How To See Iceland On A Budget & Still Experience The Country Like A Local
The temperature of the beach water felt like a lukewarm hot tub around my feet, far warmer than the 50-degree Fahrenheit temperature permeating the air around me. It was a comforting feeling; I never wanted to leave. Unlike many beaches in Iceland — or anywhere — where the water is freezing, this one in particular was different: it’s a geothermal one in Reykjavík, Iceland called Nauthólsvík. Here, hot water ranging from 55 to 66 degrees Fahrenheit is pumped into the beach, and entrance is free during the summer. Yep, F-R-E-E. “You can have a good day there and not pay anything,” my new Icelandic friend Inga had told me before I left L.A. Considering that Iceland's world-renowned Blue Lagoon starts at 48 Euros (about $55) per person, I was definitely interested in trying out Inga’s lower-budget suggestion — especially since I was on a quest to see Iceland on a budget.
I know. When you think about Iceland, “low-budget” is probably not one of the things that comes to mind. The country is not cheap — so not cheap, in fact, that it was recently ranked as the most expensive country in Europe. But, when you book a flight to Europe through Icelandair, you have the option of taking a “stopover” in Iceland for up to seven nights before going on to your final destination (or, on the way back from your European destination to your U.S./Canadian one), which makes the country accessible to travelers who may not have thought about visiting it before. This way, you can explore Iceland in addition to whatever European destination you have booked a ticket to — it’s like seeing two countries for the price of one. In June 2019, the airline offered to let me try out the stopover option, coupled with their new Icelandair’s Buddy Hotline program, which offers travelers insider advice from a local. Since I’m a solo low-budget traveler, I decided this be a perfect way to see if I could do Iceland on a budget, especially while the Buddy service is still available — it's only running between now and July 8.
Once I had my Iceland travel dates in place for early June, I connected with my Buddy, Inga, who Icelandair referred me to. As part of the program, one can either do a phone call or chat via Facebook Messenger — but personally, I thought a phone call would be more interactive. Since the Buddy is an Icelandair staff member and a local, they know the ins and outs of Iceland — and you can call or message the Buddy service as many times as you’d like before and during your visit.
Getting advice from a local when traveling is invaluable. According to a March 2019 survey by Icelandair, of which 2,000 respondents were from the U.S., more than two-thirds (69 percent) of Americans want advice and tips from locals. This includes everything from eating like a local (36 percent answered this) to traveling sustainably by shopping locally (43 percent said this). Plus, 82 percent said they trust reviews considerably less these days — so, getting a local’s perspective can help alleviate any anxiety a traveler has about what to do on their trip.
Although I could have asked my Buddy anything — like what types of adventure sports to do in Iceland — I chose to focus on low-budget ideas, as that was my Iceland goal. Inga and I spoke for over an hour and talking to her was fun and easy: it was like speaking to a tour guide with the casualness of a friend. She gave me ideas for things I had to do in three-and-a-half days and things I could miss. I’d been to Iceland once before — but in winter, when it was around 20 degrees Fahrenheit. This time, I would be visiting in the summer, when it would be around 50 degrees Fahrenheit — so this meant there’d be opportunities to do activities that weren’t feasible then, such as renting a car (last time, I hadn’t wanted to drive in snow and ice). Plus, I’d mainly spent time in Southern Iceland, so Inga suggested I see a new part of the country — the Western region, which would have fewer tourists than the South — as well as more of Reykjavík, the capital. By the time we hung up, I felt stress-free and confident that I’d maximize my time in Iceland — all while saving money, too.
First, I flew Alaska Airlines (who’s partnered with Icelandair) from L.A. to Seattle. After a quick layover in Seattle, I boarded my seven-hour flight from Seattle to Keflavík Airport near Reykjavík, Iceland. This flight was comfortable to say the least — spacious seats, plenty of leg room (I’m 5’9”), and the flight felt quick. For travelers, Icelandair offers a few different classes of service — three types of economy classes (Economy Light, Standard, or Flex) and two types of their first class equivalent, Saga class (Saga Premium or Saga Premium Flex). If you want to splurge, you may want to consider Saga Class — it includes perks such as more comfortable seats, two checked bags versus one, and the ability to make flight changes without a change fee.
Once on land, I spent half my time exploring Reykjavík and half my time exploring West Iceland, per Inga's suggestions. Though traveling Iceland on a budget isn't easy, it's possible — here are a few of the ways I did it.
1. Take A Free Walking Tour & Self-Guided Street Art Tour
While every city has all kinds of tours you can pay for — and, usually, the more specialized, the more costly — free walking tours are a great introduction to the city you’re in. Personally, I try to do them on day one since the guides usually give great advice for under-the-radar places to see and things to do (like the free Secret Cellar comedy club in Reykjavík). Inga recommended I take the Free Walking Tour Reykjavík, and it was not only informative, but also full of quick-witted one-liners by the stand-up comedian guide, Þórhallur.
Along the tour, we passed by some of Reykjavík’s street art. I knew the city was known for it, but I didn’t know there’s a map you can download so you can take your own walking tour and find it all. (Thank you, Inga!)
Approximate cost: Free
2. Go To Lesser-Known Geothermal Baths, Beaches, & Hot Springs
During our call, Inga not only suggested that I visit the Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach, but that I also check out other spas and hot springs that tourists don’t go to as much as others — and that are also cost-effective. Although she said the Secret Lagoon (about $24 per adult) is nice, but “not a secret anymore,” she told me about some others that would be less crowded — and she was right. Fontana (about $31 per adult) and Krauma (about $32 per adult) were two that she recommended. I checked out the latter, personally — and sure enough, so few people were there that it was like having my own private pool.
Approximate cost: Varies, $0-32
3. Don’t Buy Bottled Water
If you haven’t been to Iceland, but you’ve seen pictures of the snow-capped mountains and sky-high waterfalls, you can see that it’s a very nature-centric place. To that point, Iceland’s tap water, Kranavatn, is 100 percent pure spring water, drinkable — and free. According to Inspired by Iceland, a global survey they did of 16,000 travelers in 11 markets found that 65 percent of travelers say they buy more bottled water on vacation than they do at home. The respondents cited “fear” that tap water abroad is unsafe (70 percent) and convenience (19 percent) as the main determining factors.
So, when visiting Iceland, don’t buy bottled water. Instead, Inga says to just refill your water bottle — either straight from the tap (let it run for a few seconds if you want it super cold), from filling stations around Reykjavík, or even from spring water you come upon while sightseeing.
Approximate cost: Free
4. Eat Local’s Favorites
Fish and lamb seem to be two Icelandic food staples; I’m not even a fish or lamb person, but it’s hard not to try them when among locals in Iceland. “Try something new,” says Inga. She suggested I try Icelandic Street Food, which is a simple, yet hearty, menu. You can either have lamb or shellfish soup (one location has vegetarian also) — in a bread bowl, if you wish — or a fish stew (which is like mashed potatoes with cod and onions). Different sizes are available for about $10 and up, and the staff will give you free refills — they don’t want you to leave hungry. When I went, they also gave out free desserts, so it was a win-win.
Icelandic hot dogs are also popular, Inga says, and you can get them for between $5-10. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (“the best hot dog in town”) is where Bill Clinton once ate and said they’re “the best hot dogs in the world.” Or, you can visit one of the food halls in Reykjavík, which tend to be cheaper than restaurants. At them, you can eat Icelandic food — or not. As Inga advised, I tried the Hlemmur Mathöll one, which used to be a bus station. Since it was a windy day, I tried some soup (a vegetarian coconut one) and a Vietnamese coffee. Bonus: Across the street, I found two great secondhand clothing stores, the Fatamarkaðurinn Second Hand Market and a Red Cross store, so if you didn’t pack enough warm clothes, you can pick up a wool sweater for a fraction of what a new one would cost. “Weather-wise, we never know what to expect,” says Inga. “Even though it’s summer, we can have four seasons in one day.” (Inga was right; the sun would be shining one minute, and it would be rainy and windy the next.)
Inga says that one of the best ways to eat and act like a local, however — especially on a budget — is to create your own Icelandic picnic: Buy some traditional rye bread (which is naturally sweet), butter, dried fish (which is sold everywhere and often eaten as a snack), smoked lamb, and/or cheese and go sit by the pond, Tjörnin, in Reykjavík. She says it’s best to go to a discounted grocery store, such as Bónus or Krónan, versus 10-11 (which is like 7-Eleven). While the latter is open 24/7, the formers are much cheaper.
Plus, chances are high that wherever you end up sleeping will serve breakfast, so that’s one meal out of the way. Or you can pick up a pastry at Reykjavík’s renowned Brauð & co (Bread & co), whose exterior is covered in cool street art.
Approximate cost: $5-20 per meal
5. Rent A Car
While there are many car rental companies in Iceland, Inga recommended Blue Car Rental if money is a factor — you don’t have to put down a deposit and you can also use a debit card (which is not common in the U.S.). Like all car companies, the daily rate will depend on the added options you get, such as gravel insurance. (Yes, that’s a thing; there are a lot of gravel roads in Iceland.) The big bonus of renting a car — versus going on an organized tour, for instance — is more freedom: you can stop as much as you want, where you want. Plus, it’s often less expensive than group tours. Even if you just have a day or so, “you can see a lot of gems and stop where tours don’t go,” says Inga. And, trust me, I did. I’m so glad Inga said to rent a car; I’d say it’s a must if you spend your stopover outside of Reykjavík.
Approximate cost: $116/day (but depends on the insurance coverage and options you choose)
6. Stay At Budget Hotels, Guest Houses, Airbnbs, Or Hostels
Housing-wise, I usually try to spend as little as possible while making sure the accommodation is clean and has a good work space — as a digital nomad, the latter is key. Inga explained that Airbnbs, hostels, or Edda Hotels would be best and to sleep in the area you’re exploring, in order to use your time most efficiently. “Otherwise, you’ll have to keep driving back and forth,” she says.
When I travel in Eastern Europe, my housing budget (for my own apartment) is usually $25 a night (or less), but I quickly found I could not do this in Reykjavík unless I wanted to share a room with several other people in a hostel. So I upped my Iceland housing budget to $50 a night. I couldn’t find a low-budget Airbnb right in Reykjavík, but I’d heard a lot about the artsy Kex Hostel (which used to be a biscuit factory) and stayed there. Although prices vary depending on how many roommates you choose to have, I chose a six-bed dorm — which cost almost $50 a night. Digital nomad tip: Even if you book online in advance, once you get to the hostel you chose, ask if you can sleep in the room with the fewest number of people. I did this and my six-bed dorm sometimes ended up being empty, so I had it to myself without having to pay extra for my own room (which would have been about $150 with a shared bathroom and $200 with my own bathroom).
Approximate cost: $50/day
7. See The Midnight Sun
While tourists flock to Iceland during the winter months to see the Northern Lights, summer is the time to see the Midnight Sun — when it’s daylight for nearly 24 hours a day. (It definitely takes some getting used to — I kept thinking it was always the middle of the day even when it was actually 10 p.m. — and, luckily, many places have blackout curtains to help you sleep.) “Around midnight, the sun goes down, but not all the way — and there’s no dawn,” says Inga. She said walking by the seaside, in the Old Harbour area, is a good place to see it. One night, I did so from just before midnight until about 3 a.m. and discovered that Inga was right: The sun didn’t completely disappear and the sky stayed a pretty shade of pink, making this one of the highlights of my journey.
Approximate cost: Free
Using Icelandair’s Buddy Hotline definitely enhanced my trip and customized it with the things I most wanted to do while in Iceland. If you want to connect with a Buddy of your own, you have to act fast since it ends on July 8. (Until then, you can speak to them from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET and on weekends from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. ET.) Hopefully, however, the airline gods will be on your side and this deadline will be extended. In the meantime, I’ll be planning my next stopover in Iceland…