Forgot Florida’s sort-of-lockdown for COVID-19. Paolo and I (who are both healthy) are now quarantined in Italy after our Repatriation flight last week. Which means no leaving the house for any reason. Not for wine, not for groceries and most certainly not for a wee walk in the adorable Alps town of Bardonecchia we’re in. Alas, since I’m stir crazy and you might be too, how about a virtual getaway to some of the places Paolo and I were able to see before the world went into lockdown. First up, Iceland.
Did you know Iceland has no mosquitoes! No McDonalds either. Oddly, the latter is important to know because while Iceland is beautiful it’s crazy expensive to visit. So, in typical ALOR style, there will be no #bluelagoon shots. Instead I’ll be sharing Paolo’s photos and a few tips for making a trip to Iceland less expensive. That way when the world does open back up you don’t have to empty your wallet to see Iceland.
Snagging Cheap Airfare
One of the largest chunks out of travel budgets for Americans is often airfare. We don’t have regional airlines like Europe does and America is a big country to fly across. Unfortunately, because COVID-19 is reshaping the airline industry, it’s hard to say when there will be cheap flights that are safe to take again. What I can share, is how we snagged tickets to Iceland for $30 a piece. Now add taxes and fees and two $30 tickets from Portland to Zürich through Iceland with a three day layover were $788.12.
My hope is that the principles we used then, will still hold true in post COVID-19 because I have to hold hope that we will all be able to travel safely again. Until then, what I will say is flexibility and thinking like a European vs an American are the keys for almost every trip we’ve taken. Curious what I mean? Here’s the original post.
When to Go to Iceland
Timing a trip is everything when traveling on a budget. Typically I swear by off-season to save big on travel but Iceland, the land of the midnight sun is different. Mid May till late July the sun is childlike. Refusing to go to bed. In summer you can explore Iceland from around 3:00 in the morning till Midnight. Come winter the sun is more like a thirteen year old. Rising at 11:21 and fading by 15:30. Outlying areas like my favorite, the Westfjords only get two hours and 45 minutes of daylight in winter.
Since a big part of what there is to see in Iceland is nature, visiting Iceland in summer vs winter means being able to see more each day and potentially saving the expense of two to three nights in a hotel. That’s why being smart about when to visit Iceland is as important as airfare when it comes to maximizing a travel budget. Now, there is plenty of stunning, uncrowded nature to explore in Iceland but in order to get to it, you’ll have to plan ahead. The next key to maximizing a travel budget in Iceland, is figuring out meals ahead of time.
How to Eat Cheap in Iceland
Back to the fact that there is no McDonalds in Iceland. Go-to cheap food options for travelers on a budget are hard to find in Iceland. As a rule, Paolo and I always book places with a kitchen when we travel, only eat lunch out and snack for dinner back in the room. However, Iceland having the most expensive food we’ve encountered while traveling broke even my travel budget rules. We ended up eating breakfast in our apartment, packed picnic lunches and snacked back at the apartment for dinner.
It might seem drastic but plates at restaurants in Reykjavik run between 20€ and 30€ each. Two beers at an unassuming pub 30€. Outside of hitting up a street vendor for a $5 hot dog my advice for budget travelers is to bring a sarong, find a grocery store and plan ahead. The World Pursuit has an excellent wrap up of where to buy groceries in Iceland. For travelers not into cooking or picnics, here’s a list of cheap eats in Reykjavik by All About Iceland.
Look at it this way, which would you rather have more of? Time to explore Iceland or Hákarl (fermented shark) the national dish of Iceland? Plan ahead and have fun checking out quirky, weird local food from Icelandic yogurts to sheep heads in the freezer section of the nearest grocery.
The main reason I recommend planning ahead is once you leave Reykjavik, there are not many restaurants at all in Iceland and even grocery stores get scarce. Especially when driving to the Western region, which is where we’re headed next!
How Much Does the Blue Lagoon Cost in Iceland?
