We’re back from Iceland, the land of $20 hamburgers. The scenery is spectacular, but it sure ain’t cheap. That’s why I concluded the best time to visit Iceland is when you’re young and don’t mind roughing it a bit. If I were young and poorer, I’d rent a small camper van, drive everywhere, and live out of it for 2 weeks. However, Mrs. RB40 and Junior are not into roughing it and we also traveled with another family. So roughing it is out the cards for this trip. In fact, my roughing it days might be over. It’s hard to go back once you’re used to a little comfort. That’s lifestyle inflation for ya. 🙂 For this trip, we rented a passenger van and stayed at Airbnb rentals. We weren’t too concerned about the cost of this vacation because both families are comfortable financially. It was an expensive trip, but at this point, we can afford it. We’ll worry more about being frugal on the next vacation.
*This post is much longer than usual. I’m on summer break schedule and I’m only posting once per week. I figured I might as well put everything in one huge post. I hope it doesn’t take too long to load.
10 days trip
Here is the map for our Iceland road trip.
We started on the east coast and drove halfway around the island. I thought driving all around the Island would be too much with 2 little kids. We like slow travel these days and traversing the whole ring road in 10 days would way too much for us. It’s more relaxing to stay a few days and get a feel of each location. Ideally, I’d like to stay 4-5 days at each location, but we didn’t have enough time for that on this trip.
Long travel day
Flying to the east coast of Iceland first made for a super long travel day. We started off in Portland and took public transit to the airport. Then we flew to Minneapolis and changed planes. Once we arrived in Reykjavik, we took the transfer shuttle to the tiny domestic airport and flew to Egilsstaðir. After that, we picked up our van and drove an hour to Seydisfjordur. The van had a 6 speed manual transmission and that first drive was trial by fire. I stalled the van quite a few times at the airport that first day because I kept trying to start in 3rd gear. The last time I drove a stick shift, it had 5 gears and that extra gear made it tricky. Once I figured out the 1st gear, we were on our way over the mountain pass to Seydisfjordur*. That was a really scary drive. The curvy road through ice was fogged in and visibility was very low. I drove slowly and very carefully that day. After the nerve-racking drive, we finally arrived at our Airbnb and concluded the super long travel day. Whew!
*If you ever saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the longboarding scene was filmed on the road to Seydisfjordur.
Seydisfjordur is an idyllic little fishing village at the innermost point of the fjord with the same name. I loved it. This was the most picturesque little town I’ve ever visited. The town is surrounded by steep mountains carved by ancient glaciers and there are waterfalls everywhere you look. It’s a magical place.
Here is a view from our Airbnb at midnight. The sun didn’t set while we were in Iceland. It didn’t really bother any of us, though. The rentals all had good curtains and we slept okay.
There are many trails around Seydisfjordur and we enjoyed hiking a few of them. We also went swimming at the public pool, explored the town, and just hung out. I also had my favorite meal in Iceland there.
The lamb in Iceland tasted phenomenal. Icelandic sheep roam the hillsides, graze, and drink from glacier streams. That’s the definition of organic free-range. Yes, the stereotype is real; they wander into the road occasionally. I had to stop and honk at a few when I drove through the pass that first foggy day.
My favorite meal in Iceland was when we went to lunch at the Hotel Aldan after a morning hike. They have a 2 for 1 deal and the food was excellent. That’s 2 lamb racks for $39! That’s a fantastic deal in the land of $20 hamburgers. The lamb was cooked perfectly too. You can’t beat this value in Iceland or even the US. Mrs. RB40 tried the Icelandic crepes and our friend had fish and chips.
Here is one crossed off the old bucket list – go fishing with a Viking in a beautiful fjord. Our Airbnb host offered to take us fishing and we took him up on it. What a fantastic host! That earned him a 5 star rating from us. We drove a bit out of town to a little dock and we were the only people around that whole time. This was my first experience with fishing and I enjoyed it. I can see myself get into this when I’m a bit older and more relaxed. Unfortunately, we didn’t catch anything that day except seaweed. 🙁 A cod would have made a perfect ending to this little side story.
We really enjoyed staying at his little townhouse too. It was a neat little efficient space. Mrs. RB40 finally sees why IKEA makes sense.
Fjords road trip
I really enjoyed our stay in Seydisfjordur, but it was just the beginning of our Iceland trip. It was time to move on to Skaftafell National Park. We left early and the pass was clear, thank goodness. It was a very pretty drive without the fog. Amazingly, there is a huge frozen lake next to the road at the top of the pass. I didn’t even see it when I drove through the first time because I was so focused on the road.
