The Cost of a Trip to Iceland

One of my favorite lunch-break activities at my office job this summer was clicking around airline websites, trying out dates for imaginary trips and trying to calculate whether I could afford to actually go on any of these excursions.

I’ve tried to make traveling a priority in my life ever since I got my first passport for a high school trip I went on when I was 15, posing for a bored Rite Aid manager in front of one of those portable white backgrounds. I took out loans to study abroad during college, and shortly after graduation, went to France for a teaching job. Since then, I’ve been back home in New York, enjoying my neighborhood, my job, and the abundance of large, to-go drip coffees.

I was fine with having no immediate plans of traveling internationally, but I still wanted to get away for a week—I had vacation days to use up, and a bit of money in savings I could use on a planet ticket. I eventually found flight on the Icelandair site for $605, taxes and fees included. It was more than I’d hoped to spend, and the trip would be from Wednesday to Monday, but most other date ranges I clicked on had flights in the $800 range, so I took it as a sign to bite the bullet. After the trip was booked, I chatted with my friend online: “I think I’m going to Iceland in October?”

I didn’t know much about Iceland in the fall except for stories I’d heard about the country’s adorable horses, their impressive nobel laureate-to-population ratio, and that daylight was scarce, with the total amount hovering around 9 or 10 hours a day. I made sure I had a waterproof jacket ($30), boots ($120), a few extra thermal shirts ($10), and plenty of reading material for the times I was too afraid to talk to anyone (which I feared would be all the time). In the midst of all this preparation I kept fielding the same questions: Why was I going alone? Wasn’t I scared?

Being more introverted than not, I had my doubts about befriending my hostel bunkmates or chatting it up with the locals in one of Iceland’s geothermal pools, but traveling alone didn’t cross my mind as something out of the ordinary. I had temporarily hauled my life overseas to France without knowing a single person there and peppered my stay with weekend trips to other cities, when I could afford it. And if I wasn’t alone, my friends and I would inevitably meet other travelers who were. Handling all aspects of traveling yourself, from tickets to food to sleeping to maintaining general sanity, was stressful at times, sure, but not as outrageous as everyone made it seem.

The hardest thing about traveling as an adult was finding someone to do it with—understandably, drunken promises with friends of road tripping across the country or backpacking through another one were seldom brought up again, let alone booked. Between money and vacation time, both scarce, lining up a trip with a travel partner feels nearly impossible.

I arrived at the airport on a Tuesday evening and caught a glimpse of myself in a window reflection; the hiking backpack I was carrying was as big as my torso. I was either going on a great adventure or making a very expensive mistake.

The flight was a red-eye from JFK to Reykjavik and landed around 6 a.m. Iceland time, and the lack of sleep and the wood-grained sleekness of the airport made me somewhat confused. I exchanged three $20 bills in my wallet for 6,800 Icelandic krona at a window, (The exchange rate when I went was 118 ISK for every dollar; now it’s around 115), which I then used to pay for a bus (2500 ISK; $21.18) to my hostel (which was 3,000 ISK; $25.42 a night for one bed in a 16-bed room), which I had read was the thing to do over trying to find a taxi.

Breakfast at the hostel was a steep 1,400 ISK ($11.86) per day, which was a sharp change from the free, Nutella-abundant breakfasts of Europe hostels past. I splurged for the first two mornings knowing I would be too sleepy on the first day for anything else and still getting settled the next. I spent the second day walking around the city and taking in the sights—Reykjavik is fairly compact and ideal for strolls around streets of cute houses and graffiti while you waffle between wishing someone was there to talk to and feeling pretty content all by yourself. (Speaking of waffles, I had a delicious one with jam and whipped cream at Kaffi Mokka. Tell them I sent you. Or don’t, because they will have no idea who you’re talking about.) Cheap lunches of local fare are easily found, like the infamous Icelandic hot dog (300 ISK; $2.54) or a comforting lobster soup (around 1,100 ISK; $9.32) from a restaurant that claims to serve “the world’s greatest.” I’d heard about that one while listening to other hostelers in my room. It pays to be a creep, sometimes.

I found a supermarket and bought some skyr (Icelandic yogurt which is more delicious than regular yogurt, I think), oatmeal, jam, pasta, cheese, instant coffee, and veggies for under 2,000 ISK ($16.94), which I used to escape the tyranny of the expensive hostel breakfast and also make dinners for myself. Extra bonus: hanging out in the hostel kitchen made it easier to strike up conversations with fellow travelers, which resulted in a group outing for a few 650 ISK ($5.50) beers at a Big Lebowski–themed bar.

