A couple of days ago I returned from a 2-week European vacation. While I also visited England and France, I’ve had a lot of people ask me about my Iceland experience so I thought I’d do a down and dirty summary of my trip.
I got a pretty great deal on airfare. Icelandair services a few US cities and a bunch of great cities in Europe. They have an Icelandair Stopover program which lets you spend up to 7 nights in Iceland on the front or back end of your trip to another destination at no additional charge. I booked a roundtrip flight from Seattle to London with a 7-day stopover in Iceland for just $345! The additional cost was to get me to and from SEA. Icelandair does include 1 checked back up to 23kg (50lbs), in-flight entertainment, and soft drinks, water, and juices free of charge. They have in-flight menu where you can purchase snacks, meals, and adult beverages. Their Wanderlust Salad is amazing, FYI.
Transportation (and lodging, kind of) $1179
Okay, seems a little steep but let me explain. I was planning on staying in hostels or looking for an Airbnb for my trip, but decided against hostels because I didn’t want to leave all of my belongings in a shared dorm (which turns out, there is luggage storage). I started looking for Airbnbs and came across campervans which were running about $100 a night. I decided getting a campervan would be the best bang for my buck. I had wheels to get around and I wouldn’t be anchored down to any location. I rented the Campervan Play from Campervan Iceland and it was great. The Play is a manual FWD van with studded snow tires, and even though it was just for me, it can sleep 2 people and had everything I needed to explore Iceland comfortably (e.g. cooler, stove, heater, etc.). It also included a Mifi so I had internet the entire time which was invaluable because I was constantly changing my itinerary on the fly.
To break down the costs, the van itself was $690 (69,000 ISK), the full coverage insurance (optional) was $234 (23,400 ISK), and the fuel cost me $255 (25,500 ISK) for the 7-days I used it. Now, I just want to talk about the insurance for a second. When I arrived, the weather was being all crazy and unpredictable. There was a lot of snow on the ground and to be safe, I opted for the full coverage insurance. If you don’t feel like you need it, at the very minimum get the gravel protection. They don’t view rock chips as normal wear and tear and will charge you for them. The gravel protection insurance ensures you don’t have to pay anything if you sustain any rock chips and trust me, you’ll encounter gravel.
With the increase in tourists renting vans Iceland has mandated you can only camp in designated campgrounds. Not all of the campgrounds are open in the winter but you can find a pretty comprehensive list here. The average price was about $20 a night but I didn’t get charged for 2 nights of camping.
So now, the fun stuff. Here’s a day-by-day breakdown of my trip.
I landed at KEF around 1500. There was a shuttle waiting in the arrivals area to take me to pick up my campervan from an offsite location. I made a reservation about a month in advance at the Blue Lagoon to experience the geothermal pools. If you don’t book ahead of time, you won’t get to go. I purchased the comfort package which includes a towel, 1 free adult beverage, and an algae mask. FYI, it’s about 15 minutes away from the airport so don’t make the mistake I did. I punched Blue Lagoon into Google Maps and it gave me a location in Reykjavik (which is 45 minutes away). After driving there and realizing I was in the wrong location, I had to drive all the way back and was nervous I was going to miss my scheduled time. To be honest with you, my experience was okay. It was snowing and windy when I went and the water wasn’t hot enough for me to feel comfortable. I spent about an hour there before heading to my first campsite. I decided to stay at the Reykjavik Campsite which is collocated with the Reykjavik City Hostel. When you camp there in the winter you can use the hostel’s kitchen, cookware, bathrooms, and showers for no additional charge. There are pay per use laundry facilities. The campsite was covered in snow and I didn’t want my van to get stuck so I parked in the iced over parking lot beside the hostel where some other campers had parked. The kitchen facilities were really nice and the bathrooms were clean, but the showers were small and the water didn’t drain very well which was kind of gross. I was standing in about 2 inches of water by the end of my shower.
There were strong wind advisories and most of the locals scoffed at the idea of driving around anywhere after noon today so I decided they probably know best. I had Silfra Fissure snorkeling excursion scheduled for 1030 but it was actually bumped up to 0900 due to the weather warnings so there must have been some validity behind the warnings. Anyway, I left my site pretty early to get to the meetup location which was at Thingvellir National Park. It was about a 50 minute drive and the roads were covered in snow. When I arrived I was given a thermal suit to put on over a thin base layer. I was then given a dry suit to put on over my thermal suit. It was windy and pretty cold and I was starting to question why I thought this was a good idea. We were then given wet gloves, a wet head sleeve, a mask, snorkel, and fins. We walked to the insertion point and our guide, Dimitri (from Greece), gave us instructions about snorkeling in the fissure. Basically we weren’t going to be moving a whole lot. We were supposed to float along with the current and keep our hands behind our backs to keep them warm. You see, our gloves and head sleeves were wet items which meant water would penetrate them. Because the temperature of the water is just above freezing, the water would be cold but if we didn’t circulate new water into them, the water that was in there was supposed to warm up. In theory. My hands were burning from the cold. Despite the discomfort, the 30ish-minute float in the water was beautiful. You basically snorkel in a a crack between the North American and European tectonic plates. Pretty cool. I was pretty excited to get out though and it was challenging taking all of the gear off and putting warm, dry stuff back on due to swelling and dampness. Some water did get in around my neck and wrists but nothing I felt while I was in the water.
