The Icelander's Travel Guidebook 2009

The best online collection of travel information for Icelanders.

About this book

This free online travel guide is designed for Icelanders who are planning a trip abroad. The goal is to fill Icelanders' need for honest, accurate, critical information on travel. What makes this book special is that it is written especially for people who live in Iceland.

I've been involved with travel guidebooks and group tours for twenty years. I've worked for Let's Go, Frommer's, Rick Steves, Scandinavian Seminar/Elderhostel, Holland America Lines, and Heimsferðir.

Remember that travel guidebooks like this start going out of date as soon as they are printed. Things change, prices go up, hotels and restaurants close. I welcome all comments and corrections.

My philosophy

The Internet has brought new and efficient ways of planning travel, but also new tricks for diverting travelers' attention and misleading travelers into sending their money in the wrong direction. My goal is to find and share safe passages through this jungle, with a critical and price-sensitive eye. Most of us prefer to patronize inexpensive, honestly run establishments. We just don't always have the time to research them out. That's where this book helps.

All of the information in this guidebook is independent and free from advertiser influence. I do not take commissions, I do not serve as an "affiliate" for anyone, and I select listings because they are the best ones that I can find. I advise you as if you were a member of my family. When you click on a link in this document, I don't get paid. I try to tell it like it is. As the Reykjavík Grapevine says, "You may not like it, but at least it's not paid for."

I do accept advertising, but I do not accept advertising from any company which I review directly, or where advertising might make it tempting for me to compromise my honesty.

Destinations

My aim in the second half of this book is to include destination-specific information that's of special use to Icelanders. I have concentrated on the most common destinations and flight gateways in Europe and North America. I have included links to Icelandic-run businesses abroad (though I know that some Icelanders like to get away from being Icelandic when they travel abroad!) I have added to this section since last year and I look forward to putting in more information about destinations that Icelanders like to visit.

In the accommodations listings, I try to give you information that would be hard to find elsewhere. I have listed places that are especially nice, or especially convenient, or especially good value for money. Breakfast is included and rooms have private bath (except at hostels) unless otherwise noted.

Note though that I have not stayed at most of the hotels I mention. My listings are based on fairly careful research work and I think my recommendations are pretty sound. I would really appreciate your feedback on them.

Icelandic travelers almost always fly abroad, and becaust flights on most routes go only once a day at most, they often need to make overnight layovers when using connecting flights. So I have put special emphasis on airport hotels in these listings. If you are searching for airport hotels on your own, here's a tip: if a hotel calls itself an "airport hotel," that doesn't usually mean that it is on the grounds — and sometimes it can be quite far away from the airport — certainly well out of walking distance. In my experience, hotels regard themselves as being worthy of the name "airport hotel" if they have a free shuttle service from and/or to the airport that runs at least part of the day. I have tried to be of service by sorting the wheat from the chaff and finding airport hotels that are really worth of the name.

Package Tours

Should you buy a package or go on a group tour?

More and more Icelanders are choosing to do their own travel planning, but traveling with a tour operator or package consolidator is still a good option for many.

Some of the largest Icelandic tour operators and package consolidators are

These consolidators offer both packages and tours (though Ferðaþjónusta Bænda specializes more in tours, and Heimsferðir more in packages). Packages generally cover your flight and hotel in a single city, sometimes including transfers or sightseeing. Tours mean that you join a group, led by a tour leader (fararstjóri). Tours often involve travel to more than one city, local transport and some sightseeing is usually included, and airfare is often but not always included.

Packages are convenient, especially when they go to destinations that are difficult to reach from Iceland by scheduled air. However, these flights are sometimes also sold separately, so remember that you may be able buy just the flight and find a cheaper hotel by searching on your own. Iceland Express (expressferdir.is) and Icelandair (www.icelandair.is/offers-and-bookings) also sell flight-plus-hotel packages.

The main attraction of taking a tour is that all the work is done for you, most decisions already made, and you get a ready-made group of new friends. The main reason not to take a tour is the lack of freedom. You cannot choose the itinerary yourself or decide to get up a little later one day, and you may not like the new friends that the tour provides you with. Sometimes a tour is cheaper than doing the same trip on your own. Sometimes you save by doing your own planning.

There are also some smaller Icelandic tour operators, often one-person operations, that specialize in particular destinations. Kínaklúbbur Unnar, one of the oldest, offers an annual trip to China (www.simnet.is/kinaklubbur). Bjarmaland, run by Haukur Hauksson, offers trips to Russia (www.bjarmaland.is). Þorleifur Friðriksson runs Söguferðir (www.soguferdir.net), which organizes trips in Eastern Europe. Vínskólinn (www.vinskolinn.is) has organized short wine-tasting tours to France and southern Europe. Vináttu- og menningarfélag Miðausturlanda (johannaferdir.blogspot.com) has organized a number of Middle Eastern trips for its members during the last few years. There are surely more such small operations and we would be glad to list them.

If you speak English or another language, it is totally reasonable to sign up for group tours operated by quality foreign tour operators. Look for tours which are offered on a "land-only" basis, which means that you are responsible for getting yourself to the place where the tour begins in the way that you choose. One of the benefits of these kinds of tours is that they get you completely out of Icelandic society; no one will know you on the tour and you can feel completely anonymous. There are jillions of tour operators in the United States, Britain and elsewhere, big and small. Elderhostel (www.elderhostel.org) offers educational tours and focuses on older American travelers (it's a marketing and sales umbrella, and the tours are actually run by smaller operators). Studiosus (www.studiosus.de) is one of the most reputable German operators.

Guidebooks and Maps

It is still a pleasure to sit down and read through a good guidebook. Guidebook authors create value by selecting: choosing a few hotels, restaurants, sights and other experiences they think will appeal to you, and wading through information so that you get the essentials. Guidebooks also give you a general, “whole-forest” view of a destination which you wouldn't otherwise get from views of the individual “trees.”

Some of the major guidebook series are Lonely Planet, Frommer's, the Bradt Guides, the Rough Guides, Rick Steves, Footprint, and the Moon Publications guides. If you read German, the Michael Müller guides are often very good.

Unfortunately, Icelandic bookstores only carry a limited range of guidebooks and these are not always the best. For instance, on a recent visit to Eymundsson, they had lots of Lonely Planets and Bradt guides but didn't have Frommer's, the Rough Guides, or Footprint. Consider special ordering from abroad (Bóksala stúdenta has, in my experience, the best deals on special orders: boksala.is, then click on "Sérpöntun").

Rather than buying a guidebook, go to the library. Borgarbókasafnið in Reykjavík owns hundreds of guidebooks. They may not have the most up-to-date copies, but you can check time-sensitive details on the Internet later.

Unfortunately, guidebooks suffer from the problem that it takes too long to get information into your hands. (That's why I buy guidebooks more by looking at the publication date than at the name of the series.) Guidebooks also differ in their selection style, so it is hard to be sure that the guidebook is written with the kind of emphasