Although the natural wonders of Iceland seem otherworldly, the island in the North Atlantic is closer than you might think. The relatively short flight and versatility of sights make it an enjoyable non-rev trip for any window of time. Take a weekend to explore the world’s northernmost capital, Reykjavík, and the Golden Circle, or spend up to a couple weeks circumnavigating the country via the Ring Road. Surpassing one million visitors in 2015, tourism in Iceland is taking off and airlines have added capacity to keep up.
When to GoSource: US Dept of Transportation. Averaged between 2012-2016.
The weather in Iceland is unpredictable year-round. On my last trip, I experienced 60 degrees and sunny, a sideways rain storm, and snow, all in the same day. Flights operate with increased frequency from May-September, but loads and hotel availability are the worst during the summer. Plan on the shoulder season (May and September) for the best combination of favorable weather, open seats, and last minute lodging deals. Or take a winter trip to experience the Northern Lights.
If your company does not fly to Iceland, Icleandair serves many destinations in the US and Europe, and has ZED agreements with many major airlines. Listing is provided on myidtravel.com. You can conveniently email Icelandair for load lookups and other non-rev questions.
Keflavík International Airport (KEF)
Arriving internationally, Keflavík International Airport will be your first stop in Iceland. Use the Reykjavík Excursions Flybus service, as they drop off at the centrally located BSI Terminal in Reykjavík. It’s a 45 minute ride and costs $17. Tickets can be purchased upon arrival. Rental cars are also available at KEF, however cheaper last-minute rates can often be found at the BSI Terminal downtown.
Transportation Around Iceland
Route 1, also known as the Ring Road, circles the perimeter of the island and is the main thoroughfare for all major destinations. Because of this simple layout, hitchhiking is relatively easy in Iceland. If you prefer a more predictable method of transportation, consider renting a car, or using a bus service. Various bus companies provide scheduled service as well as guided tours through the country. One downside of using the bus: they make short stops at popular attractions, prohibiting you from exploring and hiking on your own schedule. Click here for more details on transportation in Iceland.
Where to Go
I made this cheesy music video with footage from Reykjavík, the Golden Circle, and the South Coast.
Reykjavík (1-2 days)
Iceland’s “big city” is a great place to explore at the beginning or end of your trip. The best museums include the Reykjavík 871±2 Settlement Museum and the Art Museum, and the best shopping and nightlife can be found along Laugavegur Street. For the full picture, sign up for the free CityWalk tour. The BSI Terminal is the hub for Flybus to/from the airport, rental cars, taxis, and guided bus tours throughout the country. It is also walking distance to most lodging and attractions in Reykjavík.
Golden Circle (1 day)
The Golden Circle is a classic route for those wanting to hit the highlights of Iceland in a short amount of time: Gullfoss Waterfall, the original Geysir, UNESCO site Thingvellir National Park, and the warm, milky blue waters of Blue Lagoon. The Golden Circle is the country’s most beaten tourist path, so solitude seekers should avoid it. Gray Line Iceland offers a full-day bus tour for around $73. You can also rent a car in Reykjavík and explore the route on your own schedule. Consider adding in my personal favorite, snorkeling Silfra.
South Iceland (3-4 days)
South Iceland features a perfect mix of postcard landmarks and off the beaten path activities. Those simply wanting to see the iconic waterfalls and villages should consider a guided bus tour. Otherwise, rent a car and explore on your own. Seljalandsfoss waterfall will be the first stop. Make sure to see the second “hidden” waterfall by continuing down the walking trail. As you continue driving down the coast, it’s time to learn Icelandic as you pass Eyjafjallajökull. Chaotic to pronounce, this volcano produced an equally chaotic disruption to air travel when it erupted in 2010. The next stop, the mighty Skogafoss waterfall, marks the beginning of the Fimmvorduhals Trek, marked by National Geographic as one of the most epic hikes in the world. The full hike takes multiple days, but it only takes an hour or two to marvel at 22 cascading waterfalls before turning back the way you came. Warm up with some lamb soup at the Hotel Skogafoss Bistro Bar overlooking one of the most picturesque waterfalls in Iceland. For more adventures, stop by Reynisfjara beach to see an abandoned DC-3 airplane and organ pipe stacks of basalt. Puffins come to Iceland in droves starting in mid May. The best viewing is a ferry boat ride away on Vestmannaeyjar Island. Affordable lodging options available in Selfoss, Vík, and Skogar.
North Iceland (3-4 days)
In the shadow of the Arctic Circle, North Iceland is the ultimate offbeat region. The extra transit time limits the flow of tourists, meaning you’ll have plenty of space to soak in the Mývatn Nature Baths, marvel at Europe’s most powerful waterfall, Dettifoss, and trek to the mysterious craters in Krafla and Askja. Be sure to check out my favorite activity in all of Iceland, whitewater rafting on the Glacial River.
Use the town of Akureyri as a base for your adventures. Akureyri Backpackers serves as a clean, budget-friendly option. Transfer from Reykjavik to North Iceland can be accomplished via an all-day bus ride or the more expensive but short flight from Reykjavík’s Domestic (RKV) or International (KEF) Airport to Akureyri (AEY). Flights are provided by Air Iceland. They offer a half-priced standby fare for passengers 25 years old and under.
Flights from KEF to AEY operate year-round on a limited schedule. If you need to transfer from Keflavik to the domestic airport, follow these steps:
- Take one of the shuttle busses from Keflavík Airport to BSI Bus Terminal (45 minutes).
- Take a taxi or walk 0.8 miles to the Reykjavík Domestic Airport (RKV).
Iceland is a pretty expensive country. Expect to put a sizable investment into your trip if you want to really make it worthwhile. With that said, here are some ways to have a great time without breaking the bank.
- Skip the Blue Lagoon. Packages start at $55 upwards. Understandably, swimming in geothermal water is part of the Icelandic experience. Head to the public pools and swim with the locals for under $10. Every town has one. Or hit up some free hot baths such as Seljavallalaug in the south or the Hveragerdi Hot Spring River Trail near Reykjavík.
- Avoid fine dining in Reykjavík. The best meal I had in Iceland came from the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand for under $5.
- Decline the door-to-door service from Keflavík Airport. The cheapest option is to take the bus from the airport to BSI Terminal in Reykjavík. The town is extremely walkable and your lodging will likely be a short hop from the bus stop.
- Don’t buy bottled water. You can drink pure Icelandic glacier water on tap! Bring your own bottle and refill throughout the trip.
- Drinking in Iceland is expensive, so avoid it if you can. Okay, maybe one in Reykjavík. The best deals in bars are from 5-7 PM and in the state-run liquor stores, called vínbúðin.