Several followers have reached out to us asking some advice on how we did Iceland. So we put together this post explaining how, and why, we did Iceland a little differently.
Iceland has become one of the hottest must-see countries in the world. Travelers are drawn to its dramatic landscapes, the quirky vibe of Reykjavik, and the chance to experience the elusive northern lights. Of course every traveler’s favorite movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, just added to Iceland’s allure. After having the opportunity to explore this country, we agree there’s nothing else quite like it in the world.
But a few years ago, our friends decided to also cross Iceland off their travel bucket list. Upon their return, I excitedly asked them to tell me about their experience. And they told me something that may make your jaw drop. They told me that they were disappointed. Now how on Earth could anyone not like Iceland? How were each of our experiences so different, that we flew away from Iceland with such different perspectives?
If you peruse travel blogs and Iceland guides, most visitors take on Route 1, or the Ring Road, which is the national road that circles the island. The positive aspect of Iceland’s Ring Road is that makes it pretty easy to lay out your route. The negative? Once you begin, the only logical way to complete it is to make the full 1332 km, or 828 mile loop.
Our friends had 7 days in the country and opted to drive the Ring Road. They described LONG days of driving from point A to point B, often bored at some of the scenery. Some days they would drive through flat, uninspiring landscapes before they would reach the next scenic “must-see.”
This is why Iceland is a tricky travel destination. The best way to describe it is that it’s made up of all these small, scenic spots scattered across the country that together make up this all-encompassing essence of Iceland. But to experience them all is not an easy task.
Add to the fact that many segments of the Ring Road are so isolated, it’s hard to find stops for bathroom breaks and lunch stops. (Most visitors don’t brag about eating hot dogs in gas stations which is many times the only food option.) So if you are a die-hard road tripper or a camper van enthusiast, and don’t mind spending 5+ hours in a vehicle per day, you’ll love touring Iceland. If not, you may want to see why we decided to do Iceland a little differently.
There’s another important travel tip that many don’t discuss. Nice accommodations are very hard to come by and everything is quite expensive. This may be an urban legend, but my girlfriend told us their guest house was the same that hosted Ben Stiller during filming (they supported this claim with photos). They were surprised at how unkempt it was, especially the bathroom and shower. In our own research, we also had a general sense of high costs for very average accommodations. If celebs are showering in grimy showers…well?
So what did we do?
The following is our itinerary, lodging, and Iceland travel tips.
We spent one week in Iceland. We stayed 3 nights in Reykjavîk, 3 nights in Bíldudalur, and 1 in Keflavík (closest city to the airport). Airbnb apartments provided the best prices and best value. We did all our own cooking except for trying a few of Iceland’s world famous fried onion topped hot dogs.
🏠 Click on each city name to view each apartment we stayed in. We had positive experiences and would stay in each one again.
Reykjavîk – During this time, we did three day trips. We spent one day exploring Reykjavîk. Our second day we drove the Golden Circle. Day three was spent driving to Vîk and back. These are common day trips and routes in Iceland. Take some time to research these areas and stop at the sites that interest you. We won’t go into too much detail here as there is extensive information out there from the big guys. We liked and utilized Rough Guides, but find a great map and simply visit each viewpoint, national park, or scenic stop that you encounter as you make your way.
Bîldudalur – This is where our itinerary deviates from the norm. Rather than take on the Ring Road, we opted to stay on the upper north peninsula of the island driving up to the Westfjords. The roads are often gritty and slow, but the scenery is consistently dramatic and some of the most breathtaking on the island. Stats differ, but estimate that only 3-14% of visitors make it to this part of Iceland and it was glorious! By now, our followers know that we love getting off that typical backpacker/traveler route. If you seek out experiences that take you off the beaten path, then the Westfjords are for you!
Time Magazine rated Iceland’s Westfjords one of the world’s best kept travel secrets.
Before leaving Reykjavík, we stocked up on three days’ worth of groceries and drove to our beautiful getaway in the village of Bíldudalur. After four full days of road tripping, we relished in that isolated, “cabin on the lake” feeling. It was here that we were hopeful to see the northern lights, but unfortunately our evenings were always cloudy. We thoroughly enjoyed our time here. It felt unexplored and remote. To us, THIS was Iceland.
The beauty of this segment of our trip was that we were able to slow down! We had time for a memorable picnic lunch surrounded by one of a kind views, long walks exploring, and sunset cocktails on our balcony. In our opinion, rushing through Iceland on the Ring Road was just not how we wanted to spend our time here.
* After writing this post, we discovered that our cozy condo in Bîldudalur is no longer listed on Airbnb. Fortunately, there are other units listed in this area.
Keflavík – The drive back from Bíldudalur took us about 5-6 hours. We opted to stay near the airport so when we arrived in Keflavík, we could cook dinner and relax for the night after the long day of driving. The car rental agency was kind enough to drop us off at the house as it was nearby. There was a small grocery store in walking distance from our house. The next day, we had to take a taxi to get to the airport which our Airbnb host arranged. Since our house was close to the airport, the cost was only $10 USD.
🚗 Car Rental
We rented our car from Sad Car Rentals for $47 USD a day. They offered a free pick up service from the airport to their agency. We also liked that we opted not to rent a GPS, but the car came with a built in one anyway. We did drive on some rocky terrain, but nothing that our rental car couldn’t handle.
General Travel Tips
If you are going to take on the Ring Road, we suggest allowing yourself AT LEAST 10-14 days to enjoy the trip. Road tripping is hard here. At the end of the day, you don’t want to feel like you can’t wait to get out of your vehicle only to have to climb back in to do it all over again the next day (and the day after that, etc.).
Pay attention speed demons! Another reason driving the Ring Road is so aggravating is due to Iceland’s infamous speed cameras. Although roads are wide open, speed cameras are EVERYWHERE. It was so hard to avoid putting the pedal to the metal because there isn’t another soul to be seen. Look up horror stories online. We read one driver’s mistake of hitting two speed cameras costing them $800 in fines. On average, the speed limit is around 50 mph which makes you feel like you’re crawling to your next stop.
As previously mentioned, Airbnb’s provided the best value. However, there isn’t always the greatest selection. In some areas, especially away from the major tourist areas, there aren’t even any apartments to choose from.
We are not camper van enthusiasts and don’t prefer to travel that way. But even if you are road tripping via car, stock up on snacks, food, toilet paper, etc. before you embark on your Ring Road journey. When we say you may not encounter food/rest stops, we’re not joking.
Bring music to enjoy in the car. In remote areas, there are no radio stations to make long travel days go by faster by listening to your favorite tunes.
If you’re a wine lover or want to enjoy sunset cocktails, plan on purchasing your alcohol at the duty free shop in the airport. This will be the most budget friendly place to buy it.
If you are not a budget traveler and/or don’t enjoy long distance driving, you may want to consider traveling with an organized tour group.
We traveled to Iceland the first week of September. It was cold! Bring layers as the weather often changes within minutes. Raincoats come in handy if you want to take the opportunity to explore behind waterfalls!
For one week in Iceland, we spent $1,188 USD (this includes the flight from Norway) and averaged $170 USD a day. Please note, this is probably cheaper than most would spend as we weren’t really driving much while in Bíldudalur. Driving the entire Ring Road will add more cost to your budget for petrol which of course, is expensive.
Above is a slideshow of some of our favorite Icelandic travel moments!