Iceland trip-planning from A to Z: Glaciers, geothermal spas and lava caves

Sep 25, 2019

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Iceland has been an extremely popular tourist spot in recent years, and it is easy to see why: The landscape is like nothing you’ve seen before, with beautiful waterfalls, numerous glaciers and active volcanoes. With a wealth of outdoor activities paired with a rich nightlife, there is something to draw all types of travelers. Those looking for luxury and relaxation will find that, too, at the many geothermal spas. Combine all of that with flights that ring in at less than six hours from some parts of the U.S., and even less for Canada and Europe, and you’ve got the recipe for tourists to flock.

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Chasing waterfalls — and rainbows — at "home" in Iceland. Photo by Roberto Serrini.
Chasing waterfalls — and rainbows — in Iceland. (Photo by Roberto Serrini)

How to get to Iceland

Although Iceland is a relatively small country, you can actually fly nonstop to it from 19 airports in the United States and Canada. (Note: Some of the routes are only available seasonally.) For flights from North America, you’ll fly into Keflavik Airport (KEF), which puts you about 45 minutes from Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik.

To get from the airport to the city center, the most popular options include Flybus, renting a car or taking a Blue Lagoon bus if you plan on making a pit stop at a geothermal spa on your way.

Taxis or private transfers from the airport to the city center are also available, but are very expensive.

While you do not need a car while you are in Reykjavik, if you are planning on visiting areas outside of the city (which I highly suggest ), a car is recommended. There are many tours you can take instead, but I personally prefer to be on my own schedule, especially since driving in Iceland is incredibly easy.

Related: How to get to Iceland on points and miles

Nonstop flights from the U.S. and their originating cities include:

  • Delta: New York (JFK) and seasonally from Minneapolis (MSP)
  • United: New York (EWR)
  • Icelandair: Anchorage, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York (JFK), New York (EWR), Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. (IAD), Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Orlando, Denver, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver
  • American Airlines: Dallas (DFW) (shifting to PHL in 2020)
  • Air Canada: Montreal and Toronto

WOW air may also soon join this list. You may remember that WOW airline collapsed back in May 2019. It looks like the company is trying to make a comeback. The first (returned/new) route may be from Washington-Dulles.

Unfortunately, redeeming miles to get to Iceland isn’t as easy as many other European destinations, especially if you are looking to fly nonstop. If you are in New York, Dallas, Montreal or Toronto, you can redeem miles much easier on a U.S.-based airline (or if you are open to a flight with a layover).

For Icelandair flights, you are pretty much limited to using Alaska Airline Mileage Plan miles as your only redemption option (unless you have miles in Icelandair’s own Saga Club loyalty program). Flights are priced one-way and cost 30,000 miles in economy and 50,000 miles in business class (Saga class). With Alaska Airline miles hard to earn and taxes and fees being quite high on this redemption, you might actually be better off paying for the fare with a credit card that rewards you with fixed value points that can then be redeemed for the amount spent. For example, pay with your Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card — as long as the purchase codes as travel on your statement, you can erase the charge at a rate of 1 cent per mile.

Also note that at the time of publication, Alaska Airlines had temporarily removed Icelandair redemptions from its website due to a technical glitch. It hopes to get that functionality back online as soon as possible.

Where to stay in Reykjavik

The majority of tourists stick to Reykjavik and the areas directly outside of the city in a two- to three-hour driving radius. To see this area of the country, most visitors do one of two things: 1. Base themselves in an accommodation in Reykjavik and embark on day trips, or 2. Check in to different accommodations every day or two, based on the areas they are visiting.

When I went to Iceland I based myself in Reykjavik for a day at the beginning and a few days at the end, and then stayed at two different hotels in the middle of my journey so there was no backtracking.

Radisson Blu 1919 Hotel

The Radisson Blu 1919 Hotel is right in the city center and while it is a good option to redeem your points, it’s in a location that can get quite loud. For those staying over the weekend, it is close to the nightclubs and the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand –something to keep in mind if you or your kids are light sleepers. This property costs 70,000 Radisson points a night for a standard room (two guests) or 105,000 points a night for a premium room (three guests).

