Iceland on a budget

Iceland has always been a dream destination for me— its magical landscape, hot springs, elvish lore, northern lights, waterfalls, and abundance of natural beauty have been alluring and beckoning me as long as I can remember knowing the country existed. Since it’s also the most expensive place on earth for tourists, I didn’t think I’d realistically be able to get there without a fortune in savings. But dreams really do come true! I took a week-long road trip through Iceland in March and only spent like $500 altogether. Here’s how.

Please forgive the low quality of my cell phone pictures!

Take advantage of flight deals and discounts.

I would never have decided to go to Iceland spontaneously if WOW Air hadn’t been promoting $100 round-trip tickets. A friend sent me the link; I was shocked at the price, and immediately went ahead and purchased them on the spot. Apparently that happens pretty frequently and you can stay updated on deals through sites like Travel Pirates and Secret Flying. I didn’t know that at the time, but it’s helpful for future reference.

Bring a friend and split the cost of a rental van.

I am so grateful that my partner is as spontaneous as I am, because if he wasn’t up for an on-the-spot decision to get a ticket along with me, I would have gone alone and the whole trip would have been a lot less exciting. While I am all about solo travel, this is one instance where it really helps to have a buddy to split costs on everything. It also helped that he can drive (I’ve never learned how) and was cool with taking us both on a big road trip.

Instead of paying for places to sleep every night, we slept in the van. (I would strongly recommend against getting a camper van, though they are more spacious and Instagrammable, because the rental prices are worlds away from a regular van.) It was comfortable enough since we both brought sleeping pads and warm gear. Iceland is very camper-friendly and every town has a campsite where you can park safely, and when we woke up we would just drive to the nearest hot spring.

Hrunalaug, a natural hot spring with a rune-decorated thatched hut.

Find alternatives for tourist traps

Although I wanted to visit the Blue Lagoon (the iconic pastel-blue pools) for photo opportunities, we ended up not going because it was so expensive and every other traveler we met said it was overrated. We went to smaller, natural geothermal springs and bathhouses, which are so numerous that we would often choose between several in a town as we were passing through.

Borgarnes, a cute and quiet outdoor spa we came to one cold morning.

I wasn’t expecting to see the Northern Lights at all, since I read that the best chance of seeing them was to pay for a guided trip to areas where they were most likely to appear; mostly in the center of the country in places too icy to access without special vehicles. Amazingly though, on our very first night of camping along the southwest coast, the lights showed up! Clear, bright green, and shimmering and moving across the sky all night.

A lot of tourists were interested in riding the Icelandic horses at high prices, but there were horses, sheep, and reindeer grazing alongside the road in most places we drove through, and we could stop and hang out with them anytime if we wanted to.

The one tourist experience we seriously considered was a trip through an ice cave, but at $200/person we decided to plan that for next time.

Eat food from the grocery stores, not from restaurants.

An average bowl of soup will cost about $20 anywhere in Iceland, an average entree about $50. We went out to eat exactly one time and it was the largest expense of the whole trip. It was pretty easy to shop for food at stores, since prices were comparable to an upscale grocery here in America- we ate a lot of salad greens, nuts and seeds, sun-dried tomatoes, smoked salmon, and whatever random fruits and vegetables would show up in stores we found in different towns.

Focus on experiences rather than things

Honestly, I LOVED driving all around the parts of Iceland that were safe enough for our rental van (most of the north was too icy for us to drive, so we went through the south parts and some of the west coast). I saw so many vastly different landscapes and alien places in a few days that I felt like I was in an exquisite film. It was really fun to road trip around from one hot spring and camp site to another, listening to music and looking out for scenic places. The sense of Iceland as a place that I hold in my memory feels lovely and whole.

Sunrise in Hofn, a small harbor town

The last two days of our trip we stayed in Reykjavik, the capital city, to wind down and prepare to leave. It was an entirely different feeling to walk around the city and feel like… tourists and consumers? I like the city a lot and it’s cute, but like any city, all the things to do cost money. If I had just stayed in the city most of the time I would have missed out on incredible experiences, come away much less happy, and spent quite a bit more.

The incredibly blue fairytale waters at Gullfoss

Other odds and ends on saving in Iceland…

I had heard a lot of advice on phones and chargers: Buy an adapter, buy a SIM card to use while you’re there. Although neither is super expensive (a SIM card in Iceland will be about $40), I decided to forgo them since it was only a week, and it ended up not being an issue at all. I didn’t need an adapter since I could charge my phone in the van. And I left my phone on airplane mode the whole time, went to cafes here and there for wifi (all of the spas we went to had wifi as well), and didn’t have any extra charges on my phone bill.

I hope this inspires you to question any perceived barriers around your ability to travel cheaply! Obviously my trip was pretty short and not glamorous, but I had a great time and would absolutely do it again.