A week ago, my 9 friends and I set out to conquer the North, armed with nothing but 2 SUVs, poorly packed suitcases, and a confidence that would thaw any frost. We had one mission - discover everything about Iceland, while sidestepping the Nordic region’s infamous prices.
All that scrimping may frame this as a trip to forget, but the experience we had was anything but. There were many firsts - long drives through pitch-black roads, snowfalls in less-than-romantic situations, and the phenomena of aurora. The country is a glorious masterpiece of nature that cannot be described simply with words and pictures, but I will try anyway - along with tips on how to have a blast on a budget.
Enough talk - let’s hit the road!
My friends and I began planning for this trip three months in advance, which meant plenty of time to source for the best deals for flights, car rentals, and places to stay. Whether you have this luxury of time or not, you can find all three of these right here at CheapTickets.sg. Don’t sleep - Iceland is very far away and tickets don’t come cheap, so keep your eyes peeled for cheap flights!
Before our trip, we agreed on several things: we were to cook as many meals as we could using condiments from Singapore and whatever we could scrounge from no-frills grocery stores (stops for groceries are included in the itinerary); we were to choose cost over convenience (which meant longer drives at times); and that some experiences were worth paying for. Attractions like the Ice Caves are one-of-a-kind and worth the expense - save up on things like flights and hotel bookings, and you’ll have plenty left to spend!
Our first day began at Keflavik International Airport, Iceland’s main aviation hub. There was no time to waste - Reykjavik was an hour’s drive away, and the sun was setting fast. Thankfully, our car rental service was already waiting at the airport to pick us up - remember to ask for this with your arrival time if you’re booking cars in advance! Paperwork was sorted in a flash, and we were on our way in no time.
Our first stop was Bus Hostel Reykjavik, instantly recognizable by the deluge of travel buses descending upon the area when we arrived. This hostel offers 10-bunk rooms - perfect for large groups looking for an alternative to expensive hotels. The race against the sunset was still on, so we dropped our bags and ran.
Next up was the famed Hallgrímskirkja Church, one of the tallest buildings in the country. Completed in 1986 and restored in 2009, the free-to-enter church retains its clean lines even in its interior, creating a peaceful place for worship. The impending sunset cast a mesmerising glow over the church, but there was an even greater spectacle in store - the Sun Voyager waterfront. We reached the edge of Reykjavik with little time to spare, but managed to catch the last rays of sunshine framing the mountains before descending for the night.
Our last stop of the day brought us to an unassuming corner shop near Reykjavik’s city centre. Icelandic Street Food has been dishing out affordable meals to hungry locals and travellers since its opening. Their free-flow soups and incredible hospitality warmed us up in no time, and we headed back to the hostel sleepy but satisfied.
Jetlag hit us far harder than we expected, which meant that we woke up too late for a proper breakfast. No matter - a quick stop for snacks at the nearest convenience store (which was still a 15-minute drive away) meant that we reached our first stop on time anyway. Thingvellir National Park is steeped in history, being Iceland’s parliament location from the 10th to 18th centuries. The climbs were thankfully less steep, and we eventually worked our way through the Almannagjá rift valleys to the top. The waterfall that greeted us at the peak was spectacular, and for an instant we all forgot about the rain that also came to say hello.
We planned a refuel on the way to our next stop, and saw our first snowfall while at the petrol kiosk, which takes the cake for the most unromantic snowfall situation in history. Lunch at Supa Geysir, just under an hour away in good traffic, fared way better. The soups barely had time to cool before we wolfed them down and headed on our way - there were sights to see, and little daylight to beat!
There were famous Icelandic geysers happily bubbling away outside our lunch spot, but the biggest one was yet to come. A short walk into the park next to Supa revealed the majestic Strokkur, the central attraction of the geysers. Geothermal conditions put extreme heat and pressure on underground waters, pushing them up in incredible explosions up to 50 metres high.
Right next door was Gullfoss, another marvel in its own right. The short drive there however brought about an equally remarkable spell of rain and hail, and we managed a measly five minutes of photos before retreating to our vehicles. For the curious, weather in Iceland changes by the minute. However, this might be more manageable depending on when you’re visiting - check the weather conditions before you fly, and plan accordingly!
After getting pelted by ice and snow in the same day, we needed a warm place to be, and the Secret Lagoon hot spring had the answers. Secret Lagoon is one of several hot springs in the area - choose between them or the public baths that dot the south of Iceland. The comfort was dreamlike - we overstayed by an hour, refusing to leave the warmth of the springs. When we eventually made it out, we rushed to a nearby Nettó to pick up groceries for dinner, before making one last drive to our accommodations at Mið-Mörk.
During our planning phase, we factored drive times into our itinerary and set aside periods for rest and recovery. Today was a day for just that - only three destinations, all less than an hour today, but breathtaking nonetheless. First up was Seljalandsfoss, a pair of waterfalls that offer slightly different experiences. The first offers a spacious walk around the plunge pool, allowing visitors to see the waterfall from the inside out. The second is more immersive - getting to the base requires a careful tiptoe through a cramped crevice, which opens up to a dazzling descent of river spray.
