Iceland: Lava, Glaciers, Waterfalls, and … $25 Hamburgers

A recent study shows that everyone loves Iceland*.  As Megan stated several days into our trip, “this whole country is a natural wonder”.  It is a country which was shaped by fire and ice.  Lava fields cover glacial valleys surrounded by rugged peaks, and volcano cones dot the moraine covered landscape.  These fields are covered layer after layer with more recent lava flows, with older formations coated in thick moss.  Glaciers drape between mountains and actively change the landscape, grinding lava into the black sand found on most beaches.  *This study was conducted by surveying both of us as we drove to the airport after our Iceland trip.

Well that does it.  We are done with the first stop of our round the world adventure.  While writing this, we are on a plane bound for mainland Europe where we will spend the next 40+ days, including Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Romania (see full trip itinerary in our earlier post).

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Cost – Iceland is one of the most incredible places either of us have visited of our 40+ countries.  That said, it is not for the faint of budget.  We came as a group of four and our first breakfast ran 8,000 ISK (Icelandic Kroner).  The exchange rate during our trip in mid June 2017 was almost exactly $1 to 100 ISK so conversion is easy be moving the decimal 2 places.  While Iceland has native fare, most restaurants serve mainly continental options which would be found on many menus abroad.  A hamburger seemed to average 2,500 ISK, with additions such as bacon or an egg adding up to 500 ISK to that price.  It was close to impossible to eat at a restaurant for less than 10,000 ISK for our group, with most main course meals running between 4,000 and 5,000 ISK per plate.  We would see lamb or fish consistently for 37,000 to 50,000 ISK per meal in restaurants.  Tipping is not customary and all costs are included in menu prices.  Take out prices are often a little cheaper but will still break you.

After the initial shock of food prices, we decided to purchase a small cooler from the store and shop at the grocery store for food to eat for lunches.  Most of the farm stays did not have a kitchen and therefore needed to buy food that didn’t need to be cooked.  Healthy options were relatively limited so we ended up with sandwich ingredients, snacks, apples, and a huge 1kg tub of peanut butter.  Tip to the wise, be careful what deli meats you buy, they all look like bologna.  Also, you would think that fresh fish and lamb would be dirt cheep, but in fact they are some of the most expensive things you can buy next to beef.  Smoked salmon, which would cost $4 USD for 4oz at home, cost over $30 in every grocery store.

We were advised to shop at Bonus or Kronan (similar to Aldi) for groceries which would offer the same products for a significant discount from more upscale stores.  While we did find this to be true in some cases, we found that Netto stores offered a significantly larger selection of options.  It was also very difficult to find ice on the island of ICELAND, we could only find it in certain grocery stores.  

We shopped off of the bottom shelf at the wine store, where bottles were only around 2,000 ISK.  If you are planning an Iceland trip and would be drinking any type of alcohol, it is a WAY better deal to buy at the duty free shop in the airport when you arrive due to the significant taxes on alcohol in the country.

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Eyjafjörður, the longest fjord in Iceland

As expensive as travel is in Iceland, we were told by a guide that it will be even more expensive starting next year.  Tourism has grown significantly following the economic crash pre-2010, when visitors totaled less than 1 million.  It is projected that this number will reach 2.4 million by the end of 2017.  This growth can be attributed to intentional efforts to increase tourism through tax breaks on this industry, and airlines offering significant discounts on inbound flights with free stopovers to Europe.  Due to this boom, costs have increased significantly.  Infrastructure, restaurants and accommodations are stretched thin in high season and trips may need to be booked well in advance.  Tax breaks on the industry will be going away after 2017 and will replaced with the highest level brackets to try and slow the growth, which could increase costs to tourists another 25%.

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Despite the cost challenges, this is a very easy country to visit.  People are very welcoming, road signs are descriptive and numerous, and English is widely spoken despite being the secondary language.  We did not need any local or US currency during our trip as credit card was accepted just about everywhere.

Accommodations – Our trip took us on a full loop of the island with a self-driving tour.  We used a company called Hey Iceland to set up our accommodations, which is best described as a co-op of farm stays throughout the country.  We slept in these primarily but used Airbnb while in Reykjavik.  We did a combination of one and two night stays around the country.  Hey Iceland set up the sleeping arrangements, provided the rental car, and gave us a rough guide of areas the route, areas, and hikes, although we did most of that research on our own.   We drove the main road around the country, Highway 1 which is commonly referred to as the Ring Road, and also took side trips to other areas and peninsulas.

Iceland is a country of only 330,000 residents, with just under 220,000 residing in the Capital Region around Reykjavik and the second largest city, Akureyri, housing only 18,000.  The majority of the civilization which we saw seemed to be various farms and cabins dotted along the valleys throughout the country.  Due to the limited number of towns, sparse population and seemingly endless areas to visit, we thought that getting help with booking made sense.  In hindsight, we would have booked our own accommodations because all locations are of interest.  It seems less important to be located near anything specific if you are driving around as needed.

