Iceland is an expensive country. There’s no doubt about it. Almost everything that’s sold in Iceland is imported from other countries, making food, gas and basic living expenses skyrocket. So, how do you travel Iceland on a budget?
First things first. I travel. I do not go on vacation. If you go travelling with the mentality that every day is going to be a great experience and filled with fun and excitement, you’re going to be disappointed. Travelling taught me to change my perspective because there are going to be those days when things aren’t going right. Even when it’s not an ideal situation, and even when you’re not having the time of your life like you ‘should be’, this should teach you patience and humility. You will come back home not only with new experiences, but with an intense appreciation for the comfort you experience on a daily basis.
That being said, sometimes the way I save money on vacation is to ‘slum it’.
We spent less than $800 CAD on living expenses alone. (Divided by 3, that’s… ~$267) That’s for 9 nights, averaging $30 a night. Yes, I am that good at math. How did we do that?
- We slept in the car for 2 nights
This lovely car was actually quite comfortable for 2 nights (and 3 people). We brought our own sleeping bags, reclined the seats, and had quite a good night. We read online that you can park or camp anywhere in Iceland (as long it isn’t someone else’s property); but a local told us that overnight parking/camping can only be at designated campgrounds. I don’t have a definite answer for you, but some open campgrounds charge only 10s of dollars for you to use their washroom and cooking facilities. It’s actually a pretty good deal, because you don’t realize how much you need running water to feel full and clean.
Most campgrounds in Iceland are closed by the end of September, so you can park or camp there for free. If you go to Iceland during the summer, I would definitely recommend camping the entire way. There are some campsites near the bases of waterfalls with spectacular views to wake up to.
2. Airbnb is your friend
Airbnb is probably the best the cheapest accommodation in any country. It’s a site that lets people rent out their houses/apartments or rooms to strangers (like a bed and breakfast). I find that I learn so much about the culture of a country by staying in places that the people of that country actually live in. You are able to talk to them about recommendations, things to watch out for and just have some normal social interaction. (Yes, internet. It’s good to converse with other human beings). Most of all, the kindness of strangers always makes me have faith in humanity again.
Airbnb in Iceland is definitely more open than other countries I’ve stayed in as every single Airbnb did not lock their front doors. With Iceland being the 2nd safest country in the world, it’s no wonder. We walked into one of our last airbnbs (at a farm actually) and started to make food and have dinner, all without our host being there. They walked into their house with 3 strangers already settled in and making themselves at home.
I’m not paid to say this, but I only have good things to say about Airbnb. Even in bad listings, the company is very helpful. 5 stars. Confetti. Hurrah.
We stayed in one hostel during our trip and it was in a town called Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland. It was called Halfaldan Hi Hostel and was clean and had a very comforting, homey feel to it. Many people think that hostels are the cheapest way to go, but they are not; especially if there is more than 1 guest. Hostels charge by the bed, not the room. So, if an average hostel bed is 30-50 dollars, it’s usually cheaper to even go to a hotel that’s priced at 100, because you will split the bill between 3 people (hotels sell by the room).
That being said, although this hostel was our most expensive accommodation ($150 for 3 persons), it was still the cheapest place in that location. This hostel was top notch!
Food is EXPENSIVE. I tried to buy a cup of soup at a touristy restaurant and it was over $20. $20!!! For a cup of SOUP! I wanted soup so badly, but alas, I was soupless. In the major cities of Reykjavik and Akureyri, we did end up splurging and eating at nice restaurants only to be disappointed. Not many things are fresh in Iceland, as they have to be shipped across the country and you can taste the difference.
This was a $50 meal of whale. It tastes like beef, but a bit more rubbery and gamey. It’s worth a try, but only once.
So, for the rest of our meals, what did we do?
- We bought groceries
Doesn’t that look appetizing? Shut up. It was actually really good. The cheapest grocery store by far is Bonus, which can be found mostly in large cities. Since we rented a car, we were able to stock up on food before we started our road trip. What I’ve realized is that a bag of pasta can be sufficient for many meals, preserved meat tastes delicious when you’re cold, wet and hungry, and you need to eat your vegetables to stay regular *ahem*. All of our Airbnbs had kitchens and so cooking was never an issue.
