Iceland seems to be on everyone’s travel bucket list – and that’s exactly where it belongs. It might be small, but the island is so packed with beautiful landscapes, natural wonders and unique experiences that you could easily visit several times in your lifetime and still want to go back. If you can afford it. Of all the questions I’ve received about my travels, how to visit Iceland on a budget has been the most common by far. While the reality is that it’s an expensive destination no matter what currency you’re travelling on (but special thoughts and prayers must be sent to those exchanging ZAR), I’ve got these 10 money saving tips for travelling Iceland to help you cut costs where you can.
I’m not a backpacker and I wouldn’t consider myself a “budget traveller”, but I’m not a “luxury traveller” either. I can rough it a little when I travel, but I like hot showers when it’s snowing outside, a good night’s sleep on something that’s not a couch and I don’t mind spending money on good food. My guide doesn’t include tips for camping or couch surfing, because that’s not how I explored Iceland. Of course you could hitchhike instead of renting a car (I can’t imagine anything worse) and stick to the Golden Circle route instead of the full Ring Road to save on petrol costs (but that feels like a real waste of a 24 hour flight and a R2000 Schengen visa!). So for the purposes of this list, let’s suppose you’re the same kind of traveller I am (someone who likes a smooth experience but doesn’t have a trust fund) and you’re planning on spending at least 10 days in Iceland, exploring the whole Ring Road and staying in hotels or guest houses along the way. Here are my 10 money saving tips for travelling Iceland – I hope they help!
10 Money Saving Tips for Travelling Iceland
There are a few hard costs I wouldn’t recommend cutting out of your budget, no matter how tight it is. Good car insurance (those Icelandic winds are no joke and you could very easily end up with a massive damages bill) and a reliable car are essential if you’re planning to explore the Ring Road – especially in winter. We visited in March and I was very grateful to be staying in hotels instead of a camper van (my water bottle froze solid in the car overnight!) and very grateful to be in a 4×4 – especially when we drove past little cars trying desperately to make their way through snowstorms.
1. Connect through the cheapest European city available
If you’re flying from South Africa, you’ll need to connect at least once. Flying through the Middle East (on board Qatar or Emirates) is technically your cheapest option, but that means 2 connecting flights (once in the Middle East and once in Europe) and at least 25 hours of flying. Flying with a European airline through a city like Amsterdam or Copenhagen will cut down your travel time by at least 8 hours and if you book in advance might cost only a fraction more. I’d recommend signing up to a few European airline newsletters, so you can keep an eye on flight specials. I decided to book with KLM and flew through Amsterdam because if there’s one city that’s almost as expensive as Reykjavik, it’s Copenhagen. This is especially important if you want to squeeze in a night or two to explore while you’re flying through.
2. Travel with friends
We split the cost of the car and fuel between three people, which helped a lot with savings, and where possible, we booked accommodation that could sleep three to a room too. To help with splitting other costs like snacks and meals, we started a group fund at the beginning of the trip – each putting the same amount into a purse – and used that until it run out, then started over. It really saved us the time and effort of calculating at every stop.
Also read: The Ultimate Guide to 10 Days in Iceland
Alcohol is extremely expensive once you get through immigration, so stock up on your favourite beverage at Duty Free. Between the three of us we bought a bottle of gin, a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of vodka. For geothermal pool afternoons and hotel room nightcaps, we just scooped up some snow and poured over the spirits.
4. BYOS (bring your own snacks)
I cannot stress to you enough how expensive everything is. Yes, even a petrol station hotdog (R180,00). Yes, even a takeaway margherita pizza (R500,00). Bring along snacks for the road like biltong, which you can buy vacuum packed to travel with, Jungle Oat bars and dried fruit. We normally ate a huge breakfast and then pushed through on snacks till late lunch or early dinner.
We thought we’d skip out on booking hotel and guest house breakfasts in favour of cute restaurants and coffee shops along the way, but this proved to be a terrible idea. Our route took us all the way up north, where the few little restaurants and coffee shops around were closed for the winter. We ended up spending at least R450,00 per person per day on hotel breakfasts and although they were hearty (including mountains of smoked salmon) we could have saved at least R4 500,00 each if we’d booked on a bed and breakfast basis.
Also read: 48 Hours in Reykjavik
6. Decide between the Myvatn Nature Baths or the Blue Lagoon
Although the Blue Lagoon is iconic, I preferred the Myvatn Nature Baths up north. In my opinion, you don’t need to see both. The baths at Myvatn have the same beautiful blue hue but there are far less people around and it’s a more authentic experience. The Blue Lagoon is a slick operation, but there are tour busses full of people to contend with. Entrance into the Myvatn Nature Baths is around R500,00, while tntrance into the Blue Lagoon is around R850,00.
7. Drink the tap water
If ever there was a place to drink water straight from the tap, it’s Iceland! I’m talking glacier pure, people. Buying bottled water is a totally unnecessary expense and by filling your own bottle, you’ll be doing your bit to help stop plastic from getting into our oceans.
8. Book a food tour in Reykjavik
Eating out in Iceland’s capital city is, you guessed it, expensive. But a girl’s gotta eat! One of my favourite experiences of our whole trip was the Reykjavik Food Tour with Wake Up Reykjavik. The tour was packed with food and included a taste of traditional fermented shark (I’m not afraid to say it’s by far the worst thing I have ever consumed), the lamb soup every Icelander grew up on, a seafood soup worth writing home about, local cheeses and cured meats, ice cream made from a secret recipe, the much-talked about Icelandic hot dog and a sweet treat in a beautiful cafe. Our afternoon stretched into a four hour tour, because we were having so much fun. It’s an awesome way to eat your way through the city, spend some time with a local, learn about Icelandic culture and fill your belly. The tour costs around R1600,00, but considering the cost of a single pastry (R60,00) it’s worth it.
Also read: The Girl’s Guide to Packing for Iceland
9. Enjoy the free activities
There are so many beautiful hot springs and waterfalls to explore and most of them are totally free! I found some incredible hot pots along our route just by searching the location of our next destination by geotag on Instagram, but there’s a full list on www.hotpoticeland.com. We spent many many hours just soaking in the warm water, often with no one else around.
10. Barter for paid activities
We hadn’t booked a glacier cave experience, but we decided we couldn’t miss the opportunity to explore a crystal blue cave in the middle of a glacier! So we ended up rushing through to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon after breakfast in the hopes that we’d find a guide. We spotted a guy in an Icelandic sweater with a truck that had wheels the size of my VW Polo and bartered for a much better price than we would have paid if we’d booked a tour online. It’s best to go as early as possible, since the cave gets pretty full. Once you’re inside, it’s like being inside a precious gem. At some spots, you’re under more than 1km of ice!
So there you have it. Iceland doesn’t have to cost your life savings! And you don’t have to sleep on someone’s couch to afford it. At the end of the day, it is a bucket list destination, and if you’re lucky you’ll see the Northern Lights, which is something you truly can’t put a price on.