You’ve probably been seeing Iceland pop up on your news feed a lot lately – it seems like everyone and their mother is packing their bags and heading over to this beautiful, idyllic, most picturesque of countries (myself included). Iceland had never really crossed my mind as a place to go on its own, but when my boyfriend and I decided to take our first trip together overseas, we found a SUPER cheap flight to Amsterdam through Icelandair. I’m talking “New York to Boston” type of cheap, the kind that you don’t really pass up if it ever comes your way.
I’d never flown (and honestly – never even heard of) Icelandair before this trip, but I got pulled in by the price tag and convenient hub at JFK. Even better? Icelandair was offering a free 1-3 day stopover in Reykjavik at absolutely no extra charge. Since this was my boyfriend’s first big trip outside of the US, and I had never been to Iceland, we figured, “Why the hell not?” Let’s see what’s in Iceland.
Up to a few weeks prior to our trip, neither of us knew – well – anything about Iceland (except that it’s probably cold and lots of people seem to be visiting lately and I think I learned in elementary school that Iceland is really lush and green and Greenland is actually covered in ice). We didn’t really know what to expect or even how to prepare for it. It’s not like going to Rome, where you know what The Vatican and The Colosseum are and that you have to visit them both before leaving the country. I had never even heard of the Golden Circle, let alone know if I wanted to take a tour of it. A lot of the Iceland travel guides that I found online, while informative, were geared towards those who were planning on staying for much longer than we were – it was a bit of an information overload. I just wanted to know what were some of the essential things that one should – and realistically, could – see in a short amount of time. (*Side note: If you can spend more than two days in Iceland, you should – it deserves at least twice that, if not more).
So if you find yourself in the same boat – having booked a 2-day stopover in Iceland on your way to or from some other destination, and are not sure what to do with your time – then this guide is for you! This is the first part of a 3-Part Series on what to do and how to prepare for a 2-Day Stopover in Iceland.
First things first:
What to Pack
This should seem pretty obvious: ICEland. Iceland is COLD, y’all. Even at the beginning of September, when it’s still technically summer, temperatures fell to the 40s. For a day out exploring, I wore leggings, a t-shirt, a sweater, and a light winter jacket. I could have easily packed my bigger, heavier puffy coat, but was afraid that it would be too bulky and take up too much space in my suitcase. In retrospect, I would have found a way to make it work – it was that cold during the day and it was only September! And of course at night, it got even colder: I can’t imagine how it must be in the winter, when daylight graces the land for a scant few hours.
Speaking of cold nights, for the night we went out to see the Northern Lights, I wore all of the aforementioned plus jeans, an extra sweatshirt, a scarf, a hat, and I’m pretty sure I stole my boyfriend’s gloves, too. Those Iceland temps are no joke!
I should also mention that (1) the weather can change literally at the snap of a finger, meaning it will be bright and sunny one minute and then literally within 10 seconds you could be trapped in a swirling cloud of mist; and (2) it rains a LOT in Iceland, but not the typical rain that you might be used to. In Iceland, the rain doesn’t come straight down; instead, it is better describe as an enveloping mist, sort of like walking through a cloud. Before you know it, you’re soaked! Our Day 2 tour guide actually told us that Icelanders only use ponchos or raincoats to protect themselves from the rain, as umbrellas are virtually useless in all but the rare “foreign rain” (i.e. rain the falls down vertically) that the country receives. I would leave those umbrellas behind and pack a poncho, instead!
I would also recommend you bring the necessary gear to be outside walking all day, and if you go on a nature-based tour (which you should), definitely make sure to pack appropriate shoes. Your suitcase should definitely include a hat, scarf, gloves, and rain poncho, and some combination of rain boots/waterproof shoes/sneakers/hiking boots.
How to Get to Reykjavik from the Airport
When flying on an international flight into Iceland, you will most likely be flying into Keflavik International Airport, located about 50km outside of Reykjavik. You will NOT be flying into Reykjavik proper – the airport actually in Reykjavik is a smaller, domestic airport. Because Reykjavik isn’t exactly a booming metropolis like other international cities offering easy subway or train transfers to the city center, there are primarily three ways to get from the airport to your hotel: rental car, taxi, or bus transfer.
We were originally planning on taking a taxi from the Keflavik to our hotel, but upon receiving a quote from a very ambitious driver (15,000 kronur aka 150 USD for a ONE WAY ride) we decided to go with the much more budget friendly option: the bright orange Airport Direct bus for only 65 USD/person round trip from airport to hotel. You can book in advance, but we (obviously) didn’t – we just walked up to their counter in the arrivals hall after collecting our luggage and purchased our round trip tickets.
Another (and seemingly more popular) option is Flybus – we saw advertisements for them all throughout the airport and read about them on a couple of blogs before coming over – but we went with Airport Direct instead because we found the customer service people to be much friendlier than Flybus, more helpful, the tickets were marginally cheaper, and there was a bus leaving in 15 minutes after we got our luggage. You have the option to take the bus straight to your hotel, or be dropped off at the main bus terminal. Unless your hotel is within walking distance of the main bus terminal, I would recommend just spending the extra $20 to have them take you directly to your hotel – the main bus terminal, like Reykjavik, is small, and I don’t know how easy it would be to find a taxi once there. In any event, unless you pay a premium price to be dropped off in a smaller, private shuttle to your hotel, all customers must disembark at the main terminal and transfer to smaller shuttle buses that will take you to your accommodation. These buses are usually already waiting there for you, the driver will point you to the right shuttle bus and help you with your luggage, and the whole transfer process takes less than 5 minutes. Door to door, the transfer takes about 1.5 hours, so unless you are crunched for time (or have money to burn), taking the bus is definitely worth it in my opinion.
