My first trip to Iceland was on a shoestring budget: I was in my early 20’s, a researcher at a magazine and I didn’t have a lot of expendable income. I couchsurfed my way around Reykjavik, ate what my hosts cooked me and went where they took me. It was an awesome first experience—it also set the bar high for visiting Iceland in winter when daylight hours are reduced and temperatures have dropped.
grainy photos from my first trip to Iceland in 2007
But returning as a proper adult (if you can call me that…), this trip was a lot more fun to plan knowing that I could splurge on once-in-a-lifetime experiences (a helicopter ride over an active volcano!) and still save money when it made sense (e.g. shared accommodations with my mom and our friend Em instead of paying for separate hotel rooms).
While I paid for everything on this trip, this post does contain affiliate links to experiences we took.
Going to Iceland right now
At the time this post was published, Iceland required all travelers to present either a vaccination card and a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of your departing flight or a negative PCR test and five days in quarantine upon arrival for those not vaccinated. (Seriously, get vaccinated if you aren’t already. It’s only going to get harder from here.)
You also have to register with the government and show the barcode they send you in addition to your passport, vaccination card and proof of negative test at the ticket counter of your departure airport.
Coming back to the United States from Iceland, you need proof of a negative viral test no more than one day before you travel by air into the United States. You must show your negative result to the airline before you board your flight. Luckily, Iceland makes it easy and free, and you get your results in 15 minutes. That part of the process was breezy.
Leaving Iceland, you’ll show your passport and proof of negative test at the ticket gate, meaning you can’t just check in online anymore so you need to allow for the extra time to go through this step at the Reykjavik’s Keflavik airport. This is for U.S. travelers; if you’re another nationality, you’ll need to check on your home country’s requirements.
What does it cost to travel to Iceland?
This is the burning question everyone wants to know: Can I afford a trip to Iceland? The great news is that if you can afford to travel anywhere, then Iceland is definitely a possibility for you.
Iceland offers so many different ways to explore on different price points, from tent camping to camper vans, hostels to luxury hotels. My first trip 14 years ago, I spent less than $100 a day, and I used a layover to mainland Europe to get there so it didn’t cost me an extra plane ticket (more on that in a minute).
This time, we went more of the midrange to luxury route because we have more expendable income now and also haven’t really traveled the past two years, but whatever way you decide, just know that Iceland is something you can do. To help you best plan, I kept a meticulous budget of everything we spent:
- Flights from NYC to KEF: $356 per person
- Flights from BNA to NYC: $97 per person
- Luxury SUV with 4WD for seven days: $851
- Gas: $1.60 per liter or $6 a gallon
- Vacation rental: $220 a night for a 2BR/2BA
- Nice dinner (entrée, cocktail, dessert): $50
- Coffee and pastry: $6-$8
- Wine or beer: $7-$12
- Cocktail: $12-$18
Cost of lodging in Iceland
We stayed in four different Airbnb rentals over seven days, and per person averaged about $100 a day. SVV and I stayed in a 2BR/2BA in the city center for the first two days that cost $220 a night ($110 a person). Mom, SVV and I stayed in two different rentals that accommodated three people at $300 a night ($100 a person).
Emilie stayed in a hostel in Reykjavik with a private bedroom and shared bathroom for about $70 a night. All four of us stayed in a 4BR/2BA cabin in the middle of West Iceland for $460 a night ($115 a person).
If you’re traveling with others and going the vacation rental route, $100 a night per person for lodging is reasonable for a nice place (though you can definitely find cheaper rentals if you’re OK sacrificing quality or space). I was in shock by how much more affordable Iceland was on this trip than it was two decades ago. Honestly, even if you go the more high-end route like we did, you’ll be spending about what you would to visit a major U.S. city like San Francisco, New York or Miami, possibly less.
Cost of drinks in Iceland
The most expensive part of dining out in Iceland was the spirits with cocktails ranging around $18 a pop, but most bars have happy hour deals on beer and wine each afternoon if you arrive early enough (usually starting at 4pm).
