Last summer, I was looking desperately for something to do for vacation. Up to that point, I was an under-traveled 27 year old who had never left North America in his life.
Things in life were also trending up: I had a full-time job finally, a travel partner in my girlfriend, and some savings dedicated towards travel. Iceland also made sense as a first “big” trip. It was an English-speaking nation, had a good safety record of travelers, and offered cheap flights. Plus I had two colleagues who went and came back alive with rave reviews.
A new airline named WOW Air came onto the scene, flying out of YYZ and boy, were those flights cheap. $480 round trip direct felt like a good deal for what was peak travel season in August (I would later learn this price is just about average).
My girlfriend and I booked and were greeted with probably the most budget airline we’ve ever flown with – tiny cramped seats and very precise specifications on everything, including a $60 charge per checked bag. If you decided to check it at the gate, guess what: it would be double the price!
We read all the fine print and followed all their rules, packed our own snacks, and luckily had zero issues. The flight wasn’t particularly comfortable, but for a six hours, you just suck it up and take it. After all, budget is budget when it comes to WOW Air.
For whatever we saved on flights, it seemed to evaporate when it came to all other expenses, with accommodations being no exception. Exploring where we wanted to stay, we searched and searched and found that the mediocre hotels costed upwards of $200 per night.
The van featured a small propane stove, heater, kitchenware, a comfy foam mattress, and storage space. It cost us just under $700 for a three day rental, but it essentially doubled as both accommodation and transportation; plus it allowed us to cook all our meals ourselves.
For anyone traveling to Iceland, I can’t recommend a camper van enough. Unlike hitting Airbnbs along the road, a van has no “checkout” times since you’re traveling in your hotel. The unfortunate part was that as it was peak season, we couldn’t secure the van for more than the three days, meaning we had to transfer over to a regular car for the rest of our trip through Sixt (mediocre experience, but you get what you pay for).
Tip: a camper van will not be covered by your credit card insurance since it’s not a regular rental vehicle – we paid out of pocket for the basic insurance from Go Campers. But still, it was a great experience and well worth it. Even better, when we returned the van the rental staff gave us a free ride back to Reykjavik!
Probably the costliest thing in Iceland, considering Iceland’s agricultural exports don’t go much beyond anything sheep-related. On our first trip to the grocery store, we spent $70 on basic items like oatmeal, bread, hazelnut spread, bananas, pasta, pasta sauce, beans, and chips. For reference, you could probably get away with that list here in Canada for about $30 if you were being generous. Granted, for $7.00 a loaf, the bread was pretty damn good.
Other grocery observations: bacon was $20 for a pack (no thanks), eggs were $3.50 for a half-dozen, and the sausages we bought were four for $9.00 and were exceptionally gross. Pork is not a forte in Iceland.
We did dine out, with the cheapest restaurant meal being take-out hamburgers the size of a McDonald’s McDoubles for $14 each. For marginally more money at $24, we had delicious fish cakes at a sit-down restaurant. The most expensive meal cost us about $120.00 at the highest ranked restaurant on TripAdvisor named Resto in Reykjavik. Was it worth it? Probably not. Was it good? Yes. My favourite meal on the whole trip? A $30ish lamb goulash in a place I can’t remember nor spell when I was sick with a cold. Hit the spot perfectly.
Also: Try Domino’s Pizza in Iceland. Out of hangriness, we drove to that blue and red sign and ordered a pizza that tasted almost gourmet compared to Domino’s here in Canada. Maybe I’m being overly generous in my assessment, but it was pretty damn good pizza.
The Things We Did
Iceland is a hiker’s dream with so much to see. We went as far east with the camper van as Jokulsarlon, aka Iceberg Lagoon, experienced a glacier walk in Skaftafell, a volcano hike on Vestmannaeyjar, a hike to a hot spring river (you literally get to jump into the river at the end of the hike to relax) in Hveragerdi, and countless Oceanside strolls and waterfalls. You can view the full map of our journey here.
Upon returning to Reykjavik to switch to a regular car, we went through the Golden Circle to see Geysir, Gullfoss waterfall and Thingvellir National Park before moving west to Olafsvik, which apparently is really beautiful but was sadly covered in cloud, rain, and poor weather the entire time. We went from miraculous sunny weather for the first 5 days of the trip to non-stop torrential downpour, a downpour that sadly murdered my girlfriend’s resilient Blackberry phone which was in her pocket.
Still – through the mist and rain, there was a mystical beauty to the whole place. Sometimes it felt like we were on a different planet (fun fact: Iceland was used by Christopher Nolan for Interstellar and Batman Begins and by Ridley Scott for Prometheus. A lot of it feels alien).
Upon returning back to Reykjavik for the final time, we went to Laugardalslaug, which is a public pool for $10 admission. We listened to online reviewers who basically said that Laugardalslaug is one-twelfth of the price of the Blue Lagoon (which can be as much as $100) and is significantly less crowded. Plus it features many similar amenities, such as different hot tubs at different temperatures, steam rooms, cold baths, and a water slide. It was a great way to close out an exhausting trip without throngs of tourists!
I’ll admit, the frugal person in me died a little bit based on how expensive basic travel amenities were since keeping the whole trip to $2,152 took a very dedicated effort compared to other trips I’ve made.
Regardless, Iceland is truly gorgeous. I would definitely go back to finish the rest of the island in a camper van, assuming I could book everything early enough. Three weeks would probably do it for the whole island.
You need ZERO cash in Iceland as everyone takes credit card, including those small mom and pop shops. We could have gotten away with using my Amazon.ca Chase VISA the whole time.
*Photo credit for all the pretty photos goes to my wonderful girlfriend.