Updated post: 01/11/2019 | November 2019
Mention Iceland and, to many people, four things come to mind.
Björk, the quirky Icelandic songstress. The 2008 economic meltdown which placed the country on the verge of collapse. Watching newsreaders visibly sweat as they valiantly attempted to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2016, destroying the holiday plans of many.
And, finally, isn’t Iceland a cripplingly, outrageously expensive place to visit?
We will take a closer look at those costs and how to save money in Iceland. But first, we’ll see what it’s like to visit Iceland as a solo traveller with some practical tips.
Visiting Iceland as a solo traveller
Iceland would be a perfect destination for those travelling alone, especially solo female travellers, If it wasn’t for fact that it is not budget-friendly. But more about that later.
The crime rate in Reykjavik is so low to be almost zero. Therefore, there is little chance of you getting robbed or being subject to physical risk. Harassment is also rare.
As a solo traveller in Iceland, it is easy to book excursions to suit your tastes on-line or via one of the agencies on Laugavegur in downtown Reykjavik. Iceland is also a mecca for outdoor activities.
And if you want to treat yourself, Iceland is made for splurging. Linger over a meal at one of Reykjavik’s excellent restaurants or buy that handmade Icelandic jumper you have been eyeing up.
What is the best time of year to visit Iceland?
There is no absolute right or wrong time of year to visit Iceland.
Iceland’s average temperatures are higher than you might expect, given its position in the North Atlantic Ocean. Thanks to the moderating effect of the Gulf Stream, Reykjavik’s average winter temperature is 0 degrees; in summer this reaches a giddying 12 degrees.
But, for me, the bigger consideration is the number of daylight hours. In midwinter, the sun doesn’t rise until 11.45 am, setting again at 2.45 pm. Whilst this might be optimal for Northern Lights chasing, it limits daytime activities.
Contrast that with mid-summer. Here, we are looking at 24-hour light, with the sun setting at midnight, and twilight persisting until it rises again at 3 am.
Therefore, the time of year that you visit Iceland may largely depend on the number of daylight hours that you feel comfortable with, and whether you want to see the Northern Lights.
In my view, Feb/March or Oct/Nov are good times to visit Iceland. There are enough daylight hours to allow you to sightsee, but you will also be able to see the Northern Lights if they decide to come out to play. When I visited Reykjavik in March, there were around 11 hours of daylight.
What should you bring to Iceland?
First and foremost, warm clothing, whatever time of year you are visiting Iceland. This means a hat, scarf, gloves, layers and a warm, preferably windproof, coat.
A refillable water bottle. Don’t buy bottled water when you are in Iceland. Not only is this not eco-friendly, it is completely unnecessary. Icelandic water is pure and delicious straight out of the tap. Just let the water run for a minute before filling your bottle.
Zip-Loc freezer bags for your packed lunch. More on that later.
What should you leave at home?
Your umbrella. Seriously. Those Arctic gusts spell instant death for brollies and carrying one will instantly mark you out as a tourist.
Next, let’s take a look at how to spend and save money in Iceland
Money in Iceland
Iceland’s currency is called Króna (ISK). Due to the lack of subdivisions, get used to seeing lots of zeros.
It’s worth noting that the Króna has no value outside of Iceland. Therefore, you should not exchange large amounts of currency, and you should change it back before you leave. Also, as you are unlikely to be able to get hold of Króna in your home country, you will need to change currency on arrival. It’s best to do this in downtown Reykjavik rather than at the airport.
The good news is that Iceland is almost a cashless society. Credit cards rule supreme and can be used for even the smallest of purchases. Therefore, I did not change any currency and used my credit card for the entire duration of my trip to Iceland. But check that your credit card provider will not charge you an extortionate fee for using your card overseas.
Iceland travel costs
Iceland is currently ranked the third most expensive country to live in, topped only by the tax havens of Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. The cost of living in Iceland is nearly 50% higher than that of the UK.
Accommodation and food & drink are much to blame. Eating & staying in Reykjavik will cost you 44% more than the average in the EU.
However, booze is the real budget-buster. A glass of your favourite tipple is likely to cost 123% more than it would in an average European country.
But fear not. Even when travelling alone, it is possible to visit Iceland on a mid-range budget without resorting to staying in a hostel or letting a single Pot Noodle pass your lips.
How to save money in Iceland
Accommodation in Iceland does not come cheap. To save money on lodgings, conventional wisdom applies:
- Book early
- Get the best possible deals by using price comparison websites, for example, Google Hotels.
- Consider self-catering accommodation, through Airbnb or Booking.com. This will also save you money on food.
However, that said, I did the opposite!
I got a great deal three weeks before I flew with BA Holidays. This bundled flights at convenient times and to/from convenient airports with a centrally-located three-star hotel that included breakfast. This deal cost marginally more than the hotel alone if I had booked these separately.
Eating out in Iceland is relatively expensive. A main course in a mid-range restaurant will set you back between 2,000 and 4,000 ISK (16 – 35 USD). For this reason, Icelanders consider dining out to be a treat.
Here are my top tips for saving money when eating in Iceland.
- Bring some snacks from home. Whatever your fancy, these are good for munching on when you are feeling peckish or to form part of a packed lunch on the go.
- Bag a good hotel deal that includes breakfast. Not only will this set you up for the day ahead, but you may be able to assemble a packed lunch. Trust me … I wasn’t the only person doing this at breakfast. Whilst I was at least trying to be discrete, a group of four at an adjacent table had a production line going, complete with proper sandwich bags. I was seriously impressed.