Skógafoss was further down south and offered a largely different perspective - one that could only be seen after a long flight of steps up to the top of the waterfall. Our fitness levels had dropped after months of intensive eating and snoozing, leaving us breathless at the end of the climb. Somehow, the beauty of Iceland surprised us yet again, taking our breath away a second time.
The last stop of the day was at Black Sand Beach, which was another half an hour on the road. There are several of these beaches dotting the entire South Icelandic coast, so take your pick! One site worth visiting in the area is Sólheimasandur, the site of a US Navy plane wreck. The plane had malfunctioned in 1973, and while the entire crew lived to tell the tale, the wreckage remains till this day. It’s a great place to catch the sunset, but vehicles aren’t allowed in during the winter - take the 4km trek if you fancy a challenge, or book a shuttle bus that’ll take you there from the beach entrance.
We made it back before sunset, had a home-cooked feast fit for a king, and were tucked in before midnight. The next day was going to a challenge, and we were ready.
Our cars were out of the porch even before the sun began to peek over the horizon. We had three destinations today, and the furthest one was a good 4-hour drive away. Packed lunches in hand, we headed towards Skaftafell, a hotspot for adventurers seeking thrilling glacier hikes.
Skaftafell and the nearby Vatnajökull National Park sat almost three hours away from where we were staying. Due to an unplanned hour-long detour we took to take pictures (anything for the ‘gram), we wound up with only enough time to finish our lunches. Do note that our route was planned without the hike in mind - for those looking to attempt a hike there, looking for a nearby place to stay the night is strongly recommended!
The views only got better after - we were blessed with an overcast sky minus the rain for the rest of the journey, and reached Jökulsárlón Glacier without a hitch. The glacier and the lagoon around it is a bittersweet remnant of climate change, caused by decades of man-made global warming. Big chunks of ice break off from the glacier and float out to sea, before being washed ashore nearby.
The ‘nearby’ mentioned above is none other than the Diamond Beach, a coast filled with natural ice formations that glisten from a mile away. People wait for hours here to see the sun frame this glorious snapshot of nature. We waited as well, and we were wowed. Remember to stay clear of the coast as you gaze into daylight’s last hues - one of us was standing too close to the edge and had his boots completely submerged. He had to make the return journey with his socks off, and the sub-zero temperatures didn’t help.
The next five hours were invigorating - driving through pitch darkness, aided only by reflective panels that line all of Iceland’s roads and the occasional moonlight peeking through the clouds. Tired from the long drive, we were out like a light once we returned to Mið-Mörk.
Our last day was reserved for the ice caves. There are several tour services in South Iceland who conduct guided treks to these caves, but do manage your expectations - safety concerns may force guides to bring you to smaller caves (which are less grand but nonetheless impressive) or cancel the trip altogether. We opted for a tour conducted by Icelandic Mountain Guides, but feel free to look around for other providers with credible reviews!
The rest of the day was reserved for returning our vehicles and making it to the airport in time. Having been blessed with incredible views the entire trip despite the unpredictable weather, we thought we had seen it all. But Iceland had other ideas.
What About the Northern Lights?
Some of you may have wondered why I never mentioned the aurora borealis, also knowns as the Northern Lights, in the article - they are a sight to behold, after all, and people come from far and wide to see this phenomenon for themselves. We were no exception. Every night, we would hunt down a prime spot for aurora spotting, only to be buffeted by hail, rain, and constant cloud cover. Four days of hunting yielded no light at the end of the tunnel, and we had little hope left as we hopped onto our cars for the last time towards the rental office.
Ten minutes to Keflavik Airport. A friend sleepily mumbled something about a faint streak of light outside. We laughed it off, saying the windows were probably dirty from all the offroading. But then another friend saw it. And another. All of a sudden, the aurora had come to us.
The next few moments were a blur - a hurried detour into the nearest exit, three people trying to set up a tripod at once, and a lot of screaming. We steadied ourselves, captured the magical skies, and watched as the pulses of green faded into black. Our journey at Iceland was over, and it could not have ended better.
Last Bits of Advice
A bit of digging after revealed some things we could have planned better for more Northern Lights magic. For a spectacular aurora display to occur, there are two main factors: the presence of geomagnetic activity, measured by the kp index, and a clear sky. We chose a period with great flight prices, at some expense (we did see the aurora after all!) My advice? Check the prices, check the indexes, and balance your priorities.
The next issue concerns the Diamond Beach, the one with the scattered glaciers. We had friends who visited Iceland just a week after us and saw much more beached ice. We also found out that this might have been due to the full moon, which causes higher tides and therefore less exposed beachfronts. I’m no geography expert, but I do advise taking your trip at a time when the moon is less visible, especially since its glow could wash out weaker Northern Lights.
If you’ve read this far, congratulations - you’ve probably learned a few things about Iceland and its quirks! No words or pictures can do this beautiful country justice, and any self-respecting globetrotter will need to check this place off their travel list. Winter has come - enjoy its splendour up North, and book your flights to Iceland today!