And you can also save yourself the money by purchasing liquor at Duty Free on your way into the country and making your cocktails in your rental or hotel. Beer and wine are also significantly cheaper in Iceland than liquor.
Cost of car rental in Iceland
If you’re doing an Iceland road trip like we did, your biggest expense will be the car rental as you’ll need a 4WD to get around. I was shocked when I checked prices for Enterprise, Hertz and all the usual rental companies we use in the United States; they were exorbitant, especially as we needed an SUV to accommodate four people and our luggage.
Then, Emilie told me about an Icelandic secret: SADcars. They are used vehicles, and the company will not show up on your major car rental company searches so you need to go directly to their website for pricing.
For comparison, a U.S. company charged around $300 for a three-day rental whereas the same class of vehicle was $128 for the same period of time. You will need a 4WD vehicle for traveling to Iceland in winter, and where they’ll get you is insurance, which can easily be the same price as the car rental.
We rented a Toyota Highlander from SADcars, and it cost us $831 for a full week, which is easily half the price we would have paid for a full-sized SUV at another rental company. When I searched for vehicles, I was seeing $1,500 to $2,000 a week for comparable models elsewhere.
We did use our U.S. insurance, which covers us abroad, and declined theirs so they made us put down an $8,000 credit card deposit. No, that is not a typo. So that’s the catch if you’re looking for a cheap car.
Visiting Iceland in winter versus summer
My mom asked Why did we choose to visit Iceland in winter (November)? The short answer is that our trip was originally scheduled around Iceland Airwaves, a music festival that takes place in early November each year but was canceled earlier this fall. The more accurate answer was also because shoulder season is both more affordable and has far fewer people. I hate crowds.
And we really wanted to see the Northern Lights. We did not see the Northern Lights. It was my fourth time in a northern region where you could see them, and they failed me once more.
I’ve read that seeing the Northern Lights is pretty rare, so you shouldn’t go to Iceland in the winter thinking that’s a given.. You can book a Northern Lights excursion with a tour company that knows where to go and the conditions to see them in, and you’ll be more likely to see them, but still not guaranteed.
This was Emilie’s fourth trip to Iceland: She’s now gone in April, September, October and November. Each trip was magical for a different reason; each trip was cold. If you go to Iceland in summer, know it still might not be warm—and it will likely be much pricier—but you will have far more daylight than we did.
The hardest thing about visiting Iceland in winter was the lack of daylight. In November, the sun rose around 9:15am and set around 5pm. Our internal clocks never got used to it, and I found myself finally falling asleep around 3am every day only to wake up by my alarm at 8am in pitch black.
Another tricky thing about visiting Iceland in winter (or late fall) is reduced airlift.
Flying to Iceland in winter
Flying to Iceland in winter can be a boondoggle; the limited airlift is by far the worst part of traveling to this part of the world between October and April.
Originally, we had separate tickets as you can’t actually book a round-trip flight to Iceland from Nashville, even with a connection. I had us booked on United from Nashville to Newark (a 90-minute flight), then Icelandair from Newark to Reykjavik (a five-hour flight) with a three-hour layover to account for delays and give us time to go through passport control.
Then Icelandair canceled a good number of its winter routes, including direct flights from Newark and Minneapolis to Reykjavik.
Instead, they rebooked us from JFK to REK, meaning we also had to cancel our Nashville to Newark flights and rebook a BNA to JFK flight on Delta with just a few weeks’ notice. Luckily, that portion was only $97 round-trip.
But if you fly to Iceland in winter, be sure you have a flexible ticket if you have a connection like we did, as there’s the likelihood things may change as your trip nears. Icelandair is considered a budget airline, meaning they charge for everything from meals to seat selection, but it’s often the only option you have, particularly if you’re traveling to Iceland in the winter.
If you’re flying Icelandair from the U.S. to another part of Europe, you can make use of the Icelandair Stopover program that enables you to layover for as long as seven days before reaching your final destination. This is how I visited Iceland for cheap on my way from New York to Oktoberfest in Germany all those years ago.
