Our first visit to Iceland was taken in February with the great aspiration of seeing the Aurora Borealis. We thought enduring the brisk February temps during short daylight hours would guarantee us sightings. No luck in South Iceland. Armed with a better plan (read no full moon, timing with a coronal hole due to open during our visit), we returned during the autumnal equinox to explore North Iceland. Success! We saw lights 8 of our 9 nights. Read more below for our overly ambitious itinerary for how to conquer South Iceland on a budget.
First up: South Iceland. We chose to fly IcelandAir as the price was better than the budget airlines when you factored in baggage costs. Even if you pack light, you’ll need some gear for Iceland…warm clothes, hiking boots, crampons, etc. Most flights from the US arrive very early in the morning. One great tip is that the bathrooms in the Keflavik airport each have very large bathrooms, not just stalls, which are key for a post overnight flight refresh so you can hit the ground running.
First up, your rental car. There are a LOT of rental car options in Iceland. During our trip to the South, we used Lagoon Car Rental, and for our trip to the North, IceRental 4×4. Do your research here. There are definitely deals to be had, though I think it’s worth the extra cost for a 4 wheel drive vehicle if you are doing any winter traveling. Much is written on driving in the winter in Iceland. We live in New England so driving in the snow is familiar. If it isn’t to you, winter may not be the best time for you to travel. We didn’t see a single plow on our trips so the roads can be a little slick, but the main difficulty is the wind. It is IMPRESSIVE. In fact, your car’s rental insurance won’t cover you if your door is ripped off due to wind. We thought this laughable until we struggled to even open the door against the wind at Reynisfjara Beach. It’s the white out conditions with the snow and wind though that can get the blood pressure up.
Orca Whale Tour
Day 1 & 2: Our trip began by heading to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula to the tiny coastal town of Grundafjordur. Here we started our Iceland journey with Laki Tours for a chance to see orca whales. They supply you with a head to toe rubber suit to protect you from the cold…and yes, it is so, so cold. As soon as you exit the fjord and head toward the frigid North Atlantic, you’ll wish you had two suits. Our trip was a 4 hour tour with not a single whale spotted. I must say though that the tour operators truly tried to find a whale…even extending the time out at sea by close to an hour. Furthermore, if you don’t see a whale, you receive a ticket for a second trip (good for a lifetime). After our tour, we warmed up in the Laki Cafe with a heart shaped pizza (it was Valentine’s Day 🙂 and decided, the odds of a return to Grundafjordur were low, so we rearranged our trip and headed out on a second tour the following day. With an hour left to the tour and biting wind, we were really regretting our decision, but then a glorious pod of orcas appeared!
Day 3: Our next day was a long day of driving as we wound our way along the southern coast of Iceland. We visited Seljalandfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls. These waterfalls were made even more magnificent as we were fortunate to take unobstructed photos and admire them without crowds by traveling in the winter. The key is to get up and get moving early before the scores of tour buses hit the sites. We concluded our day with a visit to Reynisfjara (Black Sand) Beach with jet black sand and towering basalt rock columns. It’s also notorious for ‘sneaker waves’ which emerge rapidly to surprise unsuspecting tourists with a shoe full of icy waters. We splurged after our long day with a stay at the newer Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon…a swanky Iceland hotel with a pricey but delicious restaurant.
Ice Cave Tour
We began Day 4 with a sunrise visit to Diamond Beach where chunks of glacier ice float along the coast glitter like diamonds in the sun. This is another location where an early rise pays off for viewing the beauty without a swell of other tourists. We then made our way across the street to Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, a beautiful lagoon with calving glaciers and floating icebergs to meet our group for our ice cave tour.
We chose Local Guide of Vatnajokull for our tour. Ice cave tours in Iceland are only run from mid October to mid March. Our tour involved a hike along a glacier and descent into two amazing caves! You’ll definitely need crampons or micro spikes (which most tour companies will supply) though I’d consider bringing your own pair to Iceland as many of our stops at waterfalls and walking paths at the tourist stops were very icy. This is an all day tour which cost about $500 for two people. This was our most significant expenditure of our South Iceland trip, but there is no other way to explore the caves without the aid of a guide. The ice in the caves is a brilliant blue if the light hits them in the right direction and the pictures fail to capture the real life splendor
The tour includes a lunch break at the lagoon which is a pretty spectacular backdrop for a PB&J! With the sunshine, we had lovely blue colors and witnessed some calving. We ended our day with a drive to Vik, a very quaint town with a charming church perched atop a hill giving a view of the black sand beaches beyond. We had a delicious bite to eat at the Smidjan Brugghus, a tiny brewery with great burgers that were affordable.
Day 5 of our South Iceland journey, we finally made it to the famed Golden Circle. The sites were amazing…though I have to say that we preferred the lesser known attractions outside of the Circle. They were equally beautiful and lacked the many (many) tour buses. We visited Gullfoss Waterfall, geysers named Geyser and Strokurr, and Pingvellir National Park. The most fascinating part of the circle, in our opinion, was Silfra fissure….a large rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates where you can actually snorkel. We were unaware that you could don a dry suit and snorkel, but it was still pretty cool to walk along the rift and see the crystal clear water.
We spent our final night out in Reykjavik but our time there was brief as we had taken that 2nd orca tour at the beginning our of trip. We departed the next day but not before a stop at the famous Blue Lagoon.
You’ll read many articles that suggest skipping the Blue Lagoon as it is a tourist trap…and I would agree it is…but still absolutely worth a visit. It’s located close to the airport so it makes for a relaxing stop pre-flight. A basic ticket will get you a silica face mask and 2 drinks and you are welcome to stay in the lagoon as long as you’d like. It’s advised you saturate your hair with conditioner; however, in retrospect, I would just skip submerging your hair if it’s fine. I had sticky hair for days.
No Northern Lights for our trip, but a lot of amazing sites. We left with a plan to return back to try and try our luck again! And we did…a trip to Northern Iceland 6 months later which you can also read about on our site!
Our Ice Cave Tour was our most significant expenditure. We used Local Guide of Vatnajokull and paid $524 for 2 people. The tour included a drive in a monster type truck out to the glacier where we spied reindeer, a walk along the glacier, a visit to two ice caves and Jokulsarlon Lagoon. We brought our own lunches in backpacks. Though pricey, there is no other way to experience the caves and they are most definitely worth it! We also emailed the company directly and they gave us a 10% discount…worth a try.
Aurora Basecamp is a new observatory that opened in October of 2019 in Hafnarfjordur about 12 kilometers from Reykyavik. It is composed of two geodesic domes with low lit platforms for tourists to view the lights with guides to answer questions and hot chocolate. The cost is listed at 3900 ISK. We didn’t have the opportunity to visit as this opened after our visit. It sounds intriguing, but we often found the best Aurora hunting was with our own car and cloud map (read more about that in our Northern Iceland post).
- This itinerary involved a lot of driving. We don’t mind longer days in the car to get us to the next destination, but you might want to extend your time at a few of the locations. Also be aware that flights from the US arrive EARLY. Starting your first full day in Iceland at 5 am is going to be a full day so plan a little relaxation in for Day 1.
- Gas stations are fairly plentiful along Ring Road but they can be located far apart, so fill up when you see them. They all have clean, newer restrooms, a convenience store, and a tiny basic cafe.
- Most hotels include a breakfast, so it is wise to fill up and maybe pack a snack to go. We did this most days, thus allowing us to skip a stop for lunch and only pay for a dinner. Restaurant meals are on the pricier side so you’ll want to work that into your budget.