The Radisson Blu 1919 Hotel. Photo courtesy of Carlson Rezidor.
The Radisson Blu 1919 Hotel (Photo courtesy of Carlson Rezidor)

I stayed at this property during a trip to Iceland, and while the location was ideal for exploring Reykjavik, I personally preferred my stay at the other Radisson property — the Radisson Blu Saga — which is slightly outside the heart of the city.

Theres a nice privacy wall between the bed and living area. Photo courtesy of Booking.com)
Theres a nice privacy wall between the bed and living area. (Photo courtesy of Booking.com)

I stayed at the Radisson Blu Saga at the end of our trip and used it as our home base for exploring sites a few hours north of Reykjavik. The hotel costs a significantly lower number of points (44,000 points for a Standard room and 66,000 points for a Business Class Room), parking is easy and complimentary (which came in handy since we had a rental car) and there are no party-goers right outside your bedroom. In the evening, we took an inexpensive taxi into Reykjavik (if you wanted to skip a cab, it is about a 20-minute walk). I was able to book a standard room at both properties using points and the hotel happily brought in a rollaway bed for no extra cost. I just emailed the properties in advance.

Related: How to get to Iceland on points and miles

The Radisson Rewards Premier Visa Signature card is offering the largest welcome bonus we’ve seen thus far. You’ll earn 120,000 points after you spend $3,000 in the first 90 days. With this offer alone, you’ll get at least one night free at the Radisson Blu 1919, or you can use points plus cash to reduce your out-of-pocket cost. Alternatively, since the Radisson Blu Saga is significantly fewer points, this can get you at least two free nights and even close to a third night with additional points earned. You can also earn a free night certificate (up to three nights) after you spend $10,000 on your card within each cardmember year. Information not provided by US Bank, collected independently by TPG. 

101 Hotel and ION City Hotel

There are two Marriott properties right in Reykjavik — the 101 Hotel and the ION City Hotel. The hotels are in close proximity to one another (both right in the heart of Reykjavik) and cost the same number of points (60,000 points a night for a standard redemption).

The biggest difference is that the 101 Hotel property offers a queen bed on a standard points rate where the ION City Hotel offers a double bed on points. With both properties being so small (101 Hotel only has 48 rooms and 1ON City Hotel only has 18 rooms), award availability is limited and the reason you might pick one hotel over the other could purely come down to which hotel is available. Unfortunately, both hotels are capped at two guests per room, even when paying for a room with cash. The ION City Hotel does allow a rollaway bed in its suites, so if you are traveling with one child, I suggest contacting the hotel directly to see if it will allow three guests in the room.

(Photo courtesy of 101 Hotel)
(Photo courtesy of 101 Hotel)

If you are looking to redeem your Marriott points but are willing to stay outside of the city, there is another Design Hotel near the Golden Circle (a 186-mile sightseeing route connecting Reykjavik with southern Iceland). The ION Adventure Hotel costs the same 60,000 points a night as the other Marriott properties mentioned (for standard redemptions), but comes with a natural spa with sauna and outdoor hot pool.

(Photo courtesy of Ion Adventure Hotel)
(Photo courtesy of Ion Adventure Hotel)

If you are low on points, both the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card and Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card can help you increase your point balance.

Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Centre

The Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik is just a few blocks away from the main street in town, Laugavegur, which makes it a great location for visitors. This particular hotel is designed with local Icelandic themes that can be seen in most areas of the property, from the lobby to the hotel rooms.

One huge plus of this hotel is that breakfast, with locally inspired food, is free to all — no elite status needed. This is actually the case for all Canopy properties. You’ll also receive complimentary bike rentals, which could come in handy if you are staying during the warmer months.

A trendy eatery at the Canopy Hilton in Reykjavik, Iceland. Photo courtesy of Canopy Hotels.
A trendy eating area at the Canopy Hilton in Reykjavik, Iceland. (Photo courtesy of Canopy Hotels)

One thing to note is that this hotel is made up of many interconnected buildings, which means getting to your room can be a maze at times. If you have small kids or have mobility issues, this could be slightly challenging.