We took the ring road and drove around 3 more fjords. It was a very scenic drive, but we didn’t stop much. It was a wet and windy day so we mostly enjoyed the fjords from the van.
For lunch, we stopped at Hafnarbudin, a small diner in Hofn. Our friend told us this town is famous for their lobsters. I had a lobster roll, Mrs. RB40 had fish and chips, and RB40Jr had a hot dog. That’s $52 for lunch. Did I tell you it ain’t cheap in Iceland?
After lunch, we got back on the road and continued to Jokulsarlon, the glacier lake. This stop was really cool. The icebergs calve off from the glacier and make their way to the ocean. We saw a seal swimming around too. The kids enjoyed throwing rocks at the icebergs, but they lost interest quickly and pressed us to move on. It was cold. This was a long driving day.
Here are our cabins in Hof, a cluster of farms and accomodations. There aren’t many choices in this area near Skaftafell National Park. Each family got a cabin so we got a little break from the kids running around the Airbnb. They really enjoyed each other’s company and had a blast at the last rental. They played and made a lot of racket the whole day.
You can see our rental VW Transporter here. This van was a beast. The clutch has a long throw and it was not fun to drive in traffic. Fortunately, there was very little traffic outside of Reykjavik so it wasn’t a problem most days. The van was super long too. We parked in a garage once in Reykjavik and it was hair rising to go around the ramps. It’s pretty amazing that we returned the van unscratched. At least, we had plenty of space for our luggage.
Skaftafell used to be its own park, but it is now a part of the huge Vatnajokull National Park. Interestingly, Iceland doesn’t charge a fee to visit their national parks and various sites. A few parking lots charge a fee and that’s about it. In the US, we pay to visit state and national parks. I guess we have a more organized ranger system here. I really don’t mind paying to help run our national parks.
At Skaftafell, we hiked (strolled really) for about 4 hours. First, we hiked to Svartifoss, a nice waterfall framed by hexagonal lava columns. This waterfall was quite unique. I’ve never seen a waterfall surrounded by this kind of lava formation before. This part of the hike was all uphill, though. It took us quite a while longer than the advertised 15-20 minutes easy walk.
On the hike back, we visited Selid, a small farm with turf homes. These homes were built in early 18th century and restored by the National Museum of Iceland. The animals lived downstairs and the people lived above them. The rooms were small and 6 people shared 2 tiny bedrooms. I guess I can’t complain about our 4 people in our 2 bedroom condo situation anymore. It was interesting to take a peek into how people lived in the past. American houses are huge in comparison to the Icelandic homes.
Hofskirkja turf church
The Hofskirkja turf church was right next to our cabin. This is one of the 6 remaining turf churches in Iceland. The roof is made with turf over stone slabs. It was neat to see and walk around this historical church.
Drive to Vestmannaeyjar
The small cabin was neat for a couple of nights, but I was glad it was time to move on. It was too tight. At least, now I know we wouldn’t be happy in a tiny home. We need a bit more space.
For lunch, we stopped in Vik and had a pizza and seafood soup. Interestingly, pizza was ubiquitous in Iceland. It’s a mid-price alternative to a complete entree. A small pizza cost around $20 and we could share it. That’s way cheaper than getting 2 meals. We also went souvenir shopping a bit in Vik. Mrs. RB40 got 4 postcards and stamps. I think our friends purchased some chocolate and some other small souvenirs.
After that, we strolled down to check out the black sand beach. The black sand was very fine here. Most black sand beaches I’ve been to have coarser sand. The kids enjoyed running away from the waves. We didn’t touch the water because it was a cold day and the waves are known to be dangerous.
After a brief rest in Vik, we continued on our road trip. The next stop was Skogafoss. This fall was big and it sprayed water everywhere. Luckily, we came prepared with our jackets, we were drenched. My old winter jacket is so beat up; it is almost 20 years old. I didn’t realize how shabby it was until this trip. It is still waterproof so I’m hesitant to get a new one. Junior hiked to the top of the fall for a closer view with the group while I took a little nap in the van. I’m a bad hiker.
Next was the Sanjalandsfoss. This waterfall is one of Iceland’s favorites because you can walk behind it. The trail was pretty good except for one part where you have to scramble up some rocks. RB40Jr was very confident in himself and climbed up very quickly. I had to keep telling him to slow down so I can be within grabbing range. He’s a great climber, but I still worry.
Vestmannaeyjar is a town on Heimaey Island off the south coast of Iceland. The largest puffin colony lives here in the summer. This is the main reason we visited and stayed for 2 nights. Most tourists come here for a day trip and head back to the mainland in the evening. We took it slow so we could explore the island a bit more.
