If You Don’t Stop in Iceland on Your Way to Europe, Here’s What You’re Missing

Deal Expert, New York
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Between a weakened Euro and borderline crazy-low transatlantic airfares, a trip to Europe is looking particularly tempting at the moment. Granted, the flights in question may not be direct, but on at least one airline, that’s a bonus.

WOW air — of $99 one-way fare fame — is a fresh-faced, no-frills Icelandic carrier flying sleek, purple planes from 14 gateways in the U.S. to 20 cities across Europe, plus Tel Aviv … all via Reykjavik. Here in Iceland’s capital, you get two choices: Carry on to a connecting flight, or — for no extra charge if you’ve booked round-trip — slip away for a vacation within your vacation.

Here are seven reasons we recommend the latter.

Life moves at a glacial pace

Not for nothing is this place called ICE-land. There are nearly 270 resident glaciers — and those are only the ones that have names. The biggest, Vatnajökull, wraps around the country’s highest peak — a nearly 7,000-foot pyramid on the rim of a volcano. And while there are climbing routes, if you don’t have a full day and an abiding love of frigid ascents, consider taking in the whole spectacle from a kayak in a calm neighborhood lagoon.

The second-largest glacier, Langjökull, can be explored from the inside out: Wind through its (not gonna lie) chilly, man-made tunnels — or head to the top on a snowmobile. This might just be the perfect place to chill out.

It’s lit

Iceland has some of the best Northern Lights shows on the planet, and winter is prime time. You’ll find all kinds of Aurora Borealis-hunting excursions here, some of which stay close to town, others of which take you deep into the countryside, where less light pollution means more spectacular displays. Of course, there are no guarantees: Those mind-blowing waves of green and purple won’t dance for you (not that you’ll see, anyway) unless there’s a reasonable patch of clear sky — the perennial question mark in Iceland. So give yourself at least a few nights to try, and not during a full moon, if Aurora spotting is important to you.

Of course, the other great light show here is much less chancy: summer’s fabled midnight sun, brightest from May through July.

There’s a lot bubbling beneath the surface

Volcanic little Iceland is a geothermic wonderland, with something steaming, bubbling or spewing at every turn. The most famous of the country’s hot spots is Geysir — that is, the OG geyser from which all others take their name. The spot is actually an entire geothermic field, complete with boiling mud, projectile plumes and the occasional vapor trail.

Needless to say, this is not the place for a dip, but a more immersive experience awaits at a place that has already likely flooded your Instagram feed: The Blue Lagoon, where sybarites go to soak in the mineral-rich geothermal waters to skin-softening and generally bliss-inducing effect.

Eating is an adventure sport

Ever had fermented shark (hákarl)? What about smoked sheep’s head (svið)? Well, now’s your chance, especially if you’re in the countryside during the midwinter festival of Þorrablót. The celebration runs mid-January to mid-February, and showcases not only these delicacies, but the fabled brennivín (a liquor that also goes by “the black death”).

Too adventurous? Fret not. Iceland is also home to stellar smoked salmon, fish stew (plokkfiskur) and yogurt (this is the birthplace of skyr, after all). Carboloading isn’t frowned upon either — hence all the dense, delicious breads (don’t miss esrúgbrauð, the quintessential rye).

Reykjavik might be the world’s coolest city

Though it’s home to only about 120,000 people, the world’s northernmost capital has a lot going on — especially after dark (which is to say, most of the day in winter). For the highbrow version of a night on the town, dine on New Nordic specialties at the Michelin-starred Dill before catching a performance at the award-winning Harpa concert hall. For the lowbrow version (the one endless visitors flock here for), scarf down one of the famed hot dogs at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur then join a rúntur, a weekend pub crawl that lasts until 4 or 5 a.m.

During daylight hours, check out the colorful cityscape from above: Climb the church tower at the Hallgrimskirkja, and you’ll get amazing views.

You can ease your GOT withdrawal

Help fill the interminable wait until the final season in a land where a lot of the action is set. In fact, Game of Thrones tourism has become such a thing here, you have your choice of organized tours. Among other places, you’ll see where White Walkers attacked Samwell Tarly, where Northern battles played out — and where Jon Snow and Ygritte trekked to the Wall (yes, even the cave where they declared their love).