The number of points required for a free night stay depends on the season, but the typical range is between 50,000 and 70,000 points a night. If you are planning on using Reykjavik as your base and staying for five or more nights and have Hilton status, you’ll receive your fifth night free on all point reservations. If you do not already have status, all four Hilton credit cards will automatically grant you Hilton status, including the no-annual-fee Hilton Honors Card from American Express (see rates & fees).

Silica Hotel

The Silica Hotel falls into the “unique and luxurious” category. This property is located at the Blue Lagoon and rooms start around $550 per night. This is an ideal retreat for couples who are looking for a private lagoon experience and to be pampered with spa treatments. Or, if you are looking for an ultra-luxury experience, you can always splurge and stay at the Retreat Hotel with rates starting at a whopping $1,283 per night.

Since your typical hotel points cannot be redeemed for a stay at either property, this is the perfect opportunity to redeem flexible points, such as Capital One miles or Barclaycard Arrival miles. With both of these programs, you are redeeming at 1 cent per mile, so a $600 a night room, for example, will require 60,000 miles per night. These flexible points can also be used throughout Iceland while exploring areas outside of the city center. For example, we stayed at the Icelandair Hotel in Vik (in the South Coast) and used my Capital One Venture miles to pay for the hotel. (Tip: If you are looking for just a clean place to sleep in Vik, the Icelandair Hotel was a great find).

Airbnb

Airbnb’s are very popular throughout Rejkavik, as they are typically less expensive than hotels and allow more space for families. Outside of the city center they also allow for some unique experiences. Here are few ways to reduce your overall cost and maximize your your points and miles:

  • If it’s your first time booking an Airbnb, new members receive $40 off their first reservation of $75 or more.
  • Purchase discounted Airbnb gift cards on Raise or eBay to reduce your overall cost.
  • Stock up on Airbnb gift cards from places such as Staples or grocery stores and maximize the number of points, miles or cash back you earn by using the right credit card. For example, the Ink Business Cash Credit Card will earn you 5% cash back at office supply stores (up to $25,000 each account anniversary year). The information for the Ink Business Cash has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
  • Earn Delta miles on your Airbnb stay by registering your Delta SkyMiles number. The same can be done with earning British Airways Avios.

Things to see and do

Throughout Iceland you’ll find a fascinating landscape with many outdoors activities. You can combine a trip into nature with a city experience in just a few days. The time of year you visit and weather might dictate the activities you partake in, but regardless of the month, there are still many sites to see.

Related: The Best Credit Cards for Entertainment Spending

Explore Reykjavik

While the nightlife and restaurant scene is a huge hit with tourists, there’s also plenty to do during the day in Reykjavik. You’ll definitely want to walk down the main street of Laugavegur, where you’ll find many cafes, shops (specifically Icelandic ones), restaurants and nightclubs. Explore the city pond, called Reykjavíkurtjörn. Old Harbor is also an interesting area with the Harpa Concert Hall, Maritime Museum and Saga Museum. From Old Harbor, you can also go on whale watching tours and visit Puffin Island.

(Photo by nevereverro/Getty Images)
Hallgrimskirkja Church at night. (Photo by nevereverro/Getty Images)

Aside from walking around and simply taking in the city, you’ll want to visit the iconic Hallgrimskirkja Church. The church has a unique design and offers some of the best views of the city on a clear day.

I also suggest visiting a public swimming pool. There are a few in the city and it’s truly a unique experience. I visited the Laugardalslaug swimming pool where there are two outside pools, an indoor pool, hot tubs and waterslides. Although it is a slight walk from the city center (30-40 minutes), it’s in a really cute area and allows you to see other sites along the way. For those staying at the Hilton Nordica, it is pretty much in your backyard. There are also botanical gardens, a park and a zoo nearby.

Visit the Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is the most well-known geothermal spa in all of Iceland and is quite easy to get to from the airport or Reykjavik. Many people actually stop at the lagoon directly after their flight lands in Iceland or on their way back to the airport prior to their departing flight, as it’s only 20 minutes from the airport.

That being said, the Blue Lagoon can be quite crowded and can definitely look a little too “touristy.” If you venture to other parts of Iceland, you’ll find many other geothermal spas that you might like more which won’t be as crowded — but the convenience of the Blue Lagoon is hard to beat. It’s also a really beautiful lagoon where you can partake in many spa or healing treatments if you desire.