The weather was getting bad, but before I headed back to Reykjavik I did a little hiking around Thingvellir National Park. FYI, parking costs 500 ISK and they will come by and see if you’ve paid. Microspikes and my rain/wind gear were really helpful as there was a lot of ice on the trails and strong winds.
When I returned to Reykjavik I picked up some groceries from Bonus, went back to the Reykjavik Hostel/Campsite and enjoyed a light lunch. In the evening I went to the Kringlan shopping center and watched a movie. I was a little bummed that the weather made me alter my plans to go to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula but it was better to be safe than stuck or in an accident.
The weather started to clear up today so I was able to get out and explore. It was still a little windy but I had some nice sun at times. Before heading out of Reykjavik I headed downtown and visited the Sun Voyager sculpture. Then I drove into the heart of the city and took a quick trip inside the Hallgrimskirkja church. There are tours to go to the top of the tower but I decided to skip that. I headed back out on the Golden Circle to see all of the sites I missed on Day 2 due to the weather. I stopped by Geysir which was extremely crowded but pretty cool. Afterwards, I headed out to the massive Gulfoss waterfall. Due to the snow I didn’t see anyone walk down towards the falls but the views were still pretty amazing from the viewing areas. As I drove around I’d randomly pull off the road or into little towns to do exploring. I was fascinated with all of the tiny and interesting churches there. I decided to spend the night in Selfoss, so I stopped in the Gesthus Selfoss. The facilities were great – large, hot showers; a nice large kitchen (but you have to bring in your own cookware); laundry (for a fee but I didn’t get charged), and a hot tub (I didn’t use it, but was told by some other travelers there was a small fee and that it was really nice). Since it was still a little early and Selfoss seemed like a cool town, I walked from the campsite to the main street. I did a little touristing but most of the shops were closed. I decided to grab a bite to eat at this really cute looking place called Kaffi Krus. The pizza was so good that I decided to leave half of it for dinner the following day.
I hit the road again today and saw a lot of stuff (225 km worth of stuff). I ended up running out of daylight which sucked because it meant I had to move some things around again. Somehow I missed the Kerid Crater on my Golden Circle trip so I backtracked a little and went to see it. There was a small entrance fee (400 ISK) but I felt like it was totally worth it. The crater was spectacular in person and the colors were just stunning. I had my microspikes with me and they were really helpful as I was able to walk down inside the crater. The stairs were iced over and people were attempting to do it in street shoes, but were having a really hard time. It was actually kind of nice as it kept a lot of people from going down there. At the top there’s a walking trail that surrounds the entire crater. Again, the spikes were helpful in the icy areas.
I decided to head southeast to Olfusa since I had seen a picture of a beach with large ice chunks on it. I did find a cool spot to take pictures at, but I could’ve totally saved the mileage and gas. I headed west off the beaten trail a little to Gluggafoss and I was glad I did. The waterfall was amazing and I was the only person there. It was a little refreshing seeing as how all of the sites had been packed with tourists. I took a shortcut on a long gravel road (see, gravel insurance) to my next stop, Seljalandsfoss and it was busy, but pretty cool. There were multiple falls to the left of it that I walked to and each one was special in its own way. FYI, save yourself the trouble and don’t hike to the top of the last fall. No good views and lots of mud. Afterwards I went to what I think was my favorite waterfall, Skogafoss. There’s a really long staircase that goes to the top of it. I was excited about the opportunity to get a little workout in so I hit that thing and didn’t stop until I got to the top. There’s a gate you can go through with more trail that ends up going to additional waterfalls. It was so beautiful there.
