Tag: iceland

Unless you’re going somewhere with amazing public transit or walkability, it’s usually cheaper to rent a car on international trips

Unless you’re going somewhere with amazing public transit or walkability, it’s usually cheaper to rent a car on international trips

For some reason, Americans seem to have a strange aversion to renting cars in foreign countries. I am always shocked at how much people shell out for cabs and tours in foreign countries where the roads are just as good as the ones in the US (if not better), the drivers are as good (or better), and they still drive on the same side of the road.

Now, I get that for some people, traveling internationally is supposed to be a leisure activity where you let someone else do all the work and get away from your daily routine, which I could understand somewhat especially for people that drive many miles in traffic every day for their job. But is that really worth hundreds (if not thousands of dollars) more?

A prime example of this would be Iceland, where seemingly everyone you know has either gone recently or plans to go soon (and is a place which I love for its amazing hot springs). While admittedly going in March was before high season, I booked a car rental six weeks in advance for $215 USD for nine days, or roughly $24 per day. We literally drove around the entire island  (probably around 900 miles) and spent $267.51 on gas (and before you say, “It’s not that much cheaper since gas is so expensive in Europe,” remember that not only are the cars more fuel efficient, but the cabs and tours are proportionally more expensive too).

Given that most comparable guided tours are packages that include lodging, it’s impossible to know how much the transportation cost of a similar guided tour would be, but given that many are around $1400/person with lodging, it’s likely that even without lodging, it still far exceeds the $241 per person cost my friend and I spent on transportation.

Now, despite my constant pleadings to people to spend longer in Iceland and drive around the whole country, I realize a nine-day trip may be excessive for some people. Icelandair and WOW have been doing extremely well recently promoting their stopover fares, where someone can fly from the US to somewhere else in Europe and add on a multi-day (or single-day) stop in Iceland for no additional charge. Let’s look at a popular one-day itinerary of Reykjavik, Blue Lagoon, and the Golden Circle. This is roughly a 200 mile trip (including the return) from the airport, so in a rental car for $24/day that gets 40 miles per gallon with gas at $8 per gallon (just a guess), that’s $40 of gas or $64 total.

A tour from Reykjavik is $82 per person, but that doesn’t include the cost of getting to Reykjavik from the airport, which is an extra $39 per person by bus or $117 by cab. And this still doesn’t include the Blue Lagoon. Obviously, the cost savings are not as significant for a solo traveler, but with more people, the cost of the rental car and gas still stay the same; the tour and bus costs (calculated per person) do not.

But even putting cost aside, the other nice thing about renting a car is the “Ooh this looks really cool, let’s pull over!” factor which you can have when in a rental car. The cover photo from this post is from a recent trip I took to Sommarøy, Norway and I was so struck by how beautiful the bridge was that I had to stop. Or when I was driving around Iceland, I was struck by the beauty of all of the ponies on the side of the road:

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You lose this aspect if you’re in a big group van where individual requests can’t always be accomodated.

But it doesn’t always make sense

As the title of this post notes, renting a car does not always make sense when traveling internationally. For one, there are certain countries which may restrict renting a car to citizens of that country (for example, China).

And in some, like Japan (where you can rent with an International Driving Permit), it doesn’t make any sense, given the amazing high-speed rail system that runs everywhere (as well as the amazing subways within urban areas).

In other countries with safety issues, it also may make sense to hire a driver in case you run into any sort of trouble. These countries also can sometimes be very unaffordable anyway due to high mandatory insurance costs.

But wait

But contrary to popular belief, one situation that should not deter you from renting a car is being in a country that drives on the other side of the road. There usually is no legal requirement in these countries to be from a country that also drives on the same side, and while it may feel weird at first, you can usually adapt in 15-20 minutes. And you never know what kind of animals you may encounter, as was the case with this baboon I ran into outside of Cape Town, South Africa:

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This post took longer than expected to write and while I was originally going to also write about rental car insurance in this post, I think it’s best saved for another post.

