The Best of Iceland Roadtrip (on a Budget)
Last September, we took Iceland Air‘s brilliant option for a week stopover to visit this mysterious country. Iceland is a destination growing in popularity due to it’s newly (relatively) affordable currency.
I am a bit of a glutton and decided to try and drive the entire ring road around the country in seven days. It would be better to drive the ring road in 10 days. Despite this, we have no regrets.
The scenery in Iceland is constantly changing and a dream for a photographer. The moody skies and colourful grasses in Fall were just heavenly. Many hotels and B&Bs have their own thermal hot tubs to soak in after a day’s driving.
We tend to gravitate towards the less touristy areas. Iceland is perfect for finding yourself in the wilderness. There’s so much to see!
Here’s our itinerary, prioritizing the best of Iceland on a budget including cliffs next to the sea, icebergs, and countryside. Also keep in mind this is an autumn itinerary. In the Spring, make sure to take advantage of some of the best birdwatching in the world.
Keflavik Airport- Hafnarfjall
From my research, I felt obligated to see the most popular spots in the area known as the Golden Circle. They are many interesting sites in one area. However, it can be difficult to appreciate these marvels when you witness the depressing obviousness of lazy tourism. You may have to dodge large group tours here.
Always read the fine print. The spectacular Geysir has become erratic and seldom performs. Instead, you’ll have to content yourself with the much smaller version that goes off every 10 minutes. Still impressive, though.
Gulfoss is a waterfall that is best known for the lovely rainbow effects it creates.
Þingvellir (anglicized as Thingvellir)
The chasm between the European and North American tectonic plates. Iceland’s original open-air Parliament. This is actually the most obvious chasm between the two plates that rip throughout Iceland.
Driving: 1 hour to Hafnarfjall from airport
1.5 hours detour around Golden Circle
Hafnarfjall – Akureyri
This was one of our only major detours off the Ring Road. Most of the peninsula is a dirt track. You’ll witness stunning, harsh landscapes. There are very few people that venture up here. All the better for it.
Make sure to check out the enormous dried fish racks. During the winter, several hundred thousand fish heads and bodies await export to Nigeria, where wind-dried Icelandic fish is considered a delicacy. The fish is used to make soup. Sadly we only saw the empty racks, but I’m not sure we would have been able to handle the stench!
This is a quaint little town we visited for their pool, which was closed, and the emigration centre, which was also closed. Vesturfarasetrið Emigration Centre is where 99% of the Icelanders that settled in North America during the late 1800s left from. This may be of no interest for you, but as a descendant of one of these Icelanders, I was quite touched.
As with many small museums and restaurants in Iceland, the visitor centre is only open until from June 1st to Sept. 1st. We learned this the hard way.
See my article about the best time to visit Iceland.
Driving: 5 hours (extra 1.5 hours with Hofsos detour)
Akureyri – Lake Myvatn
Instead of heading straight to Lake Myvatn, we stopped first at Goðafoss, a beautiful waterfall just off the ring road. We then headed North to Húsavík, the whale watching capital of Iceland. There, we opted to see the Whale Museum rather than participate in Whale Watching. This was for budget reasons as well as moral ones. However, I’m told that the new whale watching boats are soundless and don’t bother the whales. Iceland relies on this version of tourism as whaling is temporarily banned in Iceland. We were hoping to see a whale breaching in the harbor, but sadly; no such luck.
Driving: 1 hour (plus 2-hour detour to Husavik)
Explore Lake Myvatn
There is soo much to see around this lake. See my article about Lake Myvatn.
Myvatn – Hofn
This stunning coastline features hundreds of small waterfalls and winding roads around fjords. Pack a picnic!
Driving: 5 hours
Hofn – Vik
Just past Vik you’ll see a sign for these 3 Rocks standing on the beach. They’re rumored to have been three trolls transformed into rock.
This famous large glacial lake is on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park. You’ll find turquoise icebergs that have broken off from the glacier floating in the lagoon. At the end of September, there weren’t too many icebergs. If you can, stay at the lagoon for a little while. You may hear the breaking off of the icebergs into the water. An awesome sound. I hear the boat tours aren’t worth it.
The icebergs eventually float to sea. On the beach, just opposite the lagoon, you can see chunks of ice on the black sand. An absolutely mesmerizing site.
If you enjoy hiking, you’ll find all kinds if options at this national park. There are tours that can take you on the ice, into caves, or simply walks where you can overlook the glacier and the surrounding landscape. Notice how much the glacier has receded from the sea. We did the 2-hour Svartifoss walk. Svartifoss is a waterfall cascading over impressive black basalt columns.
Driving: 3 hours
Vik – Reykjavik
We stayed at an Air BnB close to the airport. Once we’d checked in, we finally went to explore Reykjavik. In the end, we felt that a day was enough. You’ll find a surprising amount of trendy cafés for such a small town. Otherwise, Reykjavik is known for it’s rowdy nightlife. Personally, if I were to return, I’d spend the money on a delicious meal at one of their modern cuisine restaurants.
Driving : 3 hours
Things to add for a 10 day stay in Iceland:
Visit Flatey Island
Visit Grimsey Island: 40 km north of the mainland. In the arctic circle, this tiny island is a haven for many traveling birds.
Visit the Interior
The harsh terrain of Iceland’s interior is meant to be the most stunning, while also the most dangerous. With extreme weather and roads that are inaccessible to normal cars, it’s best to go with a guide.
Things to Buy at the Airport
If you want a glass of wine at any time during your stay you’ll pay around 12€ a glass. Buy bottles at the airport duty-free– like all the locals. It’s half price compared to the bottles you’ll find anywhere else.
How can I explain the food in Iceland? Let me just say that I was extremely disappointed. Firstly, the quality. Pizzas and hamburgers seem to be the local fare. I didn’t see one fresh fish while I was there. Perhaps in Reykjavic. They must export everything.
Secondly, the price. I knew it would be expensive, but I had no idea. The hamburgers we ate should have been coated in gold leaf rather than defrosted and stuck into a microwave.
The gas station hot dogs everyone raves about are not that exciting in my opinion. Though, they are the cheapest nutrients (if you can call them that) around. All to say, you visit Iceland for the scenery, not the food.
I bought the above map at a gas station. It cost 28€. If you find one at the airport, I’m quite sure it’ll be much cheaper. Or order one online before you leave home.
The Little Book of Icelanders by Alda Sigmundsdóttir
There’s only so much Icelandic radio you can listen to when you can’t understand a word they’re saying. Though, the language is wonderful. You’ll need some entertainment in the car. This book is full of fascinating facts about Iceland. I also suggest you read at least some shortened versions of the sagas during your trip. You might as well visit the country properly…
Visit Alda’s very informative website about her home country. She makes it her duty to dispell myths about Iceland.
Any more suggestions about how to save money, or places to visit in Iceland?