Iceland. Mecca of the young and adventurous. The place every sci-fi movie you’ve ever seen has probably been filmed. With its never ending glaciers, black sand beaches ridden with puffins, and mountains that appear out of the fog and just as quickly dissipate into the sea below, it is a place you never forget, always yearn to return to, and, not to mention, hella cheap to visit.
Last year my husband and I decided to take that infamous IcelandAir layover for 8 days and it basically changed our lives. You and your partner can do it for under $1600, plane tickets and all, and its totally awesome.
I’ve found more than a few places online that claim to tell you how to take this trip at a low cost but don’t explain in detail exactly how to do it. They leave out costs like car insurance and gas to the airport, and just recommend you stay in Reykjavik and do the Golden Circle. However, we managed to do the entire Ring Road, plus a detour to Snæfellsjökull, in 8 days, for a low price.
So, here is a long, thorough step by step guide on how to do it. If you have any questions, or if I left some details out, please comment below and I promise to reply. I want you to learn from our mistakes! This is a fabulous first time trip for a couple looking to get their feet wet in the world of self-planned travel, and I want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to do what we did!
*Real fast, I want to clarify that because we had bought plane tickets to Scotland and took the IcelandAir layover, we did not get our tickets for the prices I am about to tell you about, however, you can! Its totally feasible and I wouldn’t recommend anything we wouldn’t do ourselves.
Time of year to go: First Week of September, Last Week of May
Prices for rental cars and other stuffs almost double through the end of August and the beginning of June. We went the first week of September and it was PERFECT. Any later and it gets too cold, any earlier and its too expensive and crowded.
Temperatures: 50s-60s with occasional high wind
Weather was flawless (for Iceland) the whole time we were there. Obviously it was overcast and rained occasionally, but we had plenty of sunny days and the wind was only really bad one particular night. We woke up hot a few mornings!
On to the fun stuff!
Step 1: Scott’s Cheap Flights
If you’re not already signed up for Scott’s emails, you are missing out BIG TIME. Most of the time his deals come through, you have to be flexible and act fast because the deals don’t last long, but you won’t get prices like these anywhere else.
Scott’s Cheap Flights operates by sending you emails whenever there is a sweet plane ticket price available. Iceland runs on tourism like America runs on Dunkin’, so deals for Iceland come through more than once in a blue moon. To get the best deals, you have to pay a small subscription price, but this particular Iceland deal was sent through to his free subscribers. If you pay for his service you probably have a better chance of catching an Iceland deal. Below is a screenshot of the deal that came through a couple weeks ago:
So in our case, tickets from DC to Iceland in the first week of September were going for about $293 when I looked them up. We live in the Raleigh area of NC, and so driving to DC and back is about $70 for us.
If you don’t want to wait around for an email, you can take things into your own hands by consistently checking WOW air and IcelandAir for their ticket prices.
Step 2: Way (if you live in one of the cities listed above, or know of somewhere you can park, skip this step).
Way.com is cool because it shows you places such as hotels and shopping centers near the airport you can park for the duration of your trip. I suggest reserving a hotel lot because they usually offer free shuttle rides to the airport. Win-win.
Things you need to know before you use Way:
Call the hotel in advance and confirm. We booked our spot last minute before our trip to Costa Rica and apparently that hotel had been in a fight with Way and didn’t want people parking there anymore on holiday weekends. Way still had the spot available for those days so we booked it and then when we showed up at 4 AM to park this terribly mean lady at the front desk kept saying we had to leave. We were going to miss our flight so we parked there anyway under threat of getting towed and everything ended up okay in the end but THIS IS YOUR WARNING TO CALL AND CONFIRM AND DONT BOOK LAST MINUTE.
Make sure the area of the hotel is safe. Another reason to BOOK IN ADVANCE. All the good spots get taken quickly and the sketchy hotels are left. Jacob accidentally left his speaker and iPad in the car when we were rushing to catch an Uber and they got stolen 🙁
I know all this sounds like a reason to not use this website but theoretically everything would have gone smoothly if we had only booked in advance and found a better hotel. It is guaranteed cheaper than parking at the hotel lots and sometimes even the Park and Rides. Below are some prices for DC parking for the week:
So say you book the above Crowne Plaza, which is a better price, thats $44 to park for 8 days. Not a bad deal when airport parking is usually $10-$12 a day.
3. Sad Cars
If you’ve read anything on planning a trip to Iceland by now, you’ve probably come across the name Sad Cars at least once. Sad Cars operates by renting out cars that are on the more “rustic” side of things. Not that these cars are mechanically unsound, they’re just, well, sad looking. But boy did we love our little three door Toyota Yaris! That thing was a freaking tank. From huge mud holes to climbing mountainous inclines, that car more than held its weight, and was surprisingly spacious.
Sad Cars is also cool because they will pick you up from the airport, saving you hostel and taxi costs. If you arrive early or tired, (their winter hours are 5AM-2AM), it is not unusual to just nap in the airport for a bit. Be sure to bring some luggage locks and just relax with the knowledge that you’re saving money.
Alternatively, if you’re willing to pay the taxi costs and hostel fees to have a real bed and shower before you start you’re trip, you can head over to Hostel World for the best prices.
In order to save the most, you need to get a stick shift. So if you don’t know how yet, grab a friend, parent, or local farmer, buy them lunch, and learn. Just practice your incline accelerations!
