When you travel to Iceland, bring two suitcases: one filled with warm clothes. The other filled with stacks of money.
That it’s an expensive place to visit shouldn’t stop you from traveling there. Iceland is an unimaginatively beautiful place. It’s magnificent. Unparalleled. Unforgettable.
Especially when you get the credit card bill.
We were warned. Folks in the Twitterverse told me, “It’s expensive.” And I’d heard and read as much. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I thought. I’ve lived in New York City, we’ve got this.
We thought we were ready. We weren’t.
As one traveler put it, it’s not just a mark-up. It’s a strip club mark-up. I used to think the minibar was the most expensive place on Earth. This is no longer the case.
In Iceland, a meal out will cost you three to four times what you would pay in the United States. You will be hard pressed to find an entrée for less than $25- $30. A beer will cost you no less than $12 USD. Fancy a mixed drink? That will run you $22. Even a simple street hotdog will run about $5. Add hotel, excursions, fuel for your rental car and souvenirs, and whoa. Forget saving for 10 years for a trip to Disney. You’ll need that and more for Iceland. In fact, most travelers we met in Iceland said they loved the country, they wanted to return, but, “We want to save up first.”
So upon our arrival and upon quickly realizing the real cost of Iceland (we dropped $300 on our first day, not counting hotel), Backpack Mister and I put our budget travel skills to the test, and scrambled to assemble an affordable Icelandic holiday. I’m not sure we hit the mark—we still have sticker shock—but we offer these 13 money-saving tips for your trip to Iceland. Because in spite of the cost, you should go.
- Check out Icelandair or Wow for cheap airfares. Icelandair will even allow a stopover, at no additional charge, if you’re on your way to, say, Europe. But the airline also offers great flash sales, some which are hotel inclusive. I regularly see nonstop flights from Minneapolis posted for under $500 RT and in the $600-$700 range for a weekend getaway, hotel inclusive. Wow does not fly from Minneapolis airport, but they seemed to have some pretty sweet discounts.
2. Book affordable lodging with a kitchen. Whether it’s Airbnb, a guest house, or other lodging, seek out something other than the $300 per night hotel room. And make sure you have access to a full kitchen. Backpack Mister and I stayed at both an Airbnb (with no access to the kitchen, unfortunately, but a host who supplied an electric kettle) and a guest house with a shared bathroom and kitchen. We booked late, so choices were limited and prices were probably higher. Plan ahead and you’ll save.
3. Bonus grocery store is your friend. It’s the cheapest store in the country, and they have loads of locations. Look for the big, pink pig. 10/11 is the equivalent of a 7/11, so it’s convenient but more expensive.
Foods that cost a mint in our country can be had at reasonable prices at Bonus – think fresh fish and lamb. And prepared foods are affordable. A jar of peanut butter cost about $3 and a jar of jam about $2.50. However, veggies can be costly.
Remember to get coffee to make at your guest house if you need the morning jolt, (lest you pay $5 at the coffee shop) and snacks for your backpack. Hunger and caffeine deprivation lead to ill-advised, expensive choices.
4. Plan your dinners out carefully. For me and Backpack Mister, it’s not realistic to spend $100 three times a day to eat at restaurants. And frankly, who needs three big meals out anyway? Yet going out and enjoying local dining experiences is part of the richness of travel. But you don’t want to go to the poorhouse to do it. Meals can run at the cheapest from $25 for the catch of the day to $80+ for a buffet or multi-course meal. So, choose the places you really want to try. If it’s the legendary restaurant Dill in Reykjavik at $250 for 7 courses and a wine pairing, go for it! You should. In retrospect, it’s probably a great bargain when you consider what you’re paying for and what other restaurants are charging. Then, adjust and make more affordable choices for your other meals.
PLEASE skip the fermented shark, the endangered whale and endangered puffin dishes (seriously), and watch others eat them instead while you pocket that well-saved money and good karma.
5. Drink sparingly. This is key. Alcohol sales are closely regulated by the government, which might explain in part why drinks are so expensive. We’d been advised to purchase alcohol and wine at the Duty Free shop at the airport. We noticed that there are almost no liquor stores in Reykjavik. More, locals told us the beer sold in convenience stores has almost no alcohol at all. So, if you like a little nightcap or eye-opener for that matter (Who’s judging? You’re on vacation) and don’t want to pay a mint, buy what you are allowed to carry in to the country at Keflavik International Airport’s Duty Free shop. It will be cheaper. Then you can pour yourself a drink from the comfort of your room.
