I have been to Iceland a number of times, in fact this summer’s trip was number eleven in ten years. So what I share here is based on experience over those years.
I think it is a good idea to make air reservations as early as possible—as soon as you have your travel dates identified. Setting those dates can depend on a number of factors. One of the biggest when traveling to Iceland is the weather. If you want to see the northern lights, October through March are the best months, and you can find inexpensive packages, because the weather will not attract other tourists. If you want to spend your time outdoors and camp, hike or backpack, July and August are best. The weather starts improving in May, but rain is frequent most months except the two summer months mentioned, and the higher trails are rarely snow-free before July. I had already decided that I would be there during the high summer months this year for hiking to some high peaks. Beyond that, my schedule would depend on who I would be traveling with, both coming from the U.S. and Icelandic companions.
I knew I would be traveling in Iceland with my good friend, Bragi, a retired professional Icelandic guide this year. Getting to some of the peaks and other destinations that had shown up in my volcano research (Skjaldbreiður, Snæfellsjökull, and Hekla; Fimmvörðuháls Pass and the Kerlingarfjöll´s Hveradalur) meant facing the additional expenses of the high summer season, so I also needed a travel companion to share the costs. When my husband refused to leave the Pacific Northwest during our home territory’s best weather, I sought a companion among my western Washington hiking friends to share expenses and help keep my costs down. My friend Susan decided that she could, and wanted to come, so we selected the trip’s two weeks in late July and early August together.
With a date range identified, we immediately sat down at a computer to see what flights and what class seats were available. Icelandair is known for cheap flights to Europe, but all flight costs are relative. When an Icelandair flight is empty, the cheapest seats are available. As it fills, only the more expensive seats are left: when Economy seats are no longer there, only Economy Flex and better remained; then only Economy Comfort and Saga Business Class, etc. I had paid a range of prices from below $800 to over $1000 for roundtrip airfare to Iceland over the last decade, so I am always eager to buy early. www.icelandair.US/Flights/information/travel-guide/comparison.
It was a surprise for me to discover that Icelandair now has two flights per day arriving and leaving from Seattle. My first thoughts were: How long has this been going on? Is it only during the summer months? I have been visiting Iceland during the shoulder seasons for most of the last decade; it was quite possible they had added a second summer flight without my being aware.
As someone who suffers from jetlag in both directions, having a choice of flights going to Europe makes a difference. There is a seven or eight hour difference (less when we are on Daylight Savings Time), and the flight takes seven and a half hours. For a decade I have been taking the late afternoon flights that arrive at Keflavik International Airport at 6:30 a.m. This year we had an opportunity to take a flight leaving Seattle in the a.m. and arriving at 11:30 p.m. We could arrive, go to bed late, get up at an almost normal hour, and get right into a natural Icelandic schedule. What an improvement!
I had told Susan that we could keep our costs to about $100 per day after airfare by staying in shared lodging that averaged $100 per night. This proved to be much more difficult than I anticipated. My favorite Reykjavik B&B, for instance, charges close to $200 for a double with private bath in the summer, almost twice what I have paid previously during the shoulder season. I started my search by Googling Iceland lodging accommodation and soon found almost all the links to lodgings in our price range were to www.AirBnB.com and www.Bookings.com listings. I had sketched an itinerary on a map of southern Iceland with one excursion into the interior and one to the western peninsula of Snæfellsnes. Then I tried to match available lodgings to the various locales. It was a real challenge.
Even looking for bookings six and seven months ahead, I had a hard time finding housing in convenient locations in our price range. It was soon obvious that we would be staying primarily in places set up as hostels—they provided private rooms, beds and linens along with shared bathrooms and cooking facilities. These were in a variety of settings, from separate buildings on working farms to an old residential school dormitory not far from popular rural tourist sites. We also booked two nights in a Reykjavik basement apartment (via Airbnb.com), one night in a Reykjavik hotel that is a university dormitory during the school year and one night in a highlands dormitory—with our sleeping bags on two-level bunk-beds among hikers from all over Europe.
Not being sure of the exact location of our lodgings in relation to the nearest desirable café or restaurant, we decided to carry some freeze-dried dinners with us, and other packable foods for lunches and breakfasts, just for convenience.
Fortunately, Icelandair has a generous baggage allowance: www.icelandair.us/information.baggage-information. Two bags are checked free per passenger; a carry-on bag and a personal item are also allowed in the cabin with each person. Free checked baggage would easily carry our sleeping bags, towels, trekking poles and food. It turned out that Icelandair’s standards for carry-on bags are substantially smaller than US domestic flights. It is important to check the specifics on baggage allowances. Ticket agents can decide your carry-on has to be checked. As we had not planned to use all of the checked baggage allowance, that inspection at the ticket counter did not prove a problem for us.
You may be wondering about other flight options to Iceland from the U.S. Icelandair is the only airline with for non-stop flights from the Northwest. If you are traveling from the US East Coast, you should check on Wow Airlines. They offer truly budget flights (very limited baggage allowance—you cannot even pay for an additional bag), and pretty tight quarters. My husband and I tried it once when we were already in New York, and were not too surprised to see all the other travelers were a generation younger. I would probably do it again in the interests of saving money, but flying with Icelandair is really more enjoyable.