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TRAVEL DIARIES How to travel around Iceland in 7 days without breaking the bank

You will both love it and hate it. You will experience all kinds of weather, at times within only a couple of hours. You will visit hundreds of waterfalls, walk through a lunar landscape, stroll along black beaches, admire rolling green hills, and see some absolutely incredible scenery changing before your eyes with almost every kilometre. Iceland is simply an experience of a lifetime and you will NEVER regret going!

How it all began

When you keep an eye on flight deals, trawl through hundreds of Instagram snaps of Iceland and start dreaming about the island, it is time to do something about it. I made a decision at the right time and bought an Icelandair flight for a great price through Pelikan: Stockholm – Reykjavík – New York – Stockholm for EUR 289. I didn’t care that I had to fly from Stockholm, since it costs peanuts to get there from Budapest or Vienna.

And when your ticket is finally bought and paid for, you are over the moon. My girlfriend and I immediately began planning. We wanted to see as much of the nature as possible but at the same time we wished to stick to our plan – to do the trip on a shoestring. And I think we pulled it off.

Our intention was to travel around the whole island on the so-called Ring Road and possibly fit in a few other places. We did it in 7 days, no problems. Originally, I was going to call my article “How to do Iceland on the cheap”, though it transpired that living in Iceland is anything but cheap. However, if you stick to some basic rules, you can definitely keep the price down. It was one of the reasons I decided to compile a list of useful tips for anyone planning a trip to this beautiful country.

You will learn where to buy cheap tickets, where to hire a car for a great price, how to save on accommodation and food, as well as what you could manage to do in just one week. 

Day 1 – Golden Circle and what to sort out

If you go to Iceland, you will most probably want to see the so-called Golden Circle – three attractions visited by 90% of tourists who come to this magical island.

Car hire in Iceland

Our Icelandic journey began at Keflavík airport where we were greeted upon arrival by a guy from the SADcars car hire. The company is based close to the airport and provides free transport from and to the airport to all their customers. At the SADcars place, we had to sign all the necessary documentation – you will need a valid driving licence and a bank card. Compared to other companies, hiring with SADcars has one enormous advantage – you don’t have to pay a deposit which means that you don’t have to worry about having 1000–2000 euros blocked on your card. Any damage to the car gets sorted out after you return it. So you basically pay only for the hire itself, making the whole process MUCH CHEAPER than anywhere else.

We booked an M-class car about a week in advance and took advantage of a special offer – get 1 day free when you book 7 days. The M-class are larger 4×4 drive SUV vehicles with a manual shift, allowing you to tackle any road in Iceland, from classic tarmacs to the most challenging crossings on gravel or flooded paths, found mostly inland.

So we were handed a set of keys for a Suzuki Grand Vitara, a great off-road with slightly higher fuel consumption than normal. For the hire, we paid about 400 euros, and we also opted for insurance (not compulsory but we recommend it), taking the overall price to EUR 480. When you take over the car, inspect it thoroughly and take photos, especially around the doors and at the front where you will get most scratches from the flying gravel. If you are planning on visiting Iceland in summer and staying in the south of the island, a smaller car will do and you won’t need a 4×4. However, if you want to travel around the whole island, the 4×4 is definitely a good idea.

Shopping in Iceland – where to buy cheap

Where food is concerned, you have 2 options in Iceland. You can either rely on restaurants for which you will need up to a few hundred euros every day, or you can cut down on your expenses by cooking your own food. We opted for the latter and brought a nifty little cooker with us from home and then we bought a gas canister for it at the first petrol station we came to in Reykjavík. It’s inexpensive and very easy to use.

As soon as we had the car, we decided to do some shopping to last us a few days.  As anyone knows, food can take up most of your budget but then you can also save the most on food. This is more than true in Iceland. The best place to stock up on cheap groceries is without a doubt the BÓNUS supermarket chain. The prices are very similar to those in Slovakia, though alcohol in general will cost you a small fortune. For example, a small beer starts at EUR 10.

