Don’t let Iceland’s pricy reputation put you off. Here’s how to camp and road trip your way around the the country’s mountains, fjords and volcanoes, saving money along the way
How do you put a price on a bowl of fish soup? You may well have had cheaper chowders than the cream-topped broth of salmon and prawns served at the Fjöruhúsid café, but when sat on its terrace, snug between the glittering Atlantic and a snowcapped volcano, shelling out just over a tenner will seem like an absolute bargain.
Walk the clifftop path between Arnarstapi and Hellnar and you’ll find a pair of far-flung fishing villages at the tip of West Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula. It’s only a short walk – barely 3km. But in the couple of hours that you will spend ambling along the wave-gnawed coast, you may spot seals squirming in kelp off a beach of polished basalt pebbles or a white-tailed eagle pirouetting against a meringue whip of ice on 1,446m-tall Snaefellsjökull.
The coastline is a brinelaced sculpture of sea arches, caves and blowholes, with fulmars and kittiwakes fussing around seabird citadels, their wings shining like chips of quartz against black cliffs of lava – and it costs nothing. One day of natural wonders for the price of a bowl of fish soup: food for thought before you write off Iceland as too expensive.
No one is suggesting that the Land of Fire and Ice can’t burn a hole in your wallet, but what many people forget is that its biggest attractions, from mighty waterfalls to mesmerising seascapes, are completely free. There are ways of travelling to minimise the costs, so you can travel out of this world for not-so-astronomical prices. Read on to discover how Iceland can be great value for money.
Top tip for travel in Iceland
Increase your odds of spotting the northern lights by staying outside built-up areas. Also, check the aurora forecast, which provides real-time information on auroral activity and cloud cover.
Best for: First-timers, shortbreakers, highlights-hitters
Route: Reykjavík • Gullfoss • Geysir • Thingvellir
Why go? This approximately 300km road trip rounds up a triple whammy of natural wonders but is better – and better value – done over two days rather than one
When to go: Spring and autumn – generally cheaper and less busy than summer. Spring sees long days and a dash of snow left over from winter; in autumn the tundra turns russet and gold. Northern lights sightings are possible from September to April.
How to do it: To complete the so-called Golden Circle – which comprises the twin-tiered cascade of Gullfoss, the geothermal hotspot of Geysir and the tectonic rift at Thingvellir NP – most people base themselves in Reykjavík, combining expensive city accommodation with a full-day coach tour that typically costs around ISK11,000 (£85) per person.
However, hiring a basic car at Keflavík airport for a weekend in late June costs little more; for example, Budget offers a Hyundai i10 or similar for around ISK10,800 (£83). As well as having your own transport for a couple of days, you won’t have to pay for airport transfers and you’ll have the freedom to explore the Golden Circle independently.
Tour buses return to the capital around 5pm; with your own wheels, you don’t have to, leaving long hours of daylight during summer to visit the popular sites later in the day without the crowds. You’ll also have plenty of time to track down the Golden Circle’s less-visited attractions, such as Faxi waterfall and the volcanic crater lake of Kerid.
You’ll also have more time to explore the excellent walking opportunities in Thingvellir, including the hike along the ancient Langistigur pathway to the Althing, site of the world’s oldest parliament, dating from 930 AD. Another advantage of self-drive is that you can stay somewhere more affordable in the countryside. Options range from guesthouses to hostels and campsites.
Regular cost: Coach tour for two = £170
Budget cost: Car hire for two (including petrol) = £103
Potential saving: £67
Duration: 1 week+
Best for: Road-trippers, sights-seekers, home chefs
Route: Selfoss • Reykjavík • Reykjanes Peninsula • Thingvellir • Seljalandsfoss • Vík • Vatnajokull • Jökulsárlón
Why go? See the surreal sights of the south-west for less by self-driving and self-catering
When to go: May to October, for easier 2WD self-driving and longer days.
How to do it: Comprising a surf-raked coast of black-sand beaches and a brooding interior of volcanoes and icecaps, Iceland’s south-west is a popular focal point for Iceland first-timers with more than a weekend to spare.
Many of the region’s highlights are easily accessible via the well-sealed tarmac Ring Road. This means there’s no need to hire an expensive 4WD. Also, you can happily base yourself at a self-catering apartment – an excellent way to reduce your food bill – and make day-trips to different areas. For the biggest savings, consider an early autumn break – car hire can be much cheaper in low season (Sept-May). For example, an eight-day rental of a Toyota Yaris with SADcars.com (which rents out reliable but older models for lower prices) costs €331 (£289) in mid-July and €207 (£180) in early September; this includes a 15% discount for online booking.
Securing a self-catering spot in the Hveragerdi/Selfoss area is a good option for exploring. This puts you less than an hour’s drive from Reykjavík, and well-placed to make a loop around the craters, lighthouses and steaming pools of the Reykjanes Peninsula. The Golden Circle is easily doable from here, too (Thingvellir to Selfoss is just 50km). East from Selfoss, it’s around two-and-a-half hours’ drive to Vík, via the bridal-veil falls of Seljalandsfoss, rainbow-garnished Skogafoss and the famously troublesome Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
To get to the iceberg-strewn lagoon of Jökulsárlón takes around four hours. It’s a long drive but there’s plenty to see along the way, and the expansive daylight hours (roughly 21 hours in June, 13 hours in September) mean there’s plenty of time for exploring.
