Last summer, I decided to spend the majority of my vacation back in the United States, dividing my time in Wisconsin, Chicago, and New York City. On my way back to France, my friends Michelle and Jo decided to join me on a week-long road trip around southern Iceland.
I’ve actually been to Iceland once before: in April 2010, when the Icelandic volcano erupted. I was 20 years old, dirt broke, and was a total rookie when it came to backpacking. The US Dollar was incredibly weak thanks to the 2008 economic recession (I’m talking $2 to £1 weak; I remember physically crying when I saw my bank account at one point), and my two friends and I were making the typical let’s-see-all-of-Scandinavia-with-a-$500-budget-in-two-weeks (Oslo, Flåm, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Reykjavik) American mistake (ah, to be a young, naïve, broke study abroad student again). Despite not having even enough money to buy my own food and instead borrowing leftover pasta from the “Free” cabinet in our hostel kitchen, I vowed that I would come back to explore Scandinavia one day when I had more cash to comfortably do so (see: Copenhagen 2016 for a professional development conference.)
Scandinavia 2010: Oslo, Flåm, Stockholm, Iceland’s Golden Circle
Although I have a bit more wiggle room with my salary today, Iceland is still quite expensive, so the three of us did plan ahead to make the most of our budget. In fact, the biggest difference I saw in Iceland during my second visit was just how much tourism had boomed in only seven years- my friends and I were practically alone in the Blue Lagoon when we visited in April 2010. In August 2017, we needed to book in advance and wait in long lines just to get inside.
Overall, I do believe that Iceland has done a spectacular job in promoting tourism– since 2010, the travel blogger industry has exploded, Instagram was invented, and I feel as though many Americans (and Millennials especially) have tried to make traveling a part of their budget and priorities. On the other hand, is sort of a double-edged sword- it is awesome to see so many people out there exploring the world, but booming tourism has also resulted in destroyed ecosystems and environments due to high influxes of tourists trampling flowers, destroying hiking trails, and littering the surrounding natural areas; booming rents in cities forcing locals out have been a huge problem due to sites such as AirBnb; and just an overcrowding of people in places you were hoping would be a bit more remote can sometimes be a bit frustrating. With that being said, Iceland was such an awesome trip, and one that I would recommend to anyone. Even better, Jo and Michelle are two of my favorite people to travel with (plus I’m lucky that most of my friends from different parts of my life seem to mostly get along with each other, and can deal with me at my worst.) Thanks Ladies 🙂
We decided that with the six days we had, we wanted to stick to the “less is more” method and made our focus on the southern part of the island. We started and finished in the capital city of Reykjavík and made a point to visit the following destinations along the way:
To cut down on our budget, we decided to travel exclusively by camper van, and to sleep in the camper van at night (with an exception of one night in the capital.) This was the first time I had ever done this, but it was a great experience overall. We rented an automatic camper van from Kuku Campers, and only had to pay small fees to stay in campsites at night (FYI- travelers used to be able to stay anywhere they wanted in Iceland for free, but now due to an influx of tourists, campers must stay in campsites or in designated camping areas.) (Additional FYI: Jo, Michelle and I are all extremely small people, from 4’11 to 5’2 maximum– we rented a camper van that barely fit the three of us to sleep, but this saved us an extra lump sum of cash as well.)
The three of us took advantage of free showers at public pools, as sometimes you had to pay for showers separately at the camp sites (and I am a princess when it comes to gross, nasty showers, but thankfully at public swimming pools, Icelandic showers are top notch and squeaky clean!) See my full budget breakdown for Iceland below.
- TIP: We are glad we invested in additional gravel insurance, as these particular camper vans are not made for the off roads in Iceland but are susceptible to gravel damage (if you want to get off the main road and into the middle of the country, you should purchase a 4-by-4.)
- Additional TIP: We also rented sleeping bags and pillows, as well as an additional phone charger (my French plan gave me free roaming and unlimited data which meant we had no reason to rent a GPS system.)
- Additional TIP: There is only one main road in Iceland (the ‘Ring Road’) and it is difficult to get lost.
Our sweet ride!
Day 1- Snorkeling in Silfra + The Golden Circle:
-Silfra: This was one of the activities that we booked in advance. Silfra is the rift of tectonic plates between Europe and North America. Upon landing, renting our van, and picking up Jo, we booked it to Silfra to join a guided snorkeling tour. The water was the most beautiful color of blue, but also freezing cold. It was so strange to put on a dry suit!
-Thingvellir National Park: Silfra Snorkeling is actually located in the national park, so we had a wander before jetting off to our next destinations on the Golden Circle.
Another way to save money in Iceland: All the water is completely drinkable! We often filled our bottles in the streams.
-Geysers, Gullfoss Falls, Kerið, Selfoss:
Geysir and Strokkur Geysers
-Seljavallalaug Sundlaug: I love swimming and jacuzzis and beaches, and Iceland has warm swimming pools and natural hot springs / thermal pools. Seljavallalaug Sundlaug is one of Iceland’s oldest thermal swimming pools, built in 1923. It’s actually not very far away from Seljalandsfoss (about 20 minutes), and you can find it on Google Maps. This is one of Iceland’s secrets that not quite a secret anymore thanks to travel bloggers, but was still enough of a secret that it wasn’t overrun (although the ‘locker rooms’ are absolutely horrific– some travelers should utterly be ashamed of themselves– I changed out in the open because I didn’t want to go inside! All in all, I am SO glad we took a chance on this place, and it was a great way to spend a couple of hours eating lunch and relaxing.