As far as planned activities, I booked two things ahead of time to feel like I vaguely had a plan, and then added on anything once I got there. I settled on Icelandic horse riding (10,800 ISK; $91.52) and a waterfall tour and glacier day hike (20,900 ISK; $177.11) because, when in Rome, right? Both experiences were worth it, I felt—riding around with a group gave me a better sense of the landscape and forced me into much-needed social interaction. (“You don’t really use the ice picks,” our tour guide told our group before we hiked onto the glacier, “They’re mostly for Facebook pictures.”)

I regretted buying tickets one evening for the relatively inexpensive Northern Lights tour (5,400 ISK; $45.76, though you can go for free a second time if you don’t see any lights on the first go). I spent the night on a crowded bus as we drove out to some place with a waterfall and hot chocolate that burned my tongue, while we stood on a hill, staring at the dark sky for two hours, willing something exciting to show up. I didn’t see any lights on my trip, but I hear if they’re strong enough, you’re able to see them from Reykjavik itself.

My hostel, restaurants, and numerous tourism offices were stocked with copies of the Reykjavik Grapevine, a free English-language newspaper with listings of events for bars and restaurants around the city. Thanks to the paper, I showed up two hours too early for a show at Harlem (which would cost 1,200 ISK, or $10.17, when it eventually started) and retreated to a dark corner to sip my beer very, very slowly. Two other guys were there, each sitting alone. It was my third night there, and despite small chats on tours and in my hostel room, I was beginning to feel stir-crazy, always stuck in my thoughts. Part of me wished we could all accept our plight as solo bar patrons and share a table together, a Reykjavik lonely hearts club of sorts. When I finished my beer, I ordered another one, and then asked one of the guys if the spot next to them was open before I could talk myself out of it.

“It is!” he shouted. “Come sit! Are you from here?” My new friend was an Icelander, but out of town for the evening, hailing from the country’s second-largest city up north, Akureyri. He informed me it was also karaoke night and he had already put his name in for a rendition of “I Am the Walrus,” and could I perhaps hang out and support him when he sang? I checked my extensive plans for the evening (none, save for the late concert) and said yes.

On the last day, a bus picked me up and took me to the Blue Lagoon, which native Icelanders told me was a ripoff, but I wanted to see regardless (8,900 ISK; $75.42 for travel and admission, but the bus held our bags, which saved a bit at the lockers. Plus, it was my last day, hence the YOLO-type spending). I sat between two British men who were headed to New York after this. They asked me what to eat in Chinatown (“soup dumplings?”). Public pools, which you can find around the city, are a lot cheaper and reportedly offer a more authentic Icelandic experience, but I did get to drink a beer while applying an exfoliating mask, so. The sulfur-rich water did wreak havoc on my hair, as a friend warned me, so if avoiding a straw-like ‘do for the bulk of your trip is a priority, I’d recommend saving it until the end.

I went home with two bags of questionably named, duty-free “banana nougats” for my friends and coworkers, (a bargain 390 ISK; $3.30 a pop) a few knick-knacks for my family (~9,000 ISK; $76.27?), and a sense of relief that I could be a semi-functioning adult with a job and still make time for stepping out of my comfort (and time) zone. While spending this kind of money on a trip isn’t something I can do every year, it wasn’t out of reach, either.

There were times when I wished I had someone to split dishes with or to sit next to on a tour bus on my trip, but for the most part, I loved being alone—it doesn’t hurt that Iceland has some ideal landscapes for staring into the distance and feeling introspective about your life. I had complete control over my schedule, which meant I could eat wherever and nap whenever without feeling beholden to someone else’s needs or guilty that I was missing out on something. My solo status meant I also had the time to finish reading a book and writing a solid recap of each day in my journal, things that were harder to do in the real world of work and laundry and vague plans to exercise. I’m now waiting for my savings account to fill up again for the next Big Thing I Do, but knowing that its even possible makes the time go quicker.

 

Jillian Capewell lives in Brooklyn, works in publishing, and has no idea where she’d like to go next.

Top photo by: Hugh Gallagher

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34 Comments / Post A Comment

I loved this! That looks like such a fun experience. I do the same thing – I’m constantly planning hypothetical trips, and sometimes when the fates align, I just up and take ‘em. High five!

