Sunday, January 21, 2018

How to do Iceland over 4 days in November, on Cheap

This is the stuff I wish I could have read in one place before having to do a lot of research in preparation for a trip to Iceland. 

(Also, this is in perpetual draft mode because I have I-can't-finish-anything-I-started-itis)


Watch The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to get pumped. In fact, look up the locations it was filmed in keep them in mind:

In fact, just watch trailer right now for kicks:

Getting There

  1. Buy your tickets on WOW air for a 11am Thanksgiving Thursday day departure and 5am landing.
  2. Since you're flying from the US, get yourself windows seats on the LEFT side of the plane (since you're flying east, these would be seats that face north so that you can see the northern lights on your way there)
  3. Be sure to pull an all-nighter the night before the flight so that you'll doze a bit in the 1st half of your flight (while it's still light outside). Wake up to check out the Rockies if you took off from the west coast (like SFO or LAX), then go back to sleep
    The Rockies

  4. Wake up at the flight attendant's announcement to see the northern lights to your left
    The Northern Lights, from the plane window, on your left

  5. Go back to sleep if you can, because WOW air has no in-flight entertainment at all. If you're not sleepy, maybe do some work, but that's kinda difficult without internet, so maybe start blogging on a text pad to transfer over to Blogger later...
    Start blogging on a text pad to transfer over to Blogger later...

Day 1

  1. You had booked a rental for a 4wd SUV and called to request studded winter tires a few days before hand. Reputable car rentals will oblige your request. You had checked the 10 day weather everyday leading to the trip to make sure that it won't be WINDY during your time there. If it's too windy, you would've canceled the 4x4 SUV and gotten a sedan, because vast amounts of google searching about winter driving in Iceland said that wind is the most dangerous factor, but there are also a lot of gravel roads that a 4x4 will be helpful with. You opt for the Ford Kuga (aka Ford Escape) instead of Toyota Rav4 because the Rav4's ground clearance is the same as that of a sedan (160mm, or 6.3 inches, so basically useless), while the Ford Kuga's is 2 inches higher at 188 mm (7.4 inches). If you didn't go with the Ford Kuga, you would've gotten the Mazda CX3
  2. You landed at 4am so most things are closed, so it's a good thing you have a rent-a-car. You've read horror stories about how the rental car agency will fine you alot for any small damages, so you take your time and do a walk-around with your rent-a-car agent, and you record videos and take photos. You check the underside of the car too, just because you're paranoid. You drive out of the airport but before heading to the capital Reykjavik, you drive north to Gardur Lighthouse to see the atlantic ocean coast, to catch some more northern lights, and that little place where they filmed that one part of the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. You don't catch the Northern Lights again because you're not that lucky, and you also realize that this area wasn't really seen in the movie because the scene was located somewhere off the coast in the ocean.
  3. You do the "free" walking tour at 9 or 10am that you had booked in advance, because it's free and it's a great way to get introduced to new place, and you tip/pay them well because it's a damn good tour. This tour provides some history on not just Reykjavik, but also Iceland.
  4. You grab some food at this famous hot dog stand and keep driving north west to do the golden circle tour.  You pop some caffeine pills around this time because you've been awake for at least 8 hours and you'll continue to be awake for the next 12 hours
  5. See the classic 3 spots on the golden circle (slightly rushed, but that's how you like it)
    1. Thingveller
    2. Geysir
    3. Glufoss
    4. Kedir (crator) if you have time. If not, you can do Kedir on your way back out of South Iceland.
  6. Since the blue lagoon is overrated, overpriced, and everyone and their mother has been there, you end the day at Fludir at the secret lagoon. And since sun sets around 4pm, and this lagoon closes around 8pm, you hope to catch some more northern lights while you're chilling in the hot spring (but you don't, cuz clouds)
  7. Spend the night at a hotel near Fludir or, if you're awake enough, continue night driving south, because you'll be going further south tomorrow, because on this trip, you're mainly touring South Iceland instead of the west or north, because a bunch of google searches of "South Iceland vs Snaefellsnes vs West Fjords" gave a consensus that said that if it's your first time in Iceland, do south Iceland because it's more iconic/well-know/picturesque)
  8. Sleep - but wake up if the Northern Lights are out.

Day 2

  1. You're gonna drive a lot today, in darkness, so caffeinate up. Wake up early to get on the road to see more of the northern lights if you can. You'll miss the breakfast from the hotel, but that's ok, because you booked the room without free breakfast. Down some protein bars.
  2. See the classical things that you're supposed to see on a south coast iceland tour:
  3. Since you were smart and rented a 4x4 (that was twice the price of a 2wd), drive on road 250 after you see Gluggafoss to see the other waterfall without having to route around.  Yes, you saw this particular road on the map during your many hours of trip planning and it concerned you because it wasn't a major road, and you googled it and but you had found this one forum because someone else also googled it and discussed it.
  4. Google search results says there's not much point going past Jokulsarlon Lagoon (Glacier Lagoon) to Hafn, because Hafn's not that worth it (sorry Hafn). So you pretty much make a u-turn past that place
  5. Sleep at this Hótel Fljótshlíd  which gives you the best view of this volcano and mountain. There are several other hotels that are closer to the volcano, but you can't actually see the volcano from there because foothills block the view. Thank you Google street view.

