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Getaway to Reykjavik, a land of fire and ice at a fair price

It’s cold, ultramodern, and at times feels like the world of Star Wars. But it’s also friendly, hip, and culturally unique. Even with its UFO-like geothermal facility and cathedral that looks more like the Concorde than a sanctuary, Reykjavik is becoming a hotspot for American travelers who don’t want to cross the Atlantic but who do want a short, Euro-style getaway.

From a recent visit to Iceland, I found Reykjavik to be on the cusp of an isolated, unfamiliar world and at the same time a wild, up-and-coming destination. Surely an adventurous vacation filled with rugged natural wonder and rich city life would seem expensive. But, if you don’t mind the cold weather, go in the off-season when you can experience a weekend for under $500.

What’s the deal?

As the only major airline that flies to Iceland, Icelandair has a bit of a monopoly on Reykjavik tourism. It also owns most of the major hotels and coordinates many of the tour packages. However, in its attempt to encourage visitors, it offers a variety of great deals, particularly in the winter and into April, Iceland’s off-season.

If you don’t mind paying a bit more to go in the warmer months, Icelandair continues to provide good deals all year long. Don’t be intimidated by the thought of icy weather, though. Reykjavik only gets about as cold as Boston or New York.

Getting there

Special air deals, along with short, nonstop flights, make flying easy for anyone who lives near Icelandair’s gateway cities: Baltimore, Boston, Minneapolis, New York, and Orlando. Add-ons for other U.S. cities are also available.

I took along a friend and used Icelandair’s winter two-for-one frequent flyer special, where one person pays $399 for the fare, and the companion just pays his or her taxes. We split the total cost in half so that both of us got a great deal. Promotions like these are offered periodically and typically include:

  • Airfare specials: Reduced fares to Reykjavik, including two-for-one specials, that average around $300 round-trip per person.
  • Icelandair’s Lucky Fares: Last-minute fares that come out every week in newsletter format, ranging from about $260 to $390 round-trip.
  • Special air and hotel package deals: Combined deals that often include transfers, breakfasts, and excursions for under $500 per person.
  • Iceland Airwaves: An annual music festival in October designed to attract the young, hip crowd, with packages starting at around $500 per person.

Icelandair also extends its air deals to other destinations in Scandinavia, the U.K., and Continental Europe. All flights connect through Reykjavik, a clever tactic to entice travelers to stopover (for free) and stay for a visit.

Where to stay

Icelandair operates most of the city’s hotels and offers special deals, usually combined with air packages. However, there are many unaffiliated three-star hotels and guests houses that are often more affordable. I stayed at Hotel Vik, located slightly outside the city center, for about $80 per night (including breakfast) for two people.

No matter which hotel you choose, you’ll find a perk. Through a company called Flybus, Reykjavik provides a great system for airport transfers and day tours to and from your hotel. Just ask the concierge to call ahead for you, and a bus will pick you up. If you can’t make it back to your hotel in time for your excursion, stop in at any hotel in town and ask them to book for you. In most cases, they’d be happy to do it.

Affordable must-dos

In a country nicknamed the “land of fire and ice,” the contrast of high-tech civilization and untamed nature is striking. Chic Icelanders chatter on cell phones while, in the background, basaltic Mt. Esja juts out of the harbor. Whether you’re wandering through the streets or exploring nearby volcanoes, you’re sure to find adventure. Best of all, you can keep entertainment costs under $50 for the whole trip. Here are a few must-dos that I discovered during my three-day stay:

  • The Blue Lagoon evening tour: The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa filled with therapeutic silica mud, blue-green algae, and mineral salts. During the evening tour, you can soak in the milky-blue waters, naturally heated to 104 degrees, while snow falls around you. The tour, provided by Reykjavik Excursions, costs about $25 for round-trip bus transportation and three-hours of lagoon time.
  • Coffee bars: Drink coffee, especially the Swiss mocha, and lots of it. Probably not one of the cheapest cups you’ll ever have, but well worth it. My favorite spot: Cafe Paris.
  • Night life: I was most intrigued by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an intimate coffee bar set underground, where tall candles light the tables and create an atmosphere conducive to stimulating conversation. However, like many nightspots in the city, this bar picks up late on Friday and Saturday nights and transforms into more of a dance club. Watch out for falling candles!
  • Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik’s cathedral: Visible from any point in the city, this structure looks like a giant stone rocket. Inside, you’re more likely to envision Princess Leia parading down the aisle than a bride in white. For about $2, you can take a worthwhile tour up to the clock tower for a panoramic view of the entire city.
  • Perlan (the Pearl): Resembling a giant launch pad with a flying saucer on it, Perlan is actually a geothermal water facility, which stores most of Reykjavik’s hot water. You can tour its observatory for free, or dine in the elegant revolving restaurant at the top.

Reykjavik is a developing urban center that’s both accessible and adventurous without being touristy. You won’t find clear directions, or even postings identifying landmarks. When I asked how to reach the city center, the concierge at my hotel just smiled and gestured to the left, saying in a thick Icelandic accent, “Go that way…and when you get there…you take the bus.” After a circuitous jaunt to the bus stop and a ride downtown—getting lost about four times in the process—I wouldn’t have wanted to see Reykjavik any other way.

My advice: Don’t plan ahead. It isn’t necessary. Reykjavik is not only an ideal place for an adventure, it’s also perfect for an affordable last-minute getaway.

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