Traveling abroad can feel overwhelming, but not all destinations come with a hefty price tag. Over the next few months, I’ll be highlighting destinations that are often ignored, but financially accessible. From lesser-known Caribbean islands to hidden European gems, here’s how to travel abroad on a budget – beginning with Iceland.
For such a small nation, Iceland goes big with eye-popping wonder. It has whale watching and waterfalls. Lagoons and geysers. Ice caves and volcanoes. Aurora borealis above, expressionist architecture below.
After a 2008 currency crisis and a 2010 volcanic eruption that disrupted global travel, the Arctic island nation is rebranding itself as a gateway to Europe. The rates from budget carrier WOW Airlines make the deals hard to ignore. Travelers are starting to take notice – especially Americans who can get round-trip flights from the East Coast for less than $400.
So why treat Reykjavik – and the rest of Iceland’s surreal landscape – as a mere jumping-off point to rest of Europe, when the country has so much to offer? In the summer, you can take hikes in the midnight sun. In the winter, the Northern Lights – and drastically lower prices – appear. Roads from the capital into the hinterlands are closed from October through May or later, so it’s no coincidence that you’ll find fewer crowds of tourists in the winter months.
You’ll have to book a flight to Boston, Newark or Miami to hook up with a WOW Air route to Reykjavik, the capital and biggest city. You’ll want to book well in advance for the best fares. Be advised: WOW Air is similar to Spirit Air in that pricing is ala carte: You’ll pay to bring any luggage whether you carry on or check it, so pack light.
Inside Reykjavik, you won’t have to pay to see the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church, and the city’s free walking tour is paid for by donations. For the more adventurous, guided tours into ice caves, glacier hikes or whale watching cruises are worth the money, but be sure to do your research to get the best deals and that you’re going at an optimal time of year.
If roads are open, nature lovers should make sure their camera batteries are charged and memory cards empty. It’s only the size of Kentucky, but Iceland has three national parks all worth exploring in a rented vehicle. Admission into the more famous attractions like the Blue Lagoon hot spring will run you more than $50, and that’s before you buy a bottle of water or rent a towel.
Reykjavik offers a variety of hotels, with lower-cost hostels popular even among families and couples. It’s not uncommon for budget travelers to couch-surf after finding locals on rental websites. Iceland is proud of its safety and friendly attitude.
It’s also proud of its affordable specialty cuisines: hot dogs and noodle dishes. (In a country where traditional dishes are pricey and include cured shark and singed sheep heads, you just might get excited about a hot dog for lunch.) Tourists staying in apartments often save money on food by picking up gas station frozen pizzas.
Iceland has a great reputation for nightlife, but be aware of its staggering liquor taxes. If you go out for a night on the town, your bill could top $100 without much effort. When it comes to souvenirs, shop around for the island’s iconic wool blankets and wraps, or jewelry made with volcanic rock.
My friends recently went to Iceland and their pictures were amazing. With its tiny population and stark geography, Iceland is unlike any other European destination. You’ll come home with memories of friendly people, stunning vistas and adventures you’ll never reproduce anywhere else.
Kat's Money Corner is posted on Dollars & Sense every Tuesday. Kat Hnatyshyn, when not blogging or caring for her little ones, is a manager with CommunityAmerica Credit Union. For more financial chatter, click http://twitter.com/savinmavens or visit http://communityamerica.com.