There are few places in the world that feel like you’ve discovered a new planet. If you’ve been dreaming of traveling to the mystical land of fire and ice, keep reading to find my Iceland road trip, self-drive, itinerary, travel guide. 🙃
We explore the Golden Circle, as well as the southeastern region of Iceland in 4 days AND on a backpacker budget!
That One Time I Saw The Northern Lights From the Airplane Window . . .
It was 4 A.M when I was woken up by an announcement in the plane’s cabin regarding preparation for landing. As the stewards walked about requesting that we raise our seats to their up-right positions, a feeling on apprehension swept over me. Maybe it’s just me, but when traveling to a new place, do you ever feel a bit anxious? Will there be any unexpected issues? Will I have a great time? Will I feel safe? As a black girl in a country that is predominately white, will I be welcomed?
In my contemplation, my friend and I huddled under a blanket, covering the perimeter of the row window to block out any cabin lighting. It was pitch black outside, but we weren’t looking down at the ground. What we were searching for lies above the clouds.
When I think of Iceland, I imagine the northern lights. What are the chances that flying at an elevation of 30,000 feet (10,000 meters) would we get a glimpse of Mother Nature’s protection barrier in the form of a magical light show? After of our eyes had adjusted to the darkness, lo and behold, we began to see faint, green swabs of light, swaying in the night’s sky. It was in that moment that all of my insecurities, doubts and fears vanished in thin air. Instead, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of boundless gratitude, awe, and enthusiasm. I was reminded that the insignia on my passport cover means nothing to Mother Nature; she gives us life and protects us all the same. It reaffirmed the notion that it doesn’t matter where or how far I go. As long as I am on Earth, I am home.
How: Getting to Iceland
The biggest considerations I have when deciding on a place to travel to is: How will I get there and how much will it cost?
In my mind, Iceland might as well have been the planet Mars. It was one of those places that I had only ever dreamed of visiting but never considered that it would actually happen. Like the stars, it just seemed so far outside of my reach. However, despite it’s high latitude just outside of the Arctic Circle, it’s actually a comfortable 8 hour flight from my hometown of Miami.
I Can’t Believe I Found A Direct Flight For $250!
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “What if I am flying from Australia? Will it cost me an arm and a leg?” The answer – full disclosure, it might (lol). See, I had no intentions of planning a trip to Iceland whatsoever until, one day, while perusing the Explore feature on the travel site, Kayak.com, I noticed a flight from Ft. Lauderdale to Reykjavik, Iceland’s capitol city, for $250 USD. WTF?! Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I was hallucinating.
When searching for random flights through sites, such as Kayak or Google Flights, typically you are at the mercy of travel dates given for that special fare. Obviously, flexibility is important. I had a few vacation days saved up, so I was good on that front. What about the flight itself? Either this price was wildly inaccurate, or it must be a 27 hour trip with 3 layovers. To my surprise, it was a direct flight with an airline I had never heard of: WOW Air. I’ll circle back to updating you on the status of this airline in a moment. Nevertheless, I quickly hit up two of my good girlfriends to see if they wanted in on what could be the trip of a lifetime. Within a few hours, we had all booked our flights.
Holy $h!t, we were going to Iceland!
Now, if you haven’t heard the unfortunate events surrounding this ultra-cheap airline, allow me to update you. As of March 2019, Wow Air ceased all operations, leaving thousands of passengers and crew members stranded. All flights were suddenly grounded, as the airline had filed for bankruptcy. When I heard the news, I was truly shocked and saddened by it. Thankfully, their closure wasn’t the consequence of any serious malfunctions with the planes or any crashes resulting in deaths. Like any new business venture in a competitive and well-established market, the risks of operating at a loss are high. Unfortunately, in WOW’s case, it became unsustainable.
