3 Days in Iceland: What You Should Know About Your Stopover Trip

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It’s easier than ever to spend three days in Iceland:

  • WOW! Air frequently has $99 one-way sales to Iceland (and around $200 coming home)
  • Icelandair lets you add a free stopover – up to 7 days – on your way to mainland Europe
  • American, Delta, and United all fly there seasonally from their hubs

Of course, with all this competition, fares are rock bottom. I’ve seen them as low as $287 round-trip to visit the Land of Fire & Ice.

three days in iceland

Planning a visit to Iceland? You should – it’s easier than ever

I say Iceland deserves a full week to appreciate. The weather is unpredictable and if you hit a rainy patch, that’ll be unfortch. That said, if you’ve never been it’s beyond worthwhile to add a bonus side trip to Iceland. A friend asked what to do with 3 days in Iceland, to which I said…

Even three days in Iceland is expensive

The rumors are true: Iceland will drain your wallet. The myths about $35 burgers, $10 beers, and $23 cocktails are all true. Their currency, the krona, is strong. The dollar is comparatively weak. Plus, Iceland is hot right now – can you blame them for jacking up prices?

Getting there is the easy part

Honestly, getting there is the cheapest part. But there are ways to save.

Grocery stores

You’re not going to Iceland for the food, which is mostly burgers and fish. They have great burgers and fish, but you’re going to Iceland for the nature. Find a grocery store – a Kronan or a Bonus – and stock up on bread, chips, sandwich fixins, and snacks.

A beer with THIS view? Yes, plz! But do save at grocery stores

Of course, you should have a pint of their local beer – Viking or Gull – and try some of the freshest wild-caught salmon in the world.

But considering you’ll be in a car much of the time, and restaurants may be far, you’ll want to have some stuff from the grocery store, anyway.

Iceland now has a Costco! So if you’re a member, a drive to the suburb of Kopavogur may be in order to get everything you need at warehouse prices. It’s only 12 minutes by car from the city center.

Rental cars

Expect to pay between $50 and $100 per day to rent a car – obviously dependent on your dates, availability, when you book, etc. I typically see the best prices from Iceland Car Rental. And Plan Iceland is another great resource to save some money.

You’re gonna wanna rent a car to see most of the iconic nature scenes in Iceland, like the Glacier Lagoon (Jokulsarlon), black sand beaches, and dozens of waterfalls.

Another huge thing to note is Iceland is obsessed with stick shift cars. If you want/need automatic, there’s an upcharge and also a shortage. So book early and shop around if it’s a dealbreaker (I know it is for me).

Hit the ground running

Here’s the “tea.” Those overnight flights to Iceland are a bitch and a half. You arrive at 6am after not sleeping all night. You’re tired. The airport is small and well-signed, but you still have to navigate, find the rental car booth, and you’re probably hungry.

First step: breathe. 🌬

I’ve arrived to Iceland many times hungry, tired, and grumpy. So those are my associations with arriving – not the best.

“Drink kokomjolk for your strength!”

There are several cafes and even a convenience store inside the airport after you exit. Do yourself a favor and buy some skyr (Icelandic yogurt), kleinur (Icelandic donut), and kokomjolk (chocolate milk). You’ll get some carbs, regulate your blood sugar, and gain energy to power through.

Traditional Icelandic brekky

After that, you can deal with 1 of 2 scenarios:

  • Get your rental car and drive outta that airport
  • Get on the Flybus and ride to Reykjavik (~$20 to the city)

I recommend you rent a car. You can do well basing yourself out of Reykjavik, Iceland’s largest city. But…

DO NOT VISIT ICELAND FOR REYKJAVIK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Reykjavik is cute and all, but honestly… there’s not much there. I hear so many people say, “Oh yeah we’re flying to Iceland and staying in Reykjavik” to which I always think: “Oh no.”

Reykjavik is a cute town, but not Iceland’s main attraction

Reykjavik is fine. But it’s a tiny, tiny city. And beyond the main drag (Laugavegur and to some extent Skólavörðustígur), there are a few museums, some restaurants, and very touristy bars. They’re all expensive, there is no nature there, and quite simply… there isn’t much to do.

So get OUT of Reykjavik. Do NOT fly to Iceland to spend 3 days in Reykjavik.

