The Ultimate (Affordable!) Iceland Road Trip

Iceland-GettyImages-516160837AA road winding past Myvatn Nature Baths, North-Eastern Iceland
— urbancow/Getty Images

A road winding past Myvatn Nature Baths, North-Eastern Iceland

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. 

FIRST…REYKJAVÍK 

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. 

The electronic parking meters took a few tries to figure out since we don’t know Icelandic (thanks, Google Translate!). Eager to untether ourselves, we struck out the next morning. 

ON THE ROAD 

Reykjavík’s wide, multi-lane highway quickly shrank to a “bi”-way. Not two lanes per side; two lanes total. The buildings began to thin out, too, with horses and sheep as our faithful roadside companions. Whizzing by resplendent green mountains, we gazed toward the peaks, making a game of spotting woolly white specks and marveling at how they’d climbed so high. On gusty days, horses huddled together, still as statues except for the wind in their manes. 

As we drove, my eyes flicked between our car’s front and side windows, trying to piece together the panorama. You can only see so much out of a windshield. Luckily, there are plenty of spots to pause and quite literally spin around in wonder. About 45 minutes from Reykjavík, the Golden Circle holds a cluster of attractions, including Thingvellir National Park, Strokkur geyser, Gullfoss waterfall, and Kerid crater lake (admission to Kerid about $3, kerid.is). Farther out, the Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls as well as Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon all sit right along Route 1, making my job of navigator a breeze. Shoulders aren’t ubiquitous, yet whenever we had the urge to pull over and get a better look at moss-covered mounds of lava or a mountain disappearing into clouds, a patch of gravel conveniently appeared. 

On our third day, we met a trio of Germans at the U.S. Navy plane that crashed onto Sólheimasandur’s black sand beach in 1973, the wreckage now a hidden—and, as of press time, now prohibited—attraction. Comparing notes, we learned we were traveling the same distance, yet we had a week less to accomplish the feat. “You must drive fast!” one of them laughed. It was true: On paper, each leg of our trip didn’t look that far—the longest drive totaled five hours—yet we couldn’t resist breaking up the drive and taking vertiginous hikes to glimpse unmissable waterfalls, like Glymur and Hengifoss. This would be a whirlwind trip.

A MOST EXCELLENT ROUTINE

This wasn’t a vacation we wanted to spend lolling about. Our daily routine: Get up around 7 a.m.; eat our money’s worth of skyr, toast, cured meats, cheeses, and hard-boiled eggs at each hotel’s breakfast bar (free at some hotels); hit the road before 9 a.m. Early departures guaranteed we’d beat tour buses to the first waypoint and have Iceland’s sights to ourselves for a few moments. 

Coming from a country where road gridlocks are a part of life, driving in Iceland is bliss. Here, three cars feels like heavy traffic, stoplights are an anomaly, and potholes don’t seem to exist. There are a few exceptions: Between Höfn and Lake Mývatn, we clung to the side of a cliff on a stretch with no guardrail. We climbed mountains so steep we barely reached the speed limit with a foot to the floor. Following the coastline where a magnificent fjord cut deep into the land added kilometers to the odometer—the definition of “scenic route.”

NOURISHING MIND AND BODY

As the evenings fell, we didn’t have to search far to soothe our road-weary bones: Geothermal waters are one of the country’s natural wonders, our one monetary indulgence. The famous Blue Lagoon isn’t the only option—though it’s likely the most crowded (from about $45, bluelagoon.com). Near the Golden Circle, we relaxed on foam noodles in the Secret Lagoon’s inky depths (from about $22, secretlagoon.is) and, in the north, watched the sunset from the blue raspberry–colored pools of the Mývatn Nature Baths (from about $28, myvatnnaturebaths.is). With each dip, any lingering tension floated away. 

Unlike on American highways, fast-food joints don’t appear at regular intervals, despite the popularity of sightseeing via car. Towns often comprise a few houses, a coffee shop, and a hotel, with the latter two doubling as restaurants. In the northwest fishing town of Hvammstangi, we warmed up with pork chops and curry soup at Hladan Kaffihús, surrounded by a collection of antique coffee grinders (from about $12, 354/451-1110). At Stracta Hótel Hella, the hip staff wears chambray button-downs and serves “the freshest from Hella’s fishmonger” (from about $13, stractahotels.is). 

Another favorite—and, I want to add, ingenious—combination: the restaurant/greenhouse. Cucumbers grow just across the room at Fridheimar, and I went back for seconds of serve-yourself tomato soup and freshly baked bread. Potted basil and scissors decorate each table for snipping leaves to garnish your piping-hot bowl (from about $15, fridheimar.is). 

HOTEL HINTS 

Although we booked the trip four months in advance, some cities, like Vík, didn’t have a single vacancy. So we adjusted our itinerary based on lodging availability. That’s how we found Hótel Hellnar (from about $145 per night, 354/435-6820), where the town has fewer than 10 residents. Rooms have a view of Faxaflói Bay or Snaefellsjökull glacier, and the lobby doubles as a cozy bar. Over bottles of Einstök ale, Richard and I lamented the one downside of road trips: You fall in love with a place only to pack your bags a few hours later. 

In Iceland, there are no shortcuts; no faster or smoother ways. Detours, on the other hand, are plentiful—and perfect for travel serendipity. Driving on gravel west of Saudárkrókur, we heard a mysterious loud thud. With no cell service and no passersby to flag down, we proceeded cautiously, inch by potentially perilous inch. At the nearest guesthouse, we phoned the rental car company, then drove up and down the streets of Búdardalur (population 266) in search of the recommended garage. “I think I can fix it,” the mechanic semi-confidently informed us, his legs peeking out from under the Rav4. Pro tip: If you’re afraid of car trouble, join a bus tour. Us? We embraced the adventure. 

Inside the shop, surrounded by shelves of windshield-wiper blades and WD-40, a pair of old-timers gossiped over free coffee—some experiences are universal no matter where you are in the world. The mechanic kept his word: In two hours we were on our way, with new brackets holding up the gas tank. (The old ones had rusted out, and the tank had fallen on the drive shaft.) 

As our 12-hour days on the road whizzed by, we realized that an ambitious road trip over alien terrain might not be the textbook definition of a romantic paradise. Yet, in its own unforgettable way, it was. 

If you go on a journey of this kind, let it be in Iceland, and let it be with someone you love. Because traveling this country is like a relationship worth holding onto: The rough spots only serve to bring out the surrounding beauty—and there’s an endless supply of that. We didn’t get to visit every waterfall, and we narrowly missed a mountainside swimming pool I still dream of taking a dunk in, but the memories that still burn brightly in my mind are pulling each other up a mountain steeper than we’d bargained for, watching the sunset at 10 p.m., and stealing a kiss beside a secluded waterfall. 

It would take a lifetime to see it all. We’ve already started a map for next time. 

Three Rules of the Road 

1. Set Your Course: Check road conditions at Road.is before setting out. Strong weather can cause sections to be impassable. Carry a hard-copy map in case reception cuts out or a battery dies. 

2. Find Your Soundtrack: Our clunker didn’t have an auxiliary input, and the radio often disappeared into static. Before setting out from Reykjavík, we stopped at 12 Tónar, a record store that specializes in Icelandic music (12tonar.is). Compilations, including This Is Icelandic Indie Music and Icelandair’s Hot Spring series, kept us more than entertained. 

3. Get Recs from Residents: For food, shopping, hotel, and culture suggestions (including kid-friendly activities) from “a group of picky locals,” download the free HandPicked Iceland app or visit Handpicked.is

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