My sadness mainly derived from the possible drawbacks of dreams by millions of travelers yet to visit Iceland and to be able do so affordably. Iceland is one of the most beautiful and unique places in the world. It was because of airlines, like WOW, that tourism had exploded in this small, secluded nation. As I’ll further elaborate on later within this article, Iceland itself is not the most budget friendly place for travelers. To give you context, the cost of living in Iceland is around 40% higher than the United States. It is the 5th most expensive country to dine in on a world index. Without having to bear the cost of an expensive flight, the dream of a budget traveler hoping to visit Iceland could be made possible.
So, what now? Although WOW Air is no longer in operation for the foreseeable future, as of the date of this blog, it seems like their mission to provide cheap flights to Iceland had really influenced other airlines to follow suit. With the rise of oil prices, however, there is no telling for how long. Fortunately, airlines, such as Icelandic Air, Norwegian Airlines, American Airlines and Air Canada, are still offering great deals from major hubs in the United States. If you’re traveling from major cities in Europe, flights can get even cheaper. As you know, flight prices fluctuate daily. If you find a good deal, as I did back in 2017, my advice would be, don’t hesitate. Book it! You’ll won’t regret it.
When: Best Time of the Year to Visit Iceland
There’s a famous saying in Iceland that states, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes.” Boy, they are not kidding. You could wake up to clear skies and by the time you go to grab your morning coffee, find yourself in a torrential downpour with gusts of wind at 50mph. The weather in Iceland can be ‘cray‘ (lol)! It is notoriously temperamental. Due to the North Atlantic current, the climate, however, is fairly moderate considering how far north the island is situated.
For a place called Iceland, you’d think its topography would resemble that of the Arctic Circle. In actuality, Iceland is probably more green than Greenland. The island is mostly tundra. Near southern coastal areas, the climate is considered sub-polar oceanic, meaning it is less prone to extreme temperatures. Iceland has milder winters than in the Arctic but is susceptible to considerable storm activities. That said, what time of the year should you visit Iceland? The answer: it depends (lol).
Another important consideration I give before choosing a place to visit is: What kind of experience would I like to have?
I visited Iceland during the month of April but consider myself lucky. Recall from earlier that I was at the mercy of a special fare for random dates. In order to buy the flight at that price point, I had to be willing to travel on the dates specified. However, my recommendation would be to visit either during the months of April or October.
During the months of April and October, temperatures are relatively pleasant. The daylight in April can span upwards of 16 hours and 11 hours during October, giving you the maximum amount of time to explore and, yet, still be able to catch the northern lights at night.Nearing the end of April until August, the daylight can span upwards of 20 hours. Basically, you’ll be experiencing continuous sunlight during the summer months. It’s kind of trippy when it’s 11:45 PM and the sun is still shining. I’m sure it is a super cool experience. Just don’t expect to see any northern lights during that time of year for obvious reasons.
Again, it is up to you. If you have the option of choosing your dates, unlike myself, really think about what kind of experience you would like to have. Whether you’ll be visiting during the winter months or summer, your time will not be wasted. The greatest thing about Iceland is that there tons of things to do and see all-year-round.
Where: Places to Stay in Iceland
So now, that we’ve settled on our dates of travel and booked our flights, it is time to figure out where we will be spending our nights sleeping. I’ve met people who road tripped through Iceland and slept in their car. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! I love budget travel, but I don’t think that life is quite for me (lol). My preferences are hostels, guesthouses, or AirBnb all-the-way. Although the costs of staying in shared accommodations in Iceland are far more costly than most places, it is still affordable.
While in Reykjavik, we stayed at Hlemmer Square. We reserved a mixed-dorm with 6 beds. Per bed, rental cost were about $44 USD each per night. Yeah, I know. It’s ex-pen-sive! It’s Iceland. You’re going to hear me say that word a lot!