That said, you can do some excellent day tours from Reykjavik for a few days, like…

The Golden Circle Tour

This tour covers:

  • Geysir – the OG geyser
  • Gulfoss waterfall
  • Thingvellir National Park – the old parliament in the world, set on the Atlantic Ridge plate

Iceland has some of the most stunning waterfalls in the world

All told, it takes 6 hours to complete. So it’s a great way to spend a day seeing some of Iceland’s best active nature from a base in Reykjavik. And, you won’t have to do any driving.

The Blue Lagoon

This is another fun and iconic way to spend part of a day if you’re based in Reykjavik. Everyone wants that picture being surrounded by cloudy blue water wearing a silica mud mask with black lava rocks all around. But, you’ll pay for that experience.

~$63 to get through the door with the cheapest package

Be prepared to spend at least $100 per person. By the time you pay the ~$63 entrance fee, a bus to and from (around ~$10 each way), and the food you’ll inevitably consume there, it adds up to a pricey excursion. You can cut corners by bringing your own food. And make the most of it by spending many hours.

I always tell people there are other, cheaper hot springs to bathe in. But people want that photo for the ‘Gram. (#doitforthegram) I mean, I get it. I’ve done it for that reason, too.

It’s an hour there by bus, and an hour back. If you stay a few hours and grab some food, this could easily fill a fun day. Grab some dinner when you get back to the city and have some beers by the harbor.

Rent a car for a day

Even if you don’t pick up a rental at Keflavik airport, you can still rent one in Reykjavik. There are car rental places all over. Hertz has a huge office near downtown.

From there, you could do a day drive to the Snaefellsness peninsula. Or Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest city (about 4.5 hours north).

Budir is a gorgeous black church near the entrance of the Snaefellsnes peninsula

But, if you’re driving 5 hours each way, that’ll make for a very long day once you factor in stops. Some friends of mine recently did this while based in Reykjavik. They were tired when they got back, but glad they saw more of Iceland.

If you ask me, I’d just spend a night at the end of the drive and drive back the next day. But that requires more planning with an added hotel stay.

I mean yeah, there’s stuff in Reykjavik

Obviously.

And if you’ve never been to Iceland, you should definitely dedicate a full day to seeing the northernmost capital city in the world. It’s charming and colorful.

Harpa is a gorgeous opera house right on the harbor

Check out:

  • Laugavegur – the “main drag”
  • Skólavörðustígur – lots of cute restaurants and coffee shops, great for souvenirs and hand knits, and you can see the famous church at the end of the street (up the hill)
  • At least one of the many museums dedicated to modern art, Icelandic history, or the Nordic sagas
  • The “old harbor” – a quickly developing part of town with some excellent restaurants and art galleries

Def grab a burger at Burgerjoint

The art galleries along the harbor are fantastic

But really, visit Iceland for Iceland

I’d give Iceland a full week to properly drive the Ring Road – their main highway that forms a circle around the entire perimeter of the island.

Because most of the gorgeous scenery is not near Reykjavik, or even on the west cost.

But rather, the north or south coasts.

If you have 3 days, pick one. If you have a week, do both via the Ring Road.

With 3 days:

  • Day 1 – Pick up car and spend night in Reykjavik
  • Day 2 – Leave for furthest point on north or south coast. For north coast, stay a night in Husavik or Myvatn. For south coast, stay in Hofn or Vik
  • Day 3 – Drive back to Reykavik/airport

You’ll only see a fraction of Iceland. But a lot more than most people ever see!

Whether you pick north or south coast depends on what you want to see.

North Coast

You’ll find:

  • Isafjordur – a rugged and isolated village along a deep fjord
  • Akureyri – the second largest city in Iceland
  • Husavik – famous for incredible whale-watching
  • Myvatn – a part of the earth with bubbling and (sulphuric) gassy hot pots!

The north coast tends to be sunnier and have better weather in general. This is especially important if you want to visit during winter.

Check out the scorched and bubbling earth at Myvatn

And OMG, isn’t Husavik SO CYOOT?!

If you go the north coastal route, I highly recommend stopping in Akureyri. It’s such a cute town. Saudarkrokur and Siglufjordur are also excellent places to stop for a drink/lunch/dinner/photos.

