It’s absolutely insane to me that it’s been six whole months since we were in Iceland. Time has flown! This is especially crazy considering that when we got engaged (in Iceland, read the story here!), it felt like our wedding (end of summer 2019) was SO far away… and now we’ve got a date and a venue and it’s NEXT. YEAR. Cue the freak-out about wedding planning… hahaha. That’s a worry for another day, though! Today I want to share the fairly extensive list of tips, tricks and travel hacks that Cole and I compiled at the end of our trip to Iceland.
As I mentioned in my last Iceland travel post, traveling Iceland is not cheap- even if you’re trying to do it inexpensively by living out of a camper van! We learned this very quickly and made it our mission to find as many ways to save money as possible while still having an awesome time. In addition to that, living out of a camper van for nearly two weeks also has it’s challenges, but we found lots of ways to make ourselves more comfortable and our time spent in Iceland even better.
- don’t take out cash – there’s no need for cash in Iceland. We didn’t take any out and I’m glad we didn’t because literally everywhere takes credit cards.
- shop around for camper vans before your trip – I definitely recommend booking your camper van pretty well in advance because the good ones get snatched up quick. We booked too late to get a 4×4, but ended up finding we didn’t need it at all anyways. We weren’t going up any F roads (the sketchy roads that may or may not be washed out by rivers, etc) because of the time of year we were visiting, so the 4×4 wasn’t at all necessary for us (and would’ve cost us WAY more than the one we rented). We rented a Renault Kangaroo Camper from Rent.is because it was the cheapest and came with everything we needed: wifi (which we used a lot), a battery-powered heater (a MUST during the cold months), a fridge that runs while the cars running (great for storing food) and all of the cooking gear we’d need. It ran on diesel (we always filled up at Orkan X where possible because it was the cheapest) which was great because we only had to fill it four or so times even though we drove around the whole country! In addition to it being the perfect camper van for two people, Rent.is has an ongoing competition where you submit a blog post about your trip around Iceland and they pick a winner every month to be reimbursed up to 7 days of their trip. Just for entering, they’ll give you a 100 euro refund on your trip as well. Doing this saved us a bit of money on our rental and we’re still in the running to win for November, so wish us luck!
- bring food from home – eating out for every meal is crazy expensive in Iceland and we knew this before we came, so we stocked up on easy foods and snacks that we knew we could make (or grab) out of the back of a camper van: instant ramen, Sidekicks pasta, dried fruit, oatmeal, etc. We cooked almost all of our own food the entire time we were there with the exception of probably 3 or 4 meals. This saved us a TON of money!
- buy alcohol at the airport – if you plan to drink while in Iceland (we didn’t have any wild nights while there, but we did like to have a couple of beers with our dinner some evenings), definitely stock up at the airport as it’s significantly cheaper than buying it once in the country.
- bring a water bottle – the tap water in Iceland is great and there’s no need to waste money on plastic water bottles. Bring your own and refill it!
- bring a travel mug – if you’re a coffee or tea drinker, bring a travel mug with you. It saves you stopping to either buy a cup of coffee or make another cup once you’re on the road (if you are two-cuppers like we are!). We didn’t bring travel mugs and kicked ourselves the whole time for not doing so, haha.
- bring a sleeping bag – I think the majority of camper van rentals come with sleeping bags, however hostels often charge you for linen if you don’t have your own sleeping bag. We had no regrets about bringing ours even though the camper van came with one each- the more sleeping bags the cozier! Plus, we have really good winter sleeping bags and would’ve had to keep our van’s heater running all night if we hadn’t brought those.
- bring a PackTowl – don’t bother with a regular towel because if you are traveling around Iceland in a camper van anytime other than the warmest months of the year (which aren’t even really that warm), it’ll be so cold that your towel will never dry! We were able to hang these on the little curtain lines in the back of our van and they’d be dry by the time we got to our destination.
- bring proper clothing – Cole and I both lived in fleece sweaters and thermal pants for pretty much the whole trip. It gets COLD, guys. Hiking boots were also a must, as well as a beanie, rain jacket and gloves.
- bring Kleenex Wet Wipes – these are an absolute MUST. Showers are scarce in the camper van life (especially the time of year we went because a lot of the campgrounds are closed or have very limited facilities) and sometimes you just have to have a wet wipe bath, haha. They were amazing for cleaning our faces morning and night (use the Gentle Clean ones for your face), keeping our hands clean throughout the trip (try the Germ Removal ones for your hands) and just overall freshening ourselves up when we couldn’t get to a shower for a couple of days. These will be coming on every single trip we take in future (and they’re also officially living in my purse now). You can get them at Walgreens and save $1 on your purchase of 2 (did I mention they’re SO cheap in the first place?) using Ibotta!
While In Reykjavik
- sign up for the free Reykjavik walking tour – walking tours are my most favorite way to see a city. Cole and I have done them at almost every city we’ve ever traveled to. They are usually led by local students that know their city inside and out, and it’s a cool way to learn about the history of a city as well as explore an area of a city more in depth. We did the free walking tour with CityWalk and really enjoyed it. Our guide was super knowledgable and the best part is that it’s a really cheap way to spend a few hours (you only pay a tip at the end of the tour). These tours are super popular and require you to book in advance, so be sure to do so!
- hike to the hot river just outside Reykjavik – you’ll need a rental car/camper van (or tour company) to get to Reykjadalur Valley (which translates to “steam valley”), but it will be WELL worth it. I think this was probably the best thing we experienced on our entire trip… we loved it so much that we went twice! The first time around, we hiked in from what felt like the middle of nowhere with GoEcco (a guided hike) and it was SO incredible. They brought along Icelandic food and beers for us to try, and our guide was so lovely and just felt like an old friend! This is the most expensive thing we did on our Iceland trip but I would recommend it a billion times over! We had such a great time on that hike that we came back at the end of our road trip and hiked ourselves back to the hot river, but this time via a more tame (less exciting, haha) pathway. If you’re going to do anything in Reykjavik, do this!
