Updated: Oct 17, 2019
There are plenty of great blogs about Iceland on the internet, I'm here to build on those with some tips on how to maximize your trip.
Iceland is an amazing land of fire and ice.
Book Your Travel Plans Early, Especially During Christmas
Iceland and it's two main airlines: Icelandair and WOW Air both have been expanding their reach to many European and American cities. Doing so has brought great opportunity not only for this beautiful country, but also for the visitors planning to visit this Game of Thrones world.
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My wife and I recently booked a great deal on Expedia.com that included:
Two round trip tickets from San Francisco to Keflavik (Iceland) on WOW Air
A 5 night stay at Center Hotel Thingholt
All for under $2,600 USD (actual total price was $2,535.16 USD)
This works out to be $1,267.58 USD per person, during Christmas, which we all know can be a very expensive time to take a trip
The two main airlines which fly in/out of KEF airport are WOW Air and Icelandic Air.
The WOW Air portion of the price worked out to be $1,600 USD (actual price was $1,589.94 USD). The price would have been well under $1,500, but I opted to add and pay for a 20 kilogram (44 pound) bag which cost $149.98 USD. Please note that you will pay additionally for water, snacks and other creature comforts like seat selection, these can quickly bump up your total price.
A screen shot of the price I paid for two round-trip tickets on WOW Air (SFO to KEF) during Christmas.
The dark glass masks represent the hidden people of Iceland as you walk into CenterHotel Thingholt in Reykjavik.
The CenterHotel Thingholt portion worked out to be $189.44 USD per night or $945.22 for the 5 night stay. Not super cheap, but after doing a quick search during the actual trip I saw the nightly rate at $252 USD. That's about a $60 USD savings per night when you book in advance.
That is a really good deal considering that when some of my family and friends wanted to tag along but waited too long (about two weeks out), they were staring at prices around $3,500 USD for a similar package, so again when you book early you will save hundreds of your hard-earned dollars.
Long story, short - just book early and I'm suggesting four months out (which is what I did) from your preferred travel dates.
500 Icelandic Króna.
You Don't Need to Exchange Money
As in most situations before you arrive in a new foreign country, you probably withdraw some hard-earned cash from your local bank. Well, in Iceland you don't have to do that. The reason is because every restaurant, street food vendor, mom-and-pop shop, etc... accepts credit or debit cards.
If you have a "tap" enabled card you are already one-step ahead of the game. I attempted to use the Samsung Pay app (Enter my code A0C135 before your 1st purchase to get $5 in rewards) from my smartphone, but after trying at a couple of places it wouldn't work, so I just used my chip-enabled Chase Sapphire Reserve to make purchases.
You actually might get better exchange rates depending on who your credit card issuer is. So save your money on those awful transaction fees!
Make sure you rent a 4 x 4 SUV like this Fiat 500X during the winter months.
Rent a 4 x 4 SUV
After you book your flight and hotel accommodation, I also suggest that you book a car, preferably a 4 x 4 wheel drive vehicle (especially during the winter months). When travelling, I normally book using one of the main car rental companies (i.e. Avis, Enterprise or Budget), but when I searched I was shocked to see the prices they were asking (around $1,000 USD for 6 days, during Christmas).
Luckily, I did more searching and found a company called Green Motion where I was able to rent an SUV (ended up being a Fiat 500X) for only $350 USD for 6 days. That's a savings of $650+ just by doing a little extra searching.
When you arrive to Iceland and pass immigration and grab your luggage you'll see a representative holding a, "Green Motion" sign. Just flag them down and you'll be guided to their shuttle, which will drive you to their office to pick up your car rental located about 2 miles away.
I really like this company because since it was winter, they already changed the tires to cold weather tires which have metal studs in them to maintain traction in the wet rain, ice and snow. There's also an ice scraper in case you need to scrap the ice off your windshield.
VERY IMPORTANT! Always double check to see what type of fuel your vehicle uses before pumping or you'll end up with an expensive mistake.
This pocket mobile WiFi hotspot worked very well all over Iceland even during a Northern Light cruise in the ocean.
Rent a Pocket Mobile WiFi Hotspot
Another helpful suggestion is to reserve a pocket mobile WiFi hotspot. Iceland is a big island with lot's of remote areas. Luckily for you this country has very good WiFi. I was able to find a couple companies that offer a pocket mobile WiFi hotspot for rent. One company which seemed to be newer, but slightly cheaper with little reviews is called Trawire. I was able to easily book through their website a couple weeks ahead of time.
Screenshot of Trawire pocket mobile WiFi rental, note the pickup and return locations, then read below to understand.
