The Ultimate (Affordable!) Iceland Road Trip
WOW Air is now offering $99 flights to Iceland from Newark International Airport! With prices that low, and jaw-dropping scenery in every direction, this island is the perfect spot for your summer road trip. Buckle up and prepare for a marvelous, windswept adventure unlike anything you’ve experienced before.
"Do you want to keep going?” I asked, looking from the map on my phone to Richard, my fiancé. We were at least 20 minutes from Háifoss, one of Iceland’s highest waterfalls, and had just turned off a smooth, beautifully paved route onto one covered in baseball-size gravel. Without a word, we both knew that meant a 40-minute round trip spent dodging rocks to avoid getting a flat, listening to our 2003 Rav4 whine with the strain of the climb, and bracing ourselves during violent jostling that would leave our bodies vibrating long after we returned to the tranquil asphalt.
Perched in the driver’s seat, Richard pressed down on the gas pedal in response. A smile crept across my lips as I trained my eyes on the road ahead.
It was never really a question: Of course we’d keep going. I’d been dreaming of Iceland’s otherworldly landscape for years, and Háifoss promised the kind of off-the-beaten-path beauty that makes you stop in your tracks and forget everything on your to-do list back home.
We arrived as the sun was edging down toward the horizon. There wasn’t another soul around—or anything to prevent us from falling 400 feet to the valley below, where a river snaked through green slopes. From where I stood across the canyon, Háifoss and its neighbor waterfall, Granni, appeared as thin streams pouring downward for an eternity. The sound of gushing water filled my ears and my soul. After an hour of staring, awestruck, neither of us wanted to leave. But the light was fading, and we still had 50 miles till our hotel.
To make the most of our trip, we took as many vacation days as our bosses would approve (a week and a half) with the goal of seeing as much as we possibly could. We followed fares and opted for a Wednesday departure, which saved us some cash. And we used Instagram as a guidebook, scrolling through photos tagged #Iceland and #MyStopover and following natives like @ozzophotography, then marking places on a shared Google Map. Looking at our scatter-plot of sites, it was clear we’d have to circle the entire country to get to everything, staying at eight different hotels along our route, which started and ended in Reykjavík. Crazy? Maybe. However, when you’re crossing a destination off your bucket list, you go big. And we did.
Before setting out to circle the country via Route 1, known as the Ring Road, we spent a day exploring downtown Reykjavík. We rode a snug elevator to the top of Hallgrímskirkja church for a sweeping 360-degree view of the colorful capital city (about $7, hallgrimskirkja.is), browsed hip clothing and home decor boutiques on Laugavegur street, then warmed up inside Harpa concert hall (free, harpa.is) while wind and rain pounded boats in the harbor outside, nature whipping them into a roiling stew as they held tight to the docks.
I’ll freely admit it: I’m the world’s pickiest vegetarian, so I’d wondered about my mealtime options in a seafood-and lamb-loving country. I even packed a box of granola bars just in case. Gló, a casual, chic restaurant—decorated Nordic-style, all pale neutrals with wooden accents— with four locations and deliciously healthy vegan and vegetarian food, like pesto-topped vegetable lasagna, proved I had no reason to worry (from about $15, glo.is). After the day’s biting rain, we savored each steaming forkful and gleefully plotted our journey.
READY TO RIDE
When we picked up our rental car from SADcars, the man behind the counter hurried through a list of crucial precautions:
• Don’t drive faster than 90 kilometers per hour (about 56 mph) on asphalt or 80 kph (about 50 mph) on gravel.
• Be careful when the road’s surface changes from rocks to pavement (“that’s where the accidents happen”).
• Open your door against the wind and hold on so it doesn’t rip off the hinges.
To be frank, the poor Rav4’s beat-up body showed signs of disregard for his last warning. Still, it had four-wheel drive and came cheap from a company that promised “older but good, solid cars.” Sounded legit.