Golden Circle at last

Thanks to the excellent timing of our Icelandair flight, we arrived in Iceland at 9 in the morning. This way, we still had a full day ahead of us – hiring a car, shopping for staples and setting off on our adventure pretty much straightaway.

The first stop was the Þingvellir National Park, the birthplace of the oldest parliament in Europe and a unique place marking the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

Useful tip: The parking fee in the national park is ISK 500 (about € 4) but if you come in the evening, it is free.

Next, we carried on to the most famous geyser in Iceland, also known as Strokkur. The car park is free and located right at the entrance to the visitors’ area.  I can still smell the pungent aroma of sulphur and hear the hiss of the rising steam.  This huge geyser blasts great plumes of water into the air about every five minutes.

Useful tip: Keep to the footpaths – walking away from the designated trails is dangerous and disrespectful to the locals. 

After that, we drove to Gullfoss Waterfall. Only a stone throw’s away from Stokkur, it is the last piece of the Golden Circle. Once again, parking is free and the views are just incredible. Gullfoss Waterfall is one of the most famous in Iceland. It is located in a 2 km long canyon of the Hvítá river and forms a two-stage cascade where the river gradually plunges down from 10 and 20 metres. If the weather is on your side and the sun comes up, you will see an amazing rainbow. We weren’t so lucky but even with grey clouds overhead, the view of the waterfall was pretty spectacular. 

Kerið – the name of our stop number four. Don’t worry, you can see lots of Iceland in one day, there is no need to hurry. In summer, there is plenty of time since the sun doesn’t really go down, eleven at night feels like four in the afternoon. But back to the Kerið crater. It is a fascinating place – a massive volcanic crater, about 3000 years old, in the middle of nowhere. You pay ISK 400 (€ 3.20) for parking and you can run up to the highest point in no time.

After about 240 km of driving, we finished our first day in the small town of Hveragerði. We spent the first night in Bláskógar Guesthouse which we had booked through Booking.com, it cost EUR 58 for the two of us for 1 night, which is an excellent price for Iceland, trust me. Most apartments and guesthouses in Iceland work on the concept of access codes you get via email, so often you don’t even meet the owner or receptionist. The money will be charged to your bank card, usually after you check out.


Day 2 – Swimming, waterfalls, black beaches

When we were planning our trip, we agreed to stay alternately in campsites and guesthouses/apartments. And I can tell you we were very glad to have stayed the first night in an apartment. I thoroughly recommend it – you can find your bearings, have a good rest after a long journey and be fresh and ready to enjoy the new day.  As soon as we made ourselves presentable in the morning, we set off towards our first stop that day – the Reykjadalur hot springs. Parking is free, the only thing you need is a pair of swimming trunks or a swimsuit, a towel and enough drinking water.

Useful tip: It might seem that the hot springs are just over the hill from the car park but don’t be fooled. It takes a good 40 minutes to walk up some rocky paths and it isn’t exactly warm. A warm and, if possible, a waterproof jacket will definitely come in handy. But when you finally arrive, you will see people shedding their layers and jumping into the stream. Be careful, the water feels very hot at first. Here is a link to a very useful website with information about all the hot springs in Iceland where entry is free or costs very little. 

Click here for a map of hot springs

There are hundreds of hot springs in Iceland and swimming in most of them is free.   Always have a swimsuit and towel ready with you and when you get the chance, go for it. You will feel pleasantly warmed up for the rest of the day.

On the second day, we planned to see a few more waterfalls, so suitable clothing was necessary. You should have as many waterproof items of clothing as possible and also enough spares to change into. From Hveragerði, it was a longish drive of about 87 km to our first stop that day. It was the stunning Seljalandsfoss, famous for allowing visitors to walk behind the falls.

But I was much more taken by another waterfall, hidden nearby – Gljufurarfoss. It is accessible by a cave and you have to hop across some stones in the river in order to get there.

