Iceland on a Budget: 10 ways to save on your trip of a lifetime
Travel Tips & Advice
Iceland can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be. Thomas Breathnach shares his cost-cutting travel tips.
1. Bon Wowage!
Reykjavik’s calling. In just one year, Iceland has gone from Arctic outpost to bucket-list getaway with meet-the-neighbours proximity.
New direct flights (with Wow air from Dublin and easyJet from Belfast) have kicked off a Channel Tunnel effect for Irish-Icelandic travel.
How low can you go? I flew direct from Dublin with Wow (below), whose fares start from €69 each-way going to press. If you're looking to do Iceland on a budget, that's not a bad place to start. They do a refreshingly pleasant flight, too.
From a retro-chic cabin crew and roomy seating to irreverent touches (inflight magazine horoscopes that tell you you’re a loser on Snapchat, for example). You’ll have to pack clever, however. Passengers are allowed one free 10kg carry-on bag, but check-in luggage costs from €64 return.
2. Getting around
Reykjavik: One cool capital.
Legendary krona conversions kick in as soon as you touch the tarmac in Iceland — airport transfers to Reykjavik cost from €13 alone (grayline.is). Excursions can be eye-wateringly expensive too, so rent a car if you plan on venturing beyond the capital.
I used Holidayautos.com, a handy compare engine which directed me to the great value Ice Cars (icerentalcars.is) on the ground. To reduce rates, I lowered my collision insurance with a higher excess and also saved on daily gravel cover (€7) by curtailing off-road escapades.
With everywhere so navigable in Iceland, upgrading to a GPS is also an unnecessary luxury. And as for petrol costs? At just over €1.40 per litre, juice is surprisingly comparable to Ireland.
PS: If you’re a regular car renter, invest in a car hire excess insurance policy. For an annual fee of around €58, you can skip expensive insurance upsells all over the world.
3. Money Matters
There isn’t a tipping tradition in Iceland, so depending on your personal policy, expect to save 10pc on gratuities when eating out.
Just as tipping isn’t customary, neither in fact, is cash. I breezed through my entire stay without using (or even seeing) Icelandic currency. In fact, 99pc of all the country’s transactions come from credit cards, making Iceland the cashless capital of the world.
That rules out expensive visits to the bureau de change, ATM charges and unwanted currency in your wallet at the end of your stay.
4. Save on your stay
Most hotels are no-go zones for budget travellers in Iceland — with three-star options rarely dipping below €100 per night. Rather than blowing that budget, simply adjust to the Nordic mindset with an Icelandic hostel stay.
HI Iceland is a non-profit with 33 hostels around the country ranging from quirky, converted school buildings to traditional turf-roofed houses.
They’re immaculate, safe, family-friendly and tend to have TripAdvisor pedigrees most five-star joints would die for. I bookended my trip with stays at the Downtown Hostel in Reykjavik and Laugarvatn Hostel in the Golden Circle, where bunks start from €28 and private doubles from €85.
5. Booze Control
The rumours are true. Alcohol in Iceland is such a budget-blower, you’d be forgiven for bubble-wrapping bottles for your check-in luggage.
A local beer or glass of house wine in Reykjavik typically teeters around €10, but there are options for those looking to enjoy a drink without breaking the bank.
Downloading The Reykjavik Appy Hour app (on iTunes or Android) directs you to the cheapest beer in the capital... in real time. Elsewhere, Vinbudin state-run off-licences give an extra kick to your Krona — €10 buys a cheap bottle of plonk or six-pack.
6. Food for thought
If you fancy eating like a local in Iceland, think “more hotdogs and less whale fillets”. The former is Iceland’s favourite snack, best enjoyed from local stalls like Baejarins Beztu (bbp.is; from €3). The latter is expensive, novelty fare predominantly consumed by tourists.
For affordable, popular eateries, hit downtown’s Laundromat Café, a trendy Danish concept where guests wash clothes while grabbing brunch in its funky diner (above, thelaundromatcafe.com; from €10).
Elsewhere, Kex is Reykjavik’s flagship designer hostel — a place where locals and tourists gather for gastro-grub and live gigs. Of Monsters and Men and Kaleo are local acts who have played here, so you may just catch Iceland’s next big thing! (kexhostel.is, from €18).
PS: For more, like-a-local style tips in the capital, try iheartreykjavik.net.
7. Go Airbnb
With the Nordic summer cottage scene very much part of Icelandic culture, renting out a native’s holiday home is another no-brainer bargain.
Airbnb hosts scores of idyllic, well-kitted cabins across Iceland with one- or two-bedroom properties starting from €80/€100 per night. My own abode (Airbnb #11765169) was a comfy, three-bed chalet set in secluded woodlands near Selfoss, a gateway to the Golden Circle.
It featured plenty of earthy touches — from wood-stove burner to reindeer furs and, as is standard for many summer cottages, an outdoor hot tub. What better way to enjoy the midnight sun?
When booking your Airbnb, note that the Golden Circle is a relatively small loop of 190km. So, by booking one central base, you’ll not only broaden your options to listings with minimum three-night stays, but you’ll also avoid paying multiple cleaning fees.
More: 24 hours in Reykjavik
8. Shop local
Downtown Reykjavik (above) can seem like a retail wilderness of souvenir shops, all tapping into the insatiable tourist demand for stuffed puffins and Viking chic apparel. There are alternative haunts where you won’t get fleeced, however.
The Red Cross (raudikrossinn.is) runs several boutique-style outlets downtown where you can pick up everything from the perfect Icelandic sweater to Bjorkesque vintage. For quirky local crafts, try either Reykjavik’s Cutest (Laugevegur 27) or Minja (minja.is), which act as a kind of artisan Urban Outfitters for kooky gifts and homewares.
Remember that Iceland is non-EU territory, so you can bank a 24pc VAT refund on any purchased item over ISK 6000 (€45). Show your receipts to the tax desk at the airport upon departure, and they’ll refund your credit card within a few weeks.
PS: Self-catering is a massive cost-saver in Iceland. Try stocking up at budget supermarket Bónus (bonus.is), but wrap up — its meat and dairy aisles are in fact massive walk-in refrigerators. Yes, a real-life Iceland.
9. Life's little luxuries
Iceland’s most famous attraction is The Blue Lagoon, a milky-blue outdoor spa horseshoed by volcanic mountains (above, bluelagoon.com; €35).
Fans proclaim a must-see haven of cool, but critics deride a man-made amphitheatre crammed with tourists and selfie-sticks. For a cost-free alternative, try one of Iceland’s many natural springs — bathing in the steaming brooks above the village of Hveragerdi, for example.
Iceland also has municipal public baths in almost all of its towns. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan you could also try the Myvatn Nature Baths, which feature on a guided tour of the hit series’ filming locations. Prices from €27 (myvatnnaturebaths.is).
PS: A tip? Don’t forget to pack a towel to save on rental fees.
10. Free attractions
Surprisingly, Iceland’s top attractions can be seen without spending a cent.
Driving the Golden Circle, you’ll find Thingvellir National Park, the thundering cascade of Gullfoss waterfall and the steam eruptions of Geysir all absolutely free.
These are attractions with Cliffs-of-Moher-level appeal, so try visiting off-peak, during the midnight sun or polar night when they are magically abandoned. For adventure seekers, why not trek to the Eyjafyallajokull volcano base rather than taking a costly whale-watching trip?
PS: DIY your own Aurora Borealis escapades. No amount of money can buy you the Northern Lights.