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We all have dreams: buying a home, driving off the lot in a new car, taking a trip around the world. For every major life milestone, there are real people out there who've made it happen. In “How I Paid For It,” these financial rock stars share how they accomplished their most challenging money goals — and what they learned from the experience.
Here, a world traveler shares how she saved up for a spontaneous trip to Iceland — starting by selling her car.
I couldn’t believe I was about to spend a week in Iceland with nothing but hiking boots, a sleeping bag, books and some snacks in my backpack. And it was all possible because I sold my car for $1,100.
I had been thinking of selling it for a while — I hadn’t driven it for months, because Seattle (where I live) is a great city to walk, bike or use mass transit. I wanted to use the cash to go on a weeklong adventure, so I scanned Google flights and began planning my agenda for the following month.
A $600 round-trip ticket inspired my plan to road-trip, car-camp and take long hikes around the southern coast of Iceland. The whole trip cost me almost exactly what I made from selling my car.
How I Cut Costs in Iceland
While beautiful airline ads will have you believe it’s inexpensive to travel there, Iceland isn’t exactly cheap once you arrive. Here’s how I saved on major travel expenses and activities in the Land of Fire and Ice.
Getting Around: There’s minimal public transportation and cabs are expensive, so it’s crucial to rent a car. A taxi from the airport to Reykjavik can be $120, while my rental car cost me only $30 per day. (Pro tip: If you can drive manual, it’ll shave off about $10 per day over automatic.) I skipped a GPS/Wi-Fi package with the rental in favor of free Wi-Fi at gas stations, and I saved Google Maps routes to use offline. The car and gas cost me $360 for the week.
Accommodations: When I learned camping was free and widely accessible, I saved money by sleeping in my rental car most nights. The locals have no issues with people who park and sleep in designated campgrounds, and in a small country with over 170 campsites, it’s a breeze! If you’re not sold on sleeping in a car, renting a tent is still a cheap alternative. Youth hostels in the areas I explored wanted to charge $140 for a bed — I passed.
That said, I booked a budget hostel in Reykjavik for my first and last nights for Wi-Fi and a shower — the $25 per night was worth the creature comforts. It’s easy enough to find cheap accommodation in Reykjavik, but in rural areas, it costs much more.
The author takes in a small lake in downtown Reykjavik.
Activities: Going in April was perfect timing: It isn’t too cold, the costly summer tourist season is months away, and — best of all — the sun is out from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. This allowed me to hike waterfalls, glaciers, lagoons, hot springs, craters and much more. Speaking of hot springs, there are plenty of low-cost or free ones, so skip the well-known but pricey Blue Lagoon.
One of my most memorable experiences was in the south-central town of Vik, where I spotted a vertical trail behind the church heading up to the plateau. Estimating about five more hours of daylight, I figured I could see what was on the other side. Hours later, I had hiked through parts of the cliffs and watched the sun set over a small town to the south. Behind me were valleys of eerily quiet glaciers, and I hadn’t seen a person in hours.
Even when I got lost, like on my first day, I stumbled upon amazing sights easily. After driving in circles thanks to a lack of GPS, I saw the famous Hallgrimskirkja church towering over the landscape and headed in for a look — free *and* cultural.
I also recommend the Reykjavik City Walk, a lively free walking tour that describes the history and culture of Iceland. Who knew that the locals must choose registered Icelandic names for their kids, or that their entire defense consists of just three coast guard ships and two helicopters?
Food and Drink: I ate mostly at gas stations and fast food cafes which, despite what you might think, are way nicer than your standard American pit stops. Many are part convenience store, part restaurant, part tourist information center in addition to a fuel station. For under $10 per stop, I was sustained with Icelandic hot dogs (a must-try), mac and cheese, sandwiches and coffee. I brought my own snacks and reusable water bottle, and spent $100 on food for the entire week.
If you plan to end your day-long excursions with a night cap, stock up at Duty Free in the airport beforehand.
What I Learned From Taking the Trip of a Lifetime — on a Budget
Trekking around Iceland on a budget taught me that as long as you are open-minded and flexible, it’s possible to afford a magical vacation. While sleeping in my car didn’t thrill me initially, it gave me the unique freedom to start each day in a brand new place. In the end, the spontaneous adventure was exactly what I was seeking.