There’s a cascade effect

One of the handiest suffixes to know here is foss. It’s the Icelandic term for falls, and whenever you see it at the end of a word on a sign at the side of the road, pull over. Something magical no doubt awaits — especially at the most famous of the falls: Gullfoss, the result of a glacially-fed river doing a two-stage dive into a massive canyon.

For an entirely different kind of drama, visit Seljalandsfoss — a tall and narrow curtain of water that you can walk behind for an otherworldly experience (and photos).

On the other hand, there’s almost no element of nature that isn’t otherworldly here, so go see what all the foss is about.

Ready to go to the land of fire and ice? Learn more about booking a stopover, then find a cheap flight to Europe.

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Show 20 Comments
  • Alex P

    And once you get to Iceland they f* you with $18 beers and $30 burgers. No thanks.

    • Nildy Morell

      Alex P Get advice from locals in where to eat and steer clear of the tourist traps.

      • Charles

        Or go to the Caribbean or Mainland Europe. Much better, cheaper and lots more see. Why go somewhere where they treat like a cash register?

        • SuddlyDudley

          LOL tell us what u really think.

    • J.l. Sillman

      best Cod i ever had was 12.75 a plate that was 2 years ago. If you want to eat on the cheap you can, it is available you just got to go find it. If your on a real tight budget they have the best hod dogs in the world they are called pliskers and they are about 2-3 dollars each.

    • Frank Baumann

      Sports Bar on Laugavegur – $ 14.00 tremendous burger; $ 8 beers. Two beers and a brew – $35. with the tip.

  • JHVC

    I agree with Alex. With four other couples, we were able to take advantage of a special offer to fly to Iceland last January. Iceland is a fascinating country. We didn’t mind the winter dark which envelops most of the day or the bitting cold, but we never saw Northern Lights due to continual cloudiness and found the prices outrageous. T-shirts were $30, and food/drinks were VERY expensive. Prices for excursions were also exorbitant. It ended up not being much of a deal.

  • Beverly Stanford

    one of the places you must see before you die…1963 I used Icelandic air to Hamburg, Germany from Chicago.

  • Sophie

    Iceland was my favorite vacation I’ve done in years! My Husband and I went on a trip with Sourced adventures last March, and it was amazing! They have flights with WOW which isn’t the most luxurious airline but still got us where we needed to get for really cheap! Would definitely recommend: https://www.sourcedadventures.com/adventures/iceland-self-drive/

  • Walang Laman

    I’m confused with the seating arrangements. I am choosing the Biz fare but there seems to be no dedicated Biz seats. if you choose the XXL seats, they were usually the exit seats and the seats do not recline. what’s the point?

  • Riko

    I love Iceland. I’m a seasoned world traveler, and Iceland in winter is my favorite place in the world.

  • Peter Louis

    Beware high baggage fees! $50 for carryon, $70 for checked. Wow indeed.

  • Charles

    I have been to Iceland. If you are young (21-35) and have literally thousands of dollars to throw away, go and experience. If you are not in this age group and don’t have lots to throw away, go somewhere else. Lack of sunshine and emphasis on alcohol are all there is to see. Have fun.

  • Alex P

    I understand Iceland is pushing hard to become a top tourist destination with WOW now flying for $90 from many cities in the USA. But they need to understand the new generation of travelers have very high expectations and like to eat well, the savings in airfare are likely to be overran by not only food prices but also tours, some of which go for over $1000 for a day to a glacier. I am very experienced traveler with over 40 countries visited, I find Iceland the most expensive destination of all, second to maybe Switzerland in food prices. Most of my friends, also experienced travelers, agree prices are so high they aren’t likely to return or recommend any friends or relatives to go. My girlfriend and I wanted to participate in a mtb race in Iceland next summer, but after doing the math it would cost us over $10,000 for 3 days in the race and 4 more days exploring the country, even with $250 roundtrip flights. $10K can buy a lot of experiences in many other places, with the same money we will climb Kilimanjaro with a top tour company and spend a week in Tanzania and Zanzibar instead. Iceland is beautiful and airfare is cheap, but be aware of the hidden costs. Do your research, it is easy to find restaurant menus online most of which show prices, so you can have an idea and not be surprised when they bring you the check. Also check prices for guided tours before you go because some are very expensive and you have no option but taking the tour if you want to visit some places like some glaciers. You can also bring a box of Cliff bars with you, it will save you a lot of money in mediocre overpriced snacks.

