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Iceland

Budget Guide to Iceland

Icelandic horse in the field of scenic nature landscape of Iceland. The Icelandic horse is a breed of horse locally developed in Iceland as Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported.

Iceland, a country known for its dramatic landscapes, volcanoes, erupting geysers, lava fields, and soothing hot springs, is located in the North Atlantic Ocean close to Greenland and the UK and is home to the world’s northernmost capital, Reykjavík. 

The country is now extremely popular with travelers from across the world. However, most tourists tend to base themselves in the capital and then venture out on day trips, often chasing the Northern Lights that can be seen across the country during the winter months. 

For budget travelers, Iceland may not be a country you would normally consider, and it is easy for costs to spiral should you allow it. However, if planned right, it can still be an affordable place to explore, and with budget airlines now operating in and out of the country, they are providing the cheapest way to travel to Iceland.

Plan your trip to Iceland

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The best time to visit Iceland 

One of the best things about Iceland is that it is an all-year-round destination. Traveling in the summer months will see you chasing the midnight sun, while in the winter months, with the shorter days, people will be hoping to catch a glimpse of the coveted Aurora Borealis, which is known to appear on clear nights, dancing unpredictably across the sky. 

There is, therefore, no specific period that is the best time to visit; instead, it depends on what activities you would like to do while on the Nordic Island. If you have always wanted to experience 24 hours of sunlight, visiting in June is a must. If you are planning to put on a pair of crampons and climb a glacier, the winter months will be more appealing.

Planning is vital because certain parts of the country will be inaccessible during the cooler months. Therefore if you were hoping to explore the interior of the country, you might need to plan to visit in early spring or into the summer months.

It is also essential to remember that with low-cost carriers now flying into Keflavík International Airport, there has been an influx of visitors on budget trips to Iceland over the past ten years. If you were hoping for a relaxing dip in the Blue Lagoon, consider traveling off-season when tourism numbers begin to dip.

Famous mountain with waterfalls in Iceland, kirkjufell, winter in Iceland, ice and snow, reflections, yellow grass, nature, icelandic famous landscape

Budget things to do in Iceland

Mount Esja and The Red Hills

For those that love long walks or hiking in nature, Iceland has some fantastic areas to explore for free. 

Just outside Reykjavik, and easily accessible by bus and bike, standing at 2998 feet (914m) above sea level sits Mount Esja. This mountain range, partly volcanic, offers excellent hiking opportunities for anyone wanting to explore or see the capital from above from the summit of either Thverfellshorn or Kerholakambur.

Another area close to the center is the Red Hills, The Raudholar. This area is full of scarlet red craters dating back 5,000 years that are part of the Heidmork Nature reserve and are popular with those seeking a tranquil day away from the city streets.

The Botanical Gardens

Founded in 1961, this beautifully designed garden in Reykjavik is home to more than 3,000 plant species, demonstrating the diverse vegetation that can survive in freezing temperatures in Iceland. During the summer months, they also offer free tours of the grounds, where you can learn even more from the experts as you wander around the gardens and the ponds seeking out the wildlife and flora on display here.

travel to Iceland - ponds in public family park in laugardalur valley of Reykjavik city in september

Kolaportið Flea Market

Hidden away near the old harbor in Reykjavik, this little gem hidden away is full of antiques, toys, clothes, food, and much more. Whether you are after a traditional, hand-knitted Icelandic jumper or some traditional treats to try, exploring this large warehouse could be a great way to start your weekend in the city.

Hlemmur Food Market

Reykjavik’s first food hall, located in what was the local bus terminal, is open from 8:00 – 23:00 daily and is full of vendors serving everything from breakfast to late dinner. Here you can try local Icelandic delicacies, some of which may not appeal to everyone.

For those less adventurous, you will also find Mexican, Vietnamese, Danish, and Italian dishes alongside freshly baked bread, wonderful-smelling fair-trade coffee stalls, and an ice cream stand popular for its use of liquid nitrogen. If you want to sample a variety of dishes while taking in a vibrant atmosphere, it is worthwhile to seek out this place, and it may not be as budget-busting as other food outlets in the city.