- Alternatively, stay in self-catering accommodation where you won’t be reliant in dining out.
- When in Reykjavik, keep your eyes peeled for lunchtime lunch deals.
- Tipping is not expected in bars and restaurants in Iceland
Alcohol is eye-wateringly expensive in Iceland. A local beer, for example, is likely to cost 1,000 ISK (8 USD). Reckon on spending at least 1,400 ISK for a glass of fairly unspectacular wine.
Despite this, Reykjavik has a vibrant bar scene and you should not deprive yourself of the chance to try the excellent local beer. But, if you’re not careful, alcohol can make your trip to Iceland expensive.
Here are my tips on how to save money on drink in Iceland but still have a good time.
- Keep drinking out to a minimum
- Instead, buy booze before arriving at your accommodation. Pack alcohol in your checked luggage or buy a bottle or two at the Duty-Free in your departure airport. Or do as the Icelanders do and stock up in the Duty-Free shop in the Arrivals area at Keflavik Airport.
- Don’t rely on buying alcohol from a supermarket. Prohibition was only fully repealed in Iceland in 1989 and its accessibility is relatively limited. It can only be purchased in state-run off-licences (ÁTVR), which are only open during office hours.
- If you are drinking out, take advantage of the numerous happy hours around Reykjavik. Again, learn from the locals, and download AppyHour, an app that lists these. Available for iPhone and Android devices.
Public transport infrastructure in Iceland is relatively limited. There is no railway, only a shrinking network of long-distance bus routes provided by just a few companies. Although there are bus services during the summer months (June – August), for the remainder of the year buses are too infrequent – or non-existent – to be useful.
Many visitors hire a car and this is likely to be your cheapest option. However, as it was winter and I am not keen on driving, I didn’t do this. Instead, I used bus transfer services and excursions.
To get to Reykjavik from Keflavik Airport, use FlyBus or Airport Express. For further information, check out this excellent blog post.
I can recommend I recommend Reykjavik Sightseeing for day excursions. My 7.5-hour Golden Circle tour cost 5,900 ISK (58 USD); add an additional 990 ISK for a hotel pick-up.
Taxis are expensive and Iceland is currently Uber-free.
How much did an Iceland solo travel trip cost in 2019?
Here’s the bottom line. My three-day / four-night itinerary Iceland trip cost a total of £820.
The individual costs were as follows:
- FOOD & DRINK £110
- FLIGHT & ACCOMMODATION £504
- SIGHTSEEING £162
- AIRPORT TRANSFERS £44
Finally, here is my three-day / four-night itinerary in Reykjavik as a solo traveller.
A 3-day Iceland solo travel itinerary
As well as being a fabulous destination in its own right, Reykjavik is also a fantastic base from which to explore Southern Iceland. Here is my 3-day Iceland itinerary.
DAY 1: EXPLORE REYKJAVIK
After a hearty breakfast, start the day by exploring Reykjavik with Free Walking Tour Reykjavik. As Iceland’s capital is so compact, it is a breeze to navigate on foot.
Don’t miss the following:
Hallgrímskirja – this geyser-shaped modern church is Reykjavik’s most iconic sight. Make sure that you the lift to the observation deck at the top of the church. With its tower standing 73 meters high – the tallest church in Iceland – you will get fantastic 360-degree views of Reykjavik
- Grjóti village – the colourful buildings that you are able to see from Hallgrímskirja’s tower are clustered around Grjóti village, the oldest neighbourhood in Reykjavik.
- Harpa – Reykjavik’s controversial harbourside concert hall. Take the lift to the 5th floor to fully appreciate its honeycombed glass walls and ceiling, and for great views over Reykjavik harbour.
- Sólfar (“Sun Voyager”) – a sculpture created by the artist Jón Gunnar Áranson representing a dream Viking longship floating off to new beginning towards the setting sun.
READ MORE: One Day in Reykjavik: The Best Things to See
DAY 2: TOUR THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
Day Two and it’s time to leave Reykjavik to explore Iceland’s rugged interior. Its famous Golden Circle, a 300 km circular route that loops from Reykjavik into central Iceland, is not to be missed.
Here are the main stops:
- Thingvellir National Park – a rift valley where the American and Eurasian continental plates meet, and the site of the longest functioning parliamentary assembly.
- Geysir – a thermal area of bubbling sulphurous pools where the mighty Strokkur geyser, reliably puts on a performance every five minutes or so.
- Gullfoss – a dramatic waterfall formed by twin cataracts thundering into a narrow gravel canyon of the Hvitá river.
And you may also get an opportunity to pet an Icelandic horse.
DAY 3: VISIT THE BLUE LAGOON
Views are divided on the Blue Lagoon Is it a must-see destination on any Iceland itinerary or a complete tourist trap?
I did debate whether to go there but, being a completist, I felt that it should be included in my itinerary. Also, I wanted to make my mind up for myself.
The verdict? Yes … it is a tourist trap but its steaming, milky waters set within a lava field is an unmissable sight.
Can you save money in Iceland?
Despite the high cost of living, you can save money in Iceland. Bag a good deal on accommodation and exercise self-restraint when eating and drinking alcohol out. Iceland is expensive but it is worth it every Króna.
Let’s look on the bright side. The relatively high cost of booze means that, unlike other European cities such as Tallinn or Prague, Reykjavik is yet to become stag party central. And surely that has to be a good thing?