The Busby Guide to Iceland on a Budget
Iceland is defined by contrast. Aptly named the “land of fire and ice,” the country’s landscape is draped with waterfalls that cascade from rocky outcrops, dotted with hot springs and billowing steam plumes, and surrounded by wild ocean waves licking the dark, deserted beaches. Icelandic people are friendly — albeit sometimes stand-offish at first — and offer occasional warm smiles that immediately soften their weathered, tough exteriors.
Known for welcoming droves of tourists during the lush summertime, Iceland can also be experienced in the winter for a fraction of the price. So if you’re a light spender and a winter lover, and are up for an adventure, grab some absurdly cheap flights to Iceland this season (especially out of Seattle or Boston!) and venture off the beaten path in this visually spectacular, unpredictable locale. Here are a few tips for exploring Iceland on a Budget.
Skip the bus tours packed with tourists and rent a car instead. We recommend Sad Cars. They have a variety of cars that are usually about 10 years old — but the price is spot on, and they offer fast and reliable shuttles from the Keflavik airport to their off-site location. The roads are easy to drive and it’s difficult to get lost with one main road around the entire country. Renting 2WD with studded tires in the winter is do-able, but if you’re not confident with winter driving, consider splurging for a 4WD or AWD. In the winter, studded tires are a must.
WHERE TO STAY
Although this past trip, we opted for a 4-season tent (the Mountain Hardwear EV 3) and Mountain Hardwear down sleeping bags (which I’ll say was super cheap to roam Iceland on a budget, but an overall cold, windy experience!), the time before that we did the farmstay route. Consider booking your trip through Icelandic Farm Holidays. There are locals around the country that participate in this Icelandic version of Air B&B, and their easy-to-use online map allows you to find locations with amenities to suit your needs. The “Free as a Bird” voucher system (only available September to May) allows for extremely flexible travel plans. Breakfast is typically included in each stay — which was my favorite part!
WHAT TO BRING
Pack layers and a sturdy pair of boots. The weather in Iceland is as varying as the scenery—and not for the faint of heart. One minute, the wind is howling and the next, the sun is casting a golden glow on the fjords as wild reindeer gallop into the distance. (Yes. It actually gets that cliche.) Pack smart and light — and plan to layer. Warm gloves would be smart. Said sturdy boots should be able to get wet and tromp through snow while keeping your feet dry and warm at all times. We highly recommend BOGS — we have the tall boots rated for 40 degrees below zero.
WHAT TO KNOW
Have a hot spot to find your hot pot. We’re all about preparing and researching so we can disconnect from cell phones and internet on our trips. But to be honest, these days we like to stay flexible on the road, and we stay connected through blogging and Instagram. We used a Trawire 4G Personal Hotspot for our trip, and when it came to Google Maps, Hot Pot Iceland, or other bits of research necessary on the road, it saved our butts. In particular, we were so grateful to keep watch of road closures (we knew enough not to pursue certain routes because they were closed), weather forecasts and avalanche danger, which made it easy to pick ski routes for certain days.
What we found so great about this product was that the owners started the company for a rad reason. As the parents of two kids with Autism, the Pedersens saw how access to iPads and the Internet opens their kids’ eyes and abilities to interact with the world. They wanted everyone to have more access to the Internet for this very reason. Today, they gives back to local Icelandic kids with Autism. If you know us and what we stand for, we’re all about giving back!
Have your camera ready at every opportunity. One the best parts about Iceland is the feeling that you’re experiencing true wilderness. Each part of its landmass looks different — you could see Reykjavik on a dreary day, the southeast during the golden hour, the north during a freezing cold spell and the northwest during a blizzard. I’m confident each region could be experienced in a different way on a different day, and that’s the fun of it. The scenery changes from fjord to fjord, from corner to corner. Photo ops abound — don’t miss them! We use this cool SD card with a CF adapter that enables WIFI to pass photos between our DSLR and iPhones and computer.
WHAT TO EAT
Soup and Salad—the key to eating cheap. Sean and I aren’t exactly “foodies” when we travel… we’d rather spend money on experiences. So if you’re like us, looking for a hearty, cheap meal, look no further than a soup & salad buffet. The buffets are often large and diverse, and especially on those extra cold days, soup is just the ticket to warm your soul.
Have a hot dog. Or three. There’s something special about Scandinavian people and their penchant for hot dogs—and I agree. They are oddly satisfying at nearly any time of day. If you’re in need of a quick snack on the road, chances are the nearest gas station has hot dogs. Bonus if they have good toppings like fried onions. If you’ve got some time in Reykjavik, stop by Baejarins Beztu Pylsur to experience the best of the best.
For the particularly long days on the road driving to the Westfjords, we packed our Jetboil Sumo stove so we could have hot water on demand.
WHAT TO DO
Seek out hot pots that are off the beaten path. You can’t visit Iceland without hopping in a hot spring, or eight. Skip the Blue Lagoon (and its high price tag) and map your visits on Hot Pot Iceland. The site lists hot pots around the country… from large and popular to a small “hot tub” size pool, replete with floating algae and a small hobbit-like shack to change in.
Check out the horses and the arctic foxes. One of the most amazing things to see while driving around Iceland is horses. They’ve got a different look and feel to them, and rightly so — they’re the same breed that’s inhabited Iceland from seemingly the beginning of time. No other breeds of horses are found in Iceland except these. Also, when we were in the Westfjords winter camping, we saw TONS of arctic fox tracks in the backcountry. Although we didn’t see one in the wild (Sean saw one in Hornstrandir Nature Reserve back in 2011), we did take a day to experience The Arctic Fox Center, and it was so full of information!
Interested in backcountry skiing? Look no further than Aurora Arktika for your expedition. Imagine skiing up and down fjords using a sailboat as your base camp, fresh fish stew to warm your bones in the evenings, and northern lights on clear nights in the harbors. There’s nothing quite like it — just as there’s nothing quite like Iceland in the wintertime.