South Coast

Lots of peeps go the other direction. The south coast has:

  • Vik – the black sand beaches and huge natural basalt columns
  • Jokulsarlon – the iceberg lake
  • Vatnajokull – the largest glacier in Europe that covers 10+% of Iceland’s landmass – excellent hiking, too!
  • Landmannalaugar – known for its red and blue earth and great hiking. Also hot springs you can swim in. I mean, just look at the pics

Taking a boat ride at Jokulsarlon

The edge of the MASSIVE Vatnajokull

Vik and its black sand beaches

Either way, you can’t go wrong. Both coasts are stunningly gorgeous and so different from one another.

If you’re able to see both and drive the entire Ring Road, keep in mind the east coast is freaking wild, man – some of those turns over knife-edge cliffs still give me full-body chills just thinking about them.

Weather

Yes. There is always weather in Iceland. If you are there for 3 days, you might hit a period of rain, which would suck. But fear not: the weather is always changing. Layers are your friend.

In summer, the highs tend to be in the 50s or 60s, with lows in the 40s or 50s. The temps in winter hover right around freezing – 30ish degrees or so. Iceland is actually warmer than New York in the winter because the Gulf Stream moderates the temperature.

In summer, you will experience nearly constant daylight. In winter, constant night. And in fall and spring, the days are “normal” – about half and half, give or take depending on how close you are to summer or winter.

I love Iceland even in the winter. But be prepared for anything

In any case, take:

  • Lots of layers, even in summer
  • Sturdy, comfortable shoes. You do not need high heels or penny loafers in Iceland. Think comfy tennis shoes or hiking boots
  • Something waterproof. It will inevitably rain on you. Icelanders don’t use umbrellas, only tourists. Take a raincoat instead

If you go in winter, it’s germane to take a heavier coat with mittens and a hat. In summer, you don’t need it although it can still be blustery, especially along the coast when it’s windy. Be prepared for all types of weather all of the time.

In winter, you have an excellent chance of seeing the Northern Lights dance over you for hours. Perhaps take a blanket to spread over the hood of your car as you snuggle with your loved one and watch the spectacle of earth’s most wondrous light show in the dark, chilly skies. 😉

Where to stay

This could be a whole post on its own, but the gist is there are not many points hotels in Iceland.

There are only 3 chains and 8 hotels represented. They are:

Hilton:

Hilton award prices in Reykjavik

Radisson Rewards:

Radisson options in Reykjavik

Starwood:

All 3 Starwood options are 25,000 points per night

With Hilton and Starwood, you get the 5th night free on award stays. But even at 25,000 points per night, you’d need 100,000 Starwood points for a 5-night stay. Or with Hilton at 60,000 points per night, you’d need 240,000 Hilton points (!).

Paid stays at these hotels are $300 to $500+ per night. So unless you’re flush with points or don’t mind paying, your best bets are:

Plus, accommodations go fast. So even if you score a cheap flight, it’s worth seeing what’s available before you book a $200 round-trip flight, especially if it’s non-refundable. Between the car rental, hotels, and high food prices, it’s better if you can plan ahead AND jump on the quick deal – but it does take a little more planning/searching/looking around.

Even still, Iceland is so incredibly worth it. So gorgeous. And one of my favorite places on earth. Because it’s so popular now, you’ll need to plan a little more in advance. But ah, what an amazing place.

Bottom line

Iceland stopovers of 3 or 4 days are booming in popularity. And while I’d recommend a whole week in Iceland (at least!), it’s still worth it to pop in on your way to somewhere else in mainland Europe.

Watch out for sticker shock, cuz Iceland ain’t cheap. And points hotels are limited, and expensive. So are meals, drinks (buy booze at the airport duty free before you leave!), and car rentals.

But if you can swing it… it’s a life-changing experience and one of the most beautiful, welcoming, and pure places left on this planet. With some of the most incredible nature. Go to Iceland for Iceland, NOT for Reykjavik.

I’ve been to Iceland many many times and hope this provides an overview of what to expect and look out for, how to plan a brief (or longer!) trip, and where to stay.

I just got back a couple of weeks ago and still have Iceland on the brain. If you’ve never been, go go go! *wistful sigh* If there’s anything I missed, ask away!

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About Harlan

Just a dude living in Dallas.

