If you’re planning to travel from North America to Europe, one of the best ways to make the most out of your precious vacation days is the Iceland stopover program.
Booking a trip with an Iceland stopover allows travelers en route to Europe to also visit Iceland at no additional cost, for up to 7 days!
The Iceland stopover program gained popularity with travelers thanks to its execution in partnership with Iceland’s national airline, Icelandair. Icelandair’s famous stopover package offers a very competitive deal for visiting two countries on the same ticket, which many find hard to resist.
Read More: Travel Hacking with Scott’s Cheap Flights
Pro tip: Icelandair doesn’t include meals or snacks (or booze 🙁) in the price of your ticket, so grab some noms at the airport (or snacks at the grocery store) before boarding. Technically, they do offer food for purchase but it’s somehow more of a rip-off than airport food. Luckily, you can count on them for free entertainment that involves recent/unreleased movies.
Perhaps due to this travel deal’s popularity, WOW Air is yet another airline offering a similar package, which launched more recently in 2016.
Why Does Icelandair Offer Free Iceland Stopovers?
At first glance, it comes across as a rather brilliant and effective marketing scheme for the airline. Condé Nast Traveler magazine labeled this program as something that has “changed the face of Iceland’s tourism industry forever”.
Initially launching in the 1960s, this Iceland stopover package encourages tourists to visit Iceland, even if it wasn’t an original travel consideration. A somewhat limited time frame allows tourists to see a glimpse of Iceland. Totally a long-term strategy for success, there’s always more to be wanted. The Iceland stopover encourages world travelers to plan for another trip with a longer stay in the future, allowing for more time to explore the country’s many wonders.
Exploring Iceland with an Iceland Stopover
Iceland Stopover programs are currently available on flights from North America to Europe and vice versa. You can choose to use your free stopover on your way to another destination, or on your return flight home.
When booking travel with an Iceland stopover, you have up to seven nights to explore Iceland.
Here are some ideas for what to do when you get there:
Keflavik International Airport
Keflavík International Airport is quaint yet pleasant. Make the most of your time there, before peeling out with your luggage, at duty-free.
It’s that or grab walking beers that top out at 2% ABV from your local Reykjavik grocer—that’s the limit outside of bar pours and expensive state-run liquor stores. Plus, you’ll save a few bucks doing this in advance at the airport, since Icelandic beers are otherwise way over-inflated, price wise.
Editor’s note: Dan spent the equivalent of $17 on a White Russian at the Reykjavik Big Lebowski bar. Dan notes that it really tied the room together.
As soon as you’re done with the airport?
Start with the nation’s capital city, Reykjavík (which is also where your Iceland flight will land).
Staying in Iceland’s capital city acts as the perfect base of operations for many of Iceland’s most popular—and exciting—tourist activities (especially if you’re only going to be there for a few days).
Pro tip: The Icelandic Penis Museum really is a must-see. You’ll learn a lot of really interesting things without actually trying to.
Then, grab ahold of our Weener Germany tote bag:
If your Iceland stopover only lasts one day, Icelandair recommends taking a day trip to explore the southwest of Iceland. This is where you’ll find some of the best relaxation spots in the country, like the famous Blue Lagoon.
Blue Lagoon is a naturally-heated thermal pool amid lava fields, considered as one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland (note that pre-booking is required). It makes for an ideal stop between Reykjavik and the airport, especially if you aren’t planning to rent a car (though renting a car for the day and driving here will definitely be cheaper for 2+ people than the Reykjavik Excursions Blue Lagoon shuttle.
Pro Tip: Bring your own towels to avoid a steep towel rental fee! Check out Heels to Hiking Boots’ Blue Lagoon article about the things nobody tells you before you go. It’s informative if a bit pessimistic. It’s important to realize that everything in Iceland is expensive—you have to adjust your mindset accordingly to this inescapable fact.
Iceland’s Weird Food Options
While in Reykjavik, try local foods, and experience Iceland’s intriguing local culture around the city. Get your Fear Factor on with Iceland, er, delicacies such as:
- Minke whale
- Fermented shark
- Soft cheese/yogurt called skyr
- Dried fish
- DUNG smoked salmon (I shit you not)
And a couple of restaurant suggestions if any or all of the above items sound like a treat:
- SmakkBarinn—Everything is served in little mason jars. At the time of this writing, it was 600 krona per jar (the exchange rate was $1 USD to about 100 krona during our trip, for reference). I felt pretty satisfied with 4 jars (as did Dan). This restaurant offered a number of weird Icelandic ingredients but solid non-weird options, too.
- Íslenski barinn—So this is where you can get the dung salmon, btw. Check it:
But no sweat, there’s also a burger on the menu if that’s more your style.
- Apotek Kitchen + Bar—A swanky hotel restaurant that’s surprisingly “affordable”. Some of the best truffle parmesan fries I’ve ever had while watching in disgust as Dan railed a line of weird meat sliders (pictured below).
If you’re looking to satisfy your hunger without completely breaking the bank, check out Reykjavik’s famous Baejarins Beztu Pylsur stand (note that it’s just hot dogs and condiments—no sides or fancy menu options). The hot dogs are actually 70% lamb, a popular type of meat in Iceland that you can get for “cheap” compared to buying it at a restaurant in the US.