But if you have any questions on the above, let me know!

All photos by Mark Ayoub.

Fly to Iceland from the US for just $99!

Fly to Iceland from the US for just $99!

Budget carrier WOW Air has just released another round of $99 one-way fares (taxes included) to Reykjavik from select cities in the US. To be fair, you’ll probably pay a lot more coming back, but your overall trip still should not cost too much, around $400-$500:

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Cities featured for now are Washington (DC), San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston. As I mentioned when I reviewed WOW Air, it’s certainly not the most amazing flight you’ll ever be on, but it gets the job done for the price.

If you book after September, you might have a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights, though regardless of when you’ll go, you’ll experience some great hot springs, including my personal favorite.

And of course, you can see (and eat!) beautiful horses.

Iceland has the best hot springs in the world

Iceland has the best hot springs in the world

Yesterday I took some time to write about the Grjótagjá hot springs cave in northern Iceland, which I felt was so amazing that it deserved its own post. Of course, there are far more hot springs in Iceland than this one.

Blue Lagoon

The most famous one by far is the Blue Lagoon, which has extensively been used in many marketing campaigns and has been written about thousands of times. Given the surfeit of information available about it, I’m not going to spend much time on it here. Rather, I’ll leave it at this:

If you have time, it’s a fun yet expensive ($40) way to relax. While it is man-made, the striking blue color of the water is natural, and forms a beautiful contrast with the black basalt rock walls. However, if you are looking for an authentic Icelandic experience, this is not it. The only Icelandic people here are the staff. And unlike most other hot springs in Iceland, the atmosphere inside the pool is loud and raucous with free-flowing alcohol, a contrast to the serenity of other hot springs. But given its proximity to Keflavik airport, it can still serve as a fun welcome to Iceland, or one last way to relax before getting on a plane. If you are planning on going, advance tickets are a must regardless of the time of year. You will almost definitely be turned away if not.

Myvatn Nature Baths (pictured above)

If you like the pretty milky blue color of the water at the Blue Lagoon but hated the feeling of being overrun by tourists, this is the place for you. Located an hour or so east of Akureyri (and very close to Grjótagjá), admission is half the price of the blue lagoon, and provides a much quieter atmosphere, with the bathers consisting mostly of Icelanders and German tourists (the Germans really leave no stone unturned when traveling).

 

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The beautiful mountain landscapes provide a great backdrop which one can look at for hours on end. On top of that, the cafeteria inside serves an unspectacular yet filling lunch for a very reasonable price (hard to find in Iceland if you want to eat something besides hot dogs). You also might see them selling something called “geyser bread”, which is bread that has been cooked in a volcano. It is extremely dense and bland. Don’t be tempted.

Secret Lagoon

Despite its proximity to the famous Golden Circle, this is rarely mentioned in conjunction with the various stops on the Golden Circle. Given its name, this is probably somewhat intentional, and I wouldn’t mind keeping it this way either.

It can be a little hard to find (especially in the winter when road conditions are less than ideal), but once you get there, you have a beautiful outdoor geothermally heated hot spring. Unfortunately, I didn’t get many pictures because there was so much steam everywhere:

IMG_20160306_173927IMG_20160306_173936Nonetheless, this is a great way to relax after a long day of driving around the Golden Circle, as you can dig your feet deep into the squishy mud below you. There is also a small boardwalk that goes around the pool where you can see mini geysers “erupting”, but I wouldn’t recommend dipping your feet in any of these, as the water is around boiling temperature.

Seljavallalaug Hot Springs

I would recommend this only for people looking for a true “off-the-beaten path” adventure. While geographically its not very far from the main Ring Road that encircles the highland, and quite close to the famous Skógafoss waterfall, it does take a little bit of (easy) hiking to get to. Thankfully, unlike Grjótagjá, Google Maps is very accurate for directions to Seljavallalaug:

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Depending on what kind of car you have and what time of year it is, you should be able to follow pretty far up the road (Highway 242) until you can’t go any further. From there, all you have to do is stay on the path above, and you will eventually come to it.