Hlemmer Square is centrally located in Reykjavik, walking distance from many popular attractions, bars and restaurants. The atmosphere at the lobby bar is great place for travelers to hangout. There is also a full-service restaurant, where you can grab a veggie burger and fries. There are cozy seating areas with free wifi throughout the entire establishment. Like most places in Scandinavia, it’s impeccably clean and modern. The hostel staff are overly friendly, and like most people in Iceland, they speak English fluently and very well!
Note: No Need To Bring Cash To Iceland.
Krona is Iceland’s currency, but major credit cards are accepted almost everywhere. As a matter of fact, don’t be too concerned with bringing any cash. Most places and points-of-interest recommended within this guide will not require it.
Iceland isn’t a very large country, but you will mostly be driving from attraction to attraction. As exhilarating as road trips can be, driving all day can get exhausting. I recommend breaking up your trip to spend at least one evening in another town that doesn’t deviate too far from the main, perimeter road. We only have four days after all, so choosing to stay off the beaten track may not be the best use of your time.
The town of Vik would be a great choice to spend a night. We chose to stay in a guesthouse a little bit further north than Vik. Keeping in mind that the final destination on our southeastern road trip would take us all the way north to Jokulsalron Glacier Lagoon, we wanted a place situated halfway between the two destinations. Klausturhof Guesthouse was the perfect choice.
We reserved a private room with 3 beds for one night at $60 USD per person. For Europe, this price point is relatively expensive. However, the location was perfect for our needs. Just off the Route 1, the Klausturhof is steps away from a beautiful waterfall. Imagine drinking your morning tea on the terrace while enjoying the pleasant sounds of water cascading down the nearby hillside. Free WiFi access and parking is available. Breakfast was also included in our stay. The rooms and facilities are simple yet clean and cozy; it was perfect for a one night’s stay.
Where: Bars and Restaurants in Reykjavik, Iceland
For a country that ranks 5th in the world as the most expensive place to eat, it begs the question: Will I even be able to afford to eat? The answer is: it depends (lol).
How Much Should You Budget Daily For Food?
I recommend setting aside $30 – $40 USD per day just for food. Food is expensive AF in Iceland. In order for us to stay on budget, a strategy was formulated. Though the landscapes are picturesque, the roads are barren. The route generally lacks places to eat, gas stations are far and few in between, and places to relieve yourself – well, use your imagination (lol). Be sure to buy some wipes while you’re at the grocery store shopping for road trip foods and snacks. Plan on spending long hours in a car. I love strawberries, but in Iceland they cost around $12 USD a box – not exaggerating. Leave the fancy, healthy foods on the shelf and go for foods that will keep you feeling full throughout the day: bread rolls and a spread, crackers, pastries, chips, cookies – that kind of stuff (lol).
I Recommend You Save The Bulk Of Your Food Budget For A Nice Dinner.
Save the bulk of your daily food budget for eating one good meal at restaurant per day. You could also reserve accommodations that include meals with your stay. We went out for dinner every night. Below are some great places to eat, or grab a drink, that are budget friendly in Reykjavik.
- Svarta Kaffid is a small establishment that serves two bread bowl soups daily: one veggie and one meat. A bread bowl will run you around $20 USD. Expensive for a bowl of soup – I know (lol), but it’s really appetizing and filling.
- Baejarins Beztu Pylsur is a popular hot dog stand (really it’s a walk-up window) in the center of town. I’m a vegetarian but my friends raved about how delicious the franks are, and it won’t break the bank.
- Similarly to Hlemmer Square, Kex Hostel also has a pretty incredible restaurant bar. The vibe is amazing. It’s a great place to start off the night bar hopping and also to connect with other travelers!
- If the night isn’t over after Kex, head over to Boston Reykjavik. Its a cool spot to grab a chilled glass of Gull, which is a local beer.
- Reykjavik even has some pretty fun nightclubs. I was surprised at how heavily hip-hop, rap and trap music is played, but they love it! Astur would be a dope place to show off your best Beyonce dance moves, as well as The Vintage Box for my LGBTQ travel tribe.
