watch in Iceland: by a small "rib boat" or a giant cruise-like ship. We spent a long time wondering which was the better option. The rib boats are 17,900 ($170 USD) for adults over 15, the ships are around $90-100 USD. Spending $200 VS $300 is a serious price difference, but in the end we figured this was one of 'those moments' where we wanted a certain experience.
In the end, we didn't see any whales - but we still had the BEST TIME. These boats are beyond fast and, because of their suspension seats, it feels like you are flying around on a rollercoaster. These boats are not for anyone with a weak stomach or an aversion to speed. It is a wild ride! We were laughing and smiling so hard my cheeks hurt and my mouth dried out (on account of the high winds hitting my open smiling mouth!) It turns out that day was just a bad day for all the boats out. But even if a ship had seen a whale, I still think we had the better experience. Those large boats are so hard to maneuver quickly in the water, you almost need something fast to catch up with the news on the CB radio. Hands down, spend the extra money. Life is about experiences after all!
I'd also recommend the company Katla. They're a relatively new company, which meant that they hadn't quite 'risen the ranks' on Trip Advisor but were also a cheaper price than all the companies who had main street property. We saved some money (I think $20 per person) and also happened to be THE ONLY people on this boat. The tour guide spoke English (literally everyone in Iceland does) and was super friendly, funny, and knowledgeable. He even offered us a free trip out again if we come back to Iceland, which I think is customary if you don't see whales, but also a great incentive to get back to Iceland!
By pure coincidence, we happened to drive by a sign for 'From Coast To Mountains' puffin tours while we were driving down the road. Their roadside sign said they still had openings for a noon tour. We hooked a U-turn and went in to see what the prices were. We didn't research, didn't plan, we just went on a whim. This company owns the land where probably 40 thousand puffins reside during mating season. You hop on a large tractor-pulled truck across black sand beach and low waters until you get out to a large hill/mountain where they're all living. The owner has lived there all his life, in fact his whole family has and can be traced back until about year 800. No joke.
This was one of my favorite experiences all trip, because I am such an animal lover. I had no idea we were going to 1) see so many puffins, and 2) be so close to them. They are the sweetest, cutest little birds, and they are absolutely swarming all over this island.
From other tours I've seen advertised, or photos I've seen of other people's trips, it's not nearly as up-close as this particular tour we took. You walk all over this island and just sit quietly and watch these comical little birds fly all over. It's refreshing and meditative and ever so sweet.
Hot Spring swimming
A quick Google search will tell you a lot about where to find places to swim. Blue Lagoon is the most popular one, because of it's milky teal waters. We weren't really wanting to do the tourist thing, so we researched smaller places where we could go swim. There are spots all over the island.
See a Glacier
Have I mentioned there's a glacier? Relatively easy to visit, considering it's HUGE and has tongues which extend out all over the country. I couldn't quite understand what I was seeing at first, it doesn't seem real. There are tours of the glacier, which I wish we would have done, we just didn't have time.
Say hello to the sheep, cows, and horses!
There's quite seriously 50 thousand sheep, 20 thousand cows, and 10 thousand horses. Everywhere. Also the horses are so itty bitty and SUPER friendly!
Go visit cows at a farm where you can pet them and eat fresh ice cream
They definitely have never slaughtered one of these cows, I won't hear of it. Just kidding, they do kill the cows eventually, but seeing where they graze outside and how they're taken care of helps a little. Denial helps a lot more, though. This was at Kaffi Kú in Akureyri.
There's too much to list
But here's a collection of all our research put into a Google Map!
BONUS: See a movie in Reykjavik
We are movie feinds and try to see a movie in a theater in every country we visit, just to see how things are different. We assumed that, because everything is expensive in Reykjavik, that movies would be too. Wrong. We saw a movie for $10 total. One thing to mention is that there is an intermission in every single movie, no matter the duration. You'll be surprised by it, think that it's weird, but then immediately take advantage to go to the restroom.
Also, don't see anything that may have both English and another language spoken in it. We saw Planet of the Apes and it was in it's original state with Icelandic subtitles. This was fine if everyone was speaking English, but the minute they started speaking/signing in Ape we didn't get English subtitles. This is something we've learned the hard way after 3 movies in 3 different countries!
How much did everything cost?
Including airfare, the cost of the campervan, groceries, whale watching, puffin tour + 3 days/2 nights in Reykjavik having higher priced food/drinks our total was $4,295. This breaks out to $477 per day. We spent close to $1,000 USD in Reykjavik alone.
To put that in to perspective, we spent $4,331 USD in Thailand, but we were there for 31 days vs 10 days in Iceland. This total includes all our travel expenses, lodging, food, entertainment, and getting our PADI diving certification. Crazy, but I still think it's worth it!
Anything else I missed?
Do you have any questions about anything that I didn't cover here? Let me know, I'll happily point you in the right direction. Visiting Iceland should be on your lifetime bucket list, but don't wait. Start planning your trip now, make it happen. It's a type of preserved beauty that (sadly) won't stay around forever.