How to go to Iceland on a budget

First things first: “on a budget” is not a precise scientific phrase. I live in Amsterdam, which most tourists consider to be expensive. When I go to Reykjavík I am shocked by how expensive everything is. Therefore “on a budget” should be understood as “cheaper than the others”. And, let’s face it, as an author that hasn’t even published anything at all yet and spends tons of money on research books (and on non-research books…) I am poor. This article is going to make me look like a cheapskate. Good! Because when it comes to spending thousands of euros I AM a cheapskate due to not really having thousands of euros.

To prove this works (buy my book on social media guruing that will bring you $10,000…sorry, wrong guru) – we went twice so far. Four days in June 2017 cost us approximately 2/3 of what we’d spent on four WEEKS in April 2018. First time around accommodation constituted about 50% of our spending. Second time around – 80%. We stayed at the same spot in Reykjavík. So what did we do differently?

Kleifarvatn lake on the way to Krysavík. April 2018. Free.

Book your accommodation and flights in advance.

When I say “in advance” I mean months, not weeks. Our stay in April 2017 was fully planned in October 2016. Why April? I contacted our landlady and asked “what is the least touristic period?” Once I found out it was March-April, we asked how much discount we can get for coming for four weeks in April. The discount was 60% compared to June!

We used Google Flights for plane tickets. You can set up the dates you’re interesting in, the indicate you wish to receive emails when the prices drop. This way we paid the same to go to Reykjavík and back with full-sized luggage as we have to go to Warsaw and back with only hand luggage (the flight to Reykjavík is approximately twice as long). And that luggage was very useful, which I will explain in a moment…

When originally looking for a place to stay I went to a website the name of which rhymes with cooking dot com. If you choose to do the same, ignore every single red “JUST SOLD OUT”, “You just missed on this deal”, “only one room available”. Just ignore them. Choose your dates and number of participants, sort the results from cheapest upwards, then look at scores. In our case, the third cheapest accommodation in Reykjavík came with average score of 9.2 (!!!). It was a complete apartment with a kitchenette and gorgeous bathroom. I mention the kitchenette because you will need it.

Thingvellir. Free.

Choose the dates wisely

As I mentioned, March and April are the least touristic months in Iceland. Towards the end of our stay we began to notice an increase in the number of tourists, nights shortening so much the aurora hunting trips were no longer available (our cruise was available until April 15, because the days get longer at almost terrifying pace). The prices were lower, there were less people, and whilst weather in April isn’t exactly incredibly warm it won’t be in June either. Iceland, despite its name, doesn’t really get that cold in the winter – it’s mostly the wind that causes problems. But it also doesn’t get so hot in the summer. When we went in June and saw boys in tank-tops skateboarding around I asked the landlady, bewildered, if they’re all crazy. It was 14 Celsius degrees (57 Fahrenheit). The landlady told us this was practically a heatwave.

If you decide you must go in June-August, I have a suggestion: swap your timezones. Get up at 9pm, go to bed at noon. It won’t get dark anyway, but when you go to see Gullfoss at 3am you will notice the amount of tourists is much smaller than at 3pm. And the waterfall will be there. I promise. You’ll have it for yourself and pay nothing – there is no fee when all you want to do is be one with nature. Drive around the Golden Circle in the middle of the night and see it without company of tourists squeezed into a bus like sardines.

If you can drive, rent a car (in advance). Get insurance. I can’t stress this enough. You can make sure the car will come with a full tank of gas. Do it, because it will save you both time and money. If you can’t drive, you’re going to be stuck with bus tours – there is no public transport in Iceland, not the type that would take you around Thingvellir, Geysir, or whatever else is a part of the Golden Circle.

(Note to self: get a driving license…)

Do your own cooking and don’t eat out

Obviously this isn’t always going to be possible, but bear in mind Iceland is the home of the most expensive sandwich ever. This, especially if you stay in a big city, is going to translate to the most expensive everything ever. We went to a recommended bijou restaurant, had the sort of food where you get three starters that combine into a modest dish, drank coffee. There were three of us. None of us touched any alcohol, just the food and coffee. We paid 120 euro. 40 euro per head. This was in 2016. We didn’t make the same mistake in 2017.

Why is paying extra for proper luggage important? Because you can often bring your own food. (Check the terms and conditions regarding your own country before you go – our experience is only with European Union.) Don’t take anything homemade unless you’d like to see the customs officers throw it away whilst you plead “but my muuuuuum made this”. When we went, we took ready-made sauces, pate, cheese (my husband adores cheese in any amounts), something called Trendy Lunch which is basically rice or grains with lots of added mushrooms and vegetables, etc. Nothing breakable of perishable, so no eggs, no milk, no bread – Iceland isn’t that expensive. It’s not very cool to travel with your own food. But it saves money. This is why having a kitchenette is important. Even if you have to pay a bit extra for the luggage, it will spare you from paying 120 euro per day for dinner. Remember anything vaguely resembling liquid – in my case, my favourite super-spicy mustard – will be removed from your hand luggage.

