Travel Tips To Save Money In Expensive Iceland

This is the second part of my Iceland Budget Travel Tips From A Singaporean. If you haven’t read the first part, please do so here: Part 1 for Tips #1 – 5.

Continuing where we left off, here are the remaining 5 Iceland Budget Travel Tips I can share with you. (Apologies for the long wait, I was busy with my trip to Japan and only managed to finish this after my trip)

Scenic Iceland Budget Travel Tips
A captivating sight of a perfect house against a picturesque landscape

Iceland Budget Travel Tip #6: Bring Some Food From Home

In line with Tip #5, this Iceland Budget Travel Tip can help you save quite a bit of money. Most food items are imported into Iceland which makes things rather expensive at the restaurant and in the supermarket. Alcohol is also very costly there so bring your own wine if you want to enjoy wine there.

For our trip, we brought a crazy amount of food including instant ramen, cup noodles, dried pasta, dried bee hoon, Prima Taste laksa sauce (yup!), instant coffee, tea bags. Needless to say, we were well stocked. But we also bought food from the supermarkets there to add variety and ingredients to our dinner. Bread was very costly by the way. Eggs… well… we only bought once!

Bónus supermarket is one of the top choices for affordability. Krónan is another popular choice. When you are there (especially at a big supermarket), look out for items on offer including marinated meat. We stumbled upon a big bag of marinated chicken drumlets that were on sale to clear. So we bought it and cooked them in the oven for dinner over two nights.

Bring your own grocery bags or use the lousy ones given free at the cashier. The lousy ones will not hold well as they are very very thin. Like many European supermarkets, they charge you for bags so save the earth and bring your own!

Iceland Budget Travel Tip #7: Find The Cheapest Operator Of Each Activity

This can be an issue if you are lazy. So if you want to save money, do some research or you can follow my choices below for the following activities we did. I found them to be the cheapest in the vicinity (based on 2016 rates) that offered the activity I wanted except for the quad trek with Arcanum which we knew was costly. But we had our reasons which you will read on to find out.

Natural hot spring in Iceland
An accidental shot of the secret lagoon pool at the top right corner and the thermal springs nearby surrounding it

Enjoy Natural Hot Spring At Secret Lagoon

Secret Lagoon ISK 2.800 per person

Located enroute from Hella to Thingvellir, we stopped for a short dip in a natural hot spring. Despite the stylish website, the place was actually quite a simple, modest set up. My companions went for it and had a great enjoyable time. But I sat back at the cafe to wait with a fairly reasonably priced hot tea. They also offered towels for rent at reasonable rates. There was shower facilities too and a small area out back for you to walk around to check out the natural hot springs.

The smell of sulphur was strong yet it was interesting to walk around to explore the area that surrounded the pool. There are other options besides Secret Lagoon. I understand such natural hot springs are aplenty in Iceland so dig around to find one in a vicinity you wish to visit. Going to a hot spring is the alternative and natural option compared to the very commercial, well marketed Blue Lagoon.

Not many people realise this, but the Blue Lagoon is not ‘natural’ and is in fact water that has been used and processed through the Svartsengi geothermal plant to generate electricity and hot water. The superheated water is emitted from the ground near a lava flow and used to run turbines to generate electricity. Then the steam and hot water goes through a heat exchanger to provide heat for a municipal hot water heating system. Finally, the water is fed into the Blue Lagoon. Hence the water from the Blue Lagoon is a direct output from the geothermal plant located beside it.

Iceland Budget Travel Tip
My ‘adventure’ look: helmet, crampons on shoes, ice pick on hand and a harness

Glacier Hike

Extreme Iceland ISK 8.900 per person (Dec 2017 update: ISK 9.900)

I consider this a basic kind of adventure – fairly easy to participate. Though I was one of the stragglers in the group (I was very wary of the slippery ice!), it was a nice experience and made me feel quite like the adventurer I always wanted to be.

Many operators offer this guided experience tour and there are so many glaciers to choose from. I picked one from Skaftafell since it was en route to where we were headed and the tour operator I found offered one of the best rates available.

Extreme Iceland’s Ultimate Icescape Skaftafell tour cost ISK 8.900 (September 2016). Note that they have since increased their rate to ISK 9.900. I am confident their prices will still fit well into your Iceland budget travel plan. If you do not have suitable hiking shoes to fit the crampons, you can rent shoes at ISK 1.000. I would recommend that you book online and bring along your printed order. The meeting spot was just outside a diner/gas station so you could use the rest room or wait inside.

