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Our “Layover Lowdown” series feature airports and destinations around the world where you’re likely to be stuck between flights, offering tips on navigating and spending time in the airport, as well as some things to do if you find yourself with time to explore the nearby city. TPG Contributor Katie Hammel (writer of our popular WOW Air $99 Fare Guide to Iceland) guides us through Reykjavik’s award-winning Keflavik International Airport.
A three-time winner of the Airports Council International (ACI) Best Airport in Europe award (most recently for 2014), Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport (KEF) is modern, compact, and easy to navigate. The airport is also in the midst of a renovation, expected to be complete in 2015, which will add several more shopping and dining options.
There are two levels to the Leifur Eiriksson Terminal; Level 2’s main departures hall contains several dining and shopping areas and connects to gates on Level 2 (gates 8-15, which mostly serve European destinations) and Level 1 (gates 25-35, which mostly serve US and Canada destinations) via a long hallway lined with gates 1-6. There are fewer services once you’re in the gate areas on Level 1 and Level 2 (and these areas can get quite crowded during peak times), so it’s best to do most of your shopping and dining in the main hall.
Nearly all domestic flights, as well as flights to Greenland and the Faroe Islands, operate out Reykjavik’s domestic airport, roughly 30 miles (50 kms) away. Plan on needing about three hours to make a connection to the domestic airport from Keflavik, or vice versa.
At the Airport
As with mostly everywhere else in Iceland, WiFi service at the airport is free. Pre-security near the check-in desks on Level 1, there’s a travel agent and a Tourist Information Centre, mailbox, and customs office where you’ll need to stop if you expect a VAT refund of more than 5,000 ISK/$37 USD; visitors who have tax-free forms (provided by the vendor) can claim a refund on tax paid on qualifying items, so before you leave, head to the VAT refund center post-security on Level 2 if you’ve done any shopping in Iceland.
The Level 2 main hall also contains a play area for kids and the Icelandair Saga Lounge, which has comfortable seating, a guest shower, plenty of snacks, and self-service wine and liquor.
Luggage storage is located outside the airport, a 500-meter (1,640-foot) walk from the entrance at Level 1 (behind the Smári Airport Hotel, next to Geysir and Sixt car rentals). The office is open from 5am-5pm in low season and from 5am-9pm May 15-Sept 15. The cost is 5€ (about $5 USD) per day for the first seven days. If you’re headed to the Blue Lagoon and traveling with a smaller case, you can use one of the luggage lockers there.
Luggage storage is also available at the BSÍ Bus Terminal and at the domestic airport.
The tax-free shopping options at Keflavik emphasize Icelandic souvenirs and made-in-Iceland goods. There’s a 66°NORTH for outdoor gear that’s fit for the coldest Icelandic winters; Blue Lagoon for skincare from the country’s most famous hot spring; Eymundsson for English and Icelandic books and magazines; and Inspired by Iceland and the Iceland Gift Store Rammagerðin for woolen goods and other Icelandic crafts. There’s also a Duty-Free Fashion store, Optical Studio, Elko electronics store, and, of course, a large Duty-Free shop.
Pre-security, a small 10-11 convenience store, Joe and Juice café and a Kaffitar coffee shop (Iceland’s answer to Starbucks), provide the basics. Post-security, in the main hall on Level 2, there’s large NORD self-service café offering coffee, soft drinks, beer and wine, and an assortment of snacks and sandwiches (try the Icelandic hot dogs) as well as another Kaffitar, Bistro Atlantic, and Panorama Bar with a view over the runways.
Both departure gate areas also have NORD locations for any last-minute items.
Travel to the City Center
Keflavik is located about 45 minutes from downtown Reykjavik and unfortunately, there’s no public transit connecting the two. Two companies offer shuttle buses that run frequently, departing from the airport every 30-40 minutes after flights arrive and returning to the airport from the city every 30-60 minutes.
The Airport Express offers hotel pickup starting at around $32 round-trip/$17 one way, with service every hour in winter and every half hour in summer. The Flybus stops at Hotel Viking in Hafnarfjörður, Aktu Taktu in Garðabær, and Reykjavik’s BSÍ Bus Terminal, an easy walk to the city center. Prices are $38 round-trip/$21 one-way in winter and $41 round-trip/$23 one-way in summer high-season. Children under 11 ride free.