Day 3

  1. Wake up, ride horses if you wish, because Hótel Fljótshlíd  that you booked has horses
  2. Today's a bit in the air in terms of how pack you wanted it to be, because you saw most of the touristy stuff already. Your goal is to drive back and spend the night at Reykjavik so that you'll be closer to the airport for departure tomorrow afternoon. Your route back to Reykjavik can take you through the golden circle again and you can take your time to revisit some spots, and then take some more time to revisit Reykjavik. Or you can err on the side of quantity over quality and yolo it by having another 300km driving day, drive past Reykjavik, to Snaefellsnes, where you originally thought you wouldn't have time to see. You do latter because the weather's not bad.
  3. First, you visit Kedir (Crater) right about the time of the 10am sunrise, because you planned the location of your previous night's stay with the time of when you're gonna wake up, eat breakfast, and drive 1hr to get to here at around sunrise (or sunset, or something, depending on if you can fit this into the first day). Afterwards, keep going towards Reykjavik, towards Snaefellsnes.

  4. You thought this route was kinda cool because according to google maps, there's a lot of bridges and tunnels. In particular, there is one tunnel that seems to go under the ocean

  5. Get to the fishing town of Stykkisholmur where another scene of Walter Mitty was shot. Yes, that's the primary reason you drove this far, but it was worth it.

  6. Hike that little hill on a rock and snap a picture
  7. Grab dinner, ask the waiter where else to go, and he will recommend Grundarfjörður, which is next to Kirkujfellsfoss. He will tell you that Grundarfjörður is worth a visit and actually quite a different feel from Stykkisholmur, despite both being small towns next to the sea. Grundarfjörður was controlled by Denmark and has a Danish kind of feel
  8. Get to Grundarfjörður and drive towards the coast, if it is dark, you will look out into the pitch black darkness of the ocean, and once you let your eyes settle a little, you will realize there is a huge, dark mountain looming right in front of you. It scared me enough to almost scream. That mountain is Kirkjufell Mountain.
  9. Continue towards Kirkjufellsfoss, here, Kirkjufellsfoss (the water fall) will be behind you, and Kirkjufell Mountain will be in front of you (the two are right next to each other).

  10. At this point, you might notice that the northern lights, and for some reason, the northern lights seemed to be drifting towards the left (towards the west), so you can get into your car and chase it, to this particular viewing point next to the ocean. Which was worth it, because it's dark enough there that you'll see the northern lights even though it's a KP2 kinda night (during which you usually can't see the northern lights)

  11. Drive back towards Reykjavik at night.

Day 4

Spend the morning exploring Reykjavik (like the church, and Perlan), go to blue lagoon if you want.
MAKE SURE YOU GET BACK TO THE AIRPORT WITH PLENTY OF TIME. LIKE 3 HOURS BEFORE YOUR FLIGHT. NOT 2. Because your usual bad-ass-just-make-it-on-time mentality will not work this time, unless you want to say, "sorry, I'm about to miss my flight, may I cut through" to 400 people in front of you.


My mom said she wanted to see the northern lights before she got too old. The easiest two places were Alaska or Iceland. Online advice said that you should go for the destination and not just for the northern lights so that you're not heavenly disappointed if it's cloudy or you don't see the northern lights. So We picked Iceland. Vacation days and and schedules are hard to align, but since we're not big on Turkey, we picked Thanksgiving weekend.

A few things to know about the northern lights

  • They can only been seen at high latitudes, when IT'S DARK (so it's unlikely during summer, because high latitudes don't have much darkness during the summer. Temperature doesn't really matter)
  • But for some reason, Northern Lights are strongest during equinoxes (i.e. Dec 22, March 22, first day of winter or first day of spring, when the days when night and day are the same length)
  • Cloud prevents them from being seen, so check rain and cloud averages for that month/day of the year of that location
  • Northern Lights come in 15 year cycles, and as of 2017, it's dying down. So if you're reading this in 2035, lucky you! If you're reading this in 2017, good luck, the window is closing.
  • Northern Lights are HEAVILY dependent on KP indices. KP indices 2 or lower make it very difficult for the Northern Lights to be visible, even if all of the above works out. So you're gonna be checking forecasts every couple of hours

The vehicle and driving in Iceland

  • You NEED studded tires. This fact alone is more important than 4x4 drive or the type of vehicle.
  • Try to get 4x4 and/or good ground clearance
    • What's ideal is a high skinny vehicle, i.e. high ground clearance with reduced total height, to make it easier on the wind, but those don't really exist
  • A California Driver's license is all you need
  • There are not right turns at red lights
  • You don't need a lot of horsepower. It'll reduce your likelihood of speeding tickets
  • Regarding speeding - Iceland has speeding cameras. Some of them use IR and they don't flash. These speeding tickets get mailed to you, and can end up costing THOUSANDS of USD. Yes, google this up.

Other Tips

  • Get a Mifi (mobile wireless hotspot), from your rent-a-car agency if want, because your dumbass Sprint Mobile will not have reception despite their website claiming to have international data roaming
  • Bring a debit card in addition to Chase Sapphire preferred, because the gas stations only accept cards with pins, so only debit cards worked
  • Get a diesel car, 800km per tank (that's almost 500 miles!)

The airport

Gate D will screw you over. It takes an extra 20 minutes to get through security. I know, you are the type of person to rush through and feel like a badass to make it just in the nick of time. But if you do that this time, this will be your most rudest airport performance ever, because you will have to cut 400 people in front of you, TWICE, enough to almost make you change your ways

Last Thoughts

  • The sense of adventure also came from being some constrained on time.
  • Going to Iceland in the winter is epic AF. The slippery ice below you, the howling wind, the cold air.
  • It's the difference between seeing a brown dirt mountain vs a white snowy one. Literally chase the Northern lights. There was one instance when it seemed to "drift" or move to our left, and we drive that direction, and then saw more of it.
  • I enjoyed the 2 night time events the most. (Dyrholaey on the second night and Kirkjufellsfoss on the last night) because we pushed ourselves a little extra. And we didn't know what to expect. They were things that I was just about to give up and turn around on, but decided to give it another look. Keep doing that.


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