Before you think we’re crazy for skipping the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, consider how crowded it is as a top tourist attraction. How you’d get wet and need to clean up before doing anything else. Which means it taking a good part of an entire day out of the trip. Now consider if it’s worth seeing when tickets range from $47 to $528. Moving on, let’s explore the Western Region of Iceland instead.
What to Do in Iceland for Free
Those long summer nights I talked about make it easier to enjoy road trips outside Reykjavík. I’ll admit driving out to the Western region had me thinking “should we turn back?” At one point we drove an entire hour and didn’t see any signs of life. Just beautiful, harsh nature. Once we got to where we were going however, the introvert inside me was glad we kept going. The Western Region is outside the Golden Circle and as such is far less crowded! Plus, there is no entry fee to see the Western Region like there is in popular attractions like #bluelagooniceland.
Explore the Western Region of Iceland
Start by heading to Arnarstapi, a two and a half hour drive from Reykjavík. Here wander around an old trading post turned village. Hike a seaside cliff all the way to Hellnar, one of the oldest fishing towns in the western peninsula. Again for free, enjoy a cliffside so beautiful it was turned into a Natural Reserve in 1979. It takes your breath away anywhere you look. Rugged lava formations striking out into an azure sea. A horizon too far over the water to define. Remote and beautiful. The still before the storm. Seriously go west!
Snæfellsjökull National Park
Difficult to pronounce, not at all difficult to explore. Established in 2001 it’s Iceland’s only National Park that stretches to the sea and easily one of our favorite stops in Iceland. A quick trip from the Hellnar, visiting Snæfellsjökull feels like driving through a Lord of the Rings set. Glaciers, waterfalls, volcanic formations dating back to the last ice age and my favorite, Skarðsvík Beach. A golden sand wonder we had all to ourselves when we visited. 65 square miles, all free to explore.
Þingvellir aka Thingvellir National Park
Iceland lays claim to the largest portion of the mid-Atlantic ridge exposed above sea level. Thingvellir National Park is one of the few places on earth to see the ridge above water. It’s also where two tetonic plate edges form giant canyons you can walk through. Since earths tetonic plates are continually moving apart (at 2.5 cm a year) small earthquakes happen daily.
Even though I never felt tremors, I swear there is something mystical in the air at Þingvellir aka Thingvellir as it were. Of course, that could also have to do with the history here. A UNESCO world heritage site since 1994, the Icelandic national parliament (Alþingi) was founded in 930 at Þingvellir. Sessions were held all the way up until 1800 before being moved to Reykjavík in 1844. Knowing that, can you imagine everything that happened here?!
As Paolo told me the history of the land we were standing on, my mind flashed to the show Vikings. Images of rowdy outdoor sessions around fire pits came to mind. I’m ashamed to admit it but, that was my frame of reference. Truthfully, I wasn’t that far off. We overheard a teacher from a school field trip telling her class how Law Rock was the spot Icelanders decided to adopt Christianity and swore allegiance to the Norwegian King. Seeing as I’m a Norwegian, German, Irish dual American Italian citizen I found that bit too interesting to leave out.
Jokes aside, this is one of the more moving spots to see in Iceland if you are at all a history or a geology geek. Plus the beauty of the land you can freely roam (yes freely as in no fees) is vast and graced with an elevated vista point that stretches to the horizon in all directions.
The sheer size and openness of Þingvellir belies the fact that it is one of the most visited places in Iceland after the Gullfoss waterfall (totally worth it) and the Geysir Geothermal Area (which I have to admit I found a little underwhelming after visiting Yellowstone).
Just one more story I can’t help sharing to wrap up our flashback to Iceland!
Gullfoss Waterfall in Iceland
This story falls under “You know you’re too old to be a Travel Influencer when”… .While at Gullfoss Waterfall admittedly the most crowded and touristy sight we visited, I saw a young travel influencer. I knew she was an influencers because after hiking to the waterfall in appropriate winter clothing, she changed into a bright yellow sundress and posed for photos. I found myself thinking “It’s freakin’ cold out here, you’re gonna catch a cold, put that winter coat back on kid!” That and the fact that Paolo and I don’t, nor we will ever, own selfie sticks means this photo is the best two non-travel-influencers can do.