What’s the weather like in Iceland in the winter?
We spent eight days in Iceland in November, and the weather averaged out into the low-40s Fahrenheit. It did get colder when we visited the Snæfellsnes peninsula; it hovered right at freezing and snowed for two days. Then, it was gone and back to 40 degrees.
The average temperature in Reykjavik during winter months hovers between 33 and 35 in winter, and you’ll likely get to see snow at some point. It only gets up to about 54 degrees Fahrenheit in summer.
So it’s really not that cold, but it’s also pretty rainy and you have reduced daylight hours. You’ll definitely want to pack a snow jacket or thick raincoat, as well as waterproof boots, gloves, scarves and a hat.
The great thing about traveling to Iceland in the winter before the snow closes the roads is that you can do group tours like to the Golden Circle and not have all the attractions littered with tourists, which is the case in summer months.
Hot springs and communal baths are a big cultural activity in Iceland, and they’re open year round. Check out my review of the Blue Lagoon, and also look into visiting the Sky Lagoon. Both are fun ways to warm up in colder months.
How much daylight is there in Iceland in winter?
In November, we had about 7.5 hours of daylight in Reykjavik. It gets down to just five hours of daylight in Iceland in December and January, then starts to climb back to six and eventually seven hours.
In summer months, you get 20 to 22 hours of daylight in Iceland, which is trippy and can make it hard to sleep if you’re an insomniac like me. But I still stand by the shoulder seasons of October and November or March and April being a great time to visit Iceland even with the colder temps and fewer hours of daylight.
What do they eat in Iceland?
The food in Iceland can easily be summarized as: a whole lot of meat. On every menu, there was always lamb, a bevy of hamburger options, and fish and chips. I ate more burgers in Iceland than I do in America, and SVV had a lot of lamb and cod.
From my earlier trip, I remember there being more seafood, but Emilie and I had to go to a seafood-specific restaurant, Messin, to get our fish fix. It was delicious, and you should go there.
In more touristy restaurants, you will find Nordic novelties like minke whale, shark or puffin on the menu. Personally, I couldn’t bring myself to eat any of that, but you do you.
For vegetarians or gluten-free travelers, there were a lot of veggie and GF options on every menu, so you’ll be fine traveling to Iceland even if you have food restrictions. I’ll also be writing a guide to Reykjavik that outlines every meal we had, so stay tuned if you’re planning a trip to the Icelandic capital soon.
Do I need Icelandic money?
We were in Iceland for seven days and never took out Icelandic money, the kroner. We used our American credit cards everywhere, and the only places we had problems with them were at the gas pumps that mostly only take debit cards and not credit cards.
If you have both a debit card and a credit card, you can get around easily without ever needing to take out money.
Do I tip in Iceland?
No. Everything is included in the check they give you after each meal. Some restaurants and bars will have a little jar for excess change, and you can tip if you want. But know that servers in Europe are paid a living wage and don’t rely on tourist tips to pay the bills.
Are Icelandic ponies really that cute?
YES. And they are everywhere. You really only need drive 30 minutes or so out of the city to spot them grazing in a pasture. They’re so accustomed to tourists, they’ll come right up to you.
You can also book a horseback riding outing if you’re so inclined, but we were content stopping along the way on our Iceland road trip and feeding them grass from the road, ha.
Before you leave Iceland…
Before you get to the airport, you need to make sure you have all your receipts for purchases exceeding 6500 kroner filled out as you can get your 14 percent VAT back. You need to do this before you check your bags as the Tax Refund station at Reykjavik’s Keflavik airport is down near the ticket counters and you might have to show proof of purchases.
It’s worth doing if you shopped in Iceland, though not all purchases count (like a ring I bought from a local artisan). When you buy anything at a store, they’ll let you know if you can get a tax refund.
Any questions about traveling to Iceland in winter? Or traveling to Iceland in general?