Sorry for our long delay in posting, we’ve just returned from the first travel-hacked trip to Mars:
Land near Lake Myvtan in Northern Iceland looks just as open, empty, and red as Mars!
Just kidding, we went to Iceland and saved a ton of money leveraging all that we learned from Travel Miles 101. Yet again, our travel savings are north of $1,500 dollars. Here is what we did, how we saved, and how you might be able to use some of our tips on your own trip:
Epic Ring Road Iceland Itinerary
-Specific tips to maximize your experience and help you save-
We just returned from an awesome, awe-inspiring trip to Iceland. For those of you thinking of traveling to Iceland we have some tips that might help you make the most of your vacation!
Our trip was taken in May 2017, considered shoulder season in Iceland. We prefer to travel during this time for three reasons:
1) the weather was improving and great for hiking
2) there were fewer tourists than in the high season, making navigation and hot spots less populated
3) pricing hasn’t reached peak levels given the moderate tourist levels.
While the weather was improved, it was still Iceland. Keep in mind that when you travel there the weather can be volatile no matter the season. You can easily experience multiple seasons in a single day, and that we did on multiple occasions. For this reason, you need to be prepared to be somewhat flexible in for plans and prepared for what Iceland is going to throw your way.
Before we get into our itinerary, here are some helpful tips to help you have a smooth stress-free vacation to beautiful Iceland:
- Credit Cards / Gas
Using credit cards in Iceland is easy; we used ours for every transaction and did not pay for anything in local currency (Icelandic Krona). This made it very convenient and the exchange rate was pretty straightforward in May 2017 (roughly 100 Krona per $1 USD).
Make sure your credit card does not charge fees for foreign/international transactions. Many don’t, but it is wise to confirm before your trip. You should also let your credit card company know that you will be traveling internationally (and what dates) so they don’t freeze your spending while in Iceland!
One of the most important things you need to do with your credit card is to set a PIN number associated with it. This is one of the functions of the new chip cards. Pretty much all over Iceland, the gas pumps took credit cards, but for international visitors (like us) it required that we enter a PIN number with our chip card. No PIN, No gas! We did not do this beforehand (oops!) but, found a workaround at N1 stations.
One of the most prevalent gas stations in Iceland is the N1. Great gas station, many of which (not all) come with a restaurant / shop of some sort inside along with updated road conditions. Inside you can buy a prepaid gas card in various increments (roughly $10/$30/$50 increments) and use that at the pump outside. Naturally this is much less convenient than being able to fully fill up without having leftover krona on your prepaid gas card. However, we bought several prepaid gas cards along the way at N1 locations (sometimes with maps.me described below), and they always seemed to be in reach.
NOTE: You will also want to fill up your tank as much as possible. Some days we would be driving for hours before seeing a gas station. If you have a half a tank or less and see a gas station, it is time to fill-up.
Oh you know, just the glacier behind our hotel…
The Ring Road is a simple drive on the perimeter of the country that offers breathtaking views at every turn. We made several stops for hikes, lodging, etc. along the road
Instead of getting an Icelandic SIM card, using cellular data, etc. we went old school with a couple hard-copy maps and printed Google directions to each stop. However, this couldn’t help us if we made a wrong turn (a couple times the sign we needed was blocked by another vehicle) or in one case when Google Maps was wrong (which did happen).
Our saving grace was Maps.me. We didn’t need it often, but the couple times we did absolutely saved us from getting lost, potentially to back-track, or just simply ditch whatever stop we had hoped to make.
Maps.me is a free app you download to your phone. You then select it to download Iceland (before you leave for your trip when you are on wi-fi) and then you can zoom in and put pins at each of your desired locations. We literally pinned every hike and lodging we stayed at. While in Iceland, my phone was on airplane mode to make sure I didn’t get hit with any roaming charges, etc. Maps.me allowed us to see where we were the couple times we got misguided and showed us how to get back on track.
I was shocked it could actually tell where we were when in airplane mode. Nonetheless, Maps.me was absolutely crucial the couple times we needed it and was completely free. It also allowed up to zoom in when we were near a town to determine where the closest N1 gas station was for our aforementioned prepaid gas card needs.
- Parking into the wind.
Icelandic wind is no joke. Apparently it is third most windy country in the World. When we picked up our rental car, they told us to park into the wind (so that it would be difficult to open your door). The opposite could be detrimental. The wind can be so strong it can literally rip the door of the hinge. Of course, you don’t always have that option to park into the wind. Simply hold on tight and be ready for the wind to gust at any moment. Just something to be cautious over.
- Bring Food / Buy Groceries / Eating Out
Iceland food is very expensive (easily $15-$20 per person for lunch or $35-$50+ per person for dinner) depending on your tastes. That shouldn’t come as a surprise given it is an island near the arctic. Food needs to get shipped in, as goes gasoline needed to transport the food around the country.
Nonetheless, check the Iceland Customs and Border Patrol website for permitted food. We went to Iceland largely for the hikes, not the food (okay, well their famous hot dogs were on our list) and bought food in the U.S. and stored it in our checked bags. This will save you SIGNIFICANTLY on costs. I think each person is permitted to bring 3.5 pounds of food, avoiding the obvious items, raw meats etc. (again check online). We brought peanut butter, jelly (utensils & Tupperware), multiple bags of trail mix, almonds, a dozen tuna packets for dinners, cheerios, power bars, etc.