Regular cost: Average three-course meal for two (per week) = £630 (approx)
Budget cost: Average home-cooked dinner for two (per week) = £49 (approx)
Potential saving: £581
Self-catering? When you land at Keflavík, stock up on booze at Duty Free, which has by far the country’s cheapest alcohol. Also, shop at discount supermarkets such as the Bonus chain and avoid expensive imports.
Best for: Completists, outdoors-lovers
Route: Snaefellsnes Peninsula • Myvatn • Húsavík • East Fjords • Vatnajökull NP • Vík
Why go: Make a super circuit of the whole country in your own house-on-wheels
When to go: April to October – the Ring Road is passable year-round but can be hairy in winter; winter drivers will need snow tyres, or should consider a 4WD.
How to do it: Route 1 (the Ring Road) makes an irresistible loop around Iceland, bringing the whole country within reach. For most of its 1,300km length, it’s a two-lane paved highway, though there are some gravel stretches on the rugged east coast. However, stick to the warmer months and this epic road-trip should pose few problems for a 2WD campervan, with rentals cheaper in spring and autumn.
A camper gives you greater freedom to pause where you like and the ability to cook for yourself. You don’t need to pay for tours or waste time and fuel returning to a hotel every night. Kuku Campers offers 14 days’ rental in a basic, two-person Dacia Dokker from €1,246 (£1,090) – that’s accommodation and transport for just £39pp per day. For something a bit roomier and more robust, a four-person Toyota Hiace 4WD camper costs from €2,646 (£2,315). Also try Camping Iceland and Happy Campers. For details of campsites, visit en.camping.info.
Although it’s possible to circle Iceland in a week, it’s much better over a fortnight. Travelling clockwise from Reykjavík, start by detouring around the volcanoes and sea cliffs of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Visit Myvatn’s lakes, lava flows and geothermal pools, and the nearby Dettifoss waterfall. Stop in Húsavík for potential whale spots; boat trips aren’t cheap but you might consider the chance to spot a blue whale (best June-July) well worth it.
Spend time amid the crinkle-cut coast and quirky villages of the East Fjords. Leave the Ring Road at Eglisstadir to snake over a high pass and drop into Seydisfjördur; pick up a free Historic Seydisfjördur brochure, which includes a walking tour of the town’s highlights. Next veer to Bakkagerdi, a remote hamlet in Borgafjördur Eystri, which makes a fine base for day hikes – there are over 140km of well-marked trails.
Finally, trace the south coast back towards Reykjavík, travelling via A-list (and free) natural wonders such as Vatnajökull NP and the black-sand beach at Vík.
Regular cost: Hotels (approx £1,400) and car hire (approx £800) for two weeks = £2,200
Budget cost: Campervan hire for two weeks = £1,090
Potential saving: £1,110
Duration: 2–3 days
Best for: Culture vultures, urban explorers
Why go? Take advantage of low-cost flights for an economical urban escape
When to go: Year-round.
How to do it: Low-cost airlines like easyJet and Wow Air offer return flights between the UK and Iceland from as little as £60 return, so it’s not surprising that Reykjavík is now a popular city break destination. The challenge is how to eke out your budget while you’re there. Start saving straight away by taking the bus (not a taxi) from Keflavík airport to Reykjavík; The 45-minute Flybus costs from ISK2,500 (£19) each way. Getting around this compact city is easy on foot and there is also a growing network of cycle paths, with bike hire available from ISK4,900 (£38) for 24 hours.
Finding cheap places to stay in the city is not as simple. Located in downtown Reykjavík, close to its shops, restaurants and galleries, Hlemmur Square is a curious blend of luxury hotel and upmarket hostel – the dorm-style accommodation in the latter is from ISK3,500 (£27) per night. Also try Guesthouse 101, which has doubles from €90 (£78). For sightseeing, City Walk offers a free two-hour walking tour of Reykjavík (plus a voluntary tip for your guide), delving into viking history, folklore, food and politics at various classic and quirky sites. For ISK3,700 (£28), the Reykjavík City Card provides free admission to several museums, as well as discounts on bike rental, whalewatching tours and eating out for 24 hours. Striking Hallgrímskirkja cathedral is also worth a visit; entrance is free, or you can shell out ISK900 (£7) for great views of Reykjavík from the bell tower. Window-shop only at the fancy boutiques on Laugavegur Street; for bargains, head to the weekend Kolaportid fleamarket. And for cheap eats, grab an iconic Icelandic hotdog at Baejarins Beztu (about ISK450/£3.50).
The iconic Harpa Concert Hall is a good place to warm up on a cold day. It often has free events and the ground-floor restaurant, Smurstödin, has a handy daily happy hour (4-6pm).