Langoustines - Icelandic cuisine made of lobster. Iceland national food.

Visit Perlan

This futuristic-looking domed building Perlan, on Reykjavik’s outskirts often referred to as ‘The Pearl,’ can be seen across the city. It is home to several different exhibitions, and as of May 2023, visitors will also be able to fly along the new zipline being installed. On clear days not only do you have a great view of the city, but you can also see Snæfellsjökull, a giant glacier-capped volcano residing on the western coast of the island.

Reykjavik, Iceland - The view of Perlan, the famous planetarium and exhibition center in the city

Visit the Grótta Lighthouse

Slightly further out of Reykjavik, this lighthouse is about an hour’s walk along the coast or a bus ride away. Still, it is worth the journey if you want to spend an afternoon bird-watching in the summer while gazing out over the ocean to see what other wildlife may appear. It is also highly recommended to visit during the winter and after dark to catch a glimpse of the northern lights.

Lighthouse and uninhabited houses in the background. Lateral power pylons in the water during long-term exposure. Stone coastline of the island of Grotta near Reykjavik with clouds in the sky

Explore the street art in Reykjavik

Whether as part of an organized tour or on your own, Reykjavik has a growing urban art scene not to be missed. Wander around Downtown Reykjavik, and you will see that several businesses have embraced graffiti inside and out with commissioned work by some well-known street artists. Head to Bar Ananas or Freddi Arcade and Toy Museum to see the work on display.

REYKJAVIK, ICELAND, Street scene in Reykjavik, the capital and largest city of Iceland.

Take part in a Free Walking Tour

If you are interested in discovering more about the country’s history, hearing stories about Vikings, learning about the best places to eat and socialize in the city, save money and take a free walking tour around Reykjavik. It is one of the best ways to start a trip to a new town and in just a couple of hours you will not only have seen the city’s significant sights but will learn a few interesting facts about the country as you go. 

Visit Hallgrímskirkja

This iconic church is easily recognizable as one of the most captured buildings in Iceland. With its modern facade, it is one of the most unusual churches you will ever stumble across, designed to represent the volcanic nature of Iceland. Head inside, and for a small fee, you can climb to the top of the church, which also happens to be the tallest building in the city, for amazing views across the multi-colored rooftops.

Cartoon style Hallgrimskirkja church in Reykjavik during sunset with

Places to visit in Iceland on a budget 

Thingvellir (Þingvellir)National Park

This national park, just east of Reykjavik, is notable for several reasons. Firstly, it was the site of Iceland’s parliament (Alþing) between the 10th-18th centuries, and secondly, the park is separated by a rift valley created by two different tectonic plates. Here, you can walk between two continents where the cracks have appeared between the North American and Eurasian plates or dive into the silfra ravine.

Pingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Tectonic Plates in Iceland.

Visit the Great Geysir

Haukadalur Valley is home to the Great Geysir and many other smaller geothermal pools and geysers. While the Great Geysir rarely erupts now, Strokkur is an impressive sight, which bubbles and then explodes every few minutes hitting heights of around 30 meters.

Thermal lake Blesi and eruption of Strokkur Geysir Golden circle route in Iceland

Gullfoss Waterfall

Iceland is not short of waterfalls, with 100s falling across the country. However, if you only have time to visit one, the Gullfoss waterfall is perhaps the most impressive and can be heard long before it comes into your sights. Along with Thingvellir and the Haukadalur Valley, this particular waterfall is often referred to as the Golden Circle. It will usually be incorporated as part of a tour of the area.

Amazing huge beautiful waterfall Gullfoss, famous landmark in Iceland

Hofn

Being both an island and a country, Iceland is home to some fantastic seafood, although some of the best are served up in Hofn. Outside of the capital, it is also the largest town on the south coast, on the eastern side, so if you are looking to explore via the famous ring road, this is the ideal place to stop off for a few days to explore glaciers, the mighty Vatnajökull, several different hot springs, waterfalls and mountain ranges.

