Everyone wants to go to Iceland, but how can you go to Iceland on a budget and short on time?

It was 2017, my college Senior Spring was coming up and I wanted to do something fun for Spring Break. As an international student on full need-based financial aid, I usually spent most of my breaks on campus, but it was the last time I could do something different.

I  was looking up tickets prices to go to Europe when I ran into tickets to Iceland for around US$ 300. I think I just searched flights to “everywhere” on Skyscanner from airports close to New Haven, and ran into this WOW airline that I had never heard of with super cheap tickets. I went into their actual website, and they listed lowest prices of flights to everywhere from every airport where they operated in the US (convenient, huh?). Flights from Boston were even cheaper than from NYC, and I just needed to take a cheap bus to fly from Boston. 

So I quickly gathered some friends who were interested in going, and one of them for some reason looked into the Canadian version of WOW Air’s website. Turns out it was almost US$ 50 cheaper after making the conversion from Canadian dollars for the exact same price! That’s how three fellow female physicists and I ended up in Iceland for 4 days with ~US$ 280 round-trip tickets and had a blast. 

WOW Air is now defunct, but some other airlines still have very good deals to travel from the US east coast to Reykjavik, just keep an eye open and set a travel alert on Skyscanner or Kayak. 

Explore this budget-friendly itinerary to spend 4 days there. 

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4-day Iceland itinerary

“[…] we left our luggage at the reception and took that day to walk around, explore and acclimate.”

Day 1: get settled, walk around

We took a red-eye flight on what I’m going to call day 0. On day 1, we finally got to Reykjavik and took a Flybus shuttle to our hostel (I suggest you rent a car from your first day instead, but more on that in the tips section).

We couldn’t check in until 2 pm, so we left our luggage at the reception and took that day to walk around, explore and acclimate. 

After we checked-in, took showers and rested a bit, we went out to pick up groceries, cooked some dinner (which I recommend you do, because food in Iceland is expensive!) and went to bed. 

day 2: golden circle route and northern lights

The Golden Circle is a must see! If you have time for nothing else, this is what you should go do for sure! You can probably tell that it was my favorite part of the trip. 

We booked a car and went on the loop route stopping at the following in this sequence: Pingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area, the Gullfoss Waterfall, and the Kerid Crater Lake. Be prepared for rapid changes in scenery and other-worldly sights from being engulfed in a cloud of snow to dessert views with wild Icelandic horses. 

On our way back, we stopped at the Perlan Museum to see a panoramic view of Reykjavik before we returned our car, had dinner, and hopped on a Reykjavik Excursions northern lights tour. 

The northern lights were a bit underwhelming when we were there, partially because it was March already, but I also think that we would have had a better time seeing them if we had more time to go around in our own car. The plus side of a tour is that they generally keep track of northern lights forecast everywhere, but you can also check it out by yourself. Bring a lot of layers and hand warmers, it gets really cold!

“The Golden Circle is a must see! If you have time for nothing else, this is what you should go do for sure! You can probably tell that it was my favorite part of the trip. […] Be prepared for rapid changes in scenery and other-worldly sights from being engulfed in a cloud of snow to dessert views with wild Icelandic horses. “

“I actually very much appreciated learning more about Icelandic and viking culture, but I’m a bit of a nerd so you can make what you want out of it.”

Day 3: Reykjavik and blue lagoon

Day 3 was a free exploration day. Everyone got to take their own path anywhere they wanted to go to. I personally decided to go check out the National Museum of Iceland. They had half-price tickets for students (score!). 

I actually very much appreciated learning more about Icelandic and viking culture, but I’m a bit of a nerd so you can make what you want out of it. If I had a driver’s license at the time, I would have gone explore Iceland’s southern shore that day, but the museum was fun. 

In the evening, we went on a tour to the Blue Lagoon. My suggestion? Try to book it early, so you can go in the morning or afternoon. Unfortunately they only had evening tickets at the time. Either way, we had a blast and wrecked our hair with the silica in the water (make sure to bring lots of conditioner or buy some at the grocery store, because you will need it after leaving the Blue Lagoon!).

day 4: fly back

Well, nothing much to say here I guess. We had our flight right past lunchtime, so we just checked out of the hostel and took a Flybus shuttle to the airport. 

Honestly, I wish I had had more time to explore Iceland, because there’s just so much natural beauty to see! But for the time we had available, I think we went through a pretty comprehensive itinerary. It gave me time to explore part of Iceland’s majestic nature, to learn about some of the local history and culture, and to go sightseeing in Reykjavik. 

For the amount that I paid, I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better last Spring Break in college. Now it’s your time to go explore Iceland on a budget. 

“[…] for the time we had available, I think we went through a pretty comprehensive itinerary.”

tips to travel to iceland on a budget

So, now that you know what to do in Iceland, how do you make that happen?

watch out for flight deals, look into foreign versions of the airline website

WOW Air used to have better deals from Boston than from NYC, so we took a bus. If you’re willing to take a cheap bus to a nearby airport other than your home airport, you might find a better deal (as long as you take the price of the bus, train or other form of transportation you take there). Picking a mid-Spring flight also helped our wallet. Set a flight alert on websites like Skyscanner in case you want to see whether prices go down. Finally, look into foreign versions of the same airline website, sometimes they are a little cheaper after currency conversion (but make sure you have a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees if you go that route). 

go in a group and share a private hostel room

If you’re like me, safety is your first priority when traveling. While I have traveled solo several times and am all for it, traveling in a group is always a great way to save some money while also feeling safe. Think about it: a big group can fill an entire hostel room by itself! So that’s what we did. The bathroom was shared with other rooms, but I got to have a sleepover every night we were in Iceland with 3 fellow women in physics who were my close friends. We had a private room where we felt safe leaving our stuff without a premium price. 

book a hostel with a kitchen, do groceries, cook your own food

There are some places where eating out is worth it and cheaper if you’re staying for a short period of time, Iceland is not one of them. Food there is expansive, so do yourself a favor: book a place where you have access to a kitchen, go do groceries on your first day, make your own food and carry your own snacks on day trips. We stayed at Guesthouse Aurora because it was the cheapest hostel that looked comfortable on Booking.com at the time (they offered breakfast, so that was one last meal we had to pay for). There are many other good options out there though . 

rent your own car to explore

The day we traveled around the Golden Circle turned out much cheaper then booking a tour because wee rented a car. Looking back, I would have just rented a car for the entire trip to go to the blue lagoon and chase northern lights. That would have saved me some hefty tour fees. I did two tours with Reykjavik Excursions, but they were overpriced for things we could have done better on our own time, and I do not recommend doing what I did. Just get a car instead. 

get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees, avoid cash

First thing I did there was getting cash from an ATM, but I ended up using my credit card without foreign transaction fees most of the time and had a ton of Icelandic currency in my hands at the end of my trip that I was not going to use anytime soon. So don’t be me, get just a little bit of cash for an emergency, but that’s it. Personally, I’ve been using Bank of America’s Visa Travel Rewards for several years and it has saved me quite a bit of money so far in cash rewards, cash back and waived foreign transaction fees. 

Take a shuttle from the airport to your hostel if you’re getting a car somewhere else

When I went there, only one person in my group had a valid driver’s license, so we ended up opting for tours and shuttles most of the time. While I would rather recommend getting a car there (read above), get the shuttle from the airport to your accommodation if you’re in a situation similar to mine or if you found better rental car rates outside of the airport. It is much cheaper than a cab. 

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