The Real Difference Between Frugal and Expensive Travel: What I Spent in Iceland

Image may contain: mountain, cloud, sky, outdoor, nature and waterMy & some of the best people I know at the most touristy waterfall in Iceland– soaking it all in.

Last summer, I took a week-and-a-half long road trip with my roommates to celebrate our graduation. Following typical college student habits, we made the trip extremely cheap. It was pretty awesome, driving up to Maine and then Nova Scotia, eating and hiking and drinking and camping along the way. And when you’re hopping from National Park to National Park, there are plenty of free things to do along the way.

Here are some photos of the crazy-beautiful things we got to experience for free:

In fact, the only “expensive” (not really) things we paid for were kayaking in Nova Scotia, which I believe was still under $25 per person, and two nights at a Super 8 in Portland, Maine, before we started camping the rest of the trip. I don’t remember how much this cost, to be honest– I think around $70 per person? What I do remember is that I planned to spend about $800 total on the cost of the trip, but ended up only spending around $550. The moral of the story is that travelling can be incredibly affordable… if you enjoy camping 🙂

I certainly took this lesson into consideration as my friends and I planned our trip to Iceland. Once again, we spent one night at an Airbnb in Reykjavik and camped around the Ring Road for the remainder of the trip. But there were crucial differences that made this trip much less financially stressful, even while being much more expensive: I had budgeted for the trip for months, and, just as importantly, everyone going on the trip was on the exact same page financially.

As I have said about 100,000,000 times and will continue to tout, my budget is everything. Even before I knew I was going to Iceland, I had a sinking fund (savings account) named “travel” that I had been putting money into every month, knowing that I would eventually plan some sort of big trip for this summer. So when my friends and I decided to go to Iceland, I wasn’t daunted by the prospect of air travel or paying for more experiences. I was just excited and ready to start planning. Having a specific goal in mind also helped my throw more money towards my travel savings when I could.

As much as I love that delicious budget feeling, I have to say that being on the same page as everyone else on the trip was just as much of an important determinant in being able to have a financially stress-free vacation, even when spending much more. When I went to Canada with my roommates, we discussed our budget plans briefly, but weren’t intentional about communicating our precise spending expectations, other than that we all wanted to travel inexpensively. This was not specific enough, as one of my roommates was disproportionately stressed about the money she was spending on the trip, which added a lot of stress and guilt when it came to group spending.

For the Iceland trip, on the other hand, the group met a few times with the specific intention of planning and looking at the cost. We decided, not including the cost of air fare, that we were all willing to spend up to $1,000. Having a target in mind didn’t clarify every detail, but it was much better to have a point of reference. The amount we determined afforded us some wiggle room with food (which is notoriously expensive in Iceland) and unexpected costs along with the ability to spend money on experiences. Here are some of the very not-frugal things we did, that “frugal” Rachel would never thought of spending money on a year ago:

We kayaked in full dry gear in Stokkseyri.

Total cost: $40/person

Us when we’re dressed all sexy.

The scenery included cute houses, ponies, and of course, lots of sheep.

We hiked on Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland– and Europe.

Total cost: $65/person (bundled with the boat tour below)

Getting closer to the glacier. I was terrified at this point– I hate heights and am extremely prone to tripping, so hiking on a glacier was definitely a comfort-zone stretcher for me.


Laughing through my impending fear as we got ready to climb…


No falling had ensued, and though we were high up, it was not a steep slope, so my fear of heights was not triggered. My relief was palpable.


DSC_0207In fact, it was the single most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I LOVED being on top of that glacier– it was the highlight of the trip for me.


Just three happy ice climbers.

We took a boat ride tour to explore a glacial lagoon.

Total cost: $65/person (bundled with the glacier hike)

The glacier looks very small from here, but…


You get a better picture of how large it is when you get closer. We also got to see a chunk of it fall off, and a seal hanging out on an iceberg.

We explored an ice cave in a glacier that lives atop a volcano.

Total cost: $164/person

The water carves out some pretty cool patterns.


IMG_6350.jpgThe black patterns you see on the ice are made from volcanic ash layering in with the glacier. You only see this in Iceland, because it’s the only place in the world where glaciers and volcanoes coexist.


Just me and some casual spelunkers. 

We snorkeled in glacier water between tectonic plates.

Total cost: $130/person

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1135.JPGThis, too, was far outside of my comfort zone. The water was really cold and I had never snorkeled anywhere before.

GOPR1558.JPGSome very strange-looking smiles going on.

Having the budgeted-and-planned freedom to spend this money intentionally allowed me to experience the country in a way I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Of course, Iceland is an incredible place where you can just drive around and find hidden gems to explore for free (and we certainly did a lot of that, too– blog post on this to come), but being in such proximity to amazing natural phenomenons with proper gear changed the entire experience.

To get back to cost though, here is a spreadsheet including our original budget. As you can see, we estimated things as closely as possible and left some margin since we didn’t know what to expect price-wise. 

The spreadsheet is our expected costs. Here’s what we actually spent:

Car rental: $126/person

Airbnb: $36/person

Activities (all): $463/person

Gear rental: $36/person (about $15 more than we expected)

Gas: $51/person (about $10 more than we expected)

Camp sites: $50/person

Checked bags (we couldn’t fit tents & sleeping bags in our carry ons): $24/person 

Groceries: $39/person (waaaaaay under what we planned)

What I spent individually (food, souvenirs, transfer fees, etc.): $138

Total expenses: $963

Overall, I’m pleased that we stayed slightly underbudget. I think that when we realized we were going to underspend on groceries, we felt better about eating out more frequently, and that just about closed the gap. 

With air fare at $364, the total cost of the entire trip was $1,327, or an average of putting aside $111/month for a year. I would say this was an absolutely worthwhile expense to save up for– and if you want to visit Iceland without spending as much, you can relinquish the pricey activities and visit for around $900 including air fare– which only requires saving around $75/month for one year.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog post, where I’ll write a comprehensive guide to all the free and cheap things you can do in Iceland 🙂

If you’re looking for a simple, beautiful, and personalized way to budget to make your own travel dreams possible, click below to get my free budget template.

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2 thoughts on “The Real Difference Between Frugal and Expensive Travel: What I Spent in Iceland

  1. Pingback: My 2019 Net Worth

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