Upon arrival in Iceland we went to Bonus (big yellow sign and pink pig on it), which is Icelandic’s discount grocery store. There we picked up the breads and wraps for our sandwich making, additional snacks/treats, and some bananas and apples. This served a majority of our meals (breakfast was largely covered by our lodging).
-Groceries packed in our checked bags: $40.00
-Groceries while in Iceland: $33.92
-Meals out: $78.51
That’s right, it cost us more to eat two meals at the airport, one meal in country, and an ice cream date than it did to buy groceries that fed us for the rest of the week.
- Car Rental
We rented from Cars Iceland and had a good experience. While I can’t compare it to others, they seem to provide newer cars and provide additional insurance as part of their price. Iceland comes with certain challenges you might not be accustomed to (gravel roads, sand/ash, etc) and as such we went with the full insurance package. We picked up our small automatic Toyota Yaris with less than 6,000 kilometers on it. It came with heated seats and enough zip to survive the mountain passes, etc. We did go much slower than recommended on the gravel roads to make sure we avoided rock damage as much as possible. Unless you plan on going inland to the marked F-roads we believe a car of this size is perfectly acceptable over a larger more expensive and less gas efficient SUV. Gas is EXPENSIVE in Iceland! Think $8/$9 a gallon.
- Get OFF Ring Road for a short distance to avoid some gravel roads
The majority of the Ring Road is paved and easy to drive (even with high winds). However, at one junction in East Iceland (along the East Fjords) you have a choice to stay on Route 1 and go inland (outside Breiðdalsvík and on the way to Egilsstaðir) or stay on the coast with Route 96, connecting to Route 92, which meets back up with Route 1. We chose to stay on Route 1, the weather was fine and the first part of the journey was enjoyable.
There were some gravel roads, but we were able to manage them slowly. However, at one point the fog and winds significantly picked up and this was while going up and over a mountain with gravel roads. Visibility was just a few feet and the roads were very narrow. This was truly a scary drive and we were extremely fortunate nobody was either behind us or coming ahead. Maybe we had bad luck with the weather at that moment. Nonetheless, I would highly consider the connecting Route 96 to Route 92 even though it will take you a little out of the way.
When we did our research many sites just said “oh, you can stay on 1 or take 96.” For our purposes, if we had known this stretch of Route 1 was gravel we likely would have opted to take 96 instead to spare our little rental the hassle of trying to get over the unpaved roads.
Sitting on the edge, watching the water fall, and loving every minute!
Iceland Tips aside, here is a 7-day Ring Road Itinerary that could be used as a guide with your individual planning. Note: we arrived bright and early (in the rental car shortly after 8 am) from the U.S. and had a FULL day to start exploring the beautiful country:
- Krysuvik-seltun – geothermal area
- Reykjadalur Hot Springs
- Bonus Grocery Store
- Seljalandsfoss / Gljufuafoss – beautiful waterfalls
- Skogafoss Waterfall, plus trails (at the top of the waterfall and continuing back)
- Dyrholaey – top of the cliff
- Reynisfjara Beach
- Fjaorargljufur (canyon)
- Skaftafell National Park (Vatnajokull)
- Svartifoss (part of Skaftafll) / other hikes
- Jokulsarlon Lagoon
- Hengifoss (if there is time, this was the instance where Google Maps led us astray and Maps.Me saved us from missing this amazing hike)
- Asbyrgi Canyon – NOTE: the roads to get here were closed in May 2017. So we would recommend checking to see if the roads are open. If the roads are not open to Asbyrgi Canyon – explore the Myvatn area:
- Hverarond/Hverastrond Sulphur Springs
- Grotagjarvegur cave
Hverastrond Sulphur Springs
- Explore Myvatn (list above, unless you explored yesterday)
- Explore Akureyri (second largest city in Iceland)
- Glymur (longer hike). Part of the hike involved crossing a river that you had to navigate on foot while holding onto a wire cable. The water was “refreshingly” cold.
- Start Golden Circle – Þingvellir. (we stayed between Þingvellir and Geysir/Strokkur)
- Continue Golden Circle:
- Geysir (strokkur)
- Explore Reykjavik
- Travel during shoulder season
- Bring your own food and avoid dining out. Many people travel to Iceland for the breathtaking views, not the food.
- We used the Travel Cash Back rewards from the Barclay’s Arrival Card ( we each have one) and a Capital One Venture card to earn $1,524.97 back on our travel costs associated with the trip (total cost was just about $3,000). The majority of our travel costs came from hotels, our car rental, and airfare. There are few chain hotels making it difficult to save on lodging.
- We didn’t find a way to use points for our Icelandic Air tickets and with a direct flight option available from Orlando ( a short drive from Tampa) we jumped at the chance to go on our dream trip.
- All of our hikes and stops were FREE. We could have gone to the Blue Lagoon or taken a Whale Watching Tour, but we found other alternatives that were really fun and free. Our only costs were hotels, groceries, gas, and two excellent hot dogs and farm fresh ice cream 🙂
- Feel free to message us if you have any questions or comments!
**Update: We finally made a video of our trip: