Summer is, by far, the most popular time to visit Iceland. The highest number of visitors come from mid-June to late-August, nearly outnumbering the 300,000 or so residents in this tiny island nation.
It’s not surprising that summer is the high season in a place with the word “ice” in its name; though Iceland isn’t as frigid as its moniker would suggest, it does get cold and snowy and many areas become inaccessible in the winter so most visitors opt to come when it’s warm and sunny instead.
During the summer, the rugged and uninhabited interior is open for visitors, the roads are clear, days are warm (about 55-65 degrees Fahrenheit) and the hours of daylight are long, stretching well into the night at the peak of the season. Icelanders rejoice in the all-too-short summer, taking weekend breaks to go camping, hiking, rafting, and puffin and whale spotting.
Of course, the downside to summer’s appeal is the high prices. Despite the country’s famous financial collapse, Iceland is still an expensive place to visit, on par or slightly more expensive than London prices. And during summer, everything costs more. Here are a few ways to make the most of your summer trip to Iceland without spending a fortune.
1. Fly from Europe or plan a stopover in Iceland
Flights from the US to Iceland reach their peak price in summer, costing as much as $1000-$1200 round trip (they can be as low as $450 round trip in winter), while flights from Europe can be had for the equivalent of $300 US, or even much less. If you have plans to spend some time in Europe this summer, consider hopping over to Iceland from the continent.
Or, look into adding a stopover in Iceland onto your European trip. Icelandair offers free stopovers of up to one week when you book your ticket between the US and Europe. A week will give you ample time to explore Iceland, though you can actually see quite a bit in just 3-4 days if that’s all the time you have.
2. Drive yourself
There are dozens of tour companies to choose from in Iceland, and while some will get you to places that are hard to reach on your own – like into the interior, where a 4WD vehicle is required, or up on a glacier – many of the tours go to places that would be easy to visit on your own, for less. Car rentals in Iceland are not cheap; plan on about $100 US per day.
But compared to the cost of a tour (most of which run about the same price, per person) it’s a better deal unless you are traveling solo.Plus, when you have your own car, you can stop whenever you want, and stopping often to take photos of crystal clear rivers, moss-covered lava fields, thundering waterfalls, friendly horses, and windswept beaches is a large part of the appeal of exploring Iceland. If you can drive a stick shift, you’ll save more.
Iceland only has a few luxury hotels, and nearly all of them are found in the capital, Reykjavik. Outside of the city you’ll find mostly basic hotels guesthouses, farm stays, and hostels, which can cost far more than you might expect. A private double room in a very basic hostel, for example, can cost $80 US per night, and the prices just go up from there. The good news about these basic accommodations is that nearly all have self-catering kitchens and every town has at least a small grocery store.
Many of these basic accommodations also offer free breakfast while their luxury counterparts do not. So fill up on the free breakfast and make your own lunch from the market, and you’ll save enough to splurge on dinner. Camping and campervan accommodations are also available for those willing to rough it a bit.
4. Stop by the Duty-Free
Travellers and locals alike lament the high cost of booze in Iceland. A beer in a bar can cost upwards of $7 and you’d have a very hard time finding a bottle of wine for less than $40 US in a restaurant; don’t even think of ordering a cocktail unless you’re rolling with a Rockefeller. To save money on the high price of drinks, Icelanders drink at home before they go out to the clubs on weekend nights.
Follow suite and stay in your room until around midnight. Icelanders start late and party late, often until 5am or later on weekends. To save even more money, swing by the airport Duty-Free upon arrival. Alcohol, particularly hard liquor, can cost 60% less here than in the government-run liquor stores in Reykjavik.
5. Take advantage of the midnight sun
Summer in Iceland means long summer hours; in some areas the sun only sets for 2-3 hours each night! While the late hours of sunshine can disrupt your sleeping patterns, they also allow you to see and do more on a short trip (just don’t let yourself get too sleep deprived!). When you can continue hiking at 11pm and still have sun, or set off on a drive at 5am in broad daylight, you can cram much more into a short trip.
The Midnight Sun can also make for some amazing experiences: have you ever wanted to soak in a natural hot springs at 10pm while the sun is shining? You can. The My Reykjavik tour company offers small group evening hikes to a natural hot spring from May 10 to September 15.
6. Don’t forget your swimsuit!
Iceland isn’t exactly a tropical destination, yet despite the lower temperatures, Icelanders love to visit the local swimming pool every chance they get. The pools are in important part of life in Iceland both for health and social purposes. Nearly every small town has its own swimming pool. While these man-made hot springs aren’t naturally occurring pools, the pure water does come from thousands of meters below the ground before it is pumped into the pools.
The most famous (and touristy) hot spring is the Blue Lagoon, which is actually filled with the runoff of water used to create geothermal power. There are also dozens of naturally occurring hot springs scattered around the country and there’s even a geothermally heated beach near Reykjavik. No matter where you go or when you visit, you’ll always find somewhere to swim in Iceland.
And if you just can’t swing the high summer prices, consider visiting in late May or early September. The hours of daylight will be shorter and temperatures a bit lower, but you’ll also find fewer crowds and significant off-season savings.
Planning a budget Iceland trip? Check out our collection of cheap hostels in Iceland.
Katie Hammel is a budget traveller who fell head over heels in love with one of the most expensive countries on earth. She writes the Iceland travel guide to help others find cheap flights to Iceland and plan a budget trip to Iceland.