Tips: Before Traveling to Iceland
If this guide wasn’t already tedious, it’s about to get longer. I want to share everything I’ve learned, so that your trip is as seamless as possible. Before I get into the 4 day itinerary of southeastern Iceland, below are a few helpful resources and tips you should know:
Rental Car & Gas Costs in Iceland
For the thousandth time, Iceland is expensive. I love solo travel. However, if you would prefer to keep costs down, I’d highly recommend traveling with friends to offset some of the expenses. In my opinion, the best way to experience Iceland is via a rental car. Renting a car in Iceland requires a special type of motor vehicle insurance, one that not only includes unlimited mileage and coverages for party liability. Iceland is known for its extreme weather conditions, as well as off roading gravel that may damage your rental car. The rental car insurance is not something I would be cheap on. Don’t ruin your trip by having to pay out-of-pocket because a storm kicked up some volcanic rocks that cracked the windshield. Iceland is a special place. Trust me, it could happen (lol).
To offset the extra costs for insurance, I recommend renting or hiring a car from SADcars. SADcars offers some of the cheapest daily rental rates in Iceland because not only do they rent new vehicles but used ones as well. Not to worry, the used cars are still in good condition. No need to be concerned about breaking down on the side of the road.
When I visited back in April of 2017, gas was $7.50 USD / gallon. Yep – you heard that right! At that price for the 4 day itinerary shared below, we spent around $120 USD total. Now, can you understand why I recommend traveling with friends (lol)? Last tip, be sure to stop for gas periodically. Again, let’s not ruin our trip by running out of gas in the middle of nowhere.
Helpful Resources & Tips for Iceland
- Link to monitor Iceland’s Weather and Road Conditions
- Link to monitor Aurora Lights Forecast
- Link to Instructions of How to Offline Google Maps (Just in case you’re without wifi, you can still access Google Maps offline. Shoutout to the blogger who created this!)
What: Things to Do / 4 day Iceland Road Trip Itinerary
Holy $h!t, congrats for making it this far! LOL! It’s a lot of info – I know. Hang in there. Now that we’ve thoroughly prepared, here comes the fun part: sightseeing!
DAY ONE: The Golden Circle Tour
If your flight lands super early, as ours had, you have the option of taking a shuttle from the airport to the Blue Lagoon. Lots of travelers choose to hang out at the Blue Lagoon until hotel check-in hours become available. However, to maximize our time, we decided to hit the ground running. After picking up our rental car, we began making our way around a famous, tourist route coined the Golden Circle. Covering around 200 miles (300 kilometers), this area contains the most touristic and travel-related activities in Iceland. The drive, non-stop, is around 4 hours. With several worthwhile stops along the route, you will have a full day ahead of you. From Keflavik International Airport, the places of interest are as follows:
- Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park is where the the Silfra diving spot is located. According to many expert divers and diving enthusiasts, it is one of Iceland’s best-kept secrets. Submerged in fresh, 3 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius), glacial waters, the diving spot splits the American and European continental plates. It is the only place in the world where two tectonic plates are exposed above sea level and, at some points, are shallow enough to dive in between. It is some next-level, NatGeo $h!t. Spoiler alert, diving tours our expensive. However, walking the trench is definitely worth the visit, and it’s free! Finally, something fo-free, right!? There’s more.
- The Great Geysir (the original OG of geysers). Did you know that the English term “geyser” originally comes from the Icelandic word “Geysir”, meaning to gush? Neither did I (lol), but it’s cool! However infrequent, the chance to see a “gush” of boiling water blasting at 200 feet (66 meters) into the air is truly a sight to see. It is also quite touristy, and therefore, a good place to grab a souvenir, a quick meal or take a bathroom break. There is no cost for admission.
- Gullfoss Waterfalls is one of thousands of waterfalls in Iceland. Due to its 96 foot (32 meters) drop into a canyon, it is also one of the most impressive. Gullfoss kind of reminds me of Niagara Falls of the U.S. – Canadian border. The crevice is over 60 feet wide and utterly extraordinary. You may visit free of charge.
