Tuesday, January 26, 2016

How to Save Money While Vacationing in Iceland

Greg and I always try to get the most bang for our buck when we travel. We’re willing to make some sacrifices to save money while still ensuring we experience all the things that matter to us. We plan many of our trips with the mindset that we might never visit that destination again; there are just so many places in the world to see!
For this trip to Iceland we didn’t set a particular budget per se, but we did a rough estimate on what we could expect to spend for our 11-night vacation (12 nights if you count the first travel day and overnight flight). Based on that estimate, which already factored in one person using miles for their flight (see below), our goal was to spend less than $4,000 total. Note that I’m not including costs related to our New York City excursion in this post, as it has no bearing on the Iceland numbers as a whole.

Airfare $1,134.50

Greg used 60,000 Delta SkyMiles (plus $52 taxes & fees) and I paid the lowest available fare of $1082, both for a round-trip coach ticket on Delta. We were initially not traveling together except for the JFK-KEF and KEF-JFK flights due to Greg’s mileage awards flights being less optimal, i.e. requiring a total of three flights each way instead of two. However, after we booked our flights in mid-April 2015, Delta altered the schedules of some domestic flights, including Greg’s LAX-JFK leg. The new flight time would have caused him to have too tight of a connection in New York, so they automatically rebooked him onto a different flight. Even though we had purchased our tickets separately, I had already called and linked our passenger records together. Unfortunately, a Delta representative mistakenly altered my ticket as well, even though it was not affected by the schedule change. I caught the error and called Skymiles customer service and ultimately convinced them to not only return my ticket to the original booking (rightfully so) but also to reissue Greg’s tickets, in both directions, to match mine. I also made the case for giving us exit row seats due to Greg’s height.
On a side note, since this post is about saving money, the only way I could have flown cheaper (on a confirmed ticket, not standby) was on Icelandair’s new nonstop from PDX. However it only operates a few days each week, and Greg & I could not get the schedules to match up to Delta’s lowest mileage awards itinerary. In the end, the difference in price for my ticket on Delta versus Icelandair was less than $180 round-trip.

Ground Transportation $552.99

PDX - Our landlord offered to take us to the airport early in the morning on September 2nd. We took Trimet home on September 14th. Total cost = $5.00.

KEF - We took the airport bus service, called Flybus, to & from the main bus terminal in Reykjavik. The total round-trip cost for two people when booked online was $54.19. We also could have taken the local bus for 1600 ISK ($12.27) per person each way, but the minimal savings was not worth the additional hassle factor.

We spent the first two days walking around the capital. While there is a local bus service, we had no problem walking approximately 5+ miles per day, even in the rain.

We chose to rent the cheapest economy car from Sixt. The nine day rental of a manual transmission Chevy Spark with unlimited kilometers cost us $296.61. We declined insurance as our primary credit card covers it. While the small car limited our ability to travel on F-roads, a four-wheel-drive vehicle would have doubled the rental price, so we made sure our itinerary did not include any forbidden mountain roads.
We drove a total of 2,241 km (1,392 miles). Fuel cost us $189.33.
We never had to pay for parking. At the end of the trip, we did choose to shave more than 30 minutes off our return journey from the Snæfellsnes Peninsula to Reykjavik and paid the 1,000 ISK toll ($7.78) to traverse the Hvalfjörður Tunnel.

Cheaper options: There is a local bus that serves most of the island, but the schedule was intermittent at best and we would have needed a lot more flexibility as well as time to see everything. We were amazed to encounter a fair number of hitchhikers and bicyclists considering the weather conditions, plus with so few cars on the road, it seemed like the hitchhikers were spending a lot of time waiting for a ride.

Lodging $960.49

Greg and I are accustomed to staying in hostels to save money when we travel, and this trip was no different. We ended up staying in a combination of hostels and guesthouses, where we always had a private room, shared bath, access to a kitchen, and free wifi.
We always booked the cheapest lodging option, excluding dorm rooms. In many places the only budget option was the HI. The next cheapest hotel was at least $50 if not $100 more per night and then we wouldn’t have had access to kitchen facilities.