In line with your Iceland budget travel itinerary, do take some time to shop around online for the best offers. A guided glacier trek is a MUST for those who want to venture onto the glacier. It is a very dangerous activity if done without a professional guide. Do NOT to venture onto a glacier on your own. You can fall or get lost without the right equipment and no one would know where to find you.

Beautiful Icelandic Horses
Why would you not ride these beautiful unique breed of horses?

Horse riding

Hestheimar ISK 6.000 per person for 1 hour / ISK 8.000 per person for 2 hours (price may be based on group of 4)

This is another activity that is popular in Iceland. I found some near Reykjavik and also some in the Hella area. As I planned for my Iceland budget travel, I concluded that Hestheimar offered the best value for our group of four. The sales representative quoted me ISK 6.000 per person for 1 hour tour or ISK 8.000 per person for 2 hours tour. Prices were quoted based on four persons.

At that time, I know the tour of two hours was at a good price compared to others I found with some offering a 1.5 hour tour. The farm was located quite near Hella town and it was also en route to where we were going. As mentioned in Part 1 of this post, staying in Hella was also advantageous due to the cost of accommodation in a small town.

When we did our tour, we had the unfortunate experience of a rainy day. We did not want to cancel since this was a must-do on our list. They also assured us that there was no issue riding horses in the rain. They provided us with helmets and raincoats that covered our upper bodies but due to our sitting position, our legs remain exposed to the weather.

As we weren’t experienced riders, we went slow (no galloping). It was a little bit scary for me when I tried to hurry my horse a bit (he liked to be the last one). The horses were fairly gentle and beautiful. We went through pastures and countryside and I tried to take photos in the rain but was limited to my mobile phone mostly.

During our visit, we got to see them change horse shoes for one of their horses. I spent a lot of time at the back, snapping photos of the horses. They were really beautiful creatures and such a unique breed found only in Iceland.

Iceland Budget Travel Tip
In our striking overalls… at the famous DC Plane Wreck site

Quad Trek on the Black Beach

Arcanum ISK 18.990 per person (based on 2 riders) for 1 hour

Last but not least, we did a 1-hour Quad Trek tour with Arcanum and I will tell you upfront that theirs was not the cheapest. I found a cheaper option but not in their location. They were the sole tour operator in the vicinity of Vik that offered a tour on the black sand beach which included a stop at the famous plane crash site.

Why did we do it?

Because we didn’t want to walk 4km to the plane crash site AND we wanted a quad trek adventure. They were the only operators that offered this. According to them, the beach where the plane crash site is located is private property and the landowners have given Arcanum permission to conduct tours there.

The tour gave us quite the feeling of an adventure. We crossed a couple of streams, went on the black sand beach, saw the remains of a whale bone, and of course took plenty of photos at the DC Plane Crash Site – the highlight of the tour. Though short, it was good enough for us (and at the high price we paid). We met our objectives and my husband got the satisfaction of driving the ATV.

So for you, think about the objectives you want from such an activity and weigh your options accordingly. If you have no desire to see the DC Plane Crash site, then go with a cheaper tour operator elsewhere. But if you desire to see the DC Plane Crash Site and don’t wish to waste 2-3 hours walking there, then consider this.

I confess that I felt like our group made a heroic entrance when we arrived in our ATVs. I thought I saw envy from a couple who began to walk back – the guy lugging his tripod and camera.

Going on the ATV obviously has its down side. If you’re hoping to photograph in the best light or without anyone in it (which is never), forget this tour. The stop at the site was for maybe 10-15 minutes so you won’t be able to wait it out. Just snap snap snap…. and be creative when you do that (so as to avoid having other people in your photos).

Iceland Budget Travel: Jokulsarlon
The No. 1 attraction in Iceland – Jokulsarlon

Iceland Budget Travel Tip #8: Plan Routes That Make Sense

Planning your route well is paramount to any good road trip. As you work your Iceland budget travel plan, determine what you want to see and measure against the time you have. We spent about nine days in Iceland. Initially I had contemplated doing the entire ring road but two things deterred me. Firstly was the lack of time that we can spend at each site due to the need to finish the entire ring road. Secondly was the uncertainty of the weather conditions in the northern and eastern sides.

Coming from a tropical country, we do not have experience driving in the snow. Our trip was sometime in the middle of September. The northern and eastern parts of Iceland start snowing quite early. We did not want to deal with driving in snow so I felt it best to stick to the western and southern areas.

