If you’re a nature enthusiast, Iceland is an amazing place to visit. We just finished a stunning 9-day/9-night adventure touring the country and can’t wait to return to this mystical island one day soon. Iceland offers a myriad of natural wonders – waterfalls, hot springs, black sand beaches, glaciers, wildlife and more. The seasons play a huge role as well, with endless days in the summer and skies lit with the aurora borealis during the long winter nights. We split the difference and visited in September, which allowed us plenty of time to experience nature’s beauty during the day and catch a glimpse of the northern lights late at night. We drove over 1,000 miles during our trip and explored many of the highlights along the ring road. If (when!) we return, we’d love to explore the West Fjords and spend more time in the East Fjords.
How much does it cost to visit Iceland?
Iceland has been on our bucket list for awhile and this particular trip was spurred by finding a really good deal on airfare. It’s a good thing we saved so much on airfare because visiting Iceland is not cheap… Food is expensive. Gas is expensive. Excursions are REALLY expensive. Lodging options vary wildly – from camping with minimal facilities to luxury bed-and-breakfasts and high-end hotels. We opted for a semi-frugal trip and stayed in a mix of Airbnb accommodations and moderately priced hotels throughout our trip. We purchased groceries to make breakfasts and lunches, but splurged on dinners – eating at local restaurants and selecting moderately priced meals.
Total Cost for a 9-Day Trip to Iceland: $3,151 ($1,576 per person)
And now the details… Remember, all numbers are for two travelers sharing a room. September is considered shoulder season and prices may be higher during peak season.
- Airfare: $625 total ($312.50/person)
- Boston Airport Parking: $167
- Guidebook and Maps: $29
- Phone Service: $27
- Car Rental: $287
- Gas: $240
- Lodging: $1,133
- Groceries: $85
- Restaurants: $369
- Activities/Entrance Fees: $189
- Total Cost: $3,151 for a couple to spend 9 days in Iceland
Iceland Airfare Details
Back in June, we received a promotional email touting amazing airfare deals to Iceland and well… they were right. Direct roundtrip flights from Boston to Keflavik typically range from $450 – $800 per person. Icelandair and WOW Airlines are the only two airlines with direct flight options from Boston, but be careful booking on WOW… their basic airfare only include a ticket and a personal item. A carry-on bag, a checked bag and a seat reservation all cost extra. After doing a few hours of online research on activities in Iceland, we snatched up $312.50 per person airfare on Icelandair (which included a checked bag) and started plotting our Iceland adventure. Bonus: We got to see the “northern lights” on our flight over 🙂
Iceland Navigational Aides
All good adventures start with a guidebook and a map! Once we booked airfare, we purchased the newly revised Lonely Planet Iceland Guidebook and a waterproof, tear-resistant Map of Iceland by National Geographic and started planning our trip.
Given our extensive independent travel itinerary, we investigated options for cell phone service and opted for a 2GB data plan from Vodaphone, sold directly by Icelandair, to keep us connected as we traveled the island. The airline gave us the SIM-card on our flight over and we simply swapped it into one of our phones upon arrival. We primarily used the data for navigation, calling hotels/Airbnb hosts and looking up restaurant reviews while on the road. In the end, we used less than 0.5GB of data, but we’re glad we had a communication safety net in case something went awry.
Iceland Car Rental Details
Automatic vehicles are not common in Europe and you’ll pay a premium to rent one in Iceland. Luckily, Mr. Saverdink drives a manual vehicle and was willing to chauffeur me over 1,000 miles around the entire country. Side note: I love you, honey. I could never drive that much! We searched several car rental companies and ended up settling on Avis.com, which offered an economy car rental with manual transmission for $287. Our credit card covered all car rental insurance and we only had one driver on the vehicle, so no extra fees. 98% of the roads we traveled on were paved and our little Hyundai i10 did a fantastic job, even in the rougher unpaved conditions.
