Back from Europe: a Crazy/Amazing Rollercoaster of a Trip
Everybody wants to go to Iceland. At least that’s what it feels like to this Floridan. When talking to my friends and relatives about our summer adventures, I’ve mentioned that we went to Montenegro, Paris and Iceland.
This is the most common reaction I’ve encountered: “Iceland? I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland!” No-one really cared about the the first two destinations on my list. Well, some were curious where exactly one can find Montenegro on the map, but that’s about it.
I believe that part of the appeal of Iceland has to do with creative folks working at its tourism promotion board. Whatever these guys are getting paid, Iceland should double it. If you haven’t seen this video, definitely watch it:
It’s witty, weird and showcases Iceland scenery in a unique way
So, is Iceland worth the hype? I would have to say yes… kind of. I’ve always said that when it comes to scenery and nature, it’s very tough to beat the United States. Partly, it’s due to sheer size of our country.
If you haven’t traveled to places like Yellowstone and Grand Tetons, I think you should prioritize those. They are likely closer to where you live and cheaper to get to. Another place I absolutely loved is the Denali national park in Alaska.
That said, Iceland makes for a great add-on to your European itinerary, and I highly recommend including it if your budget can swing it.
Even if you have an extra two days in your schedule, go for it! You can see some glorious waterfalls, like Gullfoss, part of the famous Golden Circle drive:
…and watch puffins (sometimes whales) from the comfort of a tour boat:
You can even cook eggs in a geyser:
In fact, my husband was more excited about the last activity than seeing the waterfalls.
If you plan it right, you can even do all of the above in one day. And if you go now (like right now), you can add an erupting volcano into the mix. How cool is that? I was very sad that we missed this amazing spectacle during our four-night stopover in June. The volcano gods decided we were not worthy, I guess.
So, while I’m not attempting to write a travel guide on Iceland (many people have done a far better job of it than I even could), I hope I can convey how unique this destination really is. It’s an island that is still being formed as we speak.
It’s also a joy to explore via car, which makes it a great family destination. Traffic is sparse, and aside from few quirks like roundabout rules, driving is fairly easy. Just avoid the rush hour near the capital.
Be aware, the weather in Iceland is quite unpredictable. More than one person has told us that we were very lucky to get clear skies during our entire trip. Apparently, it rained for ten straight days before we came.
This is something you can’t really control, so I suggest you don’t obsess over forecast before your trip. Besides, many activities, like the Blue Lagoon, can be enjoyed even in the rain. Another option: Viking World museum, which was a big hit with our kids.
We had a total of four nights in Iceland, and I felt that was sufficient to see the highlights. In fact, I would spend two nights if that’s all that our schedule would allow us. But obviously, having more time allowed us to do things at a more leisurely pace.
In my opinion, Iceland makes for a terrific stopover when you are flying to Europe or coming back to US. It’s also an easy destination where most folks speak English. In fact, if you are looking for a culture shock, this ain’t it. Iceland reminded me of Canada, so if you want a typical “Old World” Europe, you’ll have to fly a bit further.
This isn’t an insult, I happen to love Canada. I just think that Iceland is a better fit as an add-on rather than final European destination. But of course, if you only have time for Iceland, it won’t disappoint.
Iceland is expensive
I simply can’t skip over this part. I suggest you make up your mind not to get upset about how much everything costs. You are only going to be there for a few days, unlike Icelanders who have to pay these prices all year long. This is a remote island, and the logistics are complicated. Hence high costs on pretty much anything.
Let’s start with our van rental. Originally, we reserved an SUV for $650 for four days. I thought that was a lot, but having automatic transmission costs extra. Then my in-laws decided to join us, and I had to switch to a van. That meant paying $1,150 (including insurance). The van was old and had a ton of miles on it. But this was the best deal, and I looked at all kinds of travel sites.
Now let’s talk about food. A trip to a local KFC would cost us $100 for four basic meals. A sandwich in a national park would run an equivalent of $25 or so. A buggy half-filled with groceries set us back $230. You get the idea.