The island has a volcano story. In 1973, the Eldfell volcano erupted and destroyed many buildings. The entire population of the island was evacuated to the mainland for a few months. About one-fifth of the town was destroyed. The government imported some big pumps from the US to spray ocean water on the lava in an effort to save the harbor. It worked because the harbor survived. Some of us hiked up to the top of the old volcano to take in the view.
Our friends decided to take the local sightseeing tour, but we opted out. We never liked tours because they always rushed us. Heimaey is a small island, but it was 6 km out of town to see the puffins. That’s why we decided to bring the van with us on the ferry.
I drove the RB40 family to see the puffin colony in the morning and one more time at 8 pm. The puffins are out at sea in the daytime so you don’t see many of them with the regular tour. We saw a few puffins flying around in the morning, but the night viewing was a lot better. There were hundreds of puffins hanging out in the water. We also saw some landing and going home to their burrows. Puffins live out at sea most of the year and only come back to mate in the summer. They are graceful swimmers, but they are not very good fliers. It’s tough for them to land with the high wind blowing. I’m not sure why they pick the windiest spot in Iceland to build their homes. They are super cute, but it was tough to get a good photograph because they don’t sit around long. Once they landed, they usually went straight into their burrows.
Here, the kids took some time off from sightseeing to play at the playground. I stayed with them while the rest of the group hiked to the top of the volcano. This bouncy square is quite popular in Iceland. I’ve seen it at a few playgrounds. The kids had a ton of fun playing there. This park was right near our Airbnb. The local kids are here at all hours. I saw a bunch of them jumping up and down at 10 pm when I went to move the van. It’s like olden days in the US. Kids can go out by themselves and bike home whenever. We don’t let kids run anymore in the US so it’s a flashback to see kids with that kind of freedom. Iceland seems like a really safe and clean country.
Oh, Icelanders are super nice too. RB40Jr and I met a local resident while we were taking a rest at a bench while Mrs. RB40 hiked up another hill. He asked if Junior would like to see a lamb up close. They had a 2 month old lamb in their front yard. Junior got to pet it and learn a bit about spring lambs. It was super cute. Too bad I didn’t take a picture of this.
Heading to Reykjavik
For the concluding days of our vacation, we headed to Reykjavik. The drive was uneventful and we arrived in Reykjavik a bit too early for check in. So we drove to the old harbor area to look around. Man, the traffic in Reykjavik was jarring after driving the empty roads for days. It really sucked to drive that stick shift in Reykjavik traffic. The roundabouts were scary when there was a lot of traffic and I got lost a couple of times. We ended up near the Saga Museum so we decided to go in. I just didn’t want to drive anymore… The Saga museum was neat, but the kids didn’t like it. This is a wax museum that summarizes Iceland’s Viking history. It was a bit too scary for them with dead soldiers, burning witch, and such. After the Saga Museum, we went to our Airbnb to check in. It was a neat split level mid modern century home with 4 bedrooms. Finally, we had more space to move around.
The Airbnb was very close to Laugardalslaug, Reykjavik’s largest public swimming pools. We dropped by on a cold rainy evening and had a great time in the pools. RB40Jr really enjoyed the big water slide. It was really cool. There are blackout sections and one with blinking LEDs. It was like an amusement park ride. The pools were warmed with geothermal water. It was not fun to move between pools, though. Brrr…
If you don’t have an Airbnb account yet, use my link to sign up with Airbnb. You’ll get $40 credit toward your first stay and I’ll also get $20 credit to my account.
Golden Circle excursion
The next day was a nice sunny day and we went on an excursion to the Golden Circle. This is a drive loop with many famous sites and every tourist goes on this excursion. At least, that’s how it felt. All the sights were very busy and we saw more tourists in one day than the rest of the trip combined. Iceland is a very popular vacation destination these days.
Þingvellir is the sight of the oldest parliament in Europe, 930 AD. The chieftains chose this location for its centrality and access to clean water and grasslands for horses. Þingvellir is also where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet to form the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The plates drift apart and continue to widen here every year. The geology is quite neat even for an uninterested layperson like me. The kids enjoyed bird watching here. You can see the North American Plate behind them.
Efsti-Dalurll farm hotel
For lunch, we stopped at Efsti-Dalurll farm hotel. I split a $23 hamburger and a $20 beef Carpaccio with Mrs. RB40. Junior had a $15 kid burger. The kid burger was funny, it’s just the same size burger without the lettuce and tomato. The burger was quite delicious as it should be. Diners can see the cows downstairs from the dining room so the beef was nice and fresh.