Skutafoss waterfalls near Hofn in Iceland photographed at sunset.

Vik beach

Undeniably the most well-known in all of Iceland, the black sand beach here is framed at either end by dramatic basalt cliffs, looming across the skyline. The beach was created by a volcanic eruption over 100 years ago when lava streamed down and was cooled by the waters. Over time that lava has eroded and worn away, creating the small gravelly pebbles that are now seen today.

If you are traveling the Ring Road from Reykjavik, you may also want to stop and visit the abandoned aircraft at Solheimasandur. Dating back to 1973, this plane crashed after running out of fuel. Thankfully all on board survived, but the crash site is visited by many as they complete their Iceland trip.

Sea stacks of Reynisfjara Beach near Vik on Iceland

Jjökulsárlón glacier lagoon

Wildlife lovers will appreciate this natural spectacle. The lagoon is the outlet for the Vatnajokull Glacier, the largest in Europe, and is home to a herd of seals and several different birds, including puffins and the great skua. Film buffs are also likely to recognize the location as it was used in Tomb Raider, Batman Begins, and two James Bond films.

Beautiful blue icebergs reflected in the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, Southern Iceland. Part of the Vatnajokull National Park and Vatnajokull glacier, the largest glacier in Europe.

The Blue Lagoon

Perhaps the most iconic attraction in all of Iceland, no trip would be complete without an afternoon relaxing in the healing hot springs. This geothermal spa, with waters as warm as 39 degrees, is located in a lava field near Grindavik and is only 20km from the airport. For those traveling Iceland on a budget, bus routes are offering cheap tickets to the lagoon on the way either to or from the airport.

Reykjavik, Iceland - Beautiful geothermal spa pool in Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik. The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland.

 

Where to stay in Iceland on a budget

Reykjavik 

The capital only takes around 2 hours to walk around, making it one of the smallest cities in Europe. Therefore, regardless of which area of the city you choose, you will find reasonably priced guest houses and hostels.

Guesthouse Pavi is only 50 meters from Laugavegur street, so central to exploring the capital, or you could opt to stay at the Bus Hostel, which is closer to Perlan and offers free parking should you wish to hire a car but is about 20 minutes from the central area of bars and restaurants.

For those after something unique, check into the Kex Hostel, once a former biscuit factory. It has everything you would expect of a hostel but also houses a gastropub, a barber, and an outdoor terrace.

Alternatively, to keep your Iceland trip costs down, you may rent an apartment for a few days, allowing you to cook for yourself rather than eat out each day. Northern Comfort Apartments are centrally located and offer rooms with small kitchenettes.

Reykjavik, Iceland - The Sun voyager one of the Icelandic famous sculpture in Reykjavik the capital city of Iceland at night.

Vik

If you plan to visit the south coast, Vik is the perfect spot to stop halfway between Reykjavik and Hofn. The Barn is a hostel located close to Vik center close to the Mýrdalsjölill Glacier and offers sleek modern dorms or double rooms with private facilities, along with a communal kitchen and a bar. Alternatively, the Puffin hotel provides a selection of rooms with private facilities in the heart of the village with easy access to the black sand beaches, the historic lighthouse, and a direct walking trail up Reynisfjall. This mountain towers over the town.

Beautiful aerial view of red Reyniskirkja church on the mountain and Nootka Lupine flower field at Vik, Iceland.

Lake Laugarvatn

For those wanting to explore the Golden Circle at their own pace, Lake Laugarvatn is the perfect place to stay if you are looking to keep your Iceland trip cost down because the national park, the famous geysers, and the waterfalls are all within driving distance plus you have the lake, Hekla Volcano and the Eyjafjallajökull Glacier all on your doorstep. Héradsskólinn Historic Guesthouse is a 1920’s former schoolhouse that offers various sleeping options and is right next to the Laugarvatn Geothermal Baths.

Icelandic countryside landscape in summer season. Bright summer day with nice puffy clouds. Laugarvatn lake, west Iceland.