My last site for the day ended up being the DC-3 crash site. There’s a large parking area with lots of cars and a long gravel walkway/road to go down to get to the crash. It’s about a 2.5-3 mile walk from the parking lot and it took me around 40 minutes, just so you know. I had no idea how far away it was and I may have saved it for another day had I known. The wind was brutal and against me during the walk there, and I had no idea how much farther I had to go. By the time I got out there it was getting late and starting to get dark. There were only about 3 or 4 other people out there which made getting pictures in nice. I called it a night and had to backtrack to get to an open campground. I spent the night right by Skogafoss at the Skogar Campsite. In comparison to the other two, this place is bare bones. There are bathrooms, pay per use showers (which I didn’t use), and two covered outdoor areas (with broken sinks) where you can cook your food with your stove. There was a notice in the bathroom saying someone would be by to collect fees for the night but no one ever showed up. Free camping FTW!
Day 5 was a doozy. I drove 555 km today and saw lots of things. I had to head out early this since I had a 90 minute drive to get to Skaftafell in Vatnajokull National Park, the meetup location for my Into the Glacier tour. On the drive I passed by the Eldhraun moss covered lava field and it was crazy looking! the landscapes in Iceland are so different and cool. At times I felt like I was in Wyoming and at others, it was almost like I was on a different planet. I digress. At the meetup location I was fitted for crampons, given an ice axe (which we were told was purely for photo ops and served no purpose for our trip), and a helmet. We took a ride in this monstorous vehicle to the glacier and got our gear on and started our glacier hike. We were able to walk on the glacier, which was really cool, and massive. We also went into an ice cave that was formed by water last season. The trip took about 4 hours which was a little longer than I expected. I really wanted to head out to make it to Vik in time to explore the black sand beaches, but decided to do the hike to Svartifoss and I am glad I did. I didn’t bring my microspikes but wish I would have. The first part of the trail was pretty steep and not icy at all, but as I neared the waterfall, the trail got pretty icy and was really slippery. The waterfall was beautiful and I felt really good about the little workout I got on the hike. Roundtrip it was 3.6 km and I made it in under an hour. I left the park and headed east another 45 minutes to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. It was so peaceful and beautiful out there, seeing those large chunks of glacier just floating there. Apparently there’s a place called Diamond Beach just over the bridge where large pieces of glacier are on the shore, but I had turned back and didn’t get to see it.
I started driving back west and as I suspected, it was too dark to explore Vik. I did; however, think I had a good chance of seeing the northern lights from Selfoss so I made the 4 hour drive back. When I arrived I rechecked the forecast and the northern light activity was downgraded and there was just too much cloud cover. Once again, I spent the night at my favorite spot, Gesthus Selfoss.
Today I had nothing else to do but explore Vik and that was pretty exciting. I made myself a nice breakfast at the campsite, and then got ready and headed out to my first stop, Dyrholaey. When you drive in you have an option to go right up to the top of the cliff, or left to a more open and accessible spot. I went right even though it was advised to have a 4WD vehicle. Once I got to the top the view was spectacular. The cliffs were unobstructed and you could walk to the edge to see alongside the cliff and down to the black sand beach below. I took a little walk towards the lighthouse and once I crested the hill, the large stone arch was visible, jutting out of the water. I was a little bummed that access to that area was chained off and inaccessible, but it was still beautiful nonetheless. I enjoyed a nice walk along the path until I decided to get a move on to see the rest of the area. I drove back down and went to the lower, more accessible spot. It was also pretty nice down there; however, the views were very restricted by chained off areas and natural structures.
My next stop was to the infamous Reynisfjara. There were TONS of tourists here and it was really hard to get any photos without people in them, but the views were still amazing. The black sand and basalt columns were magnificent and I could have sat and listened to the ocean roar all day. I headed into Vik, which I just think it the coolest little ocean town ever, and wandered around the Icewear shopping center. Afterwards I drove to Vikurfjara and there was hardly anyone there. I walked along the beach, but unfortunately the rock formations that jut out of the ocean weren’t visible due to heavy fog. It was so beautiful and serene, and that’s when I started to cry. I didn’t want to leave this place. Before I headed back to my campsite I stopped at a little local gift shop and picked up some souvenirs for myself and some people. I made the 90 minute drive back to Gesthus Selfoss for my final night in Iceland.
On my last day in Iceland I headed back to the Reykjavik area. I found a parking spot downtown and then walked around until I had to head back to Keflavik. I spent a few hours just wandering around. During my walk I passed by tons of fun shops and the Icelandic Phallological Museum. Additionally, I went to the music hall and walked around inside. That place is so beautiful inside and out and is worth the visit. I also stopped by the highly recommended Braud & Co and got a cinnamon roll. You have to go there, it was so good. I treated myself to one final pizza for lunch at Eld Smidjan and it was pretty good.
Overall, my trip to Iceland was amazing. I had such an incredible time despite the crazy weather, and I would definitely like to go back to explore the rest of the country. If you’re planning a trip, you won’t be disappointed.