During my trip to Iceland, we visited the Blue Lagoon in the morning prior to departing for the U.S. We had a late afternoon flight, so we had a good portion of the morning to spend at the Blue Lagoon, which worked out perfectly. There are many tours that will take you from Reykjavik to the Blue Lagoon and then on to the airport, but we had a rental car and found the process to be quite easy.

Kids must be at least 2 years or older to visit the Blue Lagoon. All kids 8 years and younger must wear floaties (provided free of charge). Pricing starts at $55 per person, but you’ll want to book well ahead of time to get the best price.

Blue Lagoon, Iceland. (Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash)
Blue Lagoon, Iceland. (Photo by Jeff Sheldon/Unsplash)

Viking World

Kids will absolutely love visiting Viking World, where the main attraction is The Icelander viking ship. The cost is about $12 per adult; you can save money in a larger group by purchasing a family ticket that includes two adults and children under 14. Right next door you can visit Zoological Viking Home where you can pet many animals, such as rabbits, lambs and goats.

Similar to the Blue Lagoon, this is the perfect pit stop on your way to or from the airport as it is pretty far from the city, but close to the airport.

Explore the Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is one of the most popular tourist draws right outside of Reykjavik. It’s ultimately a 186-mile, three-plus-hour drive, but it will take you longer since you’ll stop at sites along the way. There are three major “must see” stops: Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir geothermal area and Gullfoss waterfall. Along the way, you can go snorkeling or scuba diving in Thingvellir National Park, snowmobiling at Langjokull glacier, rafting on the Hvíta river and lounge in geothermal pools.

Strokkur geysir in the golden circle. (Photo by Roc Canals Photography/ Getty Images)
Strokkur geysir in the golden circle. (Photo by Roc Canals Photography/Getty Images)

Visit the Leiðarendi Lava Caves

There are many lava caves throughout Iceland, but this one is just 25 minutes outside the city. You will be able to go into the cave, see the cave walls and lava streams. Kids will love visiting the caves and learning more about the folklore troll stories connected to them. Note: Most tours require kids to be at least 6 years old, but check the specific tour requirements.

Visit a glacier

There are many glaciers to hike throughout Iceland, but I personally recommend you visit Sólheimajökull glacier. This glacier is on the South Coast, which is a little over two hours from Reykjavik. Here you can go on a glacier walk, ice climb or snowmobile. (A two-hour glacier walk is about $90 per person; typically kids must be at least 8 years old, but check with your particular tour provider). This is part of the southern loop, which will allow you to see the black sand beaches in Vik, only 20 minutes away, as well as two beautiful waterfalls on your way: Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss.

Glacier hike (Jennifer Yellin / Deals We Like)
Glacier hike. (Photo by Jennifer Yellin/Deals We Like)

During my trip to Iceland, we actually slept in Vik for the night, which allowed us the opportunity to do a glacier hike and truly explore the South Coast. While we wanted to continue exploring east past Vik to the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, we did not have time. (I have heard great reviews from others, though.)

Go into a Glacier

If you are looking to go into a glacier, you’ll want to visit Langjokull — Iceland’s second-largest glacier. The “Into the Glacier” experience is a three- to four-hour tour that allows you to walk inside man-made ice tunnels.

Langjökull (the Long Glacier) in Iceland. (Photo by Shutterstock)

The tour is quite expensive, at $167 per adult, although children 0–11 are free. Teens between the ages of 12–15 are half the adult price.

See the Northern Lights

If seeing the Northern Lights is on your bucket list, Iceland is one of the top spots to go. There are many tours from the city center to see the lights in the evening/middle of the night, but you have to be quite dedicated. There is no guarantee you’ll see the lights and it could potentially take a few nights to spot them. Visit during the winter if seeing the Northern Lights is a top priority.

Iceland is one of the best place in the world to see the aurora borealis. And with their unique natural landscapes really add something to the foreground.
Northern lights in Iceland. (Photo by impossiAble/Getty Images)

Bottom line

Iceland is truly a unique country and should be on everyone’s bucket list. Due to its close proximity to the U.S., you can visit for a long weekend or extend your stay and drive the entire Ring Road in a few weeks’ time.

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