Parking is ISK 400 (€ 3.20).

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And now, we are in for a treat – Seljavallalaug, the oldest thermal pool in Iceland, right under the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. It’s completely free and there is also a small changing room right next to the pool. Seljavallalaug is located in the mountains, between the town of Selfoss and the Skógafoss waterfall. It’s definitely worth visiting, as not many people know about it yet.

Then, we swapped swimming for another waterfall and carried on to the already mentioned Skógafoss. You can see it from the road – another huge waterfall that you certainly should visit. Parking is free and there is also a small campsite.

Another stop that made a deep impression on us was Solheimasandur – a wreck of a US Navy DC-3 plane that crashed here in 1973. It is still a mystery why the plane crashed, though interestingly, all the crew survived. However, the plane did not, as local farmers have completely stripped it off anything useful and sold the parts on the black market, leaving just the bare fuselage.

Nevertheless, the walk to the plane’s final resting place is pretty magical. When you park at the free car park, you take the path towards the beach, thinking you are nearly there. Yet you will be mistaken again. The walk takes about an hour and you will feel as if you were on Mars. There is nothing but volcanic ash all around you.

The last stop of our second day is the southernmost point of Iceland – the famous Black Sand Beach right next to the town of Vík. The whole southern part is fascinating, not only you get breathtaking views, this place is also home to some beautiful and rare birds, the puffins. The notorious black beach is a mystical place but unfortunately, it is quite tragic too. Many people have perished in the huge and unpredictable waves, so be careful and observe the warning notices.

If you have a good car, take a short trip to the Dyrhólaey promontory. You can drive all the way to the lighthouse where you will be able get superb views of the sea.

Vík was also our first camping experience in Iceland. Although the weather was outrageous and we arrived in a downpour, the people in the campsite were extremely nice and helpful. We were able to prepare dinner inside the main building where we could also dry our clothes and wait until the storm passed. As soon as it cleared, we got our sleeping bags and mats out for the first time, folded the back seats down and went to sleep.

We thought that someone might have a problem with us sleeping in the car but in Iceland nobody cares unless you make camp in a place where it is explicitly forbidden. The price for one car and one night was ISK 1500 (about € 12). Showers are subject to a small charge, ISK 200 (2€), and everything can be paid by card.

On the second day, we travelled about 160 km in total.


Day 3 – The most beautiful sunset

On the third day, there was a lot of driving to do but also the anticipation of more fantastic things to come. Our itinerary was showing a trip to a magnificent canyon, finishing the day off with two glaciers. Soon after waking up, we packed up and drove 70 km east, towards one of the most spectacular views Iceland can offer – the 2 km long and 100 m deep Fjadrárglujúfur canyon. Here, I once again felt as if I had already been on this island. The view really was out of this world.

Useful tip: Parking and toilets are free.

Another stop that day was the Svartifoss falls, my absolute personal favourite of all the waterfalls. The lava pushing out from the bowels of the earth created massive rock formations around the waterfall. When you finally get there and see this natural wonder with your own eyes, you will understand that the short walk from the car park was more than worth it. But don’t go too close to the edge, there is danger of falling rocks.

What came next, I can only describe as the most beautiful moment of our entire trip. We arrived at Fjallsárlón Lake where there are superb views of the glacier above and you can watch the blocks of ice breaking off and drifting into the lake.

And that was only the beginning. We suddenly realized that the sun was going down and that we wanted to get to one more place that day – Jökulsárlón. When we finally arrived at the lagoon, all our worries melted away. Even the fact that we still had a very long journey ahead of us to our campsite in Höfn couldn’t faze us. We just stayed where we were and together with about twenty others and a group of seals, we watched an absolutely magnificent sunset, until the very end. Jökulsárlón was formed by a glacier melting due to global warming – every day, massive chunks of ice melt and the freshwater lake expands to be united with the ocean. Just look at this, isn’t it amazing? 