-Vík: Known for its black sand (ash) beaches, we spent an extremely windy night in Vík before setting out to explore the next morning.
We actually paid to do some horseback riding on the beaches of Vík. Icelandic horses are very unique creatures because of the ‘island effect’– they are smaller than ‘normal’ horses.
Skaftafell National Park: In order to break up the driving, we went on a hike!
We ended the day in a slightly overpriced natural spring with a free outdoor (and clean!) shower before driving to and sleeping in Höfn.
-Solheimasandur Plane Wreck: In 1973, a United States Navy DC plane ran out of fuel and crashed on the black beach near Vík. Thankfully there were no casualties, but the wreckage is still there. Many are intrigued by this story because the setting is a bit like a sci-fi film. IT’s on an abandoned beach and quite eery. It was a very long walk to get to, as cars are no longer allowed to drive.
-Reykjavík: We actually saved Reykjavík for the end of our trip. Despite having less than 200,000 inhabitants (most of the country’s population) there is still plenty to explore. The three of us climbed Hallgrimskirkja Church to admire the colorful views of the city below, strolled along the waterfront, indulged in Icelandic beer, and hung out at a local swimming pool, Vesturbæjarlaug. Public swimming pools in Iceland are actually heated so dwellers can enjoy them all year long– it is a very popular activity in Iceland. Just be sure that you are comfortable with public nudity, because locker room attendants do not take any nonsense!)
- TIP: If you camp in Reykjavík, you are given a discount for Vesturboejarlaug pool.
I also enjoyed that Reykjavík was so colorful- Iceland is super forward thinking and very LGBTQIA+ friendly. It is also a very progressive place for women, and the atmosphere certainly felt that way.
Blue Lagoon: The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most popular attractions and largest geothermal spas. It’s actually not far from the airport and it’s an easy thing to do on a long layover. Splurge on the drinks at the swim up bars and soak your face in sulfur for radiant skin. Just be sure to book your tickets in advance (something that has definitely changed since 2010!)
Money Saving Tips: When you think of Iceland, most people think about sweeping landscapes, waterfalls, and natural hot springs. What does not come to mind is food. So, we decided to save money by packing a lot of our own food– most notably instant oatmeal, granola bars, almonds, Chex Mix, Crystal Light packets, instant coffee, pasta, etc. as our camper van was equipped with basic accessories for cooking. We did, however, do a large grocery shop for sandwiches, fruit, etc. as well as splurge on the gas station Icelandic hotdog, one of the cheapest, delicious, and most popular meals for travelers in Iceland. We also brought a bottle of vodka from Duty Free for our nights at the campsites.
- Additional TIP: Purchase your alcohol in Duty Free as it is insanely expensive in Iceland. If you can, try to splurge on some Icelandic beer and have at least one restaurant meal.
On our last night, we went to a restaurant for burgers and beer, and left our mark on the magnetic poetry wall. (Order: Dana, Jo, Michelle)
Fashion: I actually consulted a couple of travel bloggers for packing tips in regards to clothing, and ended up packing my winter coat, a fleece-lined hat, fleece-lined leggings, sweatshirts and sweaters, thermal shirts, trainer, boots, a swimsuit, flip flops/shower shoes, gloves, and scarves. Even though it was August, I tend to get quite chilly at night.
- Transportation + Accommodation
- $417- Flights: (NYC-KEF-OSL-PAR)
- $40- Train to and from CDG to Lille
- $44.54- Buses (KEF Airport to Reykjavik city centre round trip; one ride back to city after dropping off the van)
- $275- Kuku Camper van
- $78.60- AirBnb one night in Reykjavik split between 3 people
- $63.42- Camping grounds entrance fees (one night in Selfoss, one night in Vík + laundry, one night in Hofn, and one night in Reykjavik. Free shower in Selfoss)
- $117.30- Blue Lagoon (transfers included)
- $159.85- Silfra Snorkeling + photos (split between 3)
- $84- Horseback riding
- $3.70- Crater entry
- $14.28- Penis Museum
- $8.50- Settlement Museum
- $8.50- Climbing the church
- $18- Pool entries in Höfn and Reykjavik
- $152.07 – I never paid for breakfast except for airport arrival. We went out to eat on the last night. We purchased a bottle of Duty Free vodka. I brought my own water bottle. and we stocked up on snacks in the US. We also pawned leftover food from Kuku Campers.
Gas + Parking:
- $4.28- Parking in Silfra
- $39- Gas (each person)
Gifts / Souvenirs:
ATM fees (French card):
$1,551.54 or 1.322,66€ or £1,181.40
If you’ve managed to make it to the end of this post, I highly recommend checking out my friend Michelle’s video of our trip to Iceland. She’s super talented!
Have you ever been to Iceland? Leave me your tips or experiences below!