There are options to rent 4-wheel drive and high-clearance vehicles, but for the ring road in non-winter conditions, an economy car worked just fine. Plus, it had the added benefit of high gas mileage in the mid-30s. As of September 2017, gas was approximately $2 per liter (~$8 per gallon). We did a lot of driving and spent $240 on gas during our 9-day adventure.
Frugal Travel Tip: Gas at the Costco just outside Reykjavik was about 30 cents cheaper per liter. That’s ~$1.20 less per gallon and well worth the short detour. It’s a great deal, but you need a Costco membership.
Unexpected Expense Warning: When filling up at a gas pump, if you select the “full tank” option it puts a hold on your debit/credit card for the full amount, which is typically in the realm of $250. The hold will clear 2 to 3 days later and you will only be charged for the amount utilized, but multiple holds in a short period might cause an issue if you have a lower credit/cash limit.
Iceland Lodging Details
Traveling Iceland’s ring road meant we stayed at a new place every night (oy vey!) and experienced a wide variety of accommodations. We targeted reasonably priced accommodations with good reviews that indicated simple, but clean and comfortable rooms. Our lodging search was heavily driven by location due to our driving-centric itinerary, which created some interesting constraints. Outside of the major cities, Iceland is sparsely populated and there are very limited options. A small “town” would literally consist of 8 to 12 buildings total… No grocery stores, no hotels, no gas stations… Between towns? Lots and lots of beautiful scenery with a few farms scattered along the way.
Our average lodging price per night ended up being $126 and about half of those included breakfast. General thoughts and observations from our 9-night journey:
Midnight Arrival: “Day 0” consisted of an afternoon flight from Boston, arriving in Iceland at 11:30pm local time, which made finding a hotel with a 24-hour reception a necessity. We found a basic, modern hotel just outside Reykjavik that was en route to our Day 1 destination and offered a free breakfast in the morning. Win/win! It was $150 for the night, but the most economical option we could find. Many of Iceland’s more reasonably priced lodging options are small, privately run guest houses with limited check-in hours.
Cheapest Lodging: Definitely Airbnb. It was fairly common to find ~$100/night Airbnb options with shared bathrooms. But be careful because quality varies wildly and breakfast is not typically included. Two of the Airbnb rentals we stayed at were essentially being run as mini-hostels – several guest rooms and the owners did not live at the house itself. The bedrooms were fine (hence good reviews online), but it was noisy and the guest to bathroom ratio was not ideal. However, our last night at an Airbnb rental was stellar. Our hosts welcomed us into their very very nice home and we spent almost 2 hours chatting with them that evening. The room was great and we had our own bathroom. In the morning, they offered us coffee and to help ourselves to anything in the fridge. After a few sketchy Airbnb stays, these hosts ended our Iceland adventure on a very positive note.
Most Expensive Lodging: Near the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in East Iceland. We spent $238 and $172 during our two nights on either side of the Glacier Lagoon – ouch! Believe me, we searched and searched for less expensive options, but none existed without adding a significant amount of driving to our planned itinerary or greatly compromising on quality. At least both hotels offered a really good breakfast in the morning? Sadly, not a lot of Airbnb options on that side of the country…
Frugal Travel Tip: Do your homework and check a variety of travel search engines to find the best prices and coupon codes. We used a combination of Booking.com, Airbnb, TripAdvisor and Orbitz for our trip and applied a few coupons/referral credits to bring down the prices.
Frugal Travel Tip: Hotels or B&Bs that offer a hearty breakfast are worth paying a little extra for. Meals in Iceland are quite pricey, as you’ll see in the next section. Fresh eggs, sausage, skyr (Icelandic yogurt), homemade bread with jam, lunch meats, fresh fruits and veggies… Great way to fuel your body before a big day of hiking!
Iceland Grocery and Restaurant Details
It’s an understatement to say we were a bit shell-shocked by the cost of dining out in Iceland. To help keep expenses down, we purchased some basics at the grocery store for lunches and snacks. We found both Bonus and Netto grocery stores to have reasonable prices. Our first grocery store stock up is shown below. For $25, we were able to purchase the following items: a bunch of bananas, 2 fancy breads, cookies, a loaf of bread, jam, peanut butter, 3 cans of tuna, applesauce and a bottle of seltzer.