Geysir Geothermal Area
Next stop on the Golden Circle drive was the Geysir Geothermal Area. The earliest documented geyser in European literature is here – the Great Geysir. All other geysers take their name from the Stori-Geysir. Unfortunately, the Great Geysir has been dormant since 1916. Now, the main attraction is Strokkur Geysir, which erupts every 5-10 minutes. There are many thermal pools here and it was an interesting area to visit. The kids could have stayed here for hours to watch the Strokkur Geysir spouts.
The last stop on the regular Golden Circle excursion is Gullfoss, a huge waterfall. Gullfoss was the biggest waterfall we saw on this trip and it was breathtaking. We didn’t stay here long, though. We had a reservation at the Secret Lagoon at 5:30 pm and we were running late.
The not so Secret Lagoon
The Secret Lagoon, or Gamla Laugin, is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland. The temperature of the pool is 100 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit year round. This comfortable temperature is sustained by natural hot springs around the area. We got there about half an hour late, but that was no problem. The hot pool was the perfect way to end our Golden Circle excursion. Our tension melted away and we finally got the relaxing hot spring experience we all craved. The Secret Lagoon cost $112 for 4 adults and 2 kids. There is a walking path around the pool for guests to admire the hot pools and mini geysers. This was actually really useful because it was easy to get overheated in the hot pool.
Last day in Reykjavik
For our last full day in Reykjavik, we explored the city a bit. As I get older, I’m less and less impressed with cities. Reykjavik was nice, but it’s just another city. That’s how I feel about Barcelona and Bangkok too. Cities are just too busy for me. I prefer to see the natural wonders these days and minimize our time in cities.
It was a rainy day so it wasn’t really pleasant to walk around. However, we made it to Hallgrimskirkja, the famous church. Hallgrimskirkja is very impressive. The architecture is striking and the church is huge. The design was inspired by Svartifoss, the waterfall surrounded by lava columns we saw earlier in the rip. We arrived at 11 am and were fortunate to hear the organist practice for a concert.
Once the concert began, we left to walk around the touristy area a bit and shopped for souvenirs. We didn’t get anything because RB40Jr already picked up a little puffin stuffy ($18!) at the Geysir gift shop. Our friends got some Icelandic wool products and a few small things. It was fun to play tourist for a while.
Icelandic Street Food
For lunch, we went to Icelandic Street Food. This was a very cool stop. I highly recommend this spot if you’re ever in Reykjavik. We ordered soup and bread on the side ($17 each.) That sounds expensive, but it’s cheaper other restaurants in the area. I saw a sign advertising pad thai for $39. No thanks! I’ll cook it when I get home.
Anyway, you can get all the refills you like at Icelandic Street Food. Their motto is nobody leaves hungry. We came in just at the right time too. The owner came in to say hello and handed out samples of house-made skyr ($5), kleinur ($3), and free beer tickets for his bar 2 doors down. What a nice guy! RB40Jr and I shared the seafood soup and we liked it. There are bay shrimps and scallops in the soup and we got one refill. Mrs. RB40 had the lamb soup and she really enjoyed it too. After lunch, you can have as many free macaroons, brownies, and carrot cakes as you’d like from the dessert tray. I really like the skyr here, a thick yogurt. It was better than all the skyr from the supermarkets we tried. The word is out because the place was packed with tourists.
That concluded our stay in Iceland and we took the plane back to Portland the next day. All in all, it was a great vacation. The scenery was awesome and the road trip was great. Road trips in the US tend to get very monotonous because most of it is highway driving. Iceland was the most expensive country we ever visited, but we had a great time. You could be much more frugal and save quite a bit if you’re willing to rough it. We saw a few people pitching tents at the campgrounds. Eating out is very expensive here. Let’s go over that quickly and then I’ll share how much the trip cost.
Food in Iceland
Eating out in Iceland is expensive, but I’m glad we tried many restaurants. Here is what I think about Icelandic cuisine from our limited exposure.
+Lamb: The lamb in Iceland was exquisite. If you like lamb, don’t miss it. The lamb dishes don’t cost much more than in the US. I think lamb dishes in the US usually cost $35-$40 in our area. That’s comparable to Iceland and you don’t have to tip there.
+Fish: Fishes here are very fresh and you can really taste the difference. The kids loved the fish and chips. The adults enjoyed pan fried cod and seafood soup.
+Hot dogs: Iceland hot dogs are awesome. They are made of a mixture of lamb, beef, and pork. They use natural casing so the “snap” is great too, much better than Nathan’s and Hebrew National. A hot dog costs around $5 at an eatery. It’s much cheaper to buy hot dogs, buns, and condiments from the grocery store and DIY. We did this when we stayed in the cabin near the national park.