If you want to go out on the town, more power to ya. Seek out happy hours at local establishments, which could knock the price of a beer or house wine down to $6, or 2-for-1 in some places.
6. Take advantage of the City Walk Reykjavik free walking tour. Tour guides work for tips, so you’ll want to give generously if you appreciate the service. We loved our guide, and loved our tour. We learned so much about Iceland, its culture and its people. It was well worth our humble bundle of Kroner.
7. Don’t buy anything without knowing the price. I considered buying some pylsur at a convenience store – 5 hot dogs in their package, but there was no price indicated. I opted out. “How much could they cost?” I asked Backpack Mister. “Here?” He said, “Twenty bucks?” It’s better to be sure. Which brings me to my next point.
8. Pylsur is your cheapest meal on the go. The Icelandic hot dog is quite different than its American counterpart. It’s made primarily of lamb. You can get one for less than $5 which is about as cheap as a meal “out” can get in Iceland. Try the legendary pylsur at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur in Reykjavik, and be prepared to stand in line for it.
9. The cheapest place to buy food, alcohol and souvenirs may be the airport. No joke. And I thought airports were the second most expensive place on Earth (after minibars)! At Keflavik International Airport, we found sandwiches (no sides) for $10 while waiting for our flight home. And a ½ bottle of wine for $12. Total bargains compared to everything we’d seen. The soup and salad bar was $22. It’s worth going to the airport hungry, or eating there upon arrival before you take a 45-minute bus ride to town.
10. Rent a small camper van. Get out of Reykjavik; the prices won’t necessarily be cheaper, but you’ll have your room and kitchen with you, and you’ll be able to control costs that way while seeing the magnificent countryside. Campgrounds charged about $12-$15 per person, per night. All of those we stayed at had showers, bathrooms and sinks for dish-washing. We read several blogs which advised getting full insurance coverage when you rent a vehicle, and I would recommend that also; many of the roads are rough or gravel, and can do some damage. F roads may even require driving through a riverbed. It may seem like an unnecessary expense, but it may be wise.
11. Don’t take taxis. You are unlikely to get a taxi for even the very shortest distance for less than $20 USD. City buses will run you about $4.50 a trip. Walking is cheapest, and Reykjavik is wonderfully walkable, while the country is recognized as the safest in the world. Luxury coach buses are available to and from Keflavik International Airport, (about a 45-minute ride), pre-purchase your tickets online. We used Fly Bus.
You may also have the option to add on a side trip to the Blue Lagoon. It’s touristy, it’s expensive and we truly enjoyed it. We arrived early and the Lagoon was not yet tourist soup, so if you want a little wiggle room in the Lagoon, I’d recommend an early start. The experience may or may not be worth the cost for you, but if you go it’s wise to do so either on your way into the country or out, to save on the transport cost from Reykjavik. If you opt to go, make your entrance time reservation to the Blue Lagoon well in advance, as they can fill up.
Keep in mind a taxi from Reykjavik to Keflavik International Airport can cost about $120 USD….so, yeah, the bus is a good option.
- Drink tap water. You may be tempted to buy bottled water in Iceland, and you’d be a fool to do so. Iceland’s glacial runoff water is clear, clean and delicious, and comes straight from the tap. Buying bottled water, even Icelandic bottled water is ridiculous, not to mention not sustainable or Earth-friendly.
- Enjoy the local pools. It doesn’t matter if three families live in a town, chances are, the town has a geothermally-heated outdoor pool and hot tub which you can soak in for maybe $4-$8 USD. Soak all day! Some even have a sauna, steam room, and a cool tub you can jump into to close those pores and wake up your body. Get all pruny for not much money. It’s a cultural experience, it’s affordable and it’s fun. And hey, it’s way cheaper than the Blue Lagoon or other excursions!
Tourism to Iceland is exploding, as indicated by the construction cranes hovering over Reykjavik. You don’t have to miss out on the fun just because you’re on a budget. Do some planning on the front end, score a great airfare deal, and be mindful of your expenses on the ground and you won’t get iced out.
Enjoy Iceland! It’s a remarkable place, at any price.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to her clients.
Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.