The FlyBus also offers a combo ticket to visit the Blue Lagoon on your way into the city, or for shorter layovers, there’s a transfer from the airport to the Blue Lagoon and back so you can get in a quick soak in between flights.
A taxi ride from the airport to the city will cost about $100.
If You Have Half a Day
Reykjavik is delightfully compact, so it’s easy to see the major sights with just a few hours. Make Hallgrímskirkja church your first stop. Pay a few kronur to ride the elevator to the top floor observation deck to see the whole city spread out below you, the colorful houses of downtown stretching in neat rows towards the bay, and the (usually snow-capped) Mt Esja across the water. Stroll down Laugavegur street, the city’s main commercial street, and browse its mix of souvenir shops and upscale boutiques.
Check out the Settlement Museum, built around an excavated 1,200-year old Viking longhouse, to learn about the early settlers of Iceland, or visit the Saga Museum, to understand how the country’s early tradition of storytelling helped preserve its history. Wander around the harbor, where you can hop on a whale-watching cruise, or stop for some organic cod at Fish n’ Chips or a hearty bowl of lobster soup at the Seabaron.
Line up with the locals (and plenty of tourists) for a hot dog with all the fixings—raw and fried onions, brown mustard and sweet ketchup—at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur or admire the bay view from the Harpa opera house. If there’s room in your belly, fill up on a dish of tender braised Icelandic lamb from Laekjarbrekka or indulge in a plate of traditional plokkfiskur, a fish hash topped with rich Bearnaise sauce, from Thir Frakkar.
If money isn’t a concern, splurge on a helicopter tour, which can cover in two hours what it would take you a full day to see on the ground. Tours depart throughout the day in good weather; opt for a grand tour of the southwest’s geothermal landscapes or go for a quick sightseeing flight over the city.
If You Have a Whole Day
With a full day, you can see a surprising amount of Iceland’s diverse landscapes; though it packs a punch, Iceland is only the size of the state of Kentucky. Rent a car and hit the Ring Road that encircles the island, or head into the city for an organized day trip.
The most popular day trip from Reykjavik is the Golden Circle, a route that includes Geysir, the site of the geyser for which all are named. Geysir no longer erupts but another one several feet away reliably puts on a spectacular show. There’s also Gullfoss, one of the country’s most beautiful and impressive waterfalls, and Þingvellir National Park. The site of Iceland’s first Parliament, Þhingevllir is also popular for being the meeting point of the Eurasian and North American continental plates. The two plates are slowly growing apart and at Þhingevllir, visitors can walk in between the rift or even dive into it or snorkel above it in a fissure filled with crystal clear glacier meltwater that’s filtered through ancient lava rocks.
If you’d rather stick close to the city, there’s plenty more to do. Unleash your inner Viking with a photo shoot at Mink Viking Portrait, learn about modern Icelandic cuisine with a cooking class at Salt Eldhus, go for a ride on the adorable Icelandic horse (notable for its unique fifth gait, the smooth and fast tölt), soak your coach-class pains away in one of the city’s geothermally-heated pools, or descend 400 feet into a dormant volcano that’s located just 30 minutes outside of Reykjavik.
If You Have the Night
Icelandair offers passengers traveling from the US to Europe, and vice versa, the chance to stop over in Iceland for up to seven days at no cost (must be booked when trip is ticketed), so why not stay at least a night—or a few?
There is no hotel connected to the airport, but the Smári Airport Hotel is within walking distance, just across the parking lot, and offers basic rooms, free WiFi and parking, and complimentary breakfast, with rates starting at around $120 per night . There are a few other options in the town of Keflavik (6kms away) but most of Iceland’s population lives in the capital, and that’s where most of the tourist infrastructure is found.
A short walk from the Parliament and City Hall, the Kvosin Downtown Hotel has a lively bar, complimentary breakfast, and comfortable loft-style rooms with kitchenettes. The Radisson Blu Saga Hotel ($180 or 57,000 GoldPoints a night) or the Radisson Blu 1919 ($231 or 44,000 Gold Points night) are both well-located in the city center and the Best Western Hotel Reykjavik, with rooms as low as $91 or 28,000 Best Western Rewards points per night, is a good budget option downtown. The Hilton Reykjavik Nordica is a bit farther out from the action, about 25 minutes by foot or a short bus ride. Rates start at around $170 or 40,000 HHonors points per night.
Planning a trip to Iceland? Check and see if cheap fares are still available on WOW Air!