On one hand, it’s not much more than a concrete pool fed by the runoff of volcanically heated water. On the other hand, part of what makes it so special is the feeling of accomplishment you get when you’ve been hiking for a while and come across something like this, not to mention the views of the nearby mountains aren’t too shabby:

 

I was quite at ease, and as you can see, you certainly don’t have to worry about being overrun by tourists.

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While there certainly is more to Iceland than hot springs, it certainly is one of the country’s more unique attributes, and provides a great way to relax as you tour the country. Happy bathing!

The above is in no way meant to be a complete rundown of all the hot springs in Iceland; rather, it’s just my attempt to highlight a few particularly noteworthy yet different ones. There are many many more ones in Iceland that could be explored with enough time, and I’m sure there are even more that have yet to be discovered!

 

Everything you need to know to plan a trip to see the Northern Lights

Everything you need to know to plan a trip to see the Northern Lights

Well, in short, my answer would be to go to Abisko National Park in northern Sweden. It’s often touted as the best place in the world to see them, and having seen them two of the three nights I was there, it’s easy to see why.

But moreso, after seeing them again this past week in Iceland, I wanted to take some time to go into what makes certain places good place to see the northern lights, and other places not as good.

In addition to going at the right time of year, there are three things you need: clear skies, little to no light pollution, and to be sufficiently north. The more you maximize each of these, the better your chances are.


How north is “north enough?”

While it’s not unheard of to see the northern lights from the northern United States or the United Kingdom if aurora activity is unusually high, you generally want to be above 61 degrees latitude. In other words, you’ll need to go to one of the following countries: United States (Alaska only), Canada, Denmark (Greenland or Faroe Islands only), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, or Russia.

How little light pollution do I need?

In general, this will not be a huge concern, as there just aren’t that many major cities that far north. I am mostly mentioning this so that you don’t book a trip to Iceland and stay in Reykjavik the whole time (which would be a huge mistake for other reasons too, considering how many beautiful sights there are to see outside of Reykjavik). If you are staying in Reykjavik (or another major city) on a night when there is a good chance of them being visible, it might not hurt to get out of the city while the sun I setting and wait for the lights in a more remote area. However…

If you see them, just sit back and enjoy them, rather than focus on getting to the best possible location

Hopefully, you’ve done everything you can to get as far away from city lights and cloudy skies as possible. But it’s possible that you may be in an area where part of the sky is still cloudy and/or there’s still some light pollution, and you still see them. While it may be tempting to get in the car and drive to a better location so that you can get an even better display, you can’t always count on the northern lights to wait for you. When I recently saw them in downtown Akureyri, Iceland (admittedly not much of a downtown given that the population is only 18,000), I thought I had the best idea ever by driving to an outdoor hot tub in a neighboring town with far less light pollution. Though it did provide me with the surreal experience of driving “into” the northern lights, by the time I got all settled into the hot tub, they were barely visible.  Furthermore, capturing the northern lights over the roof of a house, or with a city’s landmarks in the background can often make for more unique pictures.

How do I know if I’ll have clear skies three months in advance? (or however far in advance you plan your trip)

You won’t. But most places generally have a predictable weather patter (though this is definitely getting less and less certain now that we’re seeing the impacts of global warming). But there is enough information on the internet about the winter weather of all potential northern lights viewing spots that you should be able to get a general sense. The more varied the weather is, the longer you’re going to want to stay. People associate Iceland with the northern lights more than probably anywhere else (in part because of their very successful marketing campaign to make it into a tourist destination, after its previous attempt to be successful by becoming a global financial capital failed), but the reality is that while Iceland is an amazing country with otherworldly sites everywhere you look, its frequent turbulent weather does not make it a great place to see the northern lights, and I would recommend going for at least seven nights if you want to see them there.