Eventually, we got to our campsite in Höfn, which cost ISK 1100 (€ 8.75) per person. The price included a pitch, toilets, kitchen paraphernalia and an electric cooker.

In total, we had driven 287 km on the third day.


Day 4 – A night in a space capsule

Looking at our itinerary, we knew this day was going to be very long and we also knew that we would be spending the night in a lovely small fishing town called Akureyri in the north of the island. And it wasn’t to be any old night, we found a very cool hostel offering accommodation in space-like sleeping pods (see photo below), the price was EUR 69 a night for two people. But, with 460 km ahead of us, let’s go.

After leaving the pleasant little town of Höfn, we began losing the radio signal and realized that we were probably entering the wilder parts of the country. We crossed some fantastic fjords and at times felt like on a different planet. We would be driving along without seeing any other cars, just a single farmhouse sitting in the middle of nowhere. It seemed deserted but then we noticed the lights were on. Well, people obviously do live in such remote places and are happy.

Here is a very important piece of advice for drivers in Iceland: anywhere you can fill up with fuel, always FILL UP THE TANK. We met several people who had ran out of fuel and had to rely on the generosity of other drivers to help them.

Useful tip: Download the Sygic app – a map of Iceland with information about the nearest petrol stations to you. It proved extremely useful and worked perfectly even offline.

For fuel and replenishment of our food reserves, we especially liked the N1 petrol station chain. They have branches all over the island and you can get some inexpensive food there (hotdogs, protein bars, etc.)

A map of all N1 petrol stations in Iceland

It took us about 350 km to get to the most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss.   We drove through sprawling valleys, moon-like landscape and rolling countryside.  The scenery kept changing about every 50 km, it was absolutely incredible. Despite being quite tired after the long drive, as soon as we parked up and got out, we recovered pretty much instantly. Absolute euphoria – one has never seen so much water in one place, unless they have been to the Niagara Falls or a similar place.

Useful tip: Parking is once again free and it takes about 15-20 minutes to walk to the falls. The road to the car park is full of stones and gravel, so drive carefully and if you see an oncoming car, slow right down. The gravel flying from the wheels can be quite dangerous.

The subsequent drive from Dettifoss to Akureyri was full of wonders. This region is famous for its huge geothermal activity. It starts with the Hverarond springs where the smell of sulphur permeates the air and clouds of hot steam burst from the ground all around you. The ground is just a mass of orange-brown soil and intensely bubbling mud. Something like this:

Then, there is the Krafla volcano with a lake inside it. The last eruption was recorded in the 1980s, not that long ago! The Icelanders have learnt to utilize the geothermal energy to the full, you will therefore see a lot of power stations in this region.

One thing not to miss on the way is the Grótagjá cave. It will be instantly recognizable to those of you who watched Game of Thrones. There is a thermal spring inside but swimming is not permitted.

As soon as you drive over the hill, you will see a huge lake stretching out in front of you – Mývatn. Steam rises from the milky blue water and scores of people bathe in its white mud with healing properties. Nature baths? Not as such – in Iceland, people come to have treatments in lakes formed with wastewater from geothermal power stations. The energy must be used to the last drop, as the local water is great for various skin disorders.

Our last stop that day was the magnificent Godafoss waterfall. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t on our side that day, or perhaps we were meant to see it in a mystical gloomy atmosphere. In any case, the experience was still pretty impressive, just like with all the other falls. A fascinating place, it would be a sin not to see it.

Today we covered the most kilometres of the whole week. We spent most of the day driving but it was fine. Whenever we fancied a break, we just stopped at a rest stop, made a cup of tea, had a snack and enjoyed the views around. In Iceland, there is always something to see and enjoy. And at the time, we had no idea what marvel was awaiting us in the evening.