Where to Stay
I remember reading before the trip, while I was looking for accommodations, that Iceland was not really equipped to handle the level of tourism that it’s been experiencing recently. And when I say Iceland, I’m really referring to the capital city of Reykjavik.
A country the size of Kentucky, most of Iceland is uninhabited; the population is a mere 350,000, the majority of which is in Reykjavik. The rest of the people live in scattered, isolated fishing villages. While on the trip we learned that, as huge soccer fanatics, 30,000 people from Iceland went to the world cup this year. Yes, you read that right – TEN PERCENT of the entire country of Iceland was attending the world cup.
So what has happened in recent years to make Iceland such a booming tourist destination?
A couple of things.
First, the crash of 2008 caused the Icelandic currency – the kronur – to drastically plummet, making Iceland a cheap and affordable getaway vacation for many Europeans who were likewise affected by the crash.
Second, the volcanic eruption in 2010 that left many European flights grounded put Iceland on the map for much of the world. As a student studying abroad in Florence in 2010, I made it home to Pittsburgh a mere days before the volcanic ash spread throughout Europe, making visibility and air quality conditions so terrible that transatlantic flights were inoperable.
Lastly, and perhaps most true to visitors today, is the famous Icelandair Stopover. Never before was Iceland so accessible to the US. It’s a mere 5 hour flight from JFK – that’s literally less than the time it takes to fly to Los Angeles – and a 2 or 3 hour flight from there to several other destinations in Europe. Icelandair certainly knew how to capitalize on this by offering free stopovers of up to 5 days on either outbound or inbound flights. I’m sure that many visitors had the same “Two countries for the price of one? Sign me up!” thoughts that Kyle and I did.
Which brings me back to accommodations.
While tourism has increased by a staggering 20 percent in the last 5 years in Iceland, accommodations have struggled to keep up. The relative lack of hotels in the country and specifically in Reykjavik means that hotels are both expensive and scarce. It is therefore highly recommended that you book as far in advance as possible for best rates and availability.
While I usually opt to stay in AirBnBs when I travel, for Iceland I chose to stay in a hotel. As the trip was only for two days, I didn’t want to deal with the whole AirBnB process – requesting a room, hoping it was available, coordinating check-in, collecting keys, navigating to a place that’s not as known as a hotel, etc. I wanted the comfort and ease of having a concierge who could help with booking tours, recommendations, etc.
Choosing where you stay is also important to keep in mind if you decide to book an organized tour. Most tour companies pick up at specific hotels in the city center, or at bus stops that are coordinated around hotel locations. So if you are staying at an apartment, it requires a bit more diligence on your part to hook up with your tour company.
After doing a little bit of research, we ended up staying at the cute, sleek, modern, clean, and thoroughly enjoyable Storm Hotel by Keahotels, which I couldn’t recommend highly enough.
First off, the staff at Storm Hotel were superb – leading up to our arrival they were extremely communicative, friendly, and happy to offer suggestions and assistance whenever we had a question about booking tours tours and which bus stop was closest. Another huge perk was the fact that they offered a truly delightful free breakfast buffet, of which they let us partake when we arrived for check-in at 9am after an exhausting overnight flight.
I know it seems silly to talk about a hotel’s free breakfast, but this was one of the most beautiful, delectable hotel breakfasts I’ve ever seen – I’m talking a spread of Icelandic skyr (yogurt) to top with a berry compote, honey or granola; warm, hot oatmeal which you could fix with brown sugar, raisins, or fresh fruit; mini waffles with spreads such as jam, syrup, peanut butter, or nutella; loads of fresh breads, mostly a vehicle for the most delicious and creamy Icelandic butter I’ve ever tasted; and a whole section of sandwich meats, cheeses, and cereals. Besides being delicious, this breakfast saved us a TON of money. Because Iceland is freaking EXPENSIVE, let me tell you. I should add “your entire life savings” to the list of things you should pack. I live in New York City and just got back from London, and Iceland beats those two places by a long shot and back in terms of expensiveness.
Fortunately, the Storm Hotel was relatively inexpensive – one of the cheapest options I found, actually, while doing research on where to stay. Kyle and I both agreed that we would stay there again on our next trip to Iceland. Bus Stop 12 was also conveniently located right in front of the hotel (literally right in front of it), which made planning tours a cinch as it is one of the first pickup stops for most buses.
If you do decide to stay at the Storm Hotel, I highly recommend booking through them directly – their rates are cheaper than anything you’ll find on Booking.com or TripAdvisor, and they offer complimentary early check-in (if available) and a free welcome drink if you book on their site!
Now that you’ve arrived…what do you do?
You’ve made it to Reykjavik, transferred to your hotel or apartment, and are officially settled in…so how do you spend the next 48 hours?
Stay tuned for Part 2 of “How to Spend a 2-Day Stopover in Iceland: Day 1.”