 

When to see them

Though they can occasionally be seen in August or April, a general rule is to go sometime between the fall equinox (September 21) and spring equinox (March 21). I also wouldn’t recommend going too far after the fall equinox or too far before the spring equinox for two reasons: first, auroral activity tends to be strongest closest to the equinox, and also because if you go up to the Arctic region in mid-December, you should be prepared to enjoy nothing but darkness, as the sun is only up for a few hours every day.

Once I’m there, how do I know if they have a good chance of coming out that night?

To know how far south you can see the Northern Lights, you’ll want to rely on something called the kp index, which is explained better on this page than I ever could. The higher up you are, the lower kp index you need. Given that the kp index usually doesn’t get much higher than 3, this is why it’s a good idea to be above 61 degrees latitude. Furthermore, it might help to consult a weather forecast to see where there might be the best skies.

What to look for

If you’re not sure if what you’re seeing is the northern lights, then you’re not seeing the northern lights. Trust me, you’ll know. Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to be looking for something exactly like you see in the pictures. The camera tends to pick up more green than the human eye can, so it may appear to be a more faint green.

How to capture them

I’m by no means a photography expert, but from my experiences with other people who are, you will first need a high-quality camera where you can adjust exposure settings (sorry, your cell phone camera, no matter how good it is, will not pick them up). Set the camera up on a tripod pointing at the northern lights (either with or without you in the picture), and use an exposure of 30 to 60 seconds (yes, this can mean standing still in the cold for very long).

What about booking a guided tour?

No! That’s why I’m writing this post! No need!  Save your money!

 

While it’s OK to make the northern lights the primary reason for your trip, don’t make it the only reason. No matter how much you do to maximize your chances, there is no way to guarantee 100% that they will come out. Moreover, there often tends to be an inverse correlation between how good an area is for seeing the northern lights, and how much there is to do in the area. In other words, when you’re not chasing auroras, there’s not a whole lot else to do. So before you book a trip to a remote Arctic town, maybe first look into stopping off at a big city a little bit south, then catching a plane/train/bus (or driving) up North.

While I of course would have been disappointed had I not seen them when I went to Sweden last year, even if they never came out, I still had a great time exploring Stockholm.  On the other hand, on my most recent Iceland trip, my primary goal was not to see the Northern Lights;  as I mentioned above, it is generally not one of the better places to see the Northern Lights due to its unpredictable weather. I planned many other activities to experience the beauty of Iceland, and while I did end up seeing them twice in the eight nights I was there, I still would have had a great trip without having seen them.

I’m not going to have a chance to see them for a while; is there a way I can live vicariously through people who are much further north?

I would recommend following the live webcam from the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko National Park.

 

Other questions? Have your own tips that I forgot, or your own northern lights experience to share? Feel free to post in the comments or email me.

 

Photo credit: David Tse

It’s nothing special, but for $99 one-way to Iceland, it’s hard to beat WOW Air

It’s nothing special, but for $99 one-way to Iceland, it’s hard to beat WOW Air

 

Ever since seeing the Northern Lights last year, it’s made me want to go back to the far northern regions of the world to see them as often as possible. Combined with the fact that Iceland is supposed to be one of the most beautiful countries in the world, when budget carrier WOW Air announced nonstop service from Boston to Reykjavik starting at $99 one-way, it was a no-brainer to take advantage of this.

Unfortunately, the $99 fares for the dates that worked for me were all gone, but I still managed to book a nonstop flight for $369 roundtrip. (The flight would have been $389 had I booked it in US dollars, but by taking advantage of the option to book in foreign currencies, I leveraged the plummeting Canadian dollar to save $20). On top of that, $250 of this was reimbursed back to me thanks to the annual airfare credit on my Citi Prestige, which I consider to the be the best all-around travel card.