For the best deal, don’t worry about buying ash and sand or theft insurance. Crime rate in Iceland is nonexistent and ash and sand damage is rare and might only occur if you were to encounter high winds on the south coast. The best thing about Sad Cars is that you will mostly likely be given a car that looks already so beat up that if something minor were to happen it would be camouflaged by former damage. This does not mean you shouldn’t buy gravel and collision insurance though!
When you pick the car up, they will give you a paper to fill out where you can mark where the car already has damage. Mark that picture up real good and be sure to take lots of pictures of your own for proof. When we returned our car at the end of the week the people were super awesome and relaxed and basically just checked if the car was cleaned out.
USD price for 8 days including gravel and collision insurance came to $468.
Gas would be roughly $300. The Yaris has great gas mileage.
Two thumbs up!
Want to do this cheap? Want to have freaking awesome stories? Want to be a little bit scared that Icelandic gnomes are going to eat you in your sleep? Then camping is for you! Seriously though, its free, the temperatures are usually great, and its a lot of fun to hunt for a spot to stay every night. We had the luxury of being completely secluded almost every night. We only shared an area with some people once or twice.
Heres how it works- when you’re going around the Ring Road, you’ll see some little overlook/picnic table signs:
These signs indicate this is probably going to be a good place to camp. Another indicator if you’re extra worried about getting uprooted is to just camp where everyone else is camping. i.e. Skógafoss. Crowed, but gorgeous place to camp and make some new international friends!
I do suggest starting to look for a spot a little earlier than we did though, preferably before dark. While most places to camp are free, there are a few pay camp grounds along the way that are useful, especially if you want a shower. We stayed at three campgrounds while we were there and spent about $30 a night at each. It was just more convenient for us but you can camp the whole way instead for free.
First night we stayed at the campground in the Golden Circle park.
Second time we camped was at a campground beside Dettifoss in Vatnajökull National Park, about halfway through our trip. They have pay showers there and it was so good.
Third time we camped it was the last day in a privately owned place near the airport in Keflavik. They also had showers. There is little camping anywhere over on that side of the island and we took one of the last spots. Get to that location early if you plan to camp your last night and relax before you return your car the next morning. I’m sorry I don’t remember the name of the campground!
Word to the wise- Look carefully for “do not camp” signs! If you don’t see one, you’re in the clear! Camp away! If you do, or if you’re in a national park, know that you can not camp there. We may have made this mistake once after not seeing a particular sign. Getting approached by angry Icelandic park rangers in the middle of the night is scary.
Lets say you stay at one campground while you’re in Iceland and just pay for a couple showers. That’ll be about $30 total for accommodations.
Here are some photos of places we camped to encourage you to do this instead of staying in expensive, crowed hostels:
Last major cost! Okay so you’re going to want to hit up the Bonus stores. Their logo is a pig. They’re hard to miss. If you’re familiar with Aldi’s, then you can know what to expect. Its a discount food store, which doesn’t mean the food is bad, just cheaper because its overstock or about to expire. You’ll see tons of people shopping in there. We spent about $100 on food for the week including a stop to eat dinner in Reykjavik on our last day, and some hot chocolate at the glaciers, however you can budget $75 if you just plan on shopping at the grocery stores.
Tips for food:
Bring a little gas stove and a lightweight pot with you. You can heat up soups, stir-fries, boil water, or make spaghetti. If you camp at all back home its a fabulous investment. GkGk Backpacking is a good brand, as is some others on Amazon. You can pick up a thing of Butane for a decent price at a Bonus store and it should last you all week.
Eggs are a great breakfast choice because they don’t have to be refrigerated over there and are nutritious. We ate eggs and oatmeal everyday for breakfast. In the US we wash our eggs before selling them, thus washing off a bacteria that naturally protects the egg from getting Salmonella. In Europe, they don’t wash their eggs and therefore are safe to eat unrefrigerated. I suggest bringing a hard egg case like this one to store your eggs in. We love ours!
Some days are going to be so windy that your stove will not hold a flame. Because of this, make sure to buy some things that don’t need to be cooked like peanut butter and jelly, grapes and crackers and cheese, or leftover cold spaghetti. Save these things and don’t eat them unless you are unable to cook!
6. Last Remarks
In this blog, I just want to cover basics and show you how to do this cheaply. Personally, we did not do any additional cost things like Blue Lagoon or tours. However, if you’d like to have a thorough itinerary for day by day excursions, or more details on things to know about before going, I recommend checking these guys out! They helped me a lot when I was planning my trip:
Additionally, this is the map we used- Iceland Travel Reference Map
I recommend this map with all that is within me. It had every gas station marked, every campsite marked, and only steered us wrong once when I misread it around Dettifoss (be careful, there are two parallel roads that straddle it! One has a gas station, the other does not). Its also waterproof!
My opinion on phone cards and why I left this cost out: When we first got to Reykjavik we bought a name brand phone card from a reliable store and it was the biggest waste of money. The card worked for a short bit while in the city and then quit and got no signal the rest of the trip. Besides this, I personally don’t believe you need one for Iceland. If you’re staying on the Ring Road there are tons of friendly people everywhere to help you if you broke down. Its a busy place. Secondly, at least once a day we came across a place that had wifi. Use these moments to check emails, reach out to family, and do whatever else. The map was all we needed in terms of GPS, and it was actually really nice being techno-free.
7. Total Price
Thanks for reading guys! I hope this helps, and good luck on your trips!