It was worth it for us to purchase an Hostelling International membership ($23 per person), which is good for an entire year at all HI’s worldwide, and lowered our nightly costs by at least $5 per person. Even so, our average cost per night for lodging was still $83.

Camping would have been cheaper but we don’t own any equipment so would have had to rent, we wouldn’t have had kitchen access, and the weather wasn’t exactly conducive to sleeping outdoors.

Food & Drink $434.42

While trying local foods and drinks can be an enjoyable part of any vacation, it can also blow your budget. Restaurants in Iceland are notoriously expensive (consider that they have to import most of the ingredients); even a meal at a gas station cafe costs upwards of $15 per person. Thus we knew we would be cooking most of our own meals.
We actually brought some grocery staples with us from the U.S. like granola bars, a jar of peanut butter, dried pasta, and packaged oatmeal. In hindsight this wasn’t necessary as the Bónus stores in particular had plenty of budget options. For the first few days of the trip I cooked a hot breakfast every morning (bacon, eggs, toast, etc.). But that quickly became a tiring chore so we switched to a more European style breakfast of cold sliced meat, cheese, bread, fresh fruit, and yogurt or oatmeal. For lunch we almost always had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and then snacked on pretzels, fruit, trail mix, or whatever we needed to tide us over until dinner. Most nights I cooked a hot dinner, including pasta, Thai-style curry with rice, and fish cakes. A couple of nights we purchased microwavable entrees from the store. We spent $146 total on groceries.
We made a few exceptions to our “no dining out” plan. After several days in a row of eating PB&J’s for lunch, especially on cold and rainy days, we would crave something hot and comforting. The lamb soup at Gullfoss Cafe was one such treat. We ended up eating out for only five meals and spent a total of $126.
Now we get to the real budget-breaker: alcohol. Our research had warned us about the high cost of beverages; you can even check prices for yourself online in advance. So we already knew it was worth it to stock up at duty free when we landed at Keflavík. We loaded up with seven 6-packs of craft beer plus one 500 ml bottle of Brennivín for a total of $95.65.
It was tough for these two beer-lovers not to indulge our taste buds at the local bars, but the high prices scared us away for the most part. We ended up sharing one beer ($10) at Skúli Craft Bar in Reykjavik at the beginning of the trip and a taster tray ($22) at MicroBar at the end. Occasionally we would buy a specialty beer at the vínbúðin (total $35.07). On our outbound departure we purchased some duty free liquor to bring home, but that doesn’t count towards trip costs as we didn’t consume any of it until we returned to Portland. We also didn’t drink all of the beer we originally purchased, so quite a few bottles came home with us as did the half-full bottle of Brennivín (but the entire cost of those items is included here).

Miscellaneous $175.84

Travel insurance - The key to determining what to insure is to assess your up-front expenses and what you would forfeit if you didn’t get to take the trip or had to stop the trip mid-way through. Our credit cards covered some advance purchases (like my plane ticket), but purchasing travel insurance was the safest bet for emergency medical and dental coverage, plus trip cancellation or interruption. Our regular medical insurance did not provide any coverage while traveling overseas, so we had to consider that as well. Total cost for two people = $76.

We decided to purchase an Iceland road atlas ($24) from the local map store in Reykjavik. While I had mapped out our itinerary before we left the U.S., including printing detailed (turn-by-turn) navigation instructions for each day, we knew we would not be able to use the GPS on our iPhones as we had disabled the service so as not to accidentally incur any charges while we were out of the country. A good road atlas seemed like the next best option. We also purchased the new edition of Lonely Planet Iceland and DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Top 10 Iceland. All of these books are now for sale, so please send me a message if you’d like to purchase them.
Entry fees - If you’ve read my previous posts you already know we rarely went anywhere that charged admission. Most natural sites in Iceland do not charge a fee, including waterfalls, national parks, nature preserves, and more. We decided to skip the attractions that did have a fee, like most museums, because we both read a lot about the history and culture of Iceland in advance of the trip and, honestly, we’ve been to so many museums all over the world that it has to be pretty intriguing for us to pay a lot of money to visit another one. A few exceptions were Kerið crater ($5.40 for two people) and the shark museum ($7.78 for one person).
We did have to pay for use of the toilets at a few sites like Þingvellir National Park ($4.66 for entire trip).