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Ring Road

There are other options as well, which could make sense depending on budget or interest.  We saw numerous people who were using camper vans or RVs.  We also talked to many who were renting a car and tent camping around the country.  As far as we can tell, tent camping and camper parking is allowed most anywhere if not specifically prohibited.  There are amazing overlooks and campsites which could be created everywhere, so this could be an appealing option.

We met an Austrian man, Florian, one day on a hike while we were both simultaneously inventing a route towards a mountain peak.  He was on a three week trip of Iceland and had brought his car from Europe to Iceland by train and then ferry.  He was using it both as his transportation and sleeping arrangements, which ended up being a significantly cheaper option than renting a camper or car upon arrival.  His round trip ticket with car was €1,600 EUR (around $1,760 USD), which includes transport to and from Iceland plus a car and accommodations while in country.

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Can you find Florian?

Depending on your trip timing, it would be prudent to bring an eye mask for sleeping as many of the accommodations do not have blackout curtains.

Transportation
–  Keflavik Airport (KEF) is the only international entry point for travelers, and is located around 45 minutes south west of the city.  Don’t make our same mistake and assume you’ll be flying into the airport in Reykjavík which is the domestic airport (RKV).  We chose our Airbnb location in proximity to the wrong place.  We flew Icelandair from BOS, which was the cheapest option that was not a “budget” airline.  WOW also flies in but we have heard stories from friends of cancelled flights without rebooking for many more days.  Of note, BOS to KEF was an international five hour flight.  We realized later that we weren’t getting a meal or even a snack since we had booked economy in the steerage section.  Ensure you plan accordingly.  We ended up buying cups of instant ramen from the steward to keep from starving at 500 ISK each.

We rented a car for our 13 day trip to allow us the freedom to explore the country.  It would be a tough place to experience without the ability to go where you want on demand.  There are public transport options within main cities, but these infrastructure options are not widely available in most areas.  While roads can take you most places, many are dirt or gravel off the beaten path.  Even the main two lane highway which wraps the country has sections which were not paved.  We saw tour buses throughout our trip, but this method would severely limit the amount of places available to access.  As mentioned, RVs and campers were also a common sight and seemed to be able to reach most places where we stopped.

When renting a car, you are given the normal options such as economy, sedan, etc., but there is also an added category for cars which are allowed on F roads.  These roads are always rocky or graveled, and may have stream crossings.  The cars rated for these roads will typically be SUVs and always have 4 wheel drive.  We sprung for the added expense to get the 4×4 vehicle, which well worth the cost.  With so much of the road system being relatively remote, rocky, potholed, etc, it was nice having this additional comfort and accessibility.  Also and more importantly, Iceland is amazing and has jaw dropping valleys and waterfalls at every turn.  Throughout the trip, we found ourselves pulling off road to explore trails and valleys.  Without a capable vehicle, our visit would have been forced into a much smaller box.

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Randomly found waterfall

As a tip to unknowing drivers, the signs on the road with an image of an antique camera are warning of speed sensors ahead, and are not spots to take pictures!  We may have learned this the hard way.  Also, traffic circles are two lane and have specific designated paths depending on your exit direction.  We had never seen this in other countries.  Areas of interest signs are abundant and are marked with a kind of clover leaf scroll design.IMG_9089

After the first day, we realized that our rented GPS was worth as much as the endless supply of gravel covering the country.  We resorted to using Maps.Me, which we have mentioned in a previous post which was by far the best tool.  As of our visit, gas prices seemed to average 177 ISK per liter or around $6.70 per gallon.

Stats – We sufficiently conquered Iceland.  We drove the full loop, including other areas such as the Golden Circle, fjords in the east, north and west, the far northern areas around Húsavík and Siglufjörður, and the Snæfellsnes peninsula.  We have added a map of our main route with the sections where we diverted from the Ring Road for extra exploring.  We put 75 miles on our hiking boots, 1,645 miles on our rental car, took 597 pictures, and explored countless known and unknown waterfalls.  The total combined cost for our Iceland trip leg for the two of us was $5,323.72, or $409.52 average per day (ouch!).Screenshot 2017-06-25 09.19.01
We have worked to put together a website that acts as a resource for anyone doing extended travel, or for region specific information.  If you know anyone who is considering a trip to Iceland, a trip around the world, or someone who would just enjoy some travel inspiration, we would appreciate you sharing this post, our website, or any of our others resources!

Make sure to check out Iceland: Our Gravel Filled Itinerary post with our specific route details as shown on the map above!  Also check out our other posts on how we packed and planned for this trip.

16 thoughts on “Iceland: Lava, Glaciers, Waterfalls, and … $25 Hamburgers

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