My goal was to do a trip to Iceland for under $3000. We came in at $3,010.11. Just barely missed it. We would have made it, but an extra 12 hours spent in Boston Logan airport meant two brand new books purchased to pass the time and two more meals to eat in an airport. So, excluding that disaster, we were under budget. We also spent a little more on a few things than we normally would have because we were given generous gifts by our parents and grandparents before the trip, so we loosened up a bit with the money they gave us. All in all, we spent what we budgeted for. I’m not saying this to in any way boast, in fact if you see ways we could have saved please let me know because we want to go back! I am saying this because I want you to go and I want you to know that it’s entirely possible for about the same cost as a vacation you might take to California.
How To Prepare For A Trip: Read, Research, and REI.
Read – The best way to prepare for a trip to a place you’ve never been is to read as many blogs, websites, and books as you can. I probably read blogs once a week for about a year. We have been planning this trip since our wedding day in March 2015. It was my wedding day gift to my wife. We were engaged for nine months, but we were planning our Iceland trip for about 14 months. Needless to say, there was a lot of preparation involved.
I heart Reykjavik is run by Icelandic native Auður whose passion for the city and the country is evident in everything she writes. She provided great tips about seeing the city, but we actually found her advice on the best way to see the Golden Circle the most useful. As an Icelander she doesn’t get caught up in the touristy things to see, so she planned a great way to see the most touristy things in Iceland without feeling like just another tourist. We especially loved the Friðheimar Greenhouse for lunch. It’s a greenhouse that grows fresh vegetables and serves them in their lunches at their restaurant. They put tomatoes in everything and they are amazing. It was a cool place that was a little out of the way, but totally worth it. Because we were on somewhat tight and strange deadlines and budgets we didn’t participate in Auður’s tour of Reykjavik, but I’m sure it’s excellent. Strangely enough, we walked right by her tour group by Hallgrímskirkja and I felt for a second like I’d seen a celebrity since I spent so much time reading her blog in the build up to the trip.
Unlocking Kiki is the travel blog of an American transplant to Iceland named Kaelene. It’s great to mix the perspective of a native like Auður with the experience of an expat like Kaelene. Like Auður she has a passion for the off-the-beaten path places in Iceland and my wife and I desperately wanted some of that after a day in the city and another day on the tourist-heavy Golden Circle. Kiki, as I’ll now call her since I feel like we are best friends, wrote the perfect blog post about easy hikes within driving distance of Reykjavik. We initially planned on one big hiking day where we really pushed ourselves and our limits for a great experience in Iceland. We bought a lot of equipment we thought we would need (we’ll discuss that next) and wanted to find the perfect hike for us. We are not experienced hikers but we are also in pretty decent shape and were up for a challenge. In Kiki’s post she talked about hiking up Mt. Esjan which overlooks Reykjavik. We decided before our trip that this is what we wanted to do. However, the night before we planned to hike Esja we started think about how tired we already were, how we didn’t really want to hike up aNd down a mountain, and how we wanted to do something a little different than most tourists. So we revisited her list and read about Gjàin (Gee-Ow-In) and decided to go there instead. It may have been the best decision we made on our trip. Gjàin was stunning, serene, somewhat isolated, and exactly what we were looking for. Everything she talks about on her blog was totally correct. Thanks Kiki!
The Reykjavik Grapevine is an English-language newspaper in the city which was a good way for me to stay up-to-date on the goings on in the country before I got there. But the most useful section of their site is their travel guides. It’s broken down by sections of the country and you can read articles about what to do in each part. This is definitely a site worth checking every few weeks in the build up to your trip.
This is pretty similar to “read” but it’s another “r” word and I’ve got a theme going now. What I mean by this is watch videos and read articles and books about the country, customs, and language.
Yes, everyone in Iceland speaks English and you can survive your trip without knowing anything about the language. But it absolutely helps to have a basis for Icelandic. It’s a complicated language with very long words and some unique letters and sounds that an English speaker may have trouble understanding. Especially if you are renting a car and driving yourself, it’s vital that you know at least a little bit. I can’t imagine trying to decipher street signs without knowing anything about the language. The long words have a reason for being long, and there’s deep meaning for them. For example, you’ll notice lots of places with “foss” at the end of the word like Gullfoss or Selfoss. “Foss” means waterfall. Joküll means glacier. The list goes on.
