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If you’re Europe-bound, a stopover in Iceland is a bonus worth considering! If you can fly out of a handful of cities in the U.S., you can get there for no extra charge to your European flight and can stay in the Nordic country for up to 48 hours! Why not take advantage of this opportunity to experience a new culture and get an extra stamp in the passport? I recently had the chance to take part in an Iceland stopover and wanted to share some tips and advice on how to make the most of your trip.
About Iceland: Is it Really All Ice?
Situated on the intersection of the tectonic plates between the Americas and Western Europe, Iceland is made up mostly of volcanic rock from overflowing volcanoes. The ground is a very porous black asphalt-like surface and despite what the name implies, it’s not covered in ice. Iceland has lots of geysers and geothermal waters that help power the energy on the island. Because of its beautiful landscapes and limited resources, Iceland is very eco-conscious and has an earth-friendly attitude. It also has an extremely friendly and easy-going culture. With hardly any crime, it’s one of the safest places on earth.
For such an isolated place, Iceland is extremely technology savvy. Much of the country, especially in the city, has free (fast) Wifi readily available and credit cards (with a chip) are accepted nearly everywhere. So you don’t need to worry about converting your currency into Icelandic Króna if you’re only visiting Iceland for a day or two.
What About ICeland Weather?
The surrounding ocean waters and lack of trees can make for windy conditions, bitter gusts and frigid weather. The climate is cold year-round with average temperatures between 30-50 degrees fahrenheit. And because it’s so far north, the winters are very dark and the summers have almost 24 hours of sunlight. Hats, fur and lopapeysa wool sweaters are not uncommon attire here. You can buy these warm clothing items as souvenirs or pack them for your trip. Either way, you’ll want to bundle up and hold on to your hat!
What is the Best Way to Get to Iceland?
Icelandair and Delta are the two major airline carriers with service from the United States. Bonus: If you take a red-eye (overnight) flight (like I did) you can sleep on the plane and arrive early in the day, rested and ready to sightsee. Plus, doing the stopover on the way to your destination makes for an easy adjustment to Europe since there is only a 1-2 hour time difference (to minimize jet lag).
Icelandair offers routes from Boston, Denver, New York, Seattle and Washington DC (Dulles) year-round with additional summer flights departing from Anchorage, Minneapolis and Portland.
Delta Airlines also offers daily flights from New York (JFK) during the June to September months. However, their “Open Jaw” flex fares have some restrictions so you may be better off flying Icelandair which actively promotes the stopover as part of the booking process.
The IcelandAir Experience
From the moment you walk on board Icelandair, you’re greeted with a friendly staff and a bottle of Icelandic glacier water. All economy seats come equipped with their own entertainment screen (and bonus USB charger to juice up your phone and/or tablet while in flight). Most planes are also equipped with Wifi so you can check email and browse the web during your journey.
Unlike most international flights, Icelandair’s fleet (all named after local volcanoes) are 757’s, which are more typical for domestic air travel (with one aisle and 3 seats on either side). While they might not be as fast, a smaller plane means fewer passengers and quicker boarding and deplaning process, which can come in handy if you have limited time to spend touring the country.
Another thing to keep in mind is your airfare does not include a meal, but, on the flip side, that helps to keep the price low. So if you are a budget traveler (like me) then it’s worth it. Just be sure you eat in advance and/or pack a snack. Icelandair does also sell food and beverages in-flight, but they don’t have a big selection or anything too heavy, so its best to eat a meal beforehand.
Upgrading on IcelandAir
But if you need more room for a long-haul flight, you can upgrade to economy plus which provides extra leg room and a table in the middle seat for added comfort. Or, fly “Saga” class for an even roomier experience. If you don’t select an upgrade when booking, one week before your departure, you have the option to bid on a Saga class fare and, depending on availability and demand, you have the chance to snag a first-class experience (without the super high price tag).
Off the Beaten Path: Getting Around Iceland
Coming from the U.S., you’ll arrive at Keflavik International Airport (KEF, not to be confused with the local, smaller airport just outside of downtown Reykjavik). KEF airport is very small, but extremely clean and modern with free unlimited Wifi and a high-end duty-free gift shop, coffee shop and cafe. It’s easy to make connecting flights because the airport is so small. The small size also means you don’t have to go through long lines in customs or security – another plus for that Iceland stopover your are considering!
There are a number of tour buses and transfer options (some of which you can purchase during your flight or once you land). But to make the most of your short trip, it’s best to rent a car. This can be just as affordable (if not less expensive) than booking public transportation. Plus, it gives you the freedom and flexibility to create your own schedule (as long as you have a driver’s license and don’t mind driving a manual transmission vehicle.. you will pay extra for an automatic). Lucky for Americans like me, you drive on the right side of the road and since it is a relatively small country with lower than average population, there are few roads and very little traffic. This makes it easy and safe to navigate around on your own. If you’re feeling adventurous, upgrade to a 4-wheel drive or all-terrain vehicle for off-roading, especially if you plan to do more exploring off the beaten path. Jeeps, SUVs and even vans are popular and have large tires with treading the often icy, snowy conditions.