As soon as your strange Icelandic food digests, consider a city walking tour.
CityWalk offers a free tour hosted by a local History grad. It lasts two hours and they adjust the route in the winter so you won’t be miserable walking around in the cold.
Pro tip: Just because Iceland is cold, doesn’t mean you need a $1000 Canada Goose jacket. Pretty much any jacket with smart layering will do the trick. Save your money and grab an Icelandic wool sweater (you can get the VAT refunded at the airport). Nordic Store offers some of the best options at the best prices.
If you’ll be in Iceland for more than a quick weekend, get the most out of your Iceland stopover by exploring the exciting world of adventure around Iceland. A few popular tourist activities:
- Snowmobiling on glaciers
- Horseback riding (with bred-in-isolation Icelandic horses!)
- Ice climbing
- Snorkeling in Silfra, a rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates
- Waterfall exploration
- Swimming (hope you’re cool with showering naked in front of other people)
The Northern Lights
Though not always possible to see in all their glory, depending on weather during your trip, you simply must make an effort to see the Northern Lights.
Start your hunt based on lights visibility and cloud cover. The best Northern Lights viewing dates involve cold weather, so plan your travel accordingly. Also, make sure to practice setting your camera to a long exposure and these other Northern Lights photography tips.
Most tour companies will allow you to book and rebook an excursion if a certain night trip gets canceled or if you don’t see the Northern Lights during an outing. Plan to spend at lesat $50/person (look up deals online before your trip). Unfortunately, a short trip to Iceland doesn’t allow for a lot of flexibility in terms of Iceland’s constant weather changes.
Pro tip: You can act as your own weatherman (and Northern Lights hunter) by consulting the hour-by-hour Aurora forecast, showcasing the heavens above Iceland. It’s not difficult to interpret this information to find prime viewing spots easily accessible via rental car. Þhingvellir National Park offers a prime viewing spot at 45 minutes – 1 hour away from Reykjavik.
Rental Cars in Iceland
Speaking of rental cars… they offer a super budget-friendly (and flexible) transportation option for completing Iceland’s Golden Circle. Grab the Vegagerdin smartphone app to stay on top of travel conditions (it pairs well with the Skyroam international wifi hotspot!).
To avoid a temporary ~$300 credit card authorization (that’s per fill up), always pay for your gas inside/don’t select “full tank” on the gas kiosks.
Pro tip: Whatever you were budgeting for your trip to Iceland, double it. Trust me—even the souvenir pricing will make you think twice about grabbing a trinket for mom and dad.
[Sorry mom and dad, hope you can understand.]
The Golden Circle in Iceland
The Golden Circle refers to a route that can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days, depending on your time in Iceland.
While Dan and I were in Iceland, our self-guided Golden Circle involved:
- Þingvellir National Park: Cost—500 krona/day for parking.
- The original Geyser (known as Geysir) and one that’s still active: Strokkur (tehe): Cost—free!
- Gullfoss waterfall: Cost—free!
- Kerið crater: Cost—400 krona/person.
We also wanted to see the Hekla volcano but ran out of daylight. You have to be pretty strategic with Iceland’s weird and limited sunset and sunrise during the winter (it’s much longer during the summer!).
Every single stop on our Golden Circle tour was breathtaking—definitely a highlight of the trip.
What Cities you Can go to After an Iceland Stopover
If you’re planning for an Iceland stopover on your way to Europe coming from North America (either departing or return flight), there are many cities you can go after the Iceland stopover.
- Aberdeen, Scotland
- London, England (where Dan and I went during our Iceland stopover trip)
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Barcelona, Spain
- Helsinki, Finland
- Berlin, Germany
- Brussels, Belgium
- Zürich and Geneva, Switzerland
- Dublin, Ireland
- Glasgow, Scotland
- Paris, France
- Belfast, Northern Ireland
- Bergen, Norway
- Billund, Denmark
- Copenhagen, Denmark
- Frankfurt, Germany
- Gothenburg, Sweden
- Hamburg, Germany
- Madrid, Spain
- Manchester, UK
- Munich, Germany
- Oslo, Norway
If you’re planning for an Iceland stopover on your way to North America, coming from Europe (either departing or return flight), these are the cities you can go after your Iceland stopover:
- Anchorage, Alaska
- Boston, Massachusetts
- Chicago, Illinois
- Cleveland, Ohio
- Dallas, Texas
- Denver, Colorado
- Kansas City, Missouri
- Minneapolis, Minnesota
- New York, New York
- Orlando, Florida
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Portland, Oregon
- San Francisco, California
- Seattle, Washington
- Tampa, Florida
- Washington, DC
- Edmonton, Canada
- Halifax, Canada
- Montreal, Canada
- Toronto, Canada
- Vancouver, Canada
WOW Air offers limited city destinations after an Iceland Stopover, coming from North America:
- Tel Aviv
And here are WOW Air destination offers after an Iceland Stopover, coming from Europe:
- Los Angeles
- New York
- San Francisco
- Washington DC
Note: the availability of destinations can vary depending on the departing/return flights. These are just the most common available destinations.
The Iceland Stopover: Two Euro Trips for the Price of One
Convinced that an Iceland stopover is for you? I promise you won’t be disappointed!
If you’ve been to Iceland, share your best tips for getting the most out of this unique, breathtaking country.