How to Spend a 2-Day Stopover in Iceland: Things to Know Before You Go

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.

Iceland Stopover
As the second most active volcanic region in the world, most of Iceland’s landscape has been formed by lava and volcanic eruptions

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).

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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!

Iceland Stopover
Even the polar bear agrees with me…you gotta layer up!

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.

Iceland Stopover
Iceland is a place that is, quite literally, steaming. The geothermal hot springs of water heated by lava are constantly pushing out hot steam through the earth’s crust.

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.

Iceland Stopover

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.

Iceland Stopover
Icelandic Skyr with a delicious homemade berry compote

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.

Iceland Stopover
One thing that’s still more expensive than it should be but won’t break the bank because it’s literally everywhere: Skyr! (pronounced SKEER)

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.”

 

 

18 Comments

  1. Mad Hatters NYC

    How cool! I’m super jealous of this trip. You’ve provided a lot of good, practical details here. As for the free hotel breakfast, how is that silly? 1.) They let you have your way with the buffet when you checked in. 2.) It was free. 3.) It was actually good. I’m 100% sure I have never experienced all three of those simultaneously. Not once. And let’s be honest, how often is 3.) in the cards anyway? That yogurt looks fantastic. Finally, your bear hug pic put an immediate smile on my face. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. girlingothamcity

      Thank you so much for your kind words! It was really a one of a kind trip. Iceland was (wrongfully) never on my bucket list of places to visit, so everything about it took me by surprise in the best kind of way! I also love your support for my free breakfast rant, hahaha. That was truly the highlight of the hotel! LOL

      That bear hug is *almost* (but not quite) as good a picture as Justin versus the Alpaca, I was laughing out loud in my office when I saw it! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Rachelle Gordon

    That’s so rad that Icelandair was offering free stopovers in Iceland! I’ve never had a long enough layover or stopover to really get out of the airport and go sightsee. I don’t think anyone blames you for taking advantage of it! I need to start looking to see if I can also capitalize on this. I’d be interested to try Skyr!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. girlingothamcity

      Thanks so much for your comment, Rachelle! Yeah, it’s the first time I ever did a stopover/layover somewhere too – I had no idea what to expect so was really blown away by it. Definitely recommend a longer stay than two days though if you can make it work 🙂

      Like

  3. Jane Dempster-Smith

    Wish we lived in the States for the cheap deals that you can get. I really want to visit Iceland but for us to travel from Australia it is costly and a long flight. Sigh! One day though. Thanks for breaking down the costs of getting from the airport, that really helps plan the journey. Great tips re what to pack. I will definitely keep all this in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. girlingothamcity

      Oh wow! Yes, I can imagine that would be a long flight! It was only 5 hours direct from NYC, which is the same time it takes to fly to California! The great thing is, Reykjavik connects to soooo many different places in Europe, so you could always make it part of a longer family vacation elsewhere 🙂 Thank you so much for your comment, Jane!

      Like

  4. shreyasaha1987

    Iceland is a paradise. I was there in December. You have shared some really important information about how to reach the city from airport. I would really like to know what you are going to do in 2 days. Thrilled to read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. girlingothamcity

      Thanks so much, Shreya! Looks like we just missed each other. I would love to see Iceland in December – it would be such an experience (albeit a freezing one!) to have 24 hour darkness. I bet you had an incredible view of the Northern Lights, though! 🙂

      Like

  5. Diana Chen

    I’ve been to Iceland 3 times in 3 different seasons and loved it each time! It has been quite jarring to see how much more crowded with tourists the country’s become from my first visit in 2015 to my most recent visit in 2018, and it’s tough because I want everyone to go and experience the beauty of Iceland but am also really afraid of how tourism is going to damage the country. I also had one of the best breakfast buffets ever at one of the hotels I stayed in in Iceland (Canopy by Hilton in Reykjavik), so maybe that’s just something Iceland is really good at! I always appreciate a tasty hotel breakfast – esp when it’s free!

    Like

  6. resrutt

    I love Iceland! Right after Svalbard it’s my favorite. I recommend a stop directly on the way from the airport at the Blue Lagoon. I guess you’ll cover that place in your next post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. girlingothamcity

      Thanks so much for your comment! I’ve just looked up some pictures of Svalbard and it looks breathtaking – hopefully I’ll make it there someday and have better luck with the Northern Lights. I actually did NOT make it to the Blue Lagoon, sadly, although I do plan to return to Iceland at some point since my two days there were not nearly enough!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Daniel

    I love Iceland because I visited Iceland more times in a different season and every time I go, I discover something new 🙂 2 days doesn’t seem like enough time to experience Iceland, considering the remoteness of some of the places over there. However, you did a great job of providing a lot of useful, practical details in this post.

    Like

    1. girlingothamcity

      Hi Daniel! Thanks so much for your kind and thoughtful comment. I 100% agree with you – a two day extended layover was not nearly enough time to experience all of the beauty of Reykjavik and the South Coast alone, never mind how stunning the rest of the country must be. I would love to return in either summer or winter to experience the 24-hour daylight/night, so I’ll definitely be coming back 🙂

      Like

  8. Annick

    This is such a great post! My boyfriend and I have been tempted by the free stopover offers (as you said, two for the price of one) but have been afraid of extra charges on the flight and the expenses of Iceland. Having a free breakfast is definitely important when food is expensive! Looking forward to the other two parts!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. girlingothamcity

      Thank you so much for the sweet comment, Annick! It’s true that there are a few extra charges associated with low cost flights. But depending on how you pack, you can still bring a decently sized carry on free of charge, and since the flight is relatively short for an international flight, I brought snacks on the plane and that sufficed until we landed. We totally made sure to stock up on food in the morning at the hotel, though! My boyfriend said next time we go we’re packing Top Ramen in our suitcase LOL. Thank you so much for your comment again, let me know if you ever end up taking the plunge and booking a trip!

      Like

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