Public Transportation Options
If you prefer not to drive, which is understandable in a foreign country with a language that is difficult to understand, private and public buses are also an option. Just make sure to check schedules ahead of time so you can plan accordingly and don’t get stranded. Taxis are usually parked out front of the more touristy spots but getting to and from some areas might cost you more than you think so be sure to ask ahead.
Tips on Where to Stay near Reykjavik
If you’re wanting to stay in the Reykjavik city center, there are no shortage of hotels and hostels. One popular option is Kex, a trendy boutique hostel in an old biscuit factory complete with a vintage cafe, heated outdoor patio and old school charm. Icelandair also has its own line of boutique hotels to stay in throughout the country in addition to a few common brand name chains. Airbnb and bed and breakfasts are always a fun way to feel like a local. Many of the home stay rentals I researched had hosts that would provide airport transport and/or flexible check in/out times to accommodate stopover guests. Reykjavik is approximately 30 kilometers away from the airport so there are a few places nearby KEF if you’re anxious about missing your flight.
Top Iceland Attractions
The Northern Lights
Besides Bjork, Iceland is predominantly known for the Northern Lights (aka Aurora Borealis), a mysterious greenish blue skyline that you can see between September and early April. I just missed the window and was unable to see the Northern lights, but if you go during that time, it’s an absolute must. And, please, send me a photo!
Another popular destination is the Blue Lagoon. It is a geothermal soaking pool and spa that is counted among the 25 wonders of the world (pictured at the top of this article). It’s a nice place to relax after a long flight, but be sure to go early (or late) and book your time slot well in advance of your trip to avoid crowds and getting turned away. They have a restaurant, swim up bar, sauna and steam room and a silica mud mask you can lather over your face and arms. Be prepared though, the high-concentrate of minerals and sulfur in the water will leave your hair and skin a bit dry and coarse for a few days (especially after your dehydrating flight). But, it is well worth it to take a dip in the relaxing neon blue, steamy waters.
Head into the capital city of Reykjavik to shop the many boutiques, experience Icelandic food and see the Hallgrimskirkja. This tall building is the largest church in Iceland. At 73 meters, it’s the sixth tallest architectural structure in Iceland. It is situated in the middle of town where you can go to the top to get a bird’s-eye view of the colorful rooftops and the sea from above (see photo of rooftops taken from the top of Hallgrimskirkja).
On the north side of town along the coast, be sure to check out Sólfar (or Sun Voyager, pictured to the right). It’s a stainless steel boat sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason with a scenic viewpoint for photo ops and to see volcanoes peaking through the clouds.
Nearby at the marina you can catch a whale watching boat trip, weather permitting. There are a handful of tour providers with which you can book in advance or buy tickets at the kiosks on the dock.
If you have more than a day, it is highly recommended to make the trip to visit the Golden Circle to see active geysers and volcanic activity.
Iceland is full of museums including the Maritime Museum, Saga Museum and Art Museum, all located along the waterfront. There is even a Phallological Museum where the world’s largest display of penises are on display (ha!). If you have time, the Icelandic Museum of Rock n’ Roll and Viking Museum are both near KEF International Airport and worth a quick visit.
Some popular stores and brands you might want to visit include 66 Degrees North for hats and outdoor gear, Geyser for sweaters and apparel and 12 Tónar, for local music at a hip record store. If you happen to be in Reykjavik on a Sunday, be sure to stop by the Kolaportid Flea Market where you can shop for fresh fish and get a good deal on souvenirs. Iceland has a strong Viking heritage and you will see the traditional helmets for sale in many tourist shops along with stuffed puffins (penguin-like birds) and gifts that poke fun at the country’s difficult-to-understand language.
Eating in Iceland
Iceland has a very diverse selection of cuisine options, but they are most known for their seafood. If you want a true Icelandic experience, try ordering Hákarl (shark meat) and/or a shot of Brennivín, their signature grain alcohol. Popular places to eat include Snaps, Fish Company and Reykjavik Roasters to name a few. If you don’t like seafood, don’t worry, there are plenty of places with European-style sandwiches and American food too.
No Reservations: Visit Iceland
Check out Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode in Iceland to learn more about the local foodie scene and things to eat while visiting.
If you love nature and don’t mind a little cold, you will fall in love with Iceland! As a sometimes forgotten country, an Iceland Stopover is an unforgettable experience that you won’t regret. Not your typical destination, but well worth the extra day or two if you get the chance. For more reading check out 3 Day Guide to Reykjavik -A 72-hour Definitive Guide on What to See, Eat & Enjoy in Reykjavik, Iceland.
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