NORTHERN EXPOSURE FOR LESS
People love visiting Iceland, though spending time in this beautiful country can get expensive — that is, unless you know what you're doing. Thanks to discounted flights and inexpensive accommodations, thrifty transportation options, and frugal food finds, there are plenty of affordable ways to explore the Nordic island nation known for its Northern Lights. Find out how to experience the otherworldly landscapes and rich culture of Iceland on a budget with these tips.
WHEN TO VISIT ICELAND
Iceland's glaciers and lava fields are stunning year round, but save a bundle by visiting during off-peak times. The busiest season is June through August, when revelers flock for the "midnight sun" that never sets around the solstice. Instead, aim to go just outside of that timeframe, or during winter when days are short and prices are low — plus you might catch the dazzling Northern Lights.
CHEAP FLIGHTS TO ICELAND
Iceland's Wow Air offers low-fare flights with one-way tickets as low as $99 (though there are some catches to keep in mind) from destinations across the United States. Save by buying tickets early, and be aware of additional charges for things like baggage, food, and beverages. Wow Air also recently announced they will be shrinking their fleet and cutting flights to reduce costs, though they're currently in talks with a potential investor. Alternatively, you can generally find good deals on Icelandair and can take advantage of an extended stopover in Iceland en route to Europe at no additional cost on round-trip flights.
If you're traveling from Denmark and have time to spare, a boat trip is an excellent, inexpensive option. Smyril Line offers leisurely two-day cruises to Iceland's east coast. The cruises offer spectacular views of Iceland and the opportunity to visit the Faroe Islands. You can save more with seasonal specials, and by sharing a cabin with others.
GETTING AROUND ON THE CHEAP
You can explore Reykjavík by walking, public transportation, and the occasional taxi. To venture beyond — you definitely want to — renting a car means saving money off pricey tour buses and more flexibility. GPS and gravel-and-glass insurance are recommended add-ons for some of the rough and remote roads. Alternatively, consider a bus passport that allows you to plan your route and avoid tour costs.
SAVING WITH THE REYKJAVÍK CITY CARD
The Reykjavík City Card will save money in Iceland's capital and beyond. The passes are available for 24-hour (about $31), 36-hour (about $44) and 72-hour (about $53) increments and offer free admission to most museums, free rides on city buses, and big discounts for restaurants, entertainment, shopping, tours, and attractions such as thermal pools and whale watching.
Iceland offers plenty of clean, affordable hostels, so consider a Hosteling International membership to save even more. You can find deals on Airbnb, or visit the tourism office for a directory of guesthouses. For a hotel experience at hostel prices, look forward to the Oddsson expected to open in the spring; the stylish previous version featured a bar and restaurant, rooftop hot tubs, and karaoke.
SLEEPING IN THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Camping is a great cheap option that offers intimate views of Iceland's spectacular lava fields, waterfalls, and snow-capped peaks. The key is to pack well and prepare for unpredictable weather. You can rent camping gear in Reykjavík. Camping at sites along the Ring Road, which circles the entire country, is a great way to see the diversity of the landscapes.
FRUGAL FOOD OPTIONS ON THE GO
Eating out can be expensive in Iceland, but there are plenty of low-cost options. Don't miss Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a small hot dog stand loved by locals, and order "eina með öllu" ("one with everything"). Stop by Hamborgara Búllan for burgers, Hlöllabátar for lamb sandwiches, and Icelandic Fish & Chips for an inexpensive bite.
STOCK UP AT THE GROCERY STORE
Save even more by shopping at budget grocery stores such as Bónus and Krónan. Don't miss skyr, Iceland's signature cultured dairy product similar to yogurt, and if you like licorice, you'll love the candy aisle. Stop by the Kolaportið Flea Market to try traditional Icelandic food including harðfiskur (dried fish), rúgbrauð (geothermally baked rye bread), flatkökur (flatbread), and for the brave, hákarl (fermented shark). Whale meat is controversial, expensive, and mostly for tourists now.
TAKE A FOOD TOUR WITH A LOCAL
Sample many of Iceland's culinary highlights without spending a lot by taking a walking food tour led by locals. The Reykjavík Food Walk offers the chance to try five or six eateries for less than you'd typically spend going on your own individually. Try everything from lamb stew to rye ice cream, and learn about Icelandic culture.
SPLURGE ON LUNCH
Iceland does have excellent restaurants serving creative spins on traditional and international cuisines. If you're looking to splurge and try some of the local highlights, consider going during lunch when prices tend to be significantly lower. Lunch can be about half the price of dinner at upscale spots such as Kopar, Kol, and Grillmarkaðurinn. And keep in mind that tipping is not customary.
SAVE ON DRINKS
Drinking at bars and clubs can get expensive, so save money by buying booze at the duty-free shop at Keflavík Airport, as many Icelanders do. Or try the state-run Vínbúðin liquor shops. If you do want to grab a drink out, take advantage of happy hour deals at bars including the popular Kaffibarinn, Lebowski Bar, and Bravó.
SIGHTSEEING IN REYKJAVÍK ON THE CHEAP
City Walk Reykjavík is a great free walking tour (tips encouraged) with highlights such as the Harpa concert hall, Lake Tjörnin, and City Hall. Enjoy panoramic views from Hallgrímskirkja church with a minimal entrance fee, and Perlan Museum's observation deck. Reykjavík's incredible street art and sculptures are free to enjoy.
EXPLORING ICELAND'S DIVERSE LANDSCAPE
There's no charge to visit Iceland's breathtaking scenery, and nearly every direction you head offers exciting new terrain (which Game Of Thrones fans will recognize). The Golden Circle is a popular day trip worth exploring to see Gullfoss waterfall, the eruptions of Geysir, and Þingvellir, where the world's first parliament was held. Other highlights include Lake Myvatn, Skaftafell Ice Cave, and the Hekla volcano.
RELAXING AT FREE NATURAL HOT SPRINGS
The dazzling geothermal Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland's most popular destinations, but the upscale spa can get expensive. Fortunately there are free and low-cost natural hot springs that are just as restorative. The geothermal pools of Laugardalslaug are an inexpensive option loved by locals, as is the geothermal beach in Nauthólsvík. Free hot springs that require a bit of travel include Reykjadalur, Seljavallalaug, and Landmannalaugar.
VISIT DURING A FESTIVAL
For a country of only around 330,000 people, Iceland hosts a remarkable number of well-attended festivals throughout the year, featuring music, art, dancing and more. Many of the festivals are free, such as the Winter Lights Festival, Reykjavík Culture Night, and Reykjavík Pride. Meanwhile, during big festivals such as the recent Secret Solstice and Iceland Airwaves in November, you can find free satellite events taking place off-site.
EXPAND YOUR KNOWLEDGE AT ICELAND'S MUSEUMS
The Reykjavík City Card offers free admission to many of the city's museums. Learn about Iceland's fascinating history at the Árbær Open Air Museum, the Settlement Exhibition, and the Saga Museum. Enjoy artwork at the Reykjavík Art Museum, or for something more alternative, there's the Icelandic Punk Museum.
CONCERTS AT HARPA
The sparkling modern exterior of Harpa concert hall in Reykjavík is worth a visit, and there are oftentimes concerts in the front hall that are free and open to the public. There are guided tours at minimal cost, which gives you the chance to see parts of the venue not otherwise open to the public.
HAVE A WHALE OF A TIME
Whale watching is one of the more popular attractions in Iceland, but the key is avoiding the pricier tours. Seasonal discounts are one way to save, and the Reykjavík City Card has been known to offer discounts on tours and sometimes to the Whales of Iceland exhibit, which is a less expensive way to learn about whales while on land.