- Kerio is a volcanic crater lake resulting from an explosion in its center. The crater is approximately 180 feet (55 meters) deep and 560 feet (170 meters) wide. The lake itself is around 20 – 40 feet (7 – 14 meters) deep, depending on rainfall. There is a small admission fee of around $4.00 USD. Full disclosure, we never made it into Kerio. it was our last stop on the Golden Circle tour. By the time we had arrived, we were exhausted. We ended up falling asleep for a good two hours in the parking lot. Lame, I know – – best nap of my life (lol).
DAY TWO: Reykjavik City Centre Tour
So . . . Day one may have been a bit of an overkill. We had traveled overnight via airplane and then spent nearly the entire day, shortly after landing, driving around the Golden Circle. Needless to say, that next morning, we slept in.
Luckily for us, the capitol of Iceland is relatively small. At a glacial pace, you could walk and see all the main attractions within a few short hours. The country of Iceland has no military or mosquitoes, making it a very pleasant place to visit (lol). You have the option of purchasing a Reykjavik City Card, which grants you admission into almost all of the main attractions. We chose, instead, to just walk around. Reykjavik is exactly what I had imagined a modern, viking town to resemble. There are tons of great opportunities for insta-worthy photos without spending a dime. Check out Iceland’s official tourism site for additional things to do Reykjavik. Below is a short list of places we visited:
- Hallgrimskirkja Church. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. I don’t know how to pronounce the name of this church either (lol). It is Reykjavik’s main landmark. It is free to enter. However, for a small fee, or with use of your City Card, you can ascend the tower to get a bird’s eye view of the city.
- Harpa Concert Hall is a cultural arts center, whose design structure is, in my opinion, an architectural marvel.
- Reykjavik Old Harbor is this charming, colorful, little neighborhood near the harbor. We walked around for hours admiring the buildings, mural art, and taking a million pictures.
- Solar Sun Voyager is what appears to be a viking-esqe boat structure along the most stunning waterfront you’ll ever see. It’s also a great place to people watch and pinch yourself – like, ‘Am I really here?’
After a few hours exploring the city, this would be a great opportunity to recover before a night out bar hopping, or joining one of the many northern lights tours available. If you intend on renting a car, I supposed you could just venture out on your own guided by the Aurora Lights forecast. We, however, did not feel like thinking that much in the middle of night, so we ended up paying for a tour. It cost us around $55 USD per person, transportation and guides included. The tour even provided tripods and instructions on what settings to place your camera for best capturing the northern lights. It’s kind of an expensive tour (lol), but we thought it was worth it.
DAY THREE: Southeastern Coast of Iceland Tour
I hope you didn’t party too hard last night because after an early check-out, we are hitting the road. Be sure to pack your snacks and download some road trip music. We’ll be spending the majority of day three in the car. From Reykjavik, we’ll be visiting the following places of interest:
- Seljalandsfoss Waterfall is part of a river, whose origin reaches a glacier volcano. The falls are approximately 197 feet (60 meters) high. There is even a trail that leads to a small cave, where tourists can stand behind the waterfall. Caution: you may it wet, but it’s worth it!
- Skógafoss Waterfall is one of largest waterfalls in Iceland. The falls measure 200 feet (60 meters), with a width of 49 feet (15 meters). The spray from the waterfall produces a beautiful rainbow. Fun fact: the cliffs of the waterfall used to be the former coastline. It has since receded a little more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) away from the shore. Skógafoss is free to visit.
- Sólheimajökull Glacier is one of the most easily accessible glaciers from the capitol. It is free to walk up to the base of glacier, which took us around 10 minutes or so. If you’d like hike the glacier, there are dozens of tour companies to choose from. We chose not to because it would require more time than we had allotted; Just means we’ll have to go back!