RiffRandell (#4,774)

Love this! When living in England and then New Zealand I made many weekend solo trips. Going a week alone is a little harder, but I never felt unsafe and I don’t mind doing my own thing. It really is the ‘where the heck is this bus stop? I don’t see a bus stop’ kind of moments that make you wish you had a buddy.

andnowlights (#2,902)

This was a wonderful read. I’ve never traveled alone, and now that I’m married I don’t ever expect to, which is kind of a bummer because I think I would be really good at it! These are the kind of things I wish I had done when I was single/still in college, so now I get to live vicariously through other people.

Iceland climbs and falls in my list of places I want to go, but this totally moves it up in the list!

@andnowlights Duuuuuude, I don’t know why marriage has to be a barrier to solo travel! I’m married, and I still travel alone, either as a shoulder on a work trip or just because I want to. And I also know a number of married women with kids who still travel alone – they just have to work out the childcare in addition to the other logistics.

And because these are the things we talk about, I finance it by saving my pennies (we do mad money allowances), but I know that if it was important to me and I needed a little extra to make it happen, my husband would totally support using the household account to get me somewhere (within reason, obviously. I’m not going to an indoor ski resort in the UAE on household funds).

Solo travel is amazing. Everyone should try it at least once. Gogogogogo!

andnowlights (#2,902)

@bowtiesarecool I super love him and hate being away from him, so I probably wouldn’t have any fun without him anyway! Aaaaand we don’t do mad money, at least right now, since he’s still in school. But mostly, in reality, I’d just miss him (and feel guilty since I’ve already traveled way more than he did before we got married).

Allison (#4,509)

Oh man, I totally want a travel partner, which is why I tend to go visit friends in foreign lands, but this sounds awesome, too! Idle trip planning and what if-ing is my #1 hobby

meatballsub (#5,401)

This is my dream vacation! I also want to go alone b/c of the reasons you mentioned and b/c my bf is a vegetarian and it would probably be kind of hard for him to eat there. I am bookmarking your links (BTW your waterfall tour and horseback riding tour links are the same?).

pizza (#599)

@meatballsub I had no problems eating in Iceland and I am vegan. Vegetarian should be no problem unless your bf is super picky.

Jillian, I do not know you, but I like you and want to travel with you. I’ve thought about traveling alone, but I like having another person with me to double check directions, gut checks, etc.

The Nordic area keeps getting higher and higher on my list of places to visit.

diplostreetmix (#4,472)

Why would you use a foreign exchange counter? Use an ATM and withdraw a whole bunch at once! Even better, use a credit card with free foreign purchases (cap one venture, for one). You’ll really get slammed on foreign exchange otherwise.

jcape (#5,891)

@diplostreetmix That is a really good point. At the time I figured I would just use the cash in my wallet to cover the bus ride to the hostel. The rest of my money came from an ATM, though!

questingbeast (#2,409)

Iceland is my biggest bad financial decision. I went for six weeks to learn Icelandic, and I got my first (and last) credit card for the trip. Six years later I can’t speak any Icelandic and my credit’s still fucked. I wish I could do sensible fun trips like this!

EmilyAnomaly (#4,238)

Iceland wasn’t on my radar for a trip, but it is now! Is there anything you wish you would have done that you didn’t while you were there?

Also, I traveled solo 9 years ago. 3 days in Vienna, walking around, taking pictures, going to art museums, and I ate a piece of torte everyday for lunch. Followed this with four days alone in delightfully rainy Berlin. Spent one whole day at the botanical gardens and another trying to find places from Goodbye Lenin. Best vacation ever.

@EmilyAnomaly That sounds amazing. That movie is fantastic!

yttri (#1,658)

You captured solo travel really well. I’ve been thinking about traveling to a Scandanavian country lately, so this is also real timely. I also want a hot dog now.

Lily Rowan (#70)

I’m totally going to Iceland in a couple of weeks! But just for an overnight, so I’m literally thinking Lebowski bar and Blue Lagoon and that’ll be about it. Because why not do the things you always hear about??

@Lily Rowan ooh please post about your experience with a whirlwind visit there–I’m thinking about adding on a short stopover on my way to London this summer and I want to know if it’s worth it for one night!