It began with us leaving the hills behind and once again seeing the ocean before us. With it came Akureyri. Where the size of Icelandic towns is concerned, we can afford to call it a city. And not any old city – we suddenly felt as if we were transported back to civilization and could indulge in all the creature comforts. But the place where we were spending the night looked like something out of Star Trek:

Through Booking.com, we found the Hafnarstræti Hostel. Why so exceptional?  Free parking in the centre, extremely nice and helpful staff and the coolest accommodation ever. As soon as you check in, you get an access code to this amazing space capsule. The price? 1 night cost EUR 69 for 2 people. Rating?  100%. Modern and well-equipped facilities, sparkling clean showers and toilets, and what I appreciated the most – after locking up, the capsule automatically fills with concentrated oxygen. Oh, and the mattress was superb as well. 


Day 5 – Spontaneous ideas are often the best

We had no set plans for this day. First, we thought of visiting Westfjords – an area in the northwest of the island, famous for not so well-maintained roads as well as for stunning scenery, arctic foxes and difficult access. In the end, we decided to go to the Snæfellsness National Park, situated a bit below. This decision elevated our Icelandic experience to new heights. 

On the way, we managed to see one more amazing thing. Or should I say, two. We stopped near a small town called Hvammstangi on the Vatnsnes peninsula, where we saw Hvítserkur – a tall rock protruding from water, we called it the trident. Getting there is a little rough, but the road leads through a beautiful shallow. You can only get to the actual rock in low tide, otherwise, you can watch its graceful lines from a wonderful viewpoint, which is what we did.

And what is more, you can see a seal colony there.

Now, off to Snæfellsness. Not many people know (neither did we) that this national park contains all the elements that make up Iceland. It means that here, you will find volcanoes, craters, massive rock formations, an iceberg, fjords, unique plants and animals, a black beach and also the cherry on the Icelandic cake – the only white (well, pale coloured really) beach in the country.

But more about that tomorrow. Today, we only had time left to get to the Helissandur hotel, our bolthole for the night. It was quite funny, we only got the access PIN code for the reception and our room and if we didn’t have breakfast in the morning, we wouldn’t have met any staff there at all. The price was EUR 59 – 1 night for 2 people.


Day 6 – A peninsula that has everything

We started the day with a large delicious breakfast at the hotel because we knew we wanted to do a lot on this day and spend the night in Reykjavík. 

The first stop was the already mentioned white beach. There was hardly anybody there, so we were able to take lots of lovely photos of the beach with beautiful towering cliffs all around.

Then, we continued to the Saxhóll crater which has been dormant for hundreds of years. There is a path and steps leading to the crater where one can see some stunning views, and if you need to orient yourself, there is a lookout compass to help you: 

Arnarstapi is another place visited by everyone who comes to this area. In this little fishing village, you can walk along a pretty beach and admire the rugged beauty of the cliffs around. 

The most famous place in Snæfellsness is without a doubt Kirkjufell mountain. Together with the nearby waterfalls, it makes for a captivating scene and you will probably recognize it. If you haven’t seen it in a photo before, you might have spotted in on TV – the mountain has made an appearance in Game of Thrones where it was called Arrowhead. It is the most photographed mountain in Iceland and a magical place to watch the northern lights.

It was here that I realized I would definitely return to Iceland one day. So many places to see and so little time… But anyway, today was just brilliant and we were off to the Vibrant Iceland Hostel.

It is located south of the capital Reykjavík, in Hafnarfjörður. For 1 night, we only paid EUR 29 for two people, which is an excellent price. You get free Wi-Fi, a fully-equipped kitchen, showers and free parking – a great place to freshen up before the last day in Iceland.

Day 7 – Reykjavík: a bit dull, but…

The plan for our last day was a day spent in the capital – the famous Reykjavík. The first thing I thought of was where to park the car for the whole day so that it would be safe and free. Well, take the word “safe” with a pinch of salt – Iceland is the safest country in the world and the same goes for Reykjavík. The crime rate is very low and the police don’t even carry weapons.