Do your food shopping at Bónus (a pink piggy bank logo that is so gross it crosses over and becomes a classic) or Krónan. I recommend skyr – it’s Icelandic version of thick yoghurt, delicious and tasty at the same time. Tomatoes are going to taste like water with texture, so will cucumbers. Leave them alone and get lettuce. Meats, on the other hand, are wonderful. I recommend the Polish sausages, but I would, wouldn’t I? And here is something you should NEVER pay for.

Gullfoss. Free. (Don’t drink it.)

Never, ever pay for water

Exception is going to be sparkling water, because as wonderful as Iceland is sparkling water doesn’t pour from the taps quite yet.

A while ago a scandal shook the country: a hotel owner informed tourists that they should “avoid tap water” and sold them water in plastic bottles. This is a lot like bringing your own sand to Sahara dessert. If you are in a hotel that tries to force you to buy water, threaten them with a written complaint, then still notify the media (Iceland Magazine likes those stories), because it’s extortion of the most disgusting sort. Tap water in Iceland is basically like drinking a glacier. I have never tasted better water. And in the somewhat brutal words of my friend, if you end up in the sleaziest bar, with bathroom walls smeared with poop (sorry! blame him for this visual!) the tap water will still taste like the most delightful beverage.

Most restaurants simply put a carafe of water and glasses either on your table, or somewhere accessible in the corner. Don’t bother asking. That water is there for free and especially for you. It comes straight from the tap, which means it comes straight from the glaciers.

This only applies to cold water. Hot water comes from geothermal springs. You will notice the difference quite easily when you open the tap and the lovely smell of rotten eggs fills the bathroom. You get used to the smell surprisingly fast, but that doesn’t make the water drinkable. My landlady would disagree, but do not use this hot water to brush your teeth. If your hair has been dyed, do not use this water to wash it. Do not dunk your head in a hot pool (more on this in a moment). This is why I ended up having to shave my goldilocks upon our return. I was actually aware of that advice but for some reason I assumed I would be an exception. I wasn’t. My hair turned into straw.

Buy something in a large plastic bottle. Just once. Whenever you go somewhere, and you will be going somewhere because that’s the point, take water with you. Make sandwiches and take them along as well. You will save surprising amounts of money by having your own lunch. Which doesn’t stop me from recommending apple pie with caramel and coffee. Just check the prices before you order, especially near touristic attractions.

Don’t go to Blue Lagoon

I mean, you probably will, because BLUE LAGOON OMG. But it’s essentially a very large and pretty spa. If it’s bathing in hot water whilst you’re surrounded by snow and cold air, go to a public swimming pool. This – not pubs – is where you can meet very nice people. (And some crazy people, but Iceland has the best crazies, and if you look at me you know this is a compliment.) The place where we went in Reykjavík, Laugardalslaug, offers hot tubs with temperatures ranging from 24 to 42 Celsius degrees (75 to 107 Fahrenheit), a cold tub that a crazy guy used for full two minutes and I’m competitive, so I managed 45 seconds, a Turkish sauna, a dry sauna, a mini-gym (you’d have to be a bit desperate to use it, but STILL). We broke our “not eating out” rule, because there was a delightful cafe – cross the road from the parking, bam, you’re there. Of course the water at the cafe was free and available. Same as at the pool. Same as everywhere but shady hotels.

For obvious reasons I am not putting a photo taken in the swimming pool above this paragraph. Why? Because of people being shits towards Kween Björk, but that’s a different story.

While we’re at it…

Heiðmörk. Free.

Check out the top 10 tourist attractions

This is crucial. I can’t stress it enough. Go through the articles detailing top 10 tourist destinations. Then go everywhere else. Of course I’m a hypocrite, because I had to see Gullfoss and Thingvellir once, but all of Iceland is gorgeous. And when you go to Kleifarvatn, Arnarstapi, or even just drive around you will be surrounded by amazing views at all times. We found accidental waterfalls scattered all over the place, found out too late that it was possible to take horse rides in Heiðmörk (my favourite place on Earth, really), I spent a lot of time just sitting and being in Arnarstapi, breathing in the breeze, listening to birds, not disturbed by any tourists at all. All that for free, except the price of gas, of course.

Northern lights come for free. Do not expect to see them between April 15 and more or less end of August. We saw them once and I don’t think I can ever forget this experience. No amount of money would buy it, because nature doesn’t care how much you spent. We went on a Northern lights hunting tour, which offered a new ticket if you didn’t see the lights. I can confirm it worked. Whilst the first time around the pilot kept mentioning that if you set your camera to very long exposure and stare super hard you might see a tiniest bit, we were not charged and went again. It was a lovely, aurora-free experience. Our tickets allow us to go again and again until we’re lucky. And we’re going to use those tickets, because I am so not done visiting the country I’ve seen perhaps 1% of so far!

Part two coming next week, because I had no idea this post was going to become so long…

5 thoughts on “How to go to Iceland on a budget”

  1. Fun fact: there’s a Polish girl living on Iceland, who’s a hawaiian massage – lomi lomi lui – masseuse 🙂

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