+Pizza: Pizza is ubiquitous in Iceland. It seems every little town has a restaurant that serves pizza. It was a mid-price alternative to more expensive dishes. My favorite was the minced reindeer pizza and caramelized onion we had in Seydisfjordur. The reindeer taste was faint, but I liked it. The kids turned up their noses at it, though. “Who’d want to eat a reindeer?!!”
+Grocery store: Food from the grocery store is much more affordable than eating out at restaurants. We had a smoked lamb and egg sandwich from the deli grab-and-go section and it was quite good. I was contemplating buying some smoked lamb to bring back, but decided against it. Bringing meat into the US seems like a bad idea. We also purchased half a roast chicken ($7) and a boxed salad ($3) one day. My family used to do this all the time when we went on a road trip in the US. This is a healthy and affordable meal.
Also, you could buy 2 patties for $5 and buns and make your own hamburgers. That’s much cheaper than $40-$50 for 2 burgers at a restaurant. We didn’t cook on this trip, though. The Airbnb rentals have cookware, but no seasoning and spices. Mrs. RB40 took a couple of packets of Taco seasoning. However, Junior’s friend doesn’t like Mexican food so we skipped it.
Eateries we liked
Hotel Aldan for lunch – You can’t beat the BOGO deal. The food was excellent too.
Icelandic Street Food – Nobody leaves hungry. The owner is super friendly.
Ramen Momo – A surprisingly good ramen shop in Reykjavik. The owners here were really friendly too. We had 2 ramen and a side of gyoza for $50.
Reykjavik Sausage Company – We got tired of paying Iceland price for food so we went here for dinner on our last night. It was very close to our Airbnb too. They had German style sausage instead of pylsur, the Iceland hot dog. RB40Jr had a sausage in a bun ($9.) Mrs. RB40 and I split a curryworst with a side of potato salad ($11.) We also tried the 2 Icelandic drinks – Applesin, an orange soda and Malt Extrakt, a malt soda. Icelanders mix these 2 drinks together during Christmas. It was good, everything was good here.
Valdis – A very popular ice cream shop in Reykjavik. The ice cream was excellent, creamy and just right.
Ouch, here comes the tough part. We were not frugal on this trip. We ate out often and didn’t have enough reward points to help defer travel expenses. I mostly ignored the expense until we got back from the trip. Let’s see the damage.
This isn’t quite final yet because I’m waiting for my friend to put down more shared expenses. It’s pretty close, though. We split the Airbnb rentals, van, gasoline, ferry tickets, and a few other things. So the $1090 listed here is half the total cost of the car rental. That’s about 200 bucks a day for the rental van. Yowza!
Overall, it looks okay. The major thing that we could have saved on is eating out. But the total cost isn’t that much at $600. We probably could have cut it in half and ate cheaply from grocery stores every day. However, we wanted to try Iceland food and we were with friends.
The rentals were very expensive and totaled $2,552, that’s about $250 per night. These rentals are all mid-price Airbnb homes. It would have been just as expensive to stay in hotels. I think we did all right with the expenses for a family with one kid. We could have traveled more frugally when were young with no kid. This price is probably what a middle-class American family should budget for.
Stuff we missed
Blue Lagoon – We didn’t book the Blue Lagoon in advance and found out that it cost $100 per person to visit in the evening. Since we already planned to go to the Secret Lagoon, we figured we could skip the Blue Lagoon.
Ice Caves Tour and Glacier hike – The minimum age for this was 10, so the kids wouldn’t have been able to go.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – We missed the famous hot dog stand where former President Clinton and Antony Bourdain went. I didn’t research ahead and missed the chance to try it when we were in the area.
The North and West Coast – We’ll have to put this off until next time.
East or West, Home is best
We had a great trip, but we’re super happy to be home. I made bacon and eggs this morning and it was wonderful. It feels great to have everything I need to cook. Ahh… Mrs. RB40 is also really happy to be home. It is so comfortable here. We like traveling, but we like coming home more and more as we get older.
I’ve got one last thing to add. We withdrew $100 from the ATM at the airport just in case we needed to use cash, but it turned out we could charge almost everything on the credit card. The only time I needed Krona was when we went to a public restroom. They asked for 200 krona ($2) donation for upkeep. Next time we go, I’ll withdraw just $20. 🙂
I hope you enjoyed reading about our Iceland trip. Have you ever visited? If you’re young and can rough it, you should go soon. It gets a lot more expensive once you can’t rough it anymore.
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For 2018, Joe plans to diversify his passive income by investing in US heartland real estate through RealtyShares. He has 3 rental units in Portland and he believes the local market is getting overpriced.
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