In the end, we parked in an old harbour, a perfect place to start exploring the city from. Parking is free here. So, we set off to see Reykajvík, although we knew straightaway that it wouldn’t be as amazing as the Icelandic outdoors. To get to know this pretty Nordic city, you need only a few hours and it will leave you with an alright kind of feeling. Everything is vastly overpriced BUT it is possible to manage with only a few euros, one just has to know where to go. 

We were lucky enough to taste the best burger in town right at the beginning of our walk and it didn’t cost very much. You can’t miss it and the food is really good. We thoroughly recommend you make a stop here, the burger bar is called Bullan and it is the only circular building around. We can also recommend the Baejarins Beztu Pylsur where they do the best hotdog in Reykjavík.

And it wouldn’t be a proper trip if we didn’t taste the local ice cream. We had some in a nice little establishment in the very centre of the city and it was prepared in the traditional Icelandic way. Definitely worth it.

Where historical places are concerned, I was most taken with the concert hall, where you can also buy various souvenirs, and with Reykjavík’s pride and joy – the huge Hallgrímskirkja church.

To round off the day, we treated ourselves to a swim in the Blue Lagoon. We weren’t going to, as it is very expensive, but then we thought that we had saved a lot of money on accommodation and food, so we decided to have a wellness session as a farewell to the island.

An extremely useful tip: Book the tickets several days in advance at least, you will save quite a lot of money. A full-price ticket costs EUR 80, if you book online in advance, it might be much cheaper – we paid half. Ultimately, it is really worth it – the Blue lagoon is a truly wonderful way to finish a holiday in Iceland.  

Our journey came to an end. What is there to add? You can definitely do a lot in Iceland in just one week. We were really happy with the car, the whole Iceland experience was terrific and we managed to do everything as we had planned. True, the weather could have been better at times but that’s Iceland for you. After all, an old Icelandic saying is that there is no bad weather, only bad clothes!

Final tips:

If you want to follow our trail, I have uploaded it to Google maps.

A map of our 7-day journey

Having cash in Iceland (and why you won’t need it)

Before we left on our journey, we had spent some time deciding whether to take any cash with us. Almost everywhere we read that we wouldn’t need it, so in the end, we only took very little. And the claims proved true – we were able to pay by card absolutely everywhere, even when needing the toilet, at remote petrol stations and when paying for souvenirs at a market. Iceland’s is a cashless society and I could easily imagine Slovakia going that way…

Cheap flights to Iceland

How to get to Iceland in the cheapest way possible? There are several options. We went for the not so common choice of flying with Icelandair, the biggest advantage is a journey to America within one ticket.

But the easiest way for Slovaks is probably a direct flight with Wizz Air from Vienna, Budapest and Prague, or also from Katowice in Poland. 

Interesting facts about Iceland

The best time to visit the second largest island in Europe is in summer because Iceland is a country of midnight sun and polar night. The sun doesn’t really set during this season.

The northern lights can be observed from early September to March.

There are no official forests in Iceland.

Iceland is the safest country in the world.

Apart from other things, the locals believe in Elves. 

A volcano erupts here on average every 4 years.

Beer was illegal in Iceland until 1989.

The warmest months are July and August with the average temperature of 11°C, the coldest are the winter months at 0°C on average. 

Babies are often left to nap outside in the fresh air.

The Icelandic language hasn’t changed much since the original Old Norse, which means that it is pretty easy to read texts even 1000 years old.

60% of the Icelandic population live in the capital Reykjavík. 

Iceland was the first country to have a democratically elected female Prime Minister who was also the first openly gay PM.

There is no McDonald’s in Iceland.

Iceland gets about 85% of energy from renewable sources and over half of that is from geothermal springs.

The Icelandic national sport is dodgeball.

Iceland has no army or navy.

1 in 10 Icelanders have played, or plays, in a band and every 10th Icelander has written a book.

Photo source: Shutterstock, Dreamstime, Unsplash.com
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