Akureyri

If you are traveling the main ring road and decide to make an entire loop of Iceland, Akureyri is a popular place to stop. Known as the capital of the North, full of cafes, bars, and culture, this town is popular with those looking to explore the Myvatn region, where you can climb up Mount Sulur or visit the Laufas Turf Houses. It is also rated the top place in Iceland to go whale watching. Akureyri Backpackers Hostel is one of the most popular places to stay in the area, as it is surrounded by coffee shops, shopping areas, and museums.

Panoramic view of the Godafoss waterfall near Akureyri, Iceland

 How to get around Iceland on a budget 

There are several options, but perhaps the cheapest way to travel in Iceland is on their bus service.

If you are predominately looking to travel around the area closest to Reykjavik, purchase a bus passport that allows you to hop on and off the bus service. Their flexible routes will enable you to travel in a budget-friendly way while seeing the sites, and traveling during the summer months also provides easy access to campsites.

For those wanting a bit more flexibility, many car hire companies are available that operate straight out of Keflavik airport. It may not be the cheapest way to travel around Iceland on a budget in 2022 with the added element of fuel costs and insurance, but it will undoubtedly provide you with the freedom to visit places the bus routes don’t venture to.

Alternatively, for those looking to create their own adventure, traveling around the country, predominantly during the summer months, hiring a campervan may be the best way to travel. Not only will you have the flexibility of a car, but you will also be able to camp cheaply.

Camping is one of the least expensive ways to overnight in Iceland, and the stars seen on a clear night would be epic in some of the more remote parts; plus, during the midnight sun, you would have the ability to travel 24 hours a day. You can also purchase a camping card in advance to reduce the costs even further.

motorhome travel. Road trip in Iceland motorhome driving camping van on adventure vacation Jokulsarlon, Iceland.

Cheap tours to do in Iceland

If, however, you prefer to explore with others, plenty of cheap tours are available.

Chasing the Northern Lights

One of the many reasons to visit Iceland in the winter months is to see the northern lights. Going on an arranged tour means they know the best places, increasing your chances of seeing them. They will take you to remote viewpoints where there is no light pollution in the hope that you will see the green phenomenon race across the blackness while holding mugs of hot chocolate to keep you warm.

Incredible Northern lights Aurora Borealis activity above the coast

Exploring the Golden Circle

If time is precious, an organized trip is the best way to see all the natural wonders within the Golden Circle. You will visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Thingvellir, experience the sound of rushing waters at Gullfoss waterfall, and come up close to nature with a trip to see Strokkur erupt. 

Horses - golden circle iceland - 15 Remarkable Things to see and Do in Iceland

Snæfellsnes Peninsula

If you want to explore the contrasts in nature, a trip to Snæfellsnes Peninsula will incorporate mountain scenery with volcanic craters, black sandy beaches, and small fishing villages. In just one day, you could see all aspects of Icelandic life, making it a day of cheap travel in Iceland.

Majestic evening with Kirkjufell volcano the coast of Snaefellsnes peninsula. Dramatic and picturesque scene. Location famous place Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall, Iceland, Europe. Beauty world.

Whale and Puffin Watching

For wildlife lovers, there is nothing better than observing animals in their natural habitat. Whale watching and puffin excursions have become increasingly popular over the years as everyone hopes to catch a glimpse of these rarely-seen creatures. Unlike many other activities you can undertake in Iceland, a trip of this kind is probably the best way to guarantee some sightings.

Atlantic puffin also know as common puffin is a species of seabird in the auk family. Iceland, Norway, Faroe Islands, Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada are known to be large colony of this puffin.

Recommended budget tours in Iceland

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Article written by:

Hi, my name is Samantha, Finance Managing Guru by day, Travel Blogging Enthusiast by... well... day too! Haha! Travelling King is the destination hotspot for the wannabe traveller! Showcasing affordable, luxurious getaways for the budget conscious! With the combination of my financial knowledge and travelling experiences I aim to show you, with a little planning, the right budget and a realistic goal you can fulfil your travel fantasies and explore the world whatever your budget or desires may be!