Now, in most of the cities from which they’re flying, WOW air is competing heavily with the flag carrier of Iceland, Icelandair. While I have not flown them (nor do I have immediate plans to do so), Icelandair is generally considered to be a very good airline, famous for their generous stopover rules in Reykjavik and ambient Northern Lights-like lighting. They also tend to be significantly more expensive. By trying to compete with them in many of their markets, WOW Air is taking a gamble that there’s a significant part of the population out there that doesn’t mind opting for a Spirit Airlines-like model(which isn’t so bad) where people pay significantly lower base fares, but sacrifice comfort, and are charged fees for everything. Judging from the capacity of yesterday’s flight, as well as the fact that they’ve extended their schedule well into this year, and even launched service from new markets like San Francisco, it seems to be working so far.

Brief aside: I’ve sometimes heard concerns from people about the safety risks of numerous budget airlines, and wondering if they can trust them. However, it is important to keep in mind that in order to be approved for commercial air service to and from the United States, an airline has to meet numerous stringent safety regulations. This is partially why there is no nonstop service between the United States and Bali, as Indonesia has the worst airline safety record in the world. In other words, if the airline you’re thinking of flying has been approved to fly in and out of the United States, you don’t need to worry.

Pre-flight

Similar to most budget carriers, they have a very strict weight limit for carry-on baggage (or as the Europeans call it, “hand luggage”) of 5kg or 11 pounds, as well as the typical carry-on size of [INSERT DIMENSIONS]. In other words, you can bring the suitcase you usually do, but it has to be much lighter than usual. Now, how extreme you are about packing really depends on whether your goal is to save as much money as possible, or just to be happy with a good deal. Even if you pay for a higher carry-on allowance and checked baggage, the cost of your flight will still be significantly lower than the equivalent on Icelandair. Of course, I fall into the first category.

After packing everything which I thought I needed for a week, it turns my suitcase was at 15 pounds. Luckily, there are ways to get around this weight limit. While WOW does not allow an additional “personal item” like most airlines, they do allow “one duty-free shopping bag.” I thought this was rather odd, but I wasn’t going to complain. Luckily, I had my shopping bag from my layover in Dubai (whose airport is arguably the biggest duty-free shopping destination in the world) and slipped my laptop into it. Now, a plastic bag is no substitute for a real laptop case, so I made a note to myself to slip my laptop into my suitcase as soon I got my baggage approved (Of course, as Murphy’s law would have it, when walking out to get my free UberPool to the airport), I took quite a spill on the sidewalk, but my laptop survived). On top of that, I took advantage of the rather deep pockets in my winter coat and put a considerable amount of shirts and socks in those too, getting the final weight down to just over 11 pounds.

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Given that WOW needs to weigh all luggage, they do not allow online check-in, which is a huge annoyance. Needing to hop on a work call at 3:30pm with my flight at 6pm, I arrived at the airport at 3pm, hoping that they would open their check-in desk earlier than the stated two hours before flight departure. Luckily, they were open. The person at the check-in desk looked skeptically at my suitcase, thinking it would be over the weight limit, but was impressed when I just barely made it under. However, he didn’t even look at the duty-free bag I was carrying. For all I know, I could have been holding an entirely separate carryon bag and I wouldn’t have been charged. Nonetheless, the important part was over. I had been issued my boarding pass and had my luggage approved. On top of that, because I had checked in so early, I got a seat very close to the front. I then transferred everything into my suitcase.

Unfortunately (and this is an issue unique to Logan Airport in Boston), WOW Air departs from the two international gates that are sectioned off from the rest of the international terminal, so there is not a whole lot to do in the waiting area. I opted to go to the bigger part of the terminal so I could take my call from the Air France lounge.

Boarding

Boarding began 45 minutes before the flight. Not surprising, almost everyone was under 40, to the point that one older couple remarked, “Why are we the only old people here?” I guess older people really do prefer to pay extra for the amenities on Icelandair.

 

The first thing I noticed was the bright magenta uniforms of the flight attendants, who were all gorgeous tall Nordic women with their hair tied back in a bun. While they had a very slight accent, their English was nonetheless excellent, which is consistent with what I’d heard about Iceland residents. I thought it was odd that they were doing all of the pre-flight announcements in both English and Icelandic – not only were most of the passengers Americans, but English proficiency in Iceland is very high. A few minutes before the flight, they amusingly announced that there were no Icelandic passengers on board, and therefore would be giving all subsequent announcements in only English. I guess Icelanders really like Icelandair, and/or don’t have any interest in visiting Boston.