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Editorial Note: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post. The opinions of the commenters are not necessarily the opinions of this site.

Comments

  1. Great post. I’ve been so curious about Iceland but didn’t really know where to start. At least now I can just follow your itinerary and have an idea what to see and where to go.

    • So awesome. You must go ASAP. It’s such a special place that I love deeply. Glad you found the info useful – I’d be curious to hear about your first trip, too! Wishing you safe travels!

  2. I would like to let you know that I stayed at Radisson Blu Saga Hotel for three nights. I can tell you that this hotel requires 44,000 points per night. I do not know what dates you used to determine the number of points required for that hotel, but if you use March 6, 2019 as a check-in date (let’s say one night), you will see 44,000 points. I guess I booked that hotel far in advance.

    • I believe Radisson recently switched some categories around with certain hotels – I used September 2018 for my example, which is admittedly still kinda high season. The price might fluctuate with demand/price/season. I do remember that specific hotel being 44,000 points a while ago. It’s good you locked in that price! It’s a really nice hotel in the center of all the action. I think you’ll really enjoy it. Walkable to everything cool in downtown Reykjavik.

      Thanks for sharing your experience – Iceland is definitely fickle on pricing based on so many factors. Appreciate the insight!

      • The 66k is the “premium” award rate. A standard award is still 44k, when they make those available. I’ve never been able to make sense of when Club Carlson/Raddison Rewards/whatever they call themselves now chooses to offer which award type. That said, I’ve generally gotten a better (larger room, breakfast, other amenities) when booking the “premium” award.

        • I’ve only seen the 44K rate once or twice – EVER. Those are like unicorns. I’d be prepared to pay 66K and consider yourself lucky if you find it for cheaper.

          Good into about the better room though – breakfast in Iceland is expensive, so it could be worth it! Thank you for sharing. <3

  3. Great article that is perfect for a newbee like me. Thank you so much for taking the time to write it. It is very valuable information.

  4. Spent 12 days in Iceland in June and it was one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. Absolutely everything you say is true, except I think 7 days is not even enough to do the ring road. Of the 12, we only spent 3 of our nights in Reykjavik (one at the start, two at the end) and the remaining 9 days were just enough to do everything we wanted to do. I also really enjoyed Reykjavik even though it is on the small side for a “major” city (and the Konsulat Curio Hilton property is a wonderful hotel in a perfect location, even if it is expensive).

    We went all the way up into the Westfjords as well as to Snaefellsnes. Westfjords were totally worth it (Isafjordur is a great little town but very remote) but could have skipped Snaefellsnes. If you have to choose between the north and the south, go with the south — more to see and do and the weather was better (but that could have been a fluke, as overall the weather was pretty good for us). I also didn’t care for the Myvatn area — there were TONS of gnats flying around that made virtually anything we tried to do unbearable. I agree that Akureyri is worth seeing, as is Husavik for whale watching.

    Also, Golden Circle is overrated. It serves its purpose if you are doing the quick 3-4 day trip but virtually everything you see there exists in other parts of the country, only nicer and with fewer people, though Gullfoss is pretty cool.

    Finally, spend the money to eat langoustine. It’s worth it.

    Sorry for the long comment… I just had such an amazing time on our trip and can’t talk enough about it!

    • Long comments are awesome! 🙂 And 12 days sounds amazing!

      Yes, the Myvatn area definitely gets those little flies at the peak of summer – the name translates literally to “Bug Lake.” LOVE the Westfjords – so remote and wild. Understand what you mean about Snaefellsnes peninsula – it can be same-ish when you’re driving a long time and the coastline isn’t as comparatively majestic as other parts.

      And regarding Golden Circle: it’s a bit overrated, but still worth doing one time so you can say you did it. I enjoyed walking through Thingvellir and seeing where the tectonic plates split. But the biggest gripe for me is the constant flow of tourists from busses passing through non-stop. Same for Blue Lagoon, honestly.

      And for north vs south coast, there’s really no direct comparison. I like them both. The best way to compare is to rent a car and start driving, spend a little time in the villages and looking at the nature. You can never tell what will stick with you, even in the moment. They’re so very different.

      I’m glad you got to experience so much of Iceland! Thank you so much for sharing your tips and insights – really appreciate it.

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