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Last week, WOW Air offered $99 one-way fares from Boston and Baltimore to Iceland, and now that they’ve announced plans for year-round service from Baltimore, we expect more great deals to come. If you snagged one of those cheap fares, there’s no need to spend hours researching your way around the land of fire and ice. Let new TPG Contributor Katie Hammel—a self-confessed Iceland addict—help you make the most of your time in her favorite country.
Low-cost carrier WOW Air flies from Boston (BOS) and Baltimore (BWI), arriving at Iceland’s one and only international airport, Keflavik (KEF). The country’s (more expensive) national carrier, IcelandAir, flies from hubs that include BOS, JFK, Washington, D.C. (IAD), Seattle (SEA), Denver (DEN) and Toronto (YYZ) (with seasonal service from seven additional airports), while Delta offers seasonal summer service from JFK that The Points Guy flew back in 2013. Domestic flights leave from the Reykjavik city airport (RKV) to several other locations via AirIceland.
KEF is located south of Reykjavik in the southwest corner of Iceland. Aside from rental cars (most major international car rental brands have offices at KEF, as well as in downtown Reykjavik), there are two ways to get from the airport to the city center: an expensive taxi ride (about $100 US) or a comfortable bus, either of which takes about 45 minutes.
The Flybus departs KEF 30-40 minutes after flights arrive and stops at Hotel Viking in Hafnarfjörður, Aktu Taktu in Garðabær, and Reykjavik’s BSÍ Bus Terminal, an easy walk to the city center. Winter prices are $38 round-trip/$21 one-way; summer fares increase to $41 round-trip/$23 one-way. Children under 11 ride free. There’s also a combo ticket that allows you to stop for a while to soak in Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon (more on that later) before you go into the city.
Note: Though Iceland’s 2008 economic crash made visiting here cheaper, alcohol (particularly liquor) is expensive and only available at government-run stores that operate on limited hours. Stock up at the airport Duty-Free shop located in baggage claim–I’d recommend the Icelandic Reyka vodka, made with glacier water filtered through lava rocks.
Two-thirds of Iceland’s population lives in the capital, and that’s where you’ll find most of the hotels, shops, dining, and nightlife options in the country. The downtown core–postcode 101–is compact and walkable, so any hotel in the area will be perfectly situated for exploring on foot. WiFi is nearly always free at Icelandic hotels, so go ahead and bring along all your electronics.
In Reykjavik, the largest chain of hotels is owned by IcelandAir, the country’s flagship airline. Their Reykjavik Marina hotel is a solid choice near the downtown harbor, with quirky decor, a trendy bar, and winter rates that start at around $180 per night. The Hilton Reykjavik Nordica is slightly less convenient–you’ll need to walk 25 minutes or take a bus five minutes to the heart of the city—and rooms start at around $170 or 40,000 HHonors points per night.
Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa cardholders can get one night free when redeeming for two or more nights at the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel ($180 or 57,000 GoldPoints a night) or the Radisson Blu 1919 ($231 or 44,000 Gold Points night). On the lower end of the price spectrum, the Best Western Hotel Reykjavik is located close to the action downtown and offers rooms as low as $91 or 28,000 Best Western Rewards points per night.
Independently run hotels, hostels, small inns and guesthouses—such as the cozy Our House Guesthouse—abound, and many provide extras like free breakfast or a guest kitchen that can help you save money.
Outside of the capital region, town populations quickly dwindle to fewer than three or four thousand people and accommodation options are limited; you’ll find more farmhouses and bed and breakfasts than hotels. Icelandic Farm Holidays works with local innkeepers and farmers to provide accommodation in these bed and breakfasts or self-catering accommodations throughout the countryside. Book ahead, or choose the self-drive package which includes vouchers that can be used at dozens of options around the country.
Camper vans are also an increasingly popular way to see the more remote corners of Iceland. Both Happy Campers and Kuku Campers offer camper van rentals, which allow freedom while saving the cost of a hotel.
Icelandic cuisine has a bad reputation, thanks to traditional dishes like grilled puffin and whale, boiled sheep’s head, and the infamous rotten shark that Tony Bourdain called “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he’s ever eaten. But there’s more to modern Icelandic food, like the best lobster you’ll ever taste, delicately fried fresh cod, hearty rye bread, and incredibly tender free-range lamb served as filets, in soups, and even in hot dogs. (Yes, hot dogs.)
If there were a national food of Iceland, it would be the hot dog. Topped with raw and fried onions, sweet ketchup, brown mustard, and remoulade, they are addictive, cheap (about $3), and found at corner stands and gas stations around the country. The most famous hot dog stand is Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, located in the Reykjavik harbor and open late (until 2 a.m. on weekdays and 4:30 a.m. on weekends).
