For the first two weeks of September, Casey and I drove the Ring Road in Iceland in a camper van to celebrate our fourth anniversary. It. Was. Epic.
After a few days in Reykjavik, we headed clockwise around the Ring Road, with a detour around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula at the beginning and a detour around the Golden Circle at the end. Here is our route with stops in Google Maps. The first layer includes the attractions we saw, from waterfalls to swimming holes to restaurants to museums. Next is a layer of Reykjavik sites, as we spent about three days total exploring the city. Finally, there are layers for sections of our drive, showing the route we took.
- Kirkjufell (iconic mountain on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula)
- Snorkeling between tectonic plates (Iceland sits on both the North American and Eurasian plates, and you can snorkel in the space between)
- Northern lights (they begin in September, so we timed our trip to overlap the beginning of the aurora with the end of the camping season)
- Hofsós public pool (funded by two wealthy women who wanted to build something for their community rather than just for themselves)
- All the waterfalls!
- Hverir (boiling ochre mud pots)
- Möðrudalur (a tiny stop in the eastern part of the country that had amazing moss soup)
- Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon (pretty self-explanatory)
- Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon (stunning, and worth the little bit of gravel road to get there)
- Reynisfjara Beach (iconic beach with the sea stacks, black sand, and basalt columns)
- Saga Centre in Hvolsvöllur (free! and so educational)
What’s It Gonna Cost?
The first thing people ask me is how much a vacation like this would cost. For the first time ever, we could actually afford to indulge a bit, so we did not do a bare-bones trip. That said, we were also cognizant of prices and tried to get good deals where we could. Our entire trip cost us about $2850 a person, so $5700 total. Here’s the breakdown:
Rental car to and from Chicago (starting point, Bloomington): $228
Flights via IcelandAir from ORD with two checked bags: $1350
Camper and camping card from Go Campers for 9 nights: $1900
Blue Lagoon premium package with transportation from airport and into Reykjavik: $354
Snorkeling between tectonic plates: $383
Hótel Leifur Eiríksson, Reykjavik, 2 nights: $493
Alda Hotel, Reykjavik, 1 night: $347
Gray Line bus from Reykjavik to airport: $40
Chicago airport hotel, 1 night $147
Add food and gas to get roughly $5700.
Tips and Tricks
Here are a few things we learned while there that might help you plan your own trip, in alphabetic order by topic.
The premium package was absolutely worth the extra money. It was nice to have access to robes we didn’t have to pack, and the included drink came in super handy. Our flight was two hours late, so we didn’t have time for breakfast before arriving. They served us lovely Skyr-based smoothies that helped us relax and enjoy our experience. We also enjoyed getting two different facial masks. We chose algae and silica. Finally, we are super glad we took advantage of the Lava restaurant reservation included in the premium package (which also came with a complementary glass of sparkling wine). The food was mind-blowingly good. It was our most expensive meal, but it was worth it. Lobster hollandaise sauce, people. And dill mussles! #nom
We rented a two-person van from Go Campers to drive around the Ring Road. The campgrounds around the country are generally open until mid-September, so we were on the tail end of camping season. Camping was a great way to keep our schedule flexible. Campgrounds in Iceland don’t take reservations, so you can just show up in the evening and pay a fee. That means if you drive further than you thought you would in a given day, or you didn’t get as far as you planned due to awesome sights, you’re not blowing an AirBNB or hotel reservation. When you purchase a camping card, you can stay in any of the included campgrounds around the country and only pay the 333 krona tax per night (which you will need cash for). When you camp as many nights as we did, the camping card paid for itself. There were only a couple of nights where we stayed at campgrounds that weren’t included, because there wasn’t an included one nearby.
Most of the campgrounds we stayed at had small communal buildings with a kitchenette, including a sink and a stove top. Even at the end of the camping season there were often a couple people in line to use the stove, so you may have to wait a few minutes to cook. Several of the campgrounds had free wifi, and all of them had outlets you could use to charge your electronics—just be sure to have an adapter for your plugs.
We never had an issue finding a campground. Just drive down the main road in a given town and look for a sign that says tjaldsvæði.
IcelandAir doesn’t open its counters in Chicago until three hours before their first flight. That meant we sat outside security for a good hour and a half waiting. Other than that, the flight was ok. It’s a budget airline, and we got what we paid for. It was the least amount of legroom I’ve ever seen on a plane, and the space under the seat was not as much as mainstream airlines have here in the US. However, they got us there safely, which was the point.