    • Joe Emmrich

      Get out of Reykjavik. Get a car. Stay in great hostels. Make your own food, but splurge now and then. Iceland (especially Reykjavik) is more expensive than many places, but it is awesome. If you’re a luxury traveler, yes, you will pay.

    • Frank Baumann

      You’re either eating, or shopping, in the wrong places. Many Italian food eateries, and pizza which is similar to the quality of NYC pizza, barely more than their respective costs in American Cities. Shark and Whale are expensive. French food is also expensive. Snacks, bottle water, etc. can be purchased at a BONUS supermarket, barely more than USA prices. Paris has restaurants that”ll set you back $500 USD for two people. Toronto, it’ll run you $300 at a great upscale joint. Iceland (Reykjavik) is no different. Most folks go on vacation to enjoy the country, the people, the differences in culture. Not many climb the highest mountain on the continent. Glacier tours can be had for $ 159 – $ 599. The $ 599 trip includes an ice cave, and a one-night stayover. Gray Line is a great tour company. I spent 6 days in Iceland – Airfare ($ 387 from EWR), Tours to Northern Lights ($ 107), Blue Lagoon ($ 119), Golden Triangle ($ 99). Transfer from Airport ($ 29). Food (twice in a restaurant, the other four nights pizza, or pub food) and drinks averaged about $50./day. Great time, busy all day, got out of there for less than 2 grand.

  • Joanie

    My son and I went to Iceland last summer for the summer solstice music festival. We had an amazing time. We flew Iceland Air and stayed at an Airbnb right in the heart of Reykjavik. Our hostess, Flori, showed us her favorite (off the beaten path) bakery, places to have a burger and a drink. We went to the local market and bought yogurt, cereal, lunch items and kept them in the fridge. We ate out for dinner but shared as the portions were huge. We rented a car for about $40 a day for 5 days and walked everywhere else. If you want to drink, yes, it will be more expensive but we didn’t drink and we had a very affordable trip. The fish and chips are the best I have ever had and we even ate at a house turned into a restaurant in Vik when we went to the black sand beach. Driving to all of the waterfalls was beautiful and there was no admission cost. When we drove to the “Bridge between continents”, we saw a lighthouse off in the distance and we drove to find it. The adventure took us to an amazingly beautiful cliff area with trails up a mountain where we saw the angry Atlantic ocean and the rugged cliffs of the Southeastern coastal area. Iceland is a must see destination.

    • http://darynyck.bandcamp.com/ daryn

      some Ohio friends and I also traveled to Iceland last summer for Secret Solstice Festival. it was incredible! partying through 24 hours of daylight for several days is a wild experience. our return flights on WOW were $99 nonstop Reykjavik to Pittsburgh. note of caution though: bring LOTS of spending money, because everything is super expensive. a regular pint of beer was something like $12, and my friend paid almost $30 for a small pizza. we went to get a 2L of Coke from a convenience store to mix with our drinks and it was almost $5. one exception to this is the famous hot dog stand Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur where the hot dogs were around $4 apiece. definitely make multiple stops there and stock up on hot dogs. also the country’s water is hands-down the crispest, freshest most delicious water I’ve ever tasted! we are definitely planning to fly back soon on WOW to experience the Northern Lights and explore more of the country outside of Reykjavik.

    • Cheryl Mclaughlin

      would you be willing to share the name of the AirBnB? we have not done AirBnB’s and don’t know where to begin – but beginning with someone who has had a good experience if probably a smart thing to do 😉

    • barbie gifford

      Hi Joanie. Sounds like you had an amazing time. I would love to do the same trip. What month of year did you go? For two people what did this trip cost you total?