- Solheimasandur Plane Wreck is an abandoned U.S. Navy plane that crashed in 1973. The plane ran out of fueled and crash landed on a black sand beach in the southern coast of Iceland. Thankfully, there were no casualties. The abandoned plane has since become a favorite tourist attraction. However, I should forewarn you. Cars are no longer allowed to drive up to the wreckage, so you will have to hike to the location. There is a designated, free parking lot just off Route 1. From the lot, the hike takes around 45 minutes each way to complete. Went spent around 3 hours at this attraction. If time is of the essence, you may want to consider skipping it.
- Reynisfjara Beach is located in the town of Vik and will be our last attraction for the day. Reynisfjara is a volcanic, black sand beach and is considered one of the most beautiful, non-tropical beaches in the world. Not far from shore lie these massive basalt sea stacks that look like miniature mountains. The cliffside also has these staircase-like, basalt columns that look like they could lead to Viking heaven – totally Instagram worthy.
If you have spare time, below are a few other places you might find compelling enough for a visit. Unfortunately, we’d run out of time and did not get a chance to stop by.
- Eldhraun Lava Field
- Fjardrargljufur Canyon
- Svínafellsjökull Glacier
- Fjallsarlon Glacier Lagoon
- Svartifoss Waterfall
DAY FOUR: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach & Blue Lagoon of Iceland
Just when you think Iceland couldn’t get anymore beautiful, experiencing Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach feels like starring at the face of God. The beauty of this magical place is beyond words. We woke up around 5:00 AM and drove an hour to our last most-northern attractions. Our hope was to arrive before the crowds, but can you believe, at 6:00 AM, there were already a few people there!? We even spotted a few wild seals playing with small icebergs floating in the bay. I have never felt so appreciative of our planet than at that moment. I wish I could relive that feeling on command, however bitter-sweet. Jökulsárlón is a stark reminder of the delicacy of our planet. The reason why we were seeing these massive icebergs broken off into the lagoon was not lost upon me. Jökulsárlón is essentially a grave yard for a glacier, that has been around for millions of years, melting rapidly due to global warming. Most of us live our lives in denial, disregarding how human behaviors are harming the planet at an alarming rate.
After spending just under two hours at Jökulsárlón and Diamond Beach, it was time to head back to our guesthouse, have breakfast, check-out, and then make the long journey back south to the Blue Lagoon – the last stop before our Iceland journey concludes.
Like everything else in Iceland, admission to the Blue Lagoon is over-priced. When I was planning this trip, I read lots of reviews on whether or not the Blue Lagoon would be worth my time and money. There are hundreds of natural, geothermal pools throughout Iceland that are much cheaper or even free. We decided to go for the simple reason that Iceland evoked fantasies of the northern lights and the Blue Lagoon. In my opinion, the Blue Lagoon is more of a spa. Visitation hours are staggered and must be pre-reserved. Once you are inside, you are welcome to stay for as long as you please. They are open every day, rain, snow or shine. Whether you agree or disagree, our justification was based on the following query: Would you visit New York City for the first time and not visit the iconic Empire State Building, even though the Chrysler Building is probably a better choice? . . . Obviously, it’s your trip and, therefore, your decision. We enjoyed ourselves. It was a great way to end our trip, and I would totally visit again.
Final Thoughts . . .
Iceland was a dream come true. This experience was the realization that nothing is out of reach – NOTHING. The journey may seem difficult, but it is not impossible. I truly believe that the universe rewards courage and faith. You can do anything you want. A dream is never too big. Repeat that to yourself over and over.
I hope that you find this blog resourceful in preparation for trip to Iceland. I want to hear from you. Tell me what you enjoyed the most and/or the least about Iceland. Did you find this guide helpful? Are there any thoughts or recommendations you’d like to add? Comment below.
Have an incredible trip! I hope to see you someday somewhere in the world. Happy travels!