We did try to save where we could, but some costs (like the rental van) were unavoidable. Some were avoidable, like going to the Blue Lagoon. But I wasn’t about to visit Iceland and skip its main attraction. And you shouldn’t either. Yes, the cost of $135 per person is quite steep (kids under 14 get in for free). But it’s a unique and very relaxing experience. In fact, if we ever go back to Iceland, I plan to visit the Blue Lagoon again.
I felt that I got a very good deal on our AirBnB in Grindavik ($1,200 for four nights), since it had a ton of space and even a hot tub heated by a geyser. Look for a detailed review and overall thoughts on choosing a base in Iceland in a follow-up post.
If you think $300 per night for an AirBnB is too much, I suggest looking up hotel costs in the area. And no, points aren’t likely to offer good value, especially if you travel as a family. There are a few Radisson options, but they are quite expensive. Plus, I personally prefer the idea of staying in a countryside.
One interesting possibility is Hotel Ranga, bookable via Hyatt program (25k points per night). I like the relatively remote location, yet it’s close to Golden Circle. But again, it’s a better fit for a couple’s getaway.
One last thing. Make sure your lodging has good blackout shades, as the sun doesn’t really set in Iceland during the summer. Also, get used to wearing a sleeping mask, as it will help greatly.
Flying to Iceland via miles and points
Flights to Iceland tend to be cheaper than those to “mainland” Europe. For that reason, you will likely be better off using flexible points. I was happy to finally burn my Merrill card stash for my in-laws. At $660 per person for roundtrip flight from Orlando to Keflavik, no mileage program came close in value. If you happen to have Chase Sapphire Reserve, it will likely be your best bet.
My situation was a bit different. I needed to maintain as much flexibility as possible, since I wasn’t sure my parents and sister would be able to make it to Montenegro for our family reunion. There are several reasons for that, and the main one is the war in Ukraine.
That’s why I used United miles to book two sets of one-way tickets. This way I could cancel and rebook if necessary. One-way flight from Keflavik to Orlando would cost me $550 per person, so I’ve decided that using 35k miles+$49 tax was a better option. But again, my circumstances were a bit unusual.
If you live near US airports served by Play Airlines, you should definitely look into that option. As of now, they fly to Keflavik from Boston, Baltimore and New York Stewart airports. Even when factoring in extra fees, the price will likely beat anything you could find on major carriers. Plus, flying nonstop is a huge bonus. You can than use another low-cost carrier to fly to other parts of Europe from Iceland.
It’s hard to say if this airline will stay in business by next summer, but they seem to be doing well so far. We actually had a chance to fly Play Air from Paris to Keflavik, and I was happy with the experience. The plane left on time, the crew was friendly and leg room was fantastic. Plus, we arrived alive.
Free cupcakes to celebrate new route to Naples, Italy
So, I would not hesitate to book with them again. Unfortunately, it looks like they have decided to scrap Orlando route due to high cost of fuel. So, my only option for nonstop flights to Iceland is via Icelandair (summer excluded from the schedule).
Speaking of, you can redeem Alaska Mileage Plan miles on Icelandair, but the value is usually poor. The main reason is fuel surcharges the airline passes on. It could makes sense if you are planning to fly last-minute, of course.
Alaska Mileage Plan allows free stopovers, so it might be worth redeeming miles on a more complicated itinerary. However, finding Icelandair award availability can be hit or miss. I wasn’t able to find anything from Paris, for example.
Icelandair allows a free stopover if you book paid airfare with them, which is worth looking into. They serve many popular destinations in Europe, like Paris and London.
I’m very happy my husband requested to add Iceland to our European itinerary. It’s a place I’ve been meaning to visit, but things just never lined up until now. Plus, going to Iceland added almost no extra flying time. I actually would love to go back during winter with the hope of seeing the Northern Lights. Check out this post about our relative’s winter visit to Iceland.
Was Iceland the most spectacular/unique place I’ve ever seen? Probably not. I would have to go with Grand Tetons/Yellowstone mentioned earlier. Still, Iceland is worth your time and money. Don’t dwell on the costs and try to enjoy the glorious view.
How does my family travel so much? We use miles and points from credit card bonuses. See my Travel Hacking 101 post as well as current credit card offers here.