Know going in that Iceland is expensive. Our first hotel included breakfast, so we only had a handful of meals in Reykjavik to cover before heading out to camp. We did splurge once or twice, and it was a welcome change to rehydrated foodstuffs. The majority of meals we had in restaurants were easily $20 USD a plate. We cut some corners by bringing deyhdrated foods for camping, eating $1 oatmeal packs and a slice of rúgbrauð for breakfast out on the Ring Road, and taking advantage of premade sandwiches at Bonus (a discount grocery store that locals use with a terrifying logo). The hot dogs are as good as everyone says, and you can get one at an N1 gas station for about $4. Beyond that, we highly recommend the restaurants we include on the map. We loved Salka Valka so much we went back once we returned to the city (get the fish stew!). Outside of Reykjavik, the moss soup at Möðrudalur and the reindeer burger at Lindin were fantastic.
Despite reading information beforehand about needing a PIN for our credit card for gas stations, we forgot. If this happens to you, know that the credit card company’s only recourse is to mail you a PIN in seven days. Not very helpful in the moment. Your two options are to use your debit card, which already has a PIN, or buy a prepaid gas card. The latter option should come with an asterisk. You’ll only be able to use the card at that brand of gas station (we got an N1 card) and it will take eight or nine attempts at swiping before it works. According to the gas attendant, that was completely normal (though infuriating).
We booked a cheaper hotel for our first two nights in Reykjavik. Hótel Leifur Eiríksson was a perfect home base for exploring. The room was tiny, but the lobby included a little pub with complementary hot beverages. Even better, it was directly across from Hallgrímskirkja! As mentioned under costs, the breakfast was included, and it was hearty. We could easily have made sandwiches to take with us for lunch each day had we so desired.
After two nights in Reykjavik, we headed out in a Go Camper for nine nights. See camping for more info.
We stayed in a different hotel once we returned from camping. Alda Hotel was a bit more expensive, but we splurged since it would only be for one night. We wanted to treat ourselves to a bit more space after living in a van for 10 days, and Alda Hotel was the perfect choice. It is in the middle of the shopping district, had large rooms, and had a sauna and hot tub (yes, please!). The breakfast there wasn’t included, but it was affordable.
Lots of sites say not to worry with cash in Iceland. It’s true that most places take a card, which is convenient. However, if you go our route with camping, you will need cash, especially small bills and coins. Each night of camping (even if you have a camping card) requires a 333 krona tax. On top of that, you must have exact change to enter most camping showers (unless you’re OK with frigid water—the fee is for hot water). You’ll need a supply of 100 krona coins if you want a (short) hot shower. In addition, many touristy stops had only pay toilets. So, be prepared! The best place to get cash out is at an ATM in the airport. You’ll cut down on fees that way.
The aurora is visible from September through mid-April, though the peak times are November through March. We found that the best time to see them was between 11:30 and midnight. The two times we saw a decent show, it lasted about half an hour. It looked to the naked eye like white beams of light, but in our point-and-shoot (set on about a four-second shutter), it showed up green. Make sure you have a tripod. The aurora forecast, based on solar flares, tells you your chance of seeing any activity, as well as whether the sky will be clear. The most magical night we saw was only a 3 on a scale of 1 to 9, so if it’s clear, I suggest setting an alarm and checking!
The snorkeling between tectonic plates in Þingvellir National Park was stunning, but cold. We booked through Off to Iceland, which updates their available tours depending on the season. It was a half-day excursion from Reykjavik. We were picked up and dropped off at bus stop 8, right by Hallgrimskirkja. They provide the dry suit and all snorkeling accoutrements, as well as a brief history of the area. Be sure to bring non-cotton clothing to wear under the dry suit.
According to Icelandic law, you must shower with soap without your bathing suit on before you’re allowed to enter a public swimming area, whether it be a pool or a hot springs. Be prepared for that! We did the Blue Lagoon, the public pool at Hofsós, Mývatn Nature Baths, and the Secret Lagoon in the Golden Circle, and all were wonderful. The public pools are heated, so we took full advantage despite the chilly weather. The hot springs and pools are a little pricey, but we tried to think about the fact that they came with showers included in the price.
There’s so much more of Iceland I want to see, but we covered a lot of ground in two weeks. If you have specific questions as you are planning your adventure, let me know! And for more photos, follow @rosolina on Instagram.