The challenge or I should say the unknown was where to pick up the pocket mobile WiFi because Trawire doesn't have a physical store location at the airport (KEF). The instructions you receive via email after booking aren't very clear. I'm here to save you some stress by telling you that if you choose to pick up your pocket mobile WiFi at the airport, Trawire will leave the device at the Dunkin' Donuts inside the airport, right after you pick up your baggage.
Look for this Dunkin' Donuts as you exit baggage claim if you selected to pick up your pocket mobile WiFi from the airport.
The Dunkin' Donuts is located on your right as soon as you leave the baggage claim area. Just show the Dunkin' Donuts employee your email or tell them your name and confirmation number and they will hand you your pocket mobile WiFi. It will come in a small box, where inside there is a pre-paid envelope you will need to keep so you can return it by dropping into any red mailbox in Iceland. There are many red mailboxes all over the country, even at the airport.
Drop off your Trawire pocket WiFi device in it's pre-paid postage box in any red mailbox like the one seen above located at KEF airport.
Purchase your favorite libations before you leave the airport to save money.
Purchase Adult Beverages at Airport Duty Free
If you drink alcohol you should buy your favorite beer, wine and liquor at the Duty Free Iceland located in airport because it not only has a great variety, but mainly it will save you a ton of cash. Take it from me and other bloggers who've mentioned the expensive prices of buying alcohol around Iceland. Unless you don't mind paying $24 USD cocktails, $10 USD beers or $15 USD shots, you're better off saving a lot of money by stocking up and buying at the duty free!
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How to Kill Time if You Arrive Early, but Can't Check-In to Your Hotel
If you find a great deal on flights, don't be surprised that the reason why you paid for such a great deal is that your flight may arrive into Keflavik International Airport (KEF) in the early morning hours. If you booked a trip during the winter months, keep in mind that Iceland averages about 4 hours of daylight per day.
We flew into KEF at 4:30 AM, but couldn't check-in until 2:00 PM. There are other blogs that provide recommendations on what to do, but here's what we did to freshen up and explore.
The walkway towards the Blue Lagoon entrance from the parking lot.
Book Tickets in Advance at Blue Lagoon
Booking tickets at Blue Lagoon kills multiple birds with one stone. Unless you are a passenger or cardholder travelling on Icelandair, you won't have access to the KEF airport lounge. As a member of Priority Pass (click here to save 25% off membership pricing), I was slightly disappointed that their network didn't have a lounge in Iceland.
So the next best thing is to book tickets to the Blue Lagoon. Why? Well for one, it's very close (about 15 minutes slightly south) to the airport. The second reason is that it's an awesome place where you can refresh your mind, body and spirit after your long flight. The third and final reason is that it happens to be a very popular destination, so if you were planning on going to it, you might as well knock it out early because it's in the opposite direction from most of the other popular attractions on Iceland.
My wife and I booked the "Premium"package (about $100 USD per person, yes expensive), which was well worth it, see the benefits below:
Entrance to Blue Lagoon
Silica Mud Mask
Use of Towel
1st Drink of your choice
Use of Bathrobe
Reservation at LAVA (optional)
Sparkling wine if dining at LAVA
The use of the bathrobe is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED because unless you want to pack your own bathrobe and take up valuable space in your luggage, you'll be freezing your butt off walking around the premises. It happened to rain for a brief period of time while we were there and were happy we had some clothing after getting out of the awesome super-warm geothermal pool.
A scene from my experience at the Blue Lagoon.
Depending on how long you stay at Blue Lagoon, you will probably still have some time to kill. We stayed there for about two hours, which was plenty of time to feel refreshed and clean. Don't forget to BOOK TICKETS IN ADVANCED because it will sell out, especially during Christmas season.
On the left is the Eurasian Plate and on the right is the North American Plate.
Drive to the Bridge Between Two Continents
Since you are still on Reykjanes Peninsula, you should drive to see the bridge between two continents. Stopping here provides you another "check-in-the-box" for your to-do list in regards to sight-seeing on Iceland. It's pretty interesting to stand on one side which represents the Eurasian Plate and as you walk across the small bridge to be standing on the North American Plate.
After you spend some time here, it's time to go grab some food (unless you ate at the airport or at Blue Lagoon).
Radhuskaffi is a small cafe located inside city hall in Keflavik.
Go Grab Breakfast at City Hall (Radhuskaffi) in Keflavik
There are a number of places for you to grab breakfast, but be warned that if you use Google Maps to find a place, just understand that not all of the hours of operation are accurate, especially during the Christmas season. We learned this first-hand by trying to grab breakfast at Cafe Bryggjian and at Papa's Pizza. These two places were not open according to their scheduled hours of operation.
My suggestion and a place that was reliably open was a place called Radhuskaffi in Keflavik. This cozy little cafe is located inside city hall and was open for business when we arrived. It was a great feeling to finally find a place that was open with relatively reasonable prices. Angela, the owner who is from Portugal was super-friendly. So it was also quite amusing that our first meal in Iceland was Portugeuse food!
