Aurora Borealis. Expensive. Cold.
These are the three concepts that one would initially think of when you hear the word Iceland. Although its temperature might hit rock bottom, any traveler would brave the cold weather just to see the elusive northern lights.
Before anyone says a word about its high cost of living, you can read a lot of online reviews that if you would just complain about how expensive the country is– then better not go.
After staying for almost a week, I can definitely say that my most memorable experience in the country is more than what I really hope for. Various travel sites such as Condé Nast Traveler and National Geographic Traveler rave about its amazing landscape and endless possibilities for outdoor activities.
This blog will give you honest and first-hand reasons why to choose Iceland without hurting your wallet. Here are my top tips that will surely make your adventure as memorable as mine:
You need a Schengen visa to go to Iceland. This means that by having this visa you can visit various countries in Europe which are included in this list. Actually, I just booked my flight one month and even though going there in Winter is more affordable than Summer (Iceland’s peak season), I spent around 500+ Euros just for the flight given that I didn’t book earlier and I also traveled during the holidays. If you really prepare well, the flight would cost around 65 Euros (one-way,) if you are coming from Europe. I like Wow Air ‘s services as well as their one-of-a-kind check-in procedure in Iceland. Their staff is really helpful and friendly.
In terms of the currency, you can just get Icelandic króna directly in Iceland. There are many Money Changer booths which are located at the airport. For six days, my main budget was just 300 Euros and that was enough to cover my trip.
I also highly recommend buying well-made Winter clothing and hiking shoes. Never underestimate Iceland’s climate. It is cold, slippery and always icy especially in Winter so to avoid any accidents or colds, please be prepared!
Besides the itinerary, I think it is smart to prepare for your basic needs– such as food. In the Philippines, we always have baon–or packed snacks–so you always have something to eat in order not to starve. This is also a great way to save some money. If you can cook in your hostel, then packed noodles, coffee, or tea is such a nice idea! You can also buy something at Bonus, that is the most affordable supermarket in Iceland.
Choose the Right Accommodation for You
I arrived alone in Iceland. Since I really wanted to experience Couchsurfing first, and I decided to give it a try there.Couchsurfing is an online platform where one can send a request to a host on that country of destination. If the host accepts you as a couchsurfer, you can both make necessary arrangement (sleeping on couch, floor, bed etc.) usually without any cost. The main point is to exchange cultures, experiences, and travel stories, etc. that will enrich one’s experience in that particular place.
Before, I was really afraid knowing that there were horror stories of either hosts or couchsurfers, but as what a popular quote states, “[s]top being afraid of what could go wrong, and focus on what could go right.” Honestly, my hosts are really great and definitely trustworthy people. In just one night, I learned a lot about their perspective on traveling, cultural integration, working overseas and they really gave so much inspiration to me to explore more, live my dreams, and be always courageous as I am in a foreign country.
If this is not your cup of tea, another tip is to book a hostel. Based on experience Airbnb seems to be more expensive there (or maybe the timing when I was there was just not good since it was the holidays). You need to choose an ideal location for your accommodation which may be somewhere near the city center so you don’t need to walk that far, and ideally, supermarkets should be nearby so you can enjoy affordable fresh fruits, meat, or veggies.
I can highly recommend Oddsson Hostel because their staff is really friendly– just talked to three receptionists and they didn’t just provide informative tips but they also shared their lives and working conditions in Iceland. Besides that, I had a free breakfast! I came way too early to check-in. The normal check-in time is at 2pm but since I arrived at the hostel at around 7:30am, they were nice enough to provide me a coffee and croissant for free. You can also cook in the shared kitchen, so that’s a great deal since three supermarkets are also nearby. They also offer Yoga classes and they have an amazing lounge where they offer different activities– I saw one night that people were dancing salsa. So cool, right? Though their rooms are okay, not really fancy or super clean but you can definitely have a good sleep there.
Tour the Day and Night Away
I recommend taking tours during Winter because of safety reasons. Some roads might be closed and other paths are really slippery so having a local tour guide with you might be something you can be thankful for. I availed Golden Circle + Secret Lagoon tour, Southcoast and Northern Lights Tour from Reykjavik Sightseeing. There are a lot of companies offering different tours however the company has good online reviews and from the people that I know they really recommend this company based on their first-hand experience. Their tour includes a tablet in order for you to see some pictures and listen to some information about the places that you’ll be visiting and the tour guides are really young, energetic, and informative.
