Normally I write about Florence and Tuscany, but recently Iceland has captured my heart. I love it all: the unspoiled nature, the lunar like landscapes, the mountains, the fjords, the waterfalls, the colors, the light and even the unpredictable weather. And I am not the only one. Tourists have discovered Iceland, and the number of visitors to the land of fire and ice has doubled to more than 2 million this year.
Despite the fact that flights to Iceland have become cheaper lately, life remains expensive for tourists. I traveled around Iceland in late August and early September 2017 with a camper van and during my preparations and the trip itself I discovered various ways to save money.
Your trip to Iceland will never be dirt cheap, but if you pay close attention to your expenses, you can save a lot of money while you travel through Iceland. With my tips for budget travel in Iceland this beautiful country will also be within reach of the smaller budgets.
1. Iceland DIY – Do it yourself
The first thing you find when you google Iceland is the wide range of ready-made travel packages including everything from the flight to your overnight stays. The advantage of these tour packages is that you save a lot of time, you do not have plan anything yourself because all is taken care of for you. However, there are also many disadvantages to these ready-to-go-tours. It is more expensive than preparing everything yourself, you cannot decide which places to visit, and you’re stuck to a tight schedule that you cannot deviate from.
Creating your own travel plans is more time consuming, but, in the end, you save money, and you have full control over how you want to discover Iceland. A great help for planning your trip is of course the Lonely Planet Guide for Iceland.
2. High season or low season
The high season in Iceland runs from June until the end of August. Most tourists go during this period. Thus the prices are higher in the summer. Advantages of a summer trip are that there are many hours of daylight (in July and early August it doesn’t get dark at all), and there is the best chance of good weather. In the winter months, you pay less but there are only 4 hours of daylight, and a thick layer of snow covers the country. Moreover, not all roads are viable, and some are even closed. Dark nights are needed for the northern lights, and the spectacle can be seen in Iceland from the end of August until the end of April.
3. Book on time
Whichever season you choose for your trip to Iceland, book your flight, accommodation and rental car as early as possible for the best prices. Tourism in Iceland is booming and the cheapest flights and accommodations fill up first, and they fill up fast.
4. Credit card, debit card, and cash
You do not need cash in Iceland. You can pay for everything electronically. If you want to rent a car, you will need a credit card of course. In all stores, restaurants, gas stations, campsites, and accommodations you can pay with your credit card or debit card. Sometimes you need your credit card pin code, so make sure you memorize that. You will, of course, pay a percentage to your bank for the currency exchange, but at least you won’t be left with Icelandic money in your wallet that you have no use for once back home.
5. Rent a car or a camper
From Reykjavik, you can book a variety of day trips, but the best way to discover Iceland is by renting a car or camper. We opted for the 4×4 Clever camper van from Campeasy. If you stay on the main roads (asphalt or gravel) an ordinary 2×2 car or camper will do just fine, but for the country roads (indicated by F) you must have a 4×4 car. Compare the prices of different rental companies and choose the car that fits your needs.
6. Car insurance
When renting a car or camper, it is important that you pick only the insurance that you really need. In addition to basic insurance, you must definitely get the gravel protection. Due to the many gravel roads, damage caused by flying gravel is very common. We also had a small star in our windshield thanks to a car that surpassed us. Sand and ash protection is optional; we didn’t take it. There is no need for the theft insurance. Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world, and the chance that your rental car gets stolen is practically zero.
Rooms in guesthouses and hotels are expensive. Via Booking.com or Airbnb.com you have the best chance of booking an affordable overnight stay. If you really want to save money, you should stay at campsites. If you are an avid camper and have the right equipment for cold and wet weather, you can sleep in a tent during the summer months. For a bit more comfort rent a camper or camper van. I say “a bit more comfort” because conditions on most Icelandic campsites are rather rustic. The cost of an overnight stay per person is usually around 15 Euro ($18). More often than not the hot shower is not included (2 to 4 Euro – $2 – $5). A camper equipped with a heating system can also be used in the winter; some campsites are open all year. In the late summer, it can also be quite cold at night, and we used the heating a number of times. Wild camping is not allowed in Iceland. For cyclists and hikers, more lenient rules apply because they are not always able to reach the next campsite.
8. Food and drink
Eating out is not cheap in Iceland. You can save the most on food if you have the opportunity to cook in your camper or tent. The larger campsites have a kitchen, sometimes with a gas stove, which you can use. The cheapest supermarkets to do groceries are Bónus (recognizable by the pink piglet) and Krónan. If you have some space in your luggage, you can also bring food. Per person, you are allowed to import 3 kilos of food.
If you have a Costco card you might want to try the newly opened store in Reykjavik.
Most N1 gas stations also have a small supermarket and restaurant. They serve hamburgers and hotdogs, but there is also a daily menu with buffet. You can fill your plate with fish, meat, potatoes, and vegetables for a fixed price.
Alcoholic beverages are very expensive in Iceland and can best be bought in the duty-free area of the airport.
Don’t buy bottled water. The tap water is fresh and delicious, and you can fill your bottles and water tank for the camper everywhere. Water in restaurants is free.
9. Sightseeing and excursions
Almost all nature parks and outdoor sights are free to visit. So far only the Seljalandsfoss waterfall and the Þingvellir National Park have a parking lot where you have to pay, for the rest you can park your car anywhere for free.
You pay less for excursions if you book directly at the organizer without going through a third party.
10. Hotpots and swimming pools
Iceland has an abundance of natural hot springs of which the Blue Lagoon is the best known and most commercial. There are cheaper and even free alternatives for the touristic Blue Lagoon. For example, the Myvatn Nature Baths in the north. Furthermore, almost every village has a swimming pool with a hot pot, for a few Euros you can soak in the warm water and enjoy a hot shower as well.
Hot potting is an excellent way to relax after a busy day and on the Hot Pot Iceland website you can find a handy map of pools and free hot pots.