 

The aircraft itself was very nondescript, save for some cute seat covers and vomit bags. The leg room was smaller than usual, but I knew that going in. I put my most of my stuff in the overhead bins, and settled into my seat, which did have power outlets, a surprising amenity.

Flight

Despite some light snow, the flight mostly took off on time. The flight itself was mostly uneventful. Given that we were departing at 6pm and arriving at 4am (both local times), I am not quite sure why they kept the lights on the whole time, asit made it harder to sleep. There were quite a lot of young men on the flight likely feeling proud of the fact that they had scored a $99 fare and were using this as an excuse to purchase copious amounts of alcohol, and got pretty rowdy (if you live in Boston or have been to Boston, you know the type of people I’m talking about). The flight attendants enjoyed some of their flirting, but mostly seemed annoyed with them. Right before landing, one of them spilled his drink all over himself, which was delightful schadenfreude to the rest of us.

As expected, there was no complimentary food or beverages going in, which is why I made sure to eat and drink enough before the flight. For a longer flight, I would have packed a meal for the flight, but for a five-hour flight, this didn’t seem necessary. As is the case with most things in Iceland, food/drink tended to be very expensive, with sandwiches somewhere in the $10 range. There were no in-flight amenities like Wi-Fi or movies/TV, though one could rent iPads to watch movies on. Furthermore, as it was an overnight trans-Atlantic flight, there was very little to look at out of the windows, save for some city lights in Maine and Canada at the beginning.

The in-flight magazines were surprisingly good, with quite a lot of real original content, as opposed to the typical articles being pushed by an advertiser. In particular, there was a very interesting article about the upcoming presidential election in Iceland. At one point, the article mentioned a past election had a “paltry” turnout at 63%, which I found quite amusing as a US citizen. Iceland is also famous for having the first democratically elected female president in the world (other than Eva Peron, who initially succeeded her husband), and was unanimously loved throughout the country during her 16-year tenure as president. Unfortunately, while there were quite a lot of “off the beaten path” articles about what to do in Iceland, the articles on what to do in San Francisco and Boston felt like they’d been copied and pasted from a tourism bureau website.

We arrived in Reykjavik slightly ahead of schedule, after which I staked out a spot in the airport to nap until my friend arrived from New York a few hours later.

Summary

While I was expecting the last section to be much longer, there really just isn’t a whole lot to write about, positive or negative. In the end, WOW Air is just yet another budget carrier which is realizing the model of having low base fares and charging fees for almost everything is quite profitable. Would I take it again? Absolutely. I knew what I was getting myself into ahead of time, and prepared adequately and had no problems.

However, given that WOW Air is now essentially competing with Norwegian Air Shuttle to offer cheap one-stop flights into Europe from many cities in the US (for example, you can take WOW to Paris from San Francisco by stopping in Reykavik, or you can take Norwegian to Paris from Oakland  by stopping in Oslo or Stockholm, both for far lower than a nonstop flight on Air France), I would much prefer Norwegian if I had the choice, even if it was just slightly more. While Norwegian is still ultimately a budget carrier, they tend to go above the basic expectations of a typical budget carrier by offering things like Wi-Fi and free movies, not to mention a little more leg room. Of course, they do also keep fares low through questionable labor practices, which I’m a little less comfortable embracing. (For more on why I love Norwegian, refer to this post.

But for a $99 nonstop flight to Iceland, WOW Air is hard to beat, and there are still quite a few $99 flights available from a variety of cities.

Over the next few weeks, I will be making some more posts about my Iceland trip, about which I have been absurdly excited for quite some time.

Have questions about something? Have your own WOW Air experience? Feel free to e-mail me, or post in the comments below.