Have a glimpse of these wonderful attractions from Golden Circle + Secret Lagoon tour (Approx. 92 Euros):
I chose Secret Lagoon over Blue Lagoon because, first, you need to reserve online and during that time, the only free slots were at night. Daylight is very important for me. Second, Secret Lagoon is much cheaper, cleaner*, and not that crowded *in comparison to my friends’ experience in Blue Lagoon.
Now, have a glimpse of these wonderful attractions from the South Coast and Northern Lights Tour (Approx. 126 Euros):
Daylight is just around 5 to 6 hours a day – knowledgeable tour guides will take note of this fact so you can really visit every spot in the Golden Circle or South Coast before dark. Last but not the list, I think one of the best tour guides that really stood out for me is Lyn of Reykjavik Sightseeing.
For 4 hours, she wouldn’t stop talking and she did tell us every important information and “gossip” in town- from every houses, street and from her great great grandfather she has it all – that’s something you cannot really find on Google. You can definitely get the cultural vibe! It’s worth the money.
Speaking of money, if you didn’t see the Northern Lights on the time of your appointment, you can book another tour for free so you just need to send an email to Reykjavik Sightseeing and promise they reply fast!
Reykjavik City Tour
If you love to be in the city and want to appreciate Iceland’s history and culture, even more, CityWalk offers a free tour from its local tour guides! Yes, you heard it right! Free tour, but they also offer different options depending on your interest- such as Pub Crawl, VIP tour (with food tasting) etc. You just need to somehow register on their website and that’s it! I think this tour gives you a humorous and informative take on discovering the country.
Our guide is Eiríkur Viljar Hallgrímsson Kúld (whew! that’s a long name), a History graduate and a motorcycle traveler. He is nice, charismatic, and knowledgeable. He showed us some important spots in the city and explain their significance to their country. At the end of the tour, he also gave us a Licorice candy. You can give any donations after and they also gave us some more tips and links about their recommendations in Iceland. This tour is definitely worth a try! I will book another tour with them once I go back, that is for sure.
After the tour, I went to the famous church in Iceland.
Eat and Indulge!
After all the activities, don’t forget to eat and try the local dishes! Iceland’s seafood dishes might be expensive but they are really savory and the soup in the Noodle Station will remind you of heaven. The restaurant is just opposite The Icelandic Phallological Museum. Since the country’s seafood dishes are highly recommended by the locals, I had the opportunity to try one of the dishes from the Lobsterhouse.
In addition, if you want to save some money, and you love hotdogs then try the famous Bæjarins Beztu hotdog. Food has really become my best friend against winter depression.
Love the Arts
One day is enough to see Reykjavik since it is just a very small city but my trip is just too short for me to really dive to their art scene.
Once I stepped inside Harpa, I felt the vibe of Esplanade in Singapore. There is such creativity in the air from visual arts to music– the building is filled with artistic energy and vibrant people whom you can talk to about art appreciation. I had the chance to watch one concert in Norður og Niður Festival.
It was an American and Icelandic collaboration and the music– it is so soothing, ethereal and calming.
Northern Lights: Keep Chasing or Let Go
According to Vedur, Icelandic Meteorological Office, “[t]he spectacle of Aurora Borealis requires dark and partly clear skies,” as well as it is, “ caused by variations in the magnetic field of the Earth, induced by a flux of charged particles called the solar wind.”
On the one hand, some people just see it unexpectedly (either in the plane or just in any ordinary day). On the other hand, some people chase it. Others are successful, and some are not.
This is my ultimate big reveal to give you the leverage for the famous Northern Lights Hunt.
Download the Aurora app, even though Vedur is also reliable, but this app will notify you if there is a higher chance to see it. Based on experience, I’ve seen Aurora twice on December 26, 2017 and January 1, 2018 with the help of this app.
Since there’s light pollution in the city center, you can opt to join a Reykjavik Sightseeing Northern Lights trip from 10pm to 2am or go to the lighthouse in Reykjavik.
If there’s a higher probability according to Vedur, and you are still in the city, don’t lose hope!
As long as you have a DSLR camera and a tripod, these will be your ultimate weapon! It might be challenging or maybe not possible (depending on the conditions) if you just use your phone’s camera.
Try to set your camera into Manual Mode with these settings: ISO 800, Shutter Speed 15-20 seconds, Focus Manual, and set a timer so your camera wouldn’t shake.
Try to take a photo of the dark sky given the notification from Vedur and Aurora app. Don’t worry if you can’t see strong Northern lights. Just take a picture and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to capture what you have long been wishing for.