There are tons of fun activities to try in Iceland: glacier hiking, exploring lava tubes, horse riding, whale watching, volcano tours by super jeep, and much more, all of which will cost you close to $100 per person if not more. Perhaps if the weather had been better Greg and I might have gone horse riding, something we have previously enjoyed while traveling. But, as it was, our biggest must-do was visiting a geothermal spa. We chose Mývatn Nature Baths ($49.59 for two people) partly due to the location but also because it was cheaper than the Blue Lagoon.
Laundry - We packed well and only had to wash our clothes twice. We paid almost $7 to wash one load of clothes at the hostel in Hofn (had to hang dry), but were allowed to used the washer and dryer at the guesthouse in Akureyri for free.

Total Trip Cost $3,258.24

In the end, we spent almost 20% less than our projected cost of $4,000. That comes out to $1,629.12 per person or $135.76 per person per day. Considering that a 9-night guided tour with a comparable itinerary costs $2,970 per person excluding airfare and meals except breakfast, then you can easily see that if you’re willing to do the work yourself then you reduce your costs significantly.

Greg and I feel like we got to see and do everything we wanted without sacrificing too much just to save money. If I had been willing to spend more, I probably would have booked an excursion like exploring a lava tube. While better weather would have been nice, overall it wouldn't have changed our activities, except maybe we would have done more hiking.
No matter how much money you choose to spend, Iceland is well worth a visit!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Chasing the Aurora (Part IV - Western Iceland)

Here are the links to my previous three posts about our trip to Iceland:

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Today was our longest driving day of the entire trip. From our guesthouse in Akureyri to our hostel in Grundarfjörður is 372 km which was estimated to take us four hours and thirty-five minutes without stops. We were finally lucky with the weather and spent most of the day under beautiful blue skies.
We stayed on the Ring Road for the first 221 km but then turned off at the farmstead at Brú to start making our way farther west onto the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Before long we were on unpaved track which made for quite a bumpy ride.
While we stopped at various points to stretch our legs or better take in the scenery, our first destination was Stykkishólmur, the largest town on the peninsula (population 1,100). It has an architecturally interesting church as well as a collection of late 19th century buildings in the town center near the harbor. We walked around for a bit, then stopped at the grocery store before continuing westward.
Greg had been talking about trying hákarl (fermented shark meat) for several days. Since we weren’t eating out at restaurants, then ordering some as an appetizer, typically costing at least $10-15, wasn’t really an option. I had spotted some in small tubs at various grocery stores, but didn’t want to pay $7+ for something that we probably wouldn’t be able to eat (and might stink up the car). So the best option was to drop by Bjarnarhöfn, home of the shark museum, where for $10 you can tour the small museum and shark meat-curing sheds as well as taste the local delicacy. I opted to sit this one out while Greg spent about 30 minutes looking around. The verdict - he didn’t gag, but he did stop asking me to buy hákarl.
It wasn’t that much farther to our overnight destination, the town of Grundarfjörður. It was already 5 p.m. by the time we checked into the hostel (we had been on the road since before 9 a.m.) but the sun was still shining so we set out to explore the nearby mountain and waterfall.
We found Kirkjufell and its foss to be quite photogenic, so we hiked around taking pictures before returning to Grundarfjörður to check out the town church, which has an original reprint of the oldest Icelandic bible.
Back at the hostel, I made a delicious meal with some frozen langoustines and an assortment of mushrooms cooked in brown butter and served over pasta. We settled in for the evening but too late discovered that the heat in our room wasn’t working. Even with many layers of clothes on, including hat and gloves, I still found it impossible to stay warm. So much for a good night’s sleep!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

We hit the road pretty early again today as we wanted to have plenty of time to drive a loop around the entire peninsula, with lots of stops for sightseeing, and still get back to Reykjavik and drop off our luggage at the guesthouse before returning the rental car at 5:00 p.m.
The main road (54 and 574) mostly stays within sight of the jagged coastline dotted by tiny fishing villages, while crisscrossing a volcanic landscape of lava fields and formations. Looking inland, we were lucky to get a few glimpses of the Snæfell glacier made famous by Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Each of the following stops typically took about 10 minutes to look around, although we did some easy walking/hiking in a few places, so those sites warranted at least 30 minutes each. Here are some of the highlights:

Ólafsvík Church

Ingjaldsholl Church - It is possible that Christopher Columbus visited this location in 1477.