There are plenty of free outdoorsy options within the city limits, too: stroll urban eden Ellidaárdalur Valley; climb Mount Esja, 10km north of the city; or bathe on Nauthólsvík beach (free in summer), where geothermal water blends with jolly-cold Atlantic.
Regular cost: Average hotel room (for two) = £160
Budget cost: Average dorm bed (x2) = £50
Potential saving: £110 per night
Bring your bedding – many hostels will charge extra for sheets if you don’t have your own sleeping bag. Bring a towel, too.
Duration: 4-5 days
Best for: Hikers, adventure-lovers
Route: Landmannalaugar • Thórsmörk
Why go: Plan an independent, inexpensive hike along ‘Iceland’s Inca Trail’
When to go: The trail is usually open from late June until mid-September, depending on weather conditions. July to August is the busiest time. There is some general Laugavegur trail info at www.volcanohuts.com.
How to do it: There’s no better freebie than going for a walk. And Iceland has many superb trails probing its fjord-riven coast and uninhabited volcanic interior, not least a raft of easily accessible day walks. However, the star attraction is the Laugavegur – a three-to five-day trek that snakes 55km through the southern Highlands. It links Landmannalaugar, where multicoloured rhyolite mountains rear above geothermal hot springs, and Thórsmörk, a hidden tangle of valleys and ridges surrounded on three sides by glaciers.
You can book a guided tour, including hut accommodation, food and transfers to and from Reykjavík; for this, expect to pay around ISK175,000 (£1,358) per person. However, you can tackle the trail more cheaply by going it alone. A Hiking on Your Own Passport trip with Reykjavík Excursions (ISK14,000/£108) covers bus transfers from the capital’s BSI Bus Terminal to/from the start/end of the trek. Designated campsites along the trail cost ISK2,500 (£19.50) per person per night. Huts, which have cooking facilities, basic bunks and showers (ISK500/£3.70 extra), cost ISK8,000 (£62) per person and must be booked in advance. So a four-day hike, excluding food, costs from ISK22,000 (£170) per person. A small price to pay for this epic on-foot adventure – though it’s worth noting, if the weather turns, you might wish that you’d stumped up for the huts…
Regular cost: Guided Laugavegur trek (for two people) = £2,716
Budget cost: Independent Laugavegur (for two people) = £324
Potential saving: £2,392
The weather here tends to be unpredictable, even in summer. Water- and windproof outer gear is essential, plus plenty of layers. A sleeping bag is also required for staying in the huts.
Camping in West Fjords (Dreamstime)
Best for: Tent lovers, nature buffs
Route: Reykjavík • Reykhólar • Flokalundur • Látrabjarg • Thingeyri • Ísafjörður • Drangsnes
Why go? Take a tent for a low-cost exploration of Iceland’s little-visited wild west
When to go: Campsites in Iceland are generally open from May to September – but you’ll still need a three-season sleeping bag and a tent designed to withstand windy and rainy weather.
How to do it: Dangling into the North Atlantic like a sea fan snagged in an ocean current, the West Fjords is a ruggedly beautiful and uncrowded corner of Iceland, its finely chiselled coastline crying out for a dawdling drive, plenty of hiking and a week or two under canvas. This will save you a fortune on accommodation and get you right out amid Mother Nature all at the same time.
The most comprehensive directory of Iceland’s 170-plus campsites can be found in the Aning Guide (free from tourist information centres or download at icelandreview.com). Consider buying a Campingcard (campingcard.is); this costs €149 (£130) for 28 days’ free camping for two adults and up to four children (excluding lodging tax of ISK111/86p per family) at over 40 campsites around Iceland, including West Fjord spots such as Drangsnes and Flokalundur.
New for 2017, the card also confers a discount on fuel (up to ISK7/5p a litre at selected gas stations). If you don’t own all the right gear, instead of buying it you could hire everything from Iceland Camping Equipment Rental in Reykjavík. A tent, sleeping bags, mattresses, stove, cook set, cooler box and a folding table and chairs for two adults costs around €37 (£31) a day. It’s a three-hour drive from Reykjavík to the West Fjords. A good choice for a first stop is the campsite at Reykhólar, which has spectacular views over the bay of Breiðafjörður.
Further west, Flokalundur makes a great basecamp for visiting the 100m-tall fan-shaped Dynjandi waterfall, as well as the 400m-high sea cliff s at Látrabjarg – Europe’s largest seabird cliff with millions of puffins, guillemots and kittiwakes.
Heading north, Thingeyri has a rich viking history, while the Tungudalur campsite, near the main settlement of Ísafjörður, is a good jumping-off point for hiking the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. Leaving the West Fjords, don’t miss a chance to camp for a few nights at Drangsnes with its beautiful beaches and (free) coastal hot tubs.
Regular cost: 14 nights hotels (approx £100pn) = £1,400
Budget cost: 14 nights camping (including lodging tax) = £137
Potential saving: £1,263
Wild camping is permitted in uninhabited areas (unless otherwise indicated) but it’s illegal to camp outside designated areas in national parks. For the full rules, see tinyurl.com/iceland-camp
Main image: Sunrise over Mount Kirkjufell (Dreamstime)