The only bad thing about our route was the need turn back at the furthest point. This meant that we would cover the same area twice. So I planned our itinerary to allow us to spend time at different areas along the same route both ways. On our way to the south, we visited Vik heading towards Jokulsarlon, stopping for our glacier trek and quad trek tour enroute. On our return, we stopped to visit the many waterfalls that dotted along the route as we headed towards Hella.

Iceland Road Trip
A magnificent view of a large glacier as we drove along Route 1 after our glacier hike, heading towards Jokulsarlon.

In this way, we maximised our time with different activities and seeing different sites when doing the same route twice. I also deliberately made our last stop Jokulsarlon, paying more for an accommodation in the furthest part of Höfn (closer to Jokulsarlon). The next available accommodation was 60km away in the main Höfn town. Because it is a town, you can find more economical options available there.

To not spend an extra 45 minutes driving (plus your petrol cost) since there isn’t much in Höfn, go with the 3 – 4 accommodations near Jokulsarlon. Rates get higher there along with limited dining options (even options with a kitchen is highly unlikely). If you are on a tight budget staying in this area, cup noodles and bread become your best friend. You can also consider staying at a place before Jokulsarlon and then driving there to visit the phenomenal place and back to your accommodation.

Our route took us to Thingvellir after Hella, then onwards to Snæfellsnes where we spent two nights in a large cabin near the gorgeous Mt Kirkjufell. Then it was backwards down to Reykjavik, then Kevflavik town where we found the most affordable dining and accommodations.

Mt Kirkjuell
One of my favourite places in Iceland – this site near Mt Kirkjufell. I will return with a better wide angle lens!

Iceland Budget Travel Tip #9: Always Check If They Accept Euro €

This is a very good Iceland budget travel tip that I am happy to share with almost anyone who is travelling there. It can be a real hassle converting your money to ISK and we did not convert much. Using mainly our credit cards and euros, we managed to get by and ended up with some ISK left over. We did not even withdraw any ISK from the ATM.

When booking my accommodations, I always ask them if they accept Euro in cash as payment. The next question I ask in person when making payment, is the price in Euro. If the price quoted in Euro did not differ much from the amount in ISK, we would opt to pay in Euro instead. Coming from Singapore, we would’ve to face a double conversion if we used ISK. This is a very big disadvantage since we would lose more from converting twice.

By paying in Euro cash, we only faced a one-time conversion. You should only go with this option if the quote they offer is reasonable or attractive. Throughout our trip, we paid Euro cash for at least 4 accommodations and we only did that when their quoted exchange was close to the rate we googled. Most of the conversions actually turn out to be more advantageous for us when we pay in Euro cash. Somehow they do not mark up too much.

You must wonder why they would be willing to accept Euro. This tip came to me through other online sources/forums. One reason why they accept Euro cash is because they can use this Euro cash for their own travels when they visit Europe. This saves them from converting to Euro and losing out on the exchange. So many of them will be happy to accept Euro cash from you as payment. This is a great way that benefits both parties.

Iceland Budget Travel
This is one of my best kept secrets and we paid our stay in this beautiful cabin using Euro cash.

Bonus Tip: Use The Best Credit Card For Expenses

As I planned for this trip, I made sure I had the best credit cards available to earn me cashbacks and rebates from all the expenses that would amount from my trip. Some work will need to be done on your part to capitalise on the options available for you.

In Singapore where I come from, I used a mix of cards depending on when the charge is made, the currency, and the promotions available. I shuffled between the Standard Chartered SingPost card (now called Spree card), OCBC 365 card and the UOB Visa Signature card. In Iceland, I used mostly the UOB Visa Signature card which gave me 10x UNI$ when I transact in foreign currency with a minimum spend of S$1000. This is easily achievable with a large amount charged from my car rental already.

Prior to my Iceland budget travel trip, I used mainly the Standard Chartered SingPost card which gave me 7% rebate on my online spend. Sadly this has changed since December 2017, thus making the OCBC 365 card the better option. OCBC’s Frank card currently offers the highest for all online expenses at 6% rebate. However with the condition of a minimum spend of $400 in offline charges, the card is only useful when the minimum is reached.

Depending on what is available in your country, do a quick search to see what offers the banks in your country provide. If you’re the lazy type, just stick to one good card that gives you a decent reward for your expenses. Know that you will spend quite a bit using your credit card in Iceland. So you might as well make it worth your while!

Morning near Mt Kirkjufell
A panoramic shot taken with my iPhone in the morning near Mt Kirkjufell. It truly is an astonishing sight.