If you live on the east coast of North America, it’s becoming almost frighteningly easy to visit Iceland. Flying from Toronto, it would be cheaper for me to fly to Iceland than it would for me to fly to either coast of my own country. That may have more to do with the insanely overpriced domestic flights in Canada, but in any case you can find flights to Iceland for $100 one way. And how could you say no to that?
While I was in Iceland I saw some of the most beautiful natural wonders I’ve ever had the chance to see, and the best part was the incredible variety. On one tour I saw a black beach and a sooty glacier. But, this post isn’t about what I saw – it’s about how I saw it! Planning a trip to Iceland is a bit different than it is to the rest of Europe, but it’s easy to do independently and solo – here’s how to plan your weekend trip to Iceland!
Iceland definitely isn’t the hidden nature paradise it may have once been, but that doesn’t make it any less special. Before I went, people kept saying it was otherworldly and felt like another planet, and I thought that was stupid. Just cause there’s some weird rocks doesn’t mean it’s like Mars! However, I will confess that I was totally wrong.
When I arrived in Iceland, I was already deeply sleep-deprived. On my last night in Zanzibar I barely slept, then I had an overnight layover in the Qatar airport where I obviously didn’t sleep, then my Berlin hostel was loud and way too hot to sleep, and then I arrived in Iceland at 1AM and didn’t get to my hostel until 4:30AM. Ah, the joys of budget travel.
It would only get worse, because I was there in the summer, and Iceland doesn’t get dark in the summer. It was totally surreal – I went out at 2:30AM one night and it was just maybe dark enough to feel like twilight. Luckily my hostel had blackout curtains, but my body was still so thrown off that I ended up just napping several times a day and not really sleeping at night.
I was also pretty frustrated that I couldn’t travel independently with public transport like I usually do – I don’t have a driver’s license so I couldn’t rent a car, which meant I was stuck with expensive tours. All this aside, Iceland is worth every inconvenience and every penny.
If you’re coming from Canada or the US, there is basically a 100% chance that you’ll be flying either WowAir or IcelandAir. I flew IcelandAir home direct from Reykjavik to Halifax and weirdly, it was one of the best flights I’ve ever taken. I can’t quite explain why, but the atmosphere was really pleasant, the entertainment was great, and I was just really happy with the overall experience.
I just flipped back through my journal to see what I wrote while on this plane, and it’s one of my embarrassing monologues about how wonderful the world is and how happy I am in this moment. Usually by the end of a trip I’m either devastated to go home or very excited to do so, and on this one I was right in that perfect spot of contentment. So that might have had something to do with it, but my parents also loved IcelandAir.
I haven’t flown WowAir, but from what I’ve heard it’s a very typical no-frills budget airline. You pay for basically everything extra (bags, food, water) but you paid so little for the ticket that it’s probably okay. I actually just bought a ticket to London with Wow for the end of January, so once I take the trip I’ll post an update here.
Update: it was great! No frills, that’s for sure, but I slept really well on the way over. ALSO, we saw the Northern Lights from the side of the plane and it was unbelievable – they even turned the lights off; I got a great view. On the way back, delays at Gatwick meant that I missed my connection in Iceland, so they put me on IcelandAir and I was delighted.
Hostels in Iceland are pretty expensive, but they’re also pretty nice! If you’re just going for a weekend, I would recommend just staying in Reykjavik and making day trips from there – more on some day trips I think you should take in the next section.
I chose Hlemmur Square because I found a discount code, which they have pretty regularly – I saved 35% which made it an awesome deal. I paid $130 for three nights in a 12 bed female dorm. I’ve also heard great things about the other hostels in Reykjavik; most of them tend to have really cool hipster vibes.
If you’re travelling on a bigger budget, check out Airbnb – there are some really awesome properties in Reykjavik. My parents stayed in this little cabin and when I asked my mom if they liked it she said, “We did. It was cool and in a quiet place. One problem was no blackout curtains but probably the same everywhere. Well equipped”. So that’s another option!
Like I mentioned, public transport in Iceland is not really a very helpful thing. If you can rent a car and it makes sense for the weather while you’re there, do it – otherwise, you will have to rely on tours. Usually the word ‘tour’ sends a shiver down my spine, but the ones I took were actually pretty great! I had two full days in-country and used one for a Golden Circle tour and the other for a Southern Iceland tour. Separate posts are forthcoming about each of these experiences – but here are links to the ones I used! The pictures throughout this post are mainly from these tours.
The main thing that most people want to do in Iceland is the Blue Lagoon. I went, and meh. I’m glad I went, because I absolutely would have regretted it if I hadn’t, but….it just honestly wasn’t that exciting. The stories I’ve heard from others who have visited more secret, out of the way thermal pools have made those sound like a much better option (check out Unlocking Kiki’s blog for suggestions).
If you go, buy tickets in advance on the official website and time it with a flight. The Lagoon is much closer to the airport than it is to Reykjavik proper, so it’s the perfect place to stop in between. I visited on my way to the airport to fly back to Halifax, and it was the perfect way to unwind and finally feel clean after two months of being a grungy backpacker. You can purchase your transport along with the entrance ticket – Reykjavik Excursions will pick you up at your hostel, drop you off at the lagoon and let you know what time you can catch a bus the rest of the way to the airport.
Allot some time in your itinerary to wander around Reykjavik as well; it’s charming. It really reminded me of Halifax, where I grew up – the maritime vibe and mix of small-town and big-city feel made me feel at home. There are a ton of incredible bars and restaurants, and although you will pay a million dollars for anything you drink or eat, at least it will be good. My favourite was the Laundromat Cafe.
I wouldn’t recommend the free walking tour; I was bored and it moved much too slowly for me. The number one thing people say to do in Reykjavik is to visit Hallgrimskirkja and get a great view over the city. I somehow forgot to do this?! My parents loved it, though – here’s a picture. Otherwise, just go for a stroll! But dress warmly.
Aside from my recommendations above on the Blue Lagoon, I used Gray Line to get from the airport to my hostel at the beginning of my trip. It took forever for the bus to leave, which sucked because I was already arriving in the middle of my night, and then I swear the bus was air conditioned. At 4AM, in ICELAND. It may have been June, but it was freaking cold. I crashed immediately at my hostel. The best part of transportation in Iceland is that everybody picks you up and drops you off right at your accommodation.
If you take one thing from this post, make it the fact that Iceland is worth it. Even if you can only go for two days, the WowAir prices might make it worth your while.