- go to happy hour at KEX Hostel – if you want to drink, doing it during happy hour can save you quite a bit of money. We stayed at KEX Hostel the whole time we were in Reykjavik because it was the least expensive and had good ratings, and the bar inside the hostel was nice. The only times that we drank (other than the beer that we bought at the airport) were during happy hour here.
- visit Braud & Co – if you like pastries, you HAVE to go to Braud & Co. It’s listed as the 2nd best place to eat in Reykjavik on Tripadvisor, and rightly so. Their cinnamon buns are TO. DIE. FOR. We went back for them twice because they were that good. You can also grab a pretty good coffee to go with your cinnamon bun just across the street at Reykjavik Roasters.
On The Road
- buy all your food at Bonus – Bonus is the cheapest grocery store in Iceland and we stopped there probably every two days or so. We bought all of our snacks and lunches there. Any trip to a European country is automatic grounds for delicious baguettes stuffed with fancy cheeses and meats for every single lunch, if you ask me. These things are so cheap there compared to home and I basically gorge myself any chance I get, haha.
- base your Ring Road route on the Aurora forecast – you can either start your trip heading north or south, and you’d be crazy not to decide which way to head based on the Aurora forecast! We chose to go north first (with a minor detour to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula which I’ll talk about a bit more below) because the Northern Lights forecast looked most promising in that direction. We ended up seeing them 5+ times during our trip, so I can safely say that checking the forecast is absolutely worth a try.
- don’t plan too strictly – I like to have our trips pretty well laid out, but Cole is the complete opposite. We end up meeting somewhere in the middle where I have an idea of where I want us to go during our trips, but we make our way there sort of spontaneously and see what happens along the way. Because this Iceland trip was so short (just under two weeks), I was trying to keep us to some sort of schedule as best as I could so we wouldn’t miss out on too much, but also leave room for additional adventures we may encounter along the way. I’m glad I did leave a bit of leeway, though, because we ended up a) taking a full day detour somewhere not on the Ring Road and b) we had to stay an extra night at a campground in the middle of nowhere because the wind was so bad that we couldn’t drive. Leave a little wiggle room in your plans, even if it’s a short trip, because weather rules in Iceland!
- skip the Golden Circle if you have time for the Ring Road but not that – the Golden Circle is what you hear about in all of the Iceland travel write-ups, but honestly… skip it if it comes down to you either spending more time in Reykjavik and doing the Golden Circle or getting less time in Reykjavik, skipping the Golden Circle and driving around the Ring Road. Don’t get me wrong… both Reykjavik and the sights on the Golden Circle are beautiful, but we found that we got bored pretty quickly in Reykjavik because it’s so small and the Golden Circle is absolutely PACKED with tourists. Yes, the waterfalls and whatnot on the Golden Circle are amazing, but the fact that you can’t even look at them without seeing a trillion tourists scattered around kind of takes away from the glory of it all. I definitely recommend skipping this and seeing the way less packed sights around the Ring Road if it’s an option for you!
- detour to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula if you have time – we skipped a couple of the Golden Circle sights in favor of detouring to the Snæfellsnes peninsula instead (just north of Reykjavik) and have zero regrets. This was the first day of our road trip and it couldn’t have been off to a better start! We climbed up a crater, saw rainbows, went to the ocean and just overall had an awesome first day in our camper van. This was absolutely worth the day-long detour.
- scope out all the free hot pools – Iceland has a ton of natural hot pools because there’s so much geothermal activity happening. Lots of these are free and are literally just a little hot pool in the middle of nowhere! We were constantly checking the Hotpot Iceland site to see where there were ones near us. Finding some of them was an adventure in itself, thanks to terrible directions, haha. Fosslaug was one of our favorites (and one of the hardest to actually find).
Favorite Sights and Campsites
- Lake Myvatn – this was easily one of the most beautiful areas we visited in Iceland. There’s quite a lot to see and do there, like visit the Namaskard geothermal area, walk around the Dimmuborgir rock formations, and walk up and around the Hverfell crater. This area was definitely a highlight of our trip.
- Hlid campsite – there’s not a whole lot of options when it comes to accommodation around Lake Myvatn, so we booked in at the Hlid campsite. It ended up being one of the best nights of our trip and we loved the campsite! It had good bathroom facilities and an outdoor BBQ that you could use, but the best part was that the campsites were on terraces up the side of a big hill, so we drove our van up to an empty terrace and got to overlook the entirety of Lake Myvatn from our campsite. We also got to see the most incredible sunset and the Northern Lights were the strongest they’d been during our trip that night!
- Skogafoss Park – we stayed two nights here due to bad weather, but luckily there was quite a bit to do in the area. We got to walk to a glacier and hike to a waterfall. There’s also a store and restaurant just a few minutes down the road, and they have delicious lamb burgers for a really good price (this was pretty much the only time we ate an actual meal out!).
- Jokulsarlon – look up photos of this and why you should visit will be pretty self-explanatory. It’s a glacier lagoon and is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. So breathtaking!
- Selfoss campsite – there were slim pickings for campsites when we went in October because a lot of them close for the off-season, but the Selfoss campsite was open and had nice facilities. This wasn’t any amazing experience like we had at Hlid, but I thought I’d mention it because it was clean and had a good kitchen and bathrooms (which can be hard to come by)!
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Hopefully this list helps you plan your trip to Iceland a little better and save some money while also having the best time ever while you’re there! It’s a beautiful country and most definitely worth the visit.