Although Bonus is the cheapest, some items can still be considered quite expensive. There are some cheese products that can cost upwards of $20. But, there are certain brands are within a reasonable range ($6). Just keep looking. Don’t buy the $20 cheese.
2. Hot Dogs
I really though I had a photo of these amazing hot dogs, but I don’t think I could wait anytime I had my hands on one of these.
Hot dogs are highly recommended among tourists and residents of Iceland. These ones have crispy fried onion and then raw onions on the bottom of the bun, then a nice long sausage (..) and 3 types of sauces on top. Ketchup, Sweet Mustard and Remoulade. And yes, remoulade is french for delicious.
You can get these hot dogs at any gas station and specific hot dog stands in the big cities. They are usually around $5 CAD.
For our trip, we planned on travelling around the entirety of Iceland on the Ring Road. This road is paved, well-maintained and stretches out for 1330km. We rented a 2 wheel drive car for this journey and for the most part, had no issues.
One thing to note is that there are many gravel roads branching off from the ring road, that make it difficult for a normal 2 wheel drive car to travel on. Therefore, there are going to be places that are inaccessible to people driving this type of car. If you are planning to go more inland to see mountains in Iceland, you would have to rent a 4×4. Another thing to note is that everyone in Iceland usually drives a manual/stick-shift car, so you’ll have to pay extra to rent an automatic car.
Places like Selfoss/Dettifoss, Grettirs Pool, Aldeyjarfoss are only accessible via gravel roads. There are even other places that have signs preventing you from driving further without a 4×4 because of the dangerous terrain. We did end up driving to Selfoss/Dettifoss, but the road was full of potholes and rocks. It’s an uncomfortable ride as well as a slow one, because you want to minimize any damage that could happen with gravel hitting the car. If you look on Google Maps, you can determine which roads are gravel, and which ones are paved. The Ring Road, as I said before, is completely paved and outlined in yellow. The gravel roads are outlined in white.
Our car rental for 10 days cost just under $600, resulting in $200 split between 3 people. I do have some grievances with the company that provided the car rental, which I’ll explain in another post. Other than that, I feel the best way to travel Iceland is by driving the Ring Road. There are the occasional buses that will leave Reykjavik and go to town along the way, or tours that can take you to the most popular spots, but these options give you no flexibility and cost more than they’re worth.
Gas is expensive. Prices range up to $2 CAD per litre, doubling the norm in Canada. It’s important to fill up frequently, we rarely let ourselves get below half a tank. Gas stations either conglomerate in one location or are far and few; and it would be impractical to be stranded due to running out of gas. We spent a total of $450 CAD for our 10 day driving trip. (split between 3 is $150). The car rental place also gave us a gas card that would get 3 ISK off each litre (around 3 cents) at certain gas stations.
All the gas stations we went to also did not accept our credit cards at the pump. We had to go inside to either pay, or buy a gas card to use at the pump. Gas cards are usually in the 1000, 3000 and 5000 ISK level. Gas cards also have their affiliations with the station they are bought at. So OLIS gas cards can only be used at OLIS stations. Keep in mind that gas stations are not open 24/7 and if your credit card does not work, you can not fill up gas if the desk is not open.
The most beneficial expenditure by far was our wifi router, which we purchased online before going on the trip. I have had experience with wifi routers since my trip in Asia, and was happy to find that they have a similar device in Iceland as well. The wifi router allows wifi access for multiple devices and is small and portable. The access is surprisingly good everywhere on the Ring Road. Our router was from the Trawire website and we purchased the Trawire Basic plan for $10 USD a day. This includes a 4G modem and unlimited usage (I would recommend unlimited, so that you don’t have to worry about exceeding anything). We had no issues with the wifi, neither the speed nor the connectivity.
To return the router, they charge a base of $15 USD and include an envelope with postage already, so that you can drop the router in any post-office box and it’ll be mailed back to them. Don’t worry, there is a post-office box in the airport.
Having a wifi router allows more flexibility in planning your day to day activities, as well as gives you security in finding the locations you want to go. It lets you use your phone GPS and allows you to communicate with people back home for free.
You’re all set to go! Happy travels and comment below if you have any questions!