Iceland is marked as one of the most expensive countries to visit in Europe—and rightfully so. When I booked my tickets for the end of January, I didn’t exactly have an itinerary in mind. In fact, I impulsively booked my tickets the same day my cousin tagged me in a Facebook post about cheap Iceland flights. I even made my itinerary on the layover from Chicago to Baltimore.
I knew I wanted to tackle the country solo but had a limited budget to work with since I flew to Belize just two weeks prior. Winter in Iceland is one of the cheapest times to vacation there since it’s off season: tours, hostels, and rentals tend to be cheaper compared to the summer months. Warning: winter also means there’s limited daylight (6-8 hours at most); however, this also creates the ideal conditions to see the northern lights.
Tip 1: Book your tickets during the off season.
Flying during the off season (December-March) is usually when airfare is at its cheapest. I flew to Iceland with WOW Air—the international equivalent to Spirit airlines. The airline doesn’t offer food or entertainment without paying extra fees. Baggage requirements are also pretty strict—I’m not sure how feasible this airline is for extended trips (especially if you have a lot of luggage with you), but if you’re planning to backpack or take a short trip like I did, then it’s definitely worth it. They also have iPads available for rent. My ticket ended up being less than 400 USD roundtrip from Baltimore to Keflavik.
The silver lining of flying on an airline with no entertainment is it forced me to make conversation with the people around me. I ended up meeting an American expat living in Germany; we exchanged travel stories and shared details about our family and friends back home. By the end of it, she even offered me a place to stay if I ever wanted to visit Germany.
Also fun fact: I DID end up getting free snacks and apple juice because I passed out on the plane. Although I’m still not sure if that’s a win or not… to be decided.
Tip 2: Book a hotel or hostel anywhere beside Reykjavik.
I booked my hostel at Base Hotel close to the airport in Kelflavik. Reykjavik is only 45-minute bus ride away. The Strætó runs every hour or so, and schedules are available at the hostel or on their app. Hostels in Reykjavik are more expensive because you have to pay extra for bedding and towels; luckily the Base Hotel includes both without the extra fees. I paid around 50 USD for two nights. It’s a pretty cool concept: the base hotel is a reformed NATO base with remnants of its military days including army hats lined up in the community lounge and tight quarters.
Tip 3: Take public transportation when possible.
I didn’t want to rent a car while I was there (I’m objectively a pretty terrible driver and I was traveling solo), so I relied heavily on public transport and guided tours. Bus routes using the Strætó are easily accessible and run about nine times a day on the 55 from the airport all the way to central Reykjavik. From Reykjavik, there are dozens of buses that’ll weave you in and out the city. Buses in Iceland are way nicer than the States—they even include free Wi-Fi which is a huge plus for me since I frequently relied on Google maps to get around the city. Their buses were also significantly cleaner than my hometown in Chicago.
While I was there, I decided to do a tour with Reykjavik Excursions to see the Golden Circle including the Þingvellir National Park, Geysers at Haukadalur, and the Gullfoss Waterfall. I ended up getting on the wrong tour bus halfway through the trip…
Tip 4: Don’t be impulsive (like me), book your Blue Lagoon tickets far in advance.
I couldn’t leave Iceland without visiting the Blue Lagoon. If you decide to go, book your tickets far in advance (4-6 weeks if possible). Since the window between my booking and arrival in Iceland was tight in time, only evening slots were available. I was a bit sad I didn’t get to see the lagoon during the day time, but the Blue Lagoon at night was still a magical experience. Since there isn’t a lot of light pollution, you can get a clear view of the stars by nightfall. I’ve heard from down the grapevine that some travelers have even gotten a glimpse of the northern lights there as well. Be prepared to fork over a pretty penny though – tickets run more expensive the closer you are to the booking.
The Blue Lagoon itself is insanely restorative; my usually acne-prone and irritated skin was the clearest it’s ever been for days after my visit to the Blue Lagoon. Before you enter the lagoon, you’re told to strip down naked (I don’t know why nudity made me feel awkward) and use their branded shower gel and conditioner. The conditioner is meant to protect your hair so it’s more manageable once you exit the lagoon.
Tip 5: Check out meetups when possible.
At first, I was a bit wary using Couchsurfing. It’s earned a rep for being unsafe, and I can’t say it’s completely unwarranted; however, the community can have its perks when used responsibly. The website often hosts meetups in various countries – usually other travelers or groups looking to sync up and cut down costs. I got in touch with a few groups in advance and ended up tagging along with two other girls driving outside Reykjavik to get a glimpse of the northern lights. I was lucky and ended up getting to see the northern lights two nights in a row. Rule of thumb: the further you are from the main cities, the less light pollution there is and the easier it is to see the lights. There’s also a ton of websites that can predict the strength of the northern lights.
Although I’m happy I impulsively decided to book my tickets to Iceland, I think this experience taught me to treat traveling less like a bucketlist of things to accomplish. I approached almost every site as a thing to check off, instead of being more mindful of where I was and how it made me feel. I often caught myself preoccupied with worries from back home—it wasn’t really until I got on the wrong tour bus when I started to feel more engaged and soak up what I was seeing.