Iceland on a shoestring - 5 top tips
Updated: Feb 11
We just got back from the most phenomenal 5 days in the land of ice and fire. As we all know, Iceland isn't the cheapest destination in the world (in fact it's one of the priciest -and that's coming from 2 Londoners!), but we were determined to go to this extraordinary country without bankrupting ourselves. So here are our top tips for how to have an amazing trip to Iceland on a budget.
1. Travel off season
Summer is one of the most popular times to visit Iceland - long daylight hours, puffins, lupins... I'm sure you've seen the photos. However, travelling in peak season is expensive, and while we probably wouldn't recommend going over winter (icy roads and very short dark days), autumn is a fantastic (and less expensive) time to visit!
We travelled in late October, which meant we had 8 hours of daylight, cheaper flights, places were quieter and it was Northern Lights season! Bonus. Obviously it goes without saying that you should avoid travelling during the October half term - we timed our trip for the week after and were pleasantly surprised by how quiet a lot of the big tourist destinations were.
2. Fly with a budget airline.
Yes we've all heard the horror stories, but when everything goes well at the end of the day it's just a flying bus. And when flights Reykjavik from the UK are only about 3 hours, you only need a seat. There's no point paying for a larger more expensive airline with an entertainment console / food for such a short trip. We flew with Easyjet and had no problems whatsoever.
Another tip for flying low cost - take carry on only and avoid extra fees. Wear your hiking boots and big coat onto the plane (bonus points if you can fit your book, wallet, camera etc in the pockets!), and minimise the clothes you need. On a cold trip like this you won't need fancy evening options - one pair of jeans with enough clean tops and undies will do!
3. Take food!
One of the main expensive things in Iceland (apart from booze) is food. Seriously, groceries are far pricier than back at home as most things are imported, and even the most basic sit down cafe in Reykjavik seemed to be at least £18 for something tiny. Our tip would be to pack dehydrated foods that you can make up with hot water, like soups, flavoured couscous and noodles. You can take up to 3 kg of food each, just no raw eggs, raw meat, or milk, so fill your carry on and you'll save a fortune! We also took breakfast biscuits, cereal bars and other snacks, along with a thermos and 2 camping mugs. Each morning we'd boil the kettle in our hostel, fill the thermos and make our lunches and dinners on the road. Another plus with this kind of food is that it doesn't need a fridge, so you can just bung it all in a tote bag in your car for the whole trip/ in your day pack for the day.
Similarly, bring a metal/reusable water bottle and refill it from public drinking fountains, taps and even streams - water in Iceland is clean, delicious and plastic bottled stuff is a waste of money and bad for the environment!
Of course, eating noodles and soup for several days can get boring, so if you would like a hot meal out, we'd recommend the trucker cafes at the petrol stations. Cheap and cheerful, you can get a cheeseburger and chips or fish and chips for about £10, and they often have a few more options on the menu too. We found a brilliant one in Kirkjubaejarklaustur (at the petrol station between Vik and Jökulsárlón) and another good find is Ice Cave Restaurant in Vik itself - a canteen in the same building as the big outdoor clothing/souvenir store, which has light installations that reminded us of the 'Avatar Trees' in Singapore's Gardens by the Bay. There is also a fantastic hot dog shop just down the main road from Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik called Street Dog: Icelandic hot dogs are famous, tasty (3 sauces and 2 types of onions!) and inexpensive - we paid about £3 each.
4. Self Drive.
We would SO recommend hiring a car in Iceland! Petrol was probably our main expense on the trip - total fuel plus car hire and insurance cost us around £210 for 5 days, not bad considering we covered A LOT of ground - the drive back from Jökulsárlón to Reykjavik alone is about 240 miles. So much of Iceland is easily self drive-able if you stick to the main ring road, and you will save a packet compared to booking excursions.
For example, if we'd booked two places on a Golden Circle tour and two places on a Reykjavik to Jökulsárlón tour (including Skogafoss/Seljalandsfoss/ Reynisfjara black sand beach), it would have cost us close to £350! Having our own transport not only saved us serious pennies but it also gave us tremendous freedom. We were able to stop where ever we liked en route, whether it was to have a coffee looking at a glacier, to check out an awesome cave or to pet some Icelandic horses, and we were also able to add in some bonus side trips like Kerid Volcanic crater and the geothermal area of Seltún.
Having your own car also means you can shake things up schedule-wise in order to avoid the crowds. For example, most Golden Circle coach tours go first to Thingvellir National Park, then Geysir, then Gullfoss. We decided to reverse this order and drive out to Gullfoss first and finish our day at Thingvellir, and it was so quiet! Much nicer.
Obviously if you're interested in whale watching or the northern lights, you'll need to book a tour. I suppose we could have driven out into the darkness to look for the aurora ourselves, but the tour guides are experts who have checked forecasts and know exactly where the best patches of clear sky will be. We went with Reykjavik Excursions who were just fantastic, and very reasonably priced.
5. Buy your alcohol in the airport
The reputation is well earned guys - drinking in Iceland is EXPENSIVE! We're talking £7/8 for a pint of beer and more like £10+ for wine or a vodka and orange. There are happy hours dotted around in Reykjavik which you can take advantage of, which just about bring things back down to London price, but for a cheaper night we'd recommend buying your alcohol in Duty Free and bringing it with you.
6. And 1 thing to splurge on:
The Blue Lagoon. Do it guys. Do it do it do it. Yes it's £75, but a week's worth of noodles to off set the cost is so worth it. It's HEAVEN! Buy the comfort package (cheapest option) and you get unlimited time in the water, unlimited deep cleansing silica mud for your face and a free drink of your choice, which even includes the prosecco! We spent 5 hours relaxing in the hot water, the steam room, the sauna, the hot waterfall that pummels the knots out of your shoulders after 5 days adventuring... it's the perfect treat to end your holiday on the way back to the airport. 1 last top tip - book the 8am slot. You can watch the sun come up and it won't get busy until 10 (although the lagoon is big enough that it never feels crowded).