Iceland

It’s been a long time since I last posted, but because I’ve done quite a bit of traveling since then I figured I’d better start catching up. Regardless, writing is a nice respite from studying—I’m taking the LSAT in less than a week, so needless to say, logic games and arguments and conditional statements and assumptions etc etc etc have consumed my life lately.

Last September, three weeks into my junior year, I took a weekend trip to Iceland. Yes, in the middle of my classes. No, it wasn’t spontaneous—I planned it all the way back in May—but I would absolutely do it again, and I recommend it to anyone going to school in Boston or anywhere in the northeast, really. Iceland is a lot more accessible of a destination than it gets credit for, and totally do-able in a short period of time. Since I went I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how I made the trip happen on a college schedule and budget, so I figured I would give a run-down.

First, it’s a lot closer than a lot of people think. From Boston, the flight is a little over five hours; it’s basically like flying across continental USA. So many people don’t realize that you can get to a seriously amazing European country in less time than it takes to fly to California. I took a Thursday night red-eye and got to Iceland around 4:30AM Friday their time, which meant I had almost three full days to see the sights before taking a (supposedly, but more on that later) Sunday evening flight home in time for class on Monday.

Most importantly, it’s much cheaper than a lot of people think. I flew WOW Air, which is Iceland’s low-cost carrier that markets itself similarly to Southwest. WOW flies direct to Iceland from both Boston Logan and Baltimore-Washington, so it’s a fantastic option for anyone from either of those areas. My round trip cost $400, but usually you can make it there for even cheaper—WOW often has $99 one-ways to Reykjavik. It’s a no-frills airline that charges you for all extras, which meant I was hitting up Iceland with only an 11-pound backpack’s worth of things, but for such a short trip little else was needed.

We made Reykjavik, the capital, our base camp for two nights, and spent all day out of the city exploring the many nearby wonders that Iceland has to offer. As is typical of Nordic countries, lodging is expensive; there are definitely cheaper options if you do some digging, though, and it’s a fantastic place to get a good value for any hotel points you may have, which is what we did.

The best way to save money overall, though, is to rent a car. I cannot stress this enough. While Reykjavik is wonderful, the best thing Iceland is its nature, and most places to see on an Iceland weekend trip are far out of the city, accessible only through organized tours or by private vehicle. We rented a great little Ford Fiesta for about $50 per day, for three days—split between two people, that was only $75 for three days worth of sightseeing, and the car itself could fit five, so if you’ve got an even bigger group you’re golden. The roads are modern and very safe, and Iceland is such a sparsely-populated country that when you’re outside the city, you’re mostly the only car on the road anyway. The primary tourist sites are all right off of the main road and signage is clear, plus if you load directions on google maps before you leave hotel wifi then you’ll have the route to use offline all day. If someone in your group has a license, then this is an amazing alternative to spending ~$90 per day on organized tours that shuffle you from place to place too quickly to really enjoy them.

We picked up the car at Keflavik Airport as soon as we got in, and since it was way too early to go right to the hotel and check in, we headed off sightseeing immediately. Iceland’s natural beauty is astonishing: rolling mountains, fields and hills crawling with sheep and Icelandic horses, waterfalls, black sand beaches, and, my favorite, sprawling lava fields that make you feel like you’ve left earth and landed on another planet. The entire landscape is something out of a high fantasy novel—actually, though, because Game of Thrones does a lot of its filming there.

Friday was spent on the Golden Circle route, where we saw three of Iceland’s most famous sites: Gullfoss, a enormous waterfall that pictures cannot do justice, Strokkur, a huge geyser right beside Geysir, the now-inactive geyser that named all geysers, and Thingvellir National Park, a place where you can literally stand between two continents in the space where the North American and European tectonic plates are slowly pulling apart. Saturday we drove the south coast of the country, which is absolutely picturesque. Two more famous waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss (which you can actually stand behind!) and Skogafoss, ending in the little coastal village of Vik, famous for its beautiful black sand beach. I’m a serious plane geek, so on the way back to Reykjavik I insisted we go off-roading (in our tiny, non-four wheel drive Ford Fiesta, no less) on the beach to get a glimpse of the wreck at Solheimasandur, where an old U.S. military airplane crashed in 1973. You can climb inside the fuselage to take pictures and everything, so it’s absolute candy if you’re even remotely interested in aviation or photography.

The trip ended (or was supposed to end) on Sunday afternoon with a stop at the Blue Lagoon, a natural geothermal, mineral spa, and lunch next to the sea in a fishing town on the way to the airport. That’s when things got a little more interesting—we waited for a few hours as WOW kept pushing back the time of our flight, and finally we found out that the plane had mechanical issues (“Missing an essential part” is what the flight crew said to us, which didn’t sound promising) and wouldn’t be leaving until 6AM the following morning. I was initially upset, until I realized it meant that they were putting us up for free in one of Reykjavik’s swankiest hotels for the night, along with a free dinner of some fancy Icelandic lamb. That night happened to be the only clear one of the weekend, so if not for that canceled flight I wouldn’t have gotten to see the Northern Lights from the ground at all. I’ll never forget the feeling of standing outside and watching that ribbon of green twist and spin above me, dazzling even despite the city lights. This trip was my first time ever seeing the aurora, and I’m hoping one day to go back in midwinter and see them clearer and for longer, out somewhere away from the city.

The flight did indeed leave the following morning at 6AM, which meant I made it back to Boston juuuuust in time for my 10AM class on Monday. I was already totally fine with the delay—they handled it professionally and treated us very well, plus it meant I got to see the lights—but then the icing on the cake came when we realized that because of it, we were entitled to 600 euros compensation according to European travel law. I won’t go into the legal specifics, but anyone who’s had recent flight delays or cancellations flying within or from Europe should take a look at EU regulation 261 (some details about it here), because you might be entitled to some serious cash. I can vouch for it being legit—my claim has been approved by the airline and I’m expecting payment within the next few weeks, so, believe it or not, my entire trip ended up being virtually free.

So that’s Iceland in a (fairly lengthy) nutshell. It was a whirlwind weekend, flight delays and all, but I absolutely recommend it for anyone looking to get away from the stress of classes for a few days and go someplace really exciting. It’s an amazing country—the people are warm and kind (and have the best accents!), the food is great, and the nature is absolutely unbelievable. It’s one of those rare places in the world that has enormously different but equally wonderful things to offer whether you go in the winter, summer, or somewhere in between, and I hope to make it back one day to see more of its beauty.


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