This Bacalhau à Braz was delicious and hit the spot.
The breakfast of the morning was a leek soup with turmeric and a Portugeuse salted cod fish dish called Bacalhau à Braz . Both the soup and the bacalhau were perfect. It filled our hungry stomachs and made us full and warm.
This leek soup with turmeric also was delicious and hit the spot.
She is active on Facebook and will reply to you. We mentioned that we visited both Macau and Portugal and loved the egg tarts (Pastel de Nata) we had at Lord Stow's (Macau) Manteigaria (Portugal) and she told us to message her on Facebook so we could schedule a time to pick some up from her before we returned back home from vacation.
The best customer service in Iceland - go grab these egg tarts on Saturday's or Facebook Messenger Angela to request these treats.
After breakfast you'll be very close to checking-in to your hotel. The drive towards Reykjavik is around 45 minutes from Radhuskaffi. You should get there just in time to arrive full, refreshed and already have seen a couple of places in Iceland.
Things to See
My wife and I were in Iceland during the Christmas season for 6 days, which is plenty of time to explore many of the main sights. The following places were driven to and explored:
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
Tngvellir National Park
Hellisgerði (Elf and Lava Park)
Many of the places I listed above are in the "Golden Circle". Due to the harsh winter conditions you'll want to regularly check the weather and road conditions (I suggest you check the road conditions by visiting www.road.is on a daily basis). I also suggest you download the app called 112 Iceland. The benefits of both suggestions are for your overall safety and for better planning.
Take advantage of free daily breakfast (even on Christmas day) if you decide to stay at CenterHotel Thingholt.
Expensive Meal, Cheap Meals and Instant Noodles
We normally eat one expensive meal, several cheap meals (to include street food, which is highly-preferred) and home-cooked meals (which in Iceland resulted in instant noodles) during trips. This method allows you to spoil yourself and to save money on food. I should mention that the CenterHotel Thingholt offers a very nice, FREE breakfast spread every morning even on Christmas day. The breakfast consisted of baked goods, cereals, fresh fruits, vegetables, sausage, eggs (boiled/scrambled), bacon, smoked salmon, cod, milk, tea, coffee and juices.
Inside the Fish Company, which was the perfect setting for a fancy Icelandic meal.
The Expensive Meal
The dinner we had at Fiskfélagið (Fish Company) was everything I had imagined of eating in Iceland. The ambiance was festive, but very dimly lit and upscale. We spent about $200 USD for a great dinner which included cocktails. I wrote a full-length review here. It's highly recommended that you make a reservation online, which you can do here.
Finding cheap meals is a challenge. If you are really on a budget you can at least spoil yourself by eating the so-called, "Icelandic national food", which is a hot dog at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. This hot dog stand has been around since 1937 in Reykjavik. They sell hotdogs for about $4 USD. Depending on the night this stand can be dead or have a really long line.
The world-famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hotdog.
There are also other food carts you can find that sell lobster (Lobster Hut), waffles and hamburgers. By the way, the lobster soup ($20 USD) and deep-fried lobster (12 pieces for $14 USD) were not cheap.
You can find a handful of food carts around Reykjavik like this one - Lobster Hut.
Dai Phat Asian Super Market was a life-saver.
Go Find a Vietnamese Grocery Store for Instant Noodles
I never would have imagined there was a Vietnamese grocery store on Iceland, but my wife and I found two. The one with the bigger selection is called Dai Phat. We stocked up on a bunch of instant pho noodles and added Vietnamese beef balls to add some protein.
Cheap meal, but hits the spot.
We not only saved a lot of money on meals, but we also prepared for the worst due to many restaurants being closed or fully-booked during the Christmas season. This place was also open on Christmas Eve and Christmas, which is a life-saver when almost all other stores and restaurants were closed.
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Icelandic Odds and Ends
Before I end this blog, I wanted to quickly point out a few more things:
There are no McDonald's on Iceland
KFC is closed on Christmas Eve, Christmas and the day after Christmas
Street parking in Reykjavik is FREE a few days before and one day after Christmas
I only saw one police car in Reykjavik and NONE on the highways
The traffic signals will turn yellow BEFORE the light turns green and red
No Uber or Lyft available, just taxis
Expect to smell A LOT of sulphur around Iceland from all the geothermal activity
Still (non-carbonated) water is HARD TO FIND
The tap water is safe to drink and tastes better than most bottled water
If you love black licorice you'll find plenty of it in Iceland
Thanks for reading this blog on my tips for your trip to Iceland. Please feel free to ask questions or add anything you might have experienced. Have a safe and wonderful trip!