We didn’t have a cooler, so refrigerated items could only be purchased for immediate consumption. A few times we happened to be near a grocery around lunchtime and purchased lunch meat and skyr to make our lunches a little more interesting. Skyr is a traditional Icelandic dairy product, similar to yogurt, and absolutely delicious. Highly recommend the vanilla flavor!
Dining in Iceland ranges from casual gas station fast food options and hot dog stands to gourmet dinners at upscale hotels/restaurants. As with everything, the more you pay, the better the quality, but even the lower end options add up quickly. It’s difficult to find a hot meal for under $20 at a normal restaurant and even fast food will run you at least $10-$15 a person. The only good news is the price you see is the price you pay – tax and tip are already included.
Gas station hot dogs are a cheap staple in Iceland (~$4) and quite tasty, as they are made of free-range lamb, pork and beef. They come with your choice of toppings: fried onions, raw onions, ketchup, mustard and remoulade. Bonus points for toasted buns.
Two other traditional Icelandic dishes are lamb stew and seafood chowder, served with freshly made bread. The dishes below were $23 each and absolutely delicious. Beer from the local brewery in town was $11 and also amazing. Our only regret was that the soups weren’t a bit larger!
Another amazingly delicious meal, but small in size: grilled lamb sandwich with fresh veggies and fries ($25). Luckily, our other dish, a three-meat pizza was very filling and tasty ($21). We shared both dishes and were quite satisfied by the end of dinner.
We did hit up a fast food burger joint one evening to save a little money (plus, we were starving and wanted to eat NOW, lol). Single burgers were around $12 and double burgers were $15. Medium fries to share were $8.
Our cheapest “dining out” experience in Iceland was at the Costco food court. I’m a huge Costco fan and just had to stop in and see how it compared to its US sister stores. A giant hot dog, chicken bake, slice of pizza and gelato for dessert only ran us $20, making it the most inexpensive hot meal of the trip. Everything was very filling and tasty. The main disappointment was that the hot dog was “100% beef”, as it typical back home, instead of lamb. I’m jealous of the gelato offerings that this Costco has – 3 huge scoops for $5? Yes, please! Don’t worry, we shared one 🙂
Iceland Activity and Excursion Details
This is a category that can range from $0 to $500+ per day depending on the types of activities you are interested in. There are countless guided excursions to choose from: glacier hikes, northern light tours, whale watching, helicopter rides, scuba diving, ice caves… you name it and it probably exists. Prices are all over the map, but count on spending at least $150 for a full day tour and $300+ per person for extensive outings that require special equipment.
We had our own vehicle, which meant we had the freedom to explore the country on our own schedule and the ability to stop at a myriad of natural wonders along the way. On any given day we were easily busy from 9am to 7pm and the only cost was gas for the car. There are dozens of hikes and breathtaking vistas along the ring road, including more waterfalls than we could count, hot springs, glaciers and black sand beaches. A few locations, such as the national park, required a nominal fee for parking ($5).
We did partake in one paid excursion – an hour-long zodiac boat ride at the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon ($90/person). We all given survival suits to wear and spent a full hour on the water, spending time at the edge of the glacier and zipping around icebergs in the middle of the lake while learning about the history of the region. There are two companies that offer boat rides at the Glacier Lagoon and we highly recommend Ice Lagoon Adventure Boat Tours (make sure it is “icelagoon.com” since their competitor is the “.is” domain). The other company offered both amphibious boat tours ($50/person) and zodiac rides (also $90/person), but their focus seemed to be more on customer throughput rather than quality. Ice Lagoon Adventure Boat Tours had much newer equipment, spent more time on the water and had very friendly employees. Highly recommend!
Coming soon… Details on where we visited and more photos!