Lily Rowan (#70)

@backstagebethy I will report back!

riotmute (#4,454)

Great story. I have a couple friends who went to Iceland recently and loved it. Being in NYC it’s a pretty frugal option, actually. I want to get there soon

sockhop (#546)

ever since Edith wrote about her solo Iceland trip on The Hairpin I have been dreaming of my own trip. I have a folder in my bookmarks just for that purpose! I guess I just haven’t been able to figure out how long is really feasible for me to go, or how long a trip like that should be. I can’t wait to go and loved reading your account.

@sockhop Depends what you want to do. To see Reykjavik and do the Golden Circle, a couple of days is fine (3 would be enough, 4 plenty!) But if you wanna venture further afield, more time would be needed – calculate accordingly.

rorow (#1,665)

I am going in exactly one month, so this is perfect timing! We’d planned to go to the Blue Lagoon the first day (also an early AM flight) but that hair concern is valid. Any tips to avoid crazy sulfur hair?

I am going to have to go to this Big Lebowski bar as well as go and get lobster soup.

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

Question: how did you deal with the language issue? I am paranoid about solo travel in countries where I don’t have language experience because what if I run into an issue?

EmilyAnomaly (#4,238)

@Caitlin with a C You could bring along something like this: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/179274.The_Wordless_Travel_Book

jcape (#5,891)

@Caitlin with a C Maybe it was because I was hanging around tourist-heavy spots, but in Reykjavik I didn’t have any problem with language in cafes, shops, etc. I feel like it’s good to know phrases like “hello” and “thank you,” if nothing else. All of the hostel staff spoke English as well and were really helpful too!

pizza (#599)

@Caitlin with a C I didn’t meet one person who did not speak English in Iceland during my trip. They all spoke it and were quite good at it. You’ll have no problems.

@Caitlin with a C Literally everyone speaks English in Iceland. They also learn Danish in school, if you speak Danish…

Marissa (#467)

I’m planning a big solo trip for later this year and Reykjavik is high on my list! I see you stayed at KEX! I’ve been researching hostels in cities I want to visit to get an idea of the cost and such and that one really stood out to me. Did you enjoy it?

pizza (#599)

@Marissa You should look into a package flight/hotel package from icelandair. I did that a couple of years ago and it was a lot cheaper (& more comfortable) than the OPs experience. I had my flight from jfk, roundtrip airport transportation, my own room in a 4-star hotel w/ spa, admission to the blue lagoon w/ a massage, and a city pass for buses/museums for $800.

@pizza We couchsurfed in Reykjavik but a LOT of people stay at Kex and I’ve heard good things about it. I pass on their recommendation :)

jcape (#5,891)

@Marissa Kex was great! I stayed in a 16-person dorm but the room I was in had a wall that separated it into two sections, so it didn’t feel crowded at all. Plus there were outlets and a light for each bed, which was nice. It’s close to all the stuff downtown and I found it pretty easy to meet people there. Definitely would recommend!

Katze (#5,053)

I had the most fantastic time on a solo trip to Iceland several years ago. I’m actually a big fan of solo travel, generally. Anyway, for those of you who might go in the summer, another budget-friendly option for lodging is to stay with a family in Reykjavik. People rent rooms in their houses to tourists during the high season. I was forced into this option because the hostel overbooked and had no bed left when I arrived. They provided me with a list of nearby residents who were offering rooms to tourists. I can’t remember what the exact cost was, but I do remember that it was significantly cheaper than what I’d planned to pay the youth hostel (bonus!) and also super interesting. I would love to do this again, as soon as my kid is old enough to join us.

sariberry (#4,420)

This brought back so many fond memories of my 30th birthday trip to Iceland, almost exactly a year ago. If you go in the winter, you can get amazing packaged deals with Iceland air – our round trip flight, hotel, and guided day tour to geysers and waterfalls was $900 each.

I remember the Blue Lagoon particularly for how it utterly destroys your hair :) and also, it may be touristy, but by Icelandic standards only – there’s not that many people there ( at least not in winter).

I went there with my now-husband, but I TOTALLY advocate for solo traveling even after you’re married. I did that recently – went to Russia and Sweden to see friends, when my husband couldn’t get the time off. Sometimes it is so good to be out on the open road on your own. Ladies, no need to hold yourselves back!

Iceland is awesome! And you can get a free stopover of up to 7 days if you’re flying Icelandair between America and Europe.

Paying $20 for a burger in Reykjavik is a bit of an ouch, though. Here are my recommendations for saving dosh over there (scroll to bottom) http://nzmuse.com/tag/iceland/

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