Fishermen's Museum at Hellissandur (closed for the season) but some things were visible from the parking lot.

Skalasnagi Lighthouse

Hiking at Djúpalónssandur where a shipwreck has been left on the beach since 1948.

Malariff Lighthouse

Lóndrangar pinnacles - A birdwatching area, but as usual we saw nothing, possibly because of the strong winds but also due to the time of year.

Snæfellsjökull National Park visitor center at Hellnar and the local church

As we completed the final 188 km drive back east toward Reykjavik, the scenery changed from lava fields to painted hills to farmland.
We decided to pay the 1000 ISK ($7.75) toll for the Hvalfjörður Tunnel. It is 5770 meters long (3.59 miles) and runs 165 meters below sea level (under the fjord) shaving 30 minutes off the trip.
The tunnel is under this water. Reykjavik is barely visible under the sun rays.
After we checked into the guesthouse and dropped off our luggage, we returned the rental car to the wharf area right on time at 5 p.m. Then we had a nice walk back into town, stopping for our last pylsurs. We celebrated the end of the trip by sharing a sampler tray of Icelandic craft beer at Microbar, then walked up colorful Laugavegur one last time.
I had one final task - my 7:00 p.m. appointment to get a tattoo. I have already written a blog post about choosing the design, a vegvísir. You can read about it by clicking here.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Time to head home. We got up at 6 a.m. and walked from the guesthouse to the bus terminal. Although overcast, it wasn’t raining as it was on the day of our arrival, so it was a more enjoyable jaunt, even though our suitcases were still heavy and laden with beer.
walking by the Hallgrímskirkja at 7 a.m.
We were at the airport by 8:15, giving us plenty of time to check in, go through security, then browse at the duty free shop before our 10:35 a.m. flight departure. I couldn’t resist buying a bottle of Icelandic vodka and we also picked up a few more specialty beers to bring home.
Within an hour of takeoff, we were flying over Greenland, and from our seats in the exit row we enjoyed awesome views of the snow-capped mountains.
Appropriately, we toasted the end of our vacation with free Icelandic beer (provided by the airline).
We had another long layover at JFK, but this time we used some free Delta Sky Club passes to while away the hours in relative comfort. As we took off again around 7:30 p.m. we were treated to a beautiful New York City sunset.

Parting Thoughts

It was an awesome trip, even if the weather didn’t cooperate a lot of the time. Greg and I both agree that different parts of Iceland conjure memories of Alaska, Hawaii, Ireland, and New Zealand, as well as Yellowstone National Park. It’s definitely worth a trip, even if you only have a few days on a stopover to or from Europe. There’s plenty to see within a few hours drive from Reykjavik - Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon, etc. I particularly loved the diversity of the scenery, the lack of people, the remoteness, and the sheep. But I am disappointed that, in spite of my best efforts, I did not get to see the aurora borealis on this trip.

Next up, my final post about how to save money while traveling in Iceland.

Here are the links to all of my photos from these last three days:

Akureyri to Grundafjordur
Snaefellsnes to Reykjavik to PDX

Monday, January 18, 2016

Chasing the Aurora (Part III - Eastern & Northern Iceland)

Here are the links to my previous two posts about our trip to Iceland:

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Today is a driving day. Not many specific sights to see, just beautiful scenery in general. Our only decision was whether to take the shortcut on Route 939, a gravel road over the mountains which would shave at least an hour off our journey; or continue to follow the Ring Road to Routes 96 and 92 along the coast which would mean a winding route through the fjords. As there were some low clouds hugging the mountains which would obstruct our view from above, we decided to stick to the coast road.
It was an enjoyable ride, a bit windy at times, but with no rain and very few other vehicles on the road. We stopped for a short break every hour or so. We ate our picnic lunch near where some Icelandic horses were grazing just outside of Fáskrúðsfjörður. We also had to pass through Fáskrúðsfjarðargöng, a 5900 meter (3.67 mile) long tunnel.
After stopping in Egilsstaðir for groceries, we climbed high above the city as we turned east toward our destination for the night, the tiny town of Seyðisfjörður. Thankfully the road was in good shape as it was super steep and had lots of sharp curves. We left the car at the hostel and went for a nice walk around the harbor. The ferry from Denmark (via the Faroe Islands) had arrived in port that morning, but the passengers had already dispersed so the town was pretty quiet.
Our timing was right for visiting the local Vínbúðin outpost which was only open for two hours that afternoon. I couldn’t resist buying a limited edition bottle of Borg Ástríkur NR. 18, a 10% ABV Belgian strong ale. I would have loved to have a drink at the craft beer bar, but after checking out their prices (1000-1450ISK or $8-11 for a 12oz beer) I knew we had to stick with our duty free stash.
For dinner, I cooked us a nice pasta meal topped with something resembling ground beef. Before the trip I had made a short list of “grocery words” so I’d know what I was buying at the store. I knew that the meat package was labeled 50% lamb and 50% something, but what the other half was I couldn’t be sure. I asked one of the receptionists at the hostel and she said the other word was “bull.” So I guess we ate half lamb and half male cow! It definitely tasted gamier than regular ground beef, but otherwise was perfectly fine prepared like spaghetti.
We relaxed at the hostel that evening and researched our activities for the upcoming days. When we went to bed, I set my alarm for 1:00 a.m. as the locals reported that the aurora activity on the previous night was superb and the aurora forecast for that night was also strong. Unfortunately, I went out twice in the middle of the night (in the cold) to have a look but there was too much cloud cover in the upper atmosphere to see anything.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Today started out beautifully, with a long drive back out of the fjord to Egilsstaðir, then rejoining the Ring Road and continuing northeast toward Mývatn under blue skies. When we initially planned our itinerary for this trip, we intended to spend one night in Reykjahlíð after exploring the entire area around Lake Mývatn and then spend the following day driving the full loop north (called the Diamond Circle) on Road 862 to Ásbyrgi Canyon and on to Husavik. However, we had heard from other travelers that the canyon road had washed out due to the recent heavy rains and was impassible. Ultimately we decided to skip the canyon in favor of more time spent hiking around Mývatn.
Thus, we opted to go ahead and detour a bit north to see Dettifoss, known as the most powerful waterfall in Europe. I believe this was the first time during our trip that I was a bit worried. First we encountered a sandstorm, then we got pummeled by wind gusts as we navigated the rough dirt track leading back to the waterfall.
When we finally made it to the parking area, the wind was blowing so hard it was rocking our little rental car to the point I thought it might actually flip over. As you can’t see the waterfall from the car park, we bundled up and practically crept our way along the trail. Every step was a challenge not to be knocked down by the wind! When we finally saw the waterfall, it was spectacular, but we didn’t dare get close to the edge (no barricades) because it would have been far too easy for the wind to blow us over into the canyon. My photos don’t really depict these crazy conditions, but in this video I shot you can clearly hear the wind.
We survived the outing and the rough trek back to the main road. After another 30 minutes of driving through bizarre, volcanic landscape we reached the turnoff for Leirbotn, the geothermal power station at Krafla. This is yet another place where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates meet in Iceland, creating an active volcano zone which contributes to the Martian landscape. As we summited the ridge for a look at Víti Maar (The Crater of Hell), we were once again pummeled by the winds to the point that we could not stand and read the information signs overlooking the power station. Thus we also chose to forego a walk around the Leirhnjúkur lava field in favor of the warm shelter of the visitor center (and complimentary coffee!).
Thankfully conditions were better at our next stop, Námafjall Hverir, a high-temperature geothermal area with fumaroles and mud pots. Once again it was free to walk around and enjoy the otherworldly features with minimal barriers. It reminded us of Yellowstone National Park, one of our favorite places in the U.S.
From there it was a very short drive over the ridge to the small town of Reykjahlíð on the northern end of Lake Mývatn where we were spending the night. We picked up some groceries then checked into our hostel (technically a guesthouse but still with shared kitchen and baths). Then it was time to relax at the Mývatn Nature Baths, which we had chosen to visit over the larger (and more expensive) Blue Lagoon outside of Reykjavik. While the water was not as hot as we expected and the outside temperature was colder than we would have preferred, we still enjoyed a couple of hours of soaking in the soothing pools.
I set my alarm and got up again in the middle of the night to look for the aurora. No dice!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Due to our change of plans caused by the washed out road to Ásbyrgi Canyon, we now had most of today to make the full circle of Lake Mývatn before continuing north to Husavik. Unfortunately, the sand storm and high winds from the previous day had now moved into the lake area and significantly reduced visibility. Not to be deterred, we still took our time exploring many of the key features of this region:

  • The tephra explosion crater Hverfjall - a very steep 1483 foot hike up gravel-size lava rocks to the crater rim
  • Dimmuborgir lava field - choose your own adventure on the color-coded paths
  • Höfði Peninsula - a nice hike through a small forest; known for bird watching, but the poor creatures had all taken shelter from the wind so we saw only a few waterfowl
  • Skútustaðargígar - a group of hikeable volcanic pseudo craters, where we encountered countless tour buses
It took us about three hours to actively explore those sites, then we started making our way farther north. We were a little surprised when the main road, Route 87, was unpaved all the way to where it bisects Route 85. But with virtually no other cars in sight, it was an easy 30 minute drive to Husavik.
Once again under partially blue skies, we checked into our hostel and headed out to get some groceries and explore the town. Greg and I both enjoy visiting places of worship wherever we travel and Iceland was no exception. Husavik’s church was built in 1907 using wood imported from Norway. It is beautiful inside and out!
While one of the main tourist activities in Husavik is whale watching, we decided to skip this excursion primarily due to the cold and windy weather. Instead, after cooking dinner, we went for a chilly sunset stroll on the hill above town where Icelandic ponies were grazing.

Friday, September 11, 2015

We had another easy drive today, a short 92 km doubling back on Route 85 until it connected with the Ring Road, which we then followed all the way to Akureyri. Known as the capital of North Iceland, the city is home to just over 18,000 people, by far the largest population outside of Reykjavik.
Yes, it was another rainy day, wet enough that we put on all of our rain gear after we dropped off our luggage at the guesthouse. Akureyri is still small enough to walk the whole town on foot, which is what we fully intended to do no matter the weather. Our first stop was the large church that sits on a hill above town. But we didn’t linger too long as we were hungry for lunch and had our sights set on the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet at a popular local restaurant I had read about. We had to walk all the way to the harbor to get there so we deserved every slice of pizza, bread stick, french fry, and onion ring that we managed to devour.
Afterward, as we made our way back into the city center, we couldn’t resist a look around the large Vínbúðin and found several bottles of beer that we wanted to try. We were carrying a backpack to keep our guidebooks dry, so now it was filled with beer! We strolled along Hafnarstræti, the main shopping & dining street, then stopped to have a look around the free local art museum. It was raining pretty steadily at this point and we trudged back up the steep hill to our guesthouse to drop off our liquid gold.
We only ran into one small glitch then as the local map we were using did not accurately depict the location of our next stop, Lystigarðurinn, the most northerly botanical garden in the world. In fact, it was so hidden in plain sight that we stood directly across the street from it and didn’t realize we were looking right at it. Instead, we walked almost a mile farther than necessary and ended up at a lovely cemetery overlooking the city. After securing the exact location of the Lystigarðurinn from the funeral home director, we retraced our steps and found it hiding beside the local hospital. It was definitely worth the effort to seek it out as we strolled the well-manicured grounds and enjoyed the beautiful flowers.
Of course, the clouds cleared out about the time we returned to the guesthouse to settle in for the evening. The proprietor had graciously offered to let us use their laundry facilities for free, so we washed a load of clothes and drank a couple of beers in the common area while taking to heart the travel-related quotes painted on the walls. We also enjoyed watching the neighbor’s chickens in their coop outside our bedroom window (thankfully no roosters!).
That’s all for this blog post. I’ll cover the western part of the country in my next post, followed by how we made our Icelandic krona last longer. Here are the links to all of my photos from these three days:
Hofn to Seydisfjordur
Seydisfjordur to Myvatn
Myvatn & Husavik
Husavik to Akureyri