If you’re really into language and word origins like me and want to get a really good foothold for Icelandic, the best free lessons I found were from Alaric Hall at the University of Leeds. The method of teaching the language that Alaric uses is very interesting and helpful. I must admit that I didn’t discover these until it was really too late and I only got through about half of the mp3s. I didn’t actually get to use much of what I learned, but that also stems from a fear of beginning a conversation I couldn’t finish in Icelandic since I didn’t finish these lessons.
I also read Halldor Laxness’ classic Independent People which helped him become Iceland’s only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The book was equal parts bleak, beautiful, dense, and incisive. It took me a long time to finish and when I was done I wasn’t sure exactly whether I was glad I read it. However, it actually did help me gain a lot of insight into Iceland, it’s culture, and most importantly, the raising of sheep. It’s a good look into the mindset of what it means to be Icelandic and the cost of fiercely independent self-reliance. If you love literature then you may love this book. If you are like me and your reading mostly consists of biographies and historical books then it might be tougher. I’m proud that I finished it, but it certainly wasn’t the most enjoyable book I’ve ever read.
I use REI as a stand in for any outdoors store that you prefer, but honestly REI is the best so you should just be going there anyway. The most important thing we did was become a member of REI. It’s a nominal entry fee but you can make up for it in savings if you play your cards right. The annual Garage Sale is the best place to gear up for your trip. I got a gently used pair of Vasque Hiking Boots for $20 (normally $130 or more). They were basically brand new. My wife got a similar deal on hers. Honestly though, we did the Garage Sale wrong. You are supposed to get there early and get a ticket for your specific time to pick through the garage sale items. We got there about the time it opened and our ticket was for a few hours later, so we ended up picking through items that had already been left behind by others. We still got some good deals, but I think we could have gotten everything we needed for our trip if we were in the first group.
Another great thing about the Garage Sale is that it’s in early January, meaning you get to spend your Christmas money on your items instead of dipping into your savings. One of the best things we did was plan this trip in advance and talk it up to our family because many of our Christmas gifts were items for our trip or money given specifically for the trip. Thanks fam!
The existence of Wow Air is what made our trip possible. Their cheap flights to Keflavik Airport are amazing, if you know what you are doing. We paid around $800 roundtrip for two tickets from Boston to Keflavik and back. That includes our bag fees, which is how people can get screwed on their expenses if they don’t pay for their bags in advance and pack them properly.
The problem is that we live in Dallas and Wow only flies from Boston Logan, Washington BWI, San Francisco, and LAX. Considering San Francisco and LAX are in the opposite direction, this meant we had to find a way to get to Boston or Washington DC. I booked a Spirit Airlines flight from DFW to Boston on credit card points and then booked a United flight from Boston-Chicago-DFW on points for the return.
Spirit only has one flight from DFW to Boston per day and Wow only has one flight from Boston to Keflavik per day. So that meant we had a seven hour layover in Boston while we waited for our flight. The problem was that these were not connecting flights, we had to get our luggage and then check in again with Wow. I thought it would be a good opportunity for lunch in Boston after we checked our bags. Alas, Wow does not have anyone at their check-in counter until 3:30 pm. So we had to eat lunch outside security and wait for three hours until the counter opened, then go in the terminal and wait another few hours for the flight to take off. It wasn’t fun, but we were so excited for our trip that it didn’t matter.
All of that was nothing compared to what happened on the way back. Our flight from Iceland landed 5:30 pm and our flight to Chicago was to take off at 7:50 pm. It would be a close call getting through customs, getting our bag, and booking it across the airport to check in with United. However, we made it in time.
Turns out that the Boston to Chicago flight had been moved up an hour a few months prior and I never found out. When you book through Chase Ultimate Rewards your original reservation time never changes when you look it up. They will alert you with a phone call and/or emails when the time changes. I was alerted about changes of a few minutes for my other flights. They sent emails and called me multiple times. But for this change of an hour I got a few robocalls. I get robocalls all the time from crazy places and I’m in the habit of not listening to them. An email would have been nice, but I never got one. It’s my fault for not checking the United website.
Either way, it was the last flight out of the day. So we had to stay in the airport until our flight at 5:55 AM the next day. And we weren’t allowed to check in for that flight so we had to stay outside security at Logan for about nine hours. It was a terrible ending to a great trip.
All in all, flying Wow Air was a fantastic experience, but it requires you to really pay attention to flight times, luggage weight, and how you will entertain yourself for the long flight. Without Wow we wouldn’t have gone to Iceland, so I will forever be grateful to them.
If you’ve been to Iceland, where are some places we could have been better prepared or saved money? If you haven’t what are you doing to prepare? Let me know in the comments below!