Check out Dill to sample creative New Nordic cuisine, visit Lækjarbrekka for heavenly lamb and lobster dishes in a romantic setting, and try the organic, healthy options at Fish and Chips. Lively Tapas Barrin serves an eclectic mix of Spanish and Icelandic dishes in small portions and the unassuming harborfront Saegreifinn (Sea Baron) is famous for its rich lobster soup and grilled-to-order skewers of fish.
Cozy fish-centric Thir Frakkar whips up a dish perfect for cold nights: plokkfiskur is boiled whitefish hashed with butter, potatoes, and onions, then topped with a creamy béarnaise sauce.
There are few fast food chains in Iceland so if you’re on a smaller budget, head to the Bónus grocery store, opt for pizza at Eldsmiðjan, or try the noodles from Noodle Station.
Reykjavik is a cosmopolitan city on a modest scale. Get the lay of the land from the top floor of the Hallgrímskirkja church, which offers a view over the harbor and the colorful houses of downtown. To learn more about early life in Iceland, head to the Settlement Museum to see an excavated 1,200-year old Viking longhouse or visit the Saga Museum, which houses a collection of wax figures that depict the oldest stories (or sagas) of the Icelanders.
Once you’ve learned about the past, get a taste of modern life at one of the city’s dozen swimming pools. Swimming pools are important social centers for Icelanders and admission is cheap at just $5. Vesturbæjarlaug is open year round and includes a heated lap pool, sauna and steam rooms, and four steaming hot pots.
Many of southwest Iceland’s most popular sights are an easy day trip from Reykjavik. Soak in the neon blue mineral-rich waters of the Blue Lagoon, take a ride on the stout, surefooted Icelandic horse, go whale watching from the Reykjavik harbor, or even descend 400 feet into a dormant volcano.
The most popular day trip follows a route called the Golden Circle. It includes Geysir, the OG of geysers; Gullfoss, a massive multi-tiered waterfall; and Þingvellir National Park, the site of Iceland’s first Parliament and the place where the Eurasian and North American continental plates are slowly growing apart. Visitors can walk in the rift between the two plates or even dive into it or snorkel above it (even in winter) in the crystal-clear water of the Silfra fissure. Other year-round activities include glacier walks and cave tours. From September to March you might catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights up above, while in June and July the sun shines for nearly 24 hours.
In summer, hiking enthusiasts can head to Vatnajökull National Park or the remote Landmannalaugar area for day or overnight trips into Iceland’s uninhabited backcountry. Take a (long) day trip through the south coast and you’ll find endless black sand beaches, towering waterfalls like Seljalandsfoss, striking basalt rock formations off Iceland’s southernmost point at Dyrhólaey, and the beautiful glacier lagoon at Jökulsárlón.
With more time, keep going and you’ll hit the East Fjords, home to small fishing villages, a large reindeer population, and the charming guesthouse Silfurberg, a working sheep farm. Circle around the north side of the island and stop for a few days in Husavik, the whale-watching capital of Iceland.
Book a rustic cabin at Kaldbaks-kot Cottages and explore the north’s main attractions like Dettifoss waterfall, the Mývatn Nature Baths (a less crowded version of the Blue Lagoon) and the geological wonder of Lake Mývatn, whose landscape is so otherworldly it’s where Apollo 11 astronauts practiced their moonwalks.
Or head even farther, into Iceland’s most remote northwest corner, the Westfjords. Here, spaghetti-noodle roads loop in and out of deep fjords, tiny fishing villages cling to the coast, and waterfalls seem to outnumber people. Spend your days exploring the region’s untouched beauty then snuggle up each night in the homey Gentle Space guest apartments in Ísafjörður, the area’s largest town (population: 2,600).
Iceland is roughly the size of Kentucky and you could cover the 828-mile Ring Road that encircles the country in less than 24 hours if you didn’t stop… but you’re going to want to stop. A lot.
You’ll want to stop to take pictures of the hundreds of waterfalls that tumble down from the mountains, to make friends with the adorably fuzzy horses, to walk on windswept black sand beaches or search for hidden hot springs. Sometimes you’ll stop to simply wonder at how big such a small country can feel and how so much beauty can be packed into such a tiny space.
Especially at WOW Air’s flash-sale fare of $99 each way—let’s hope those keep coming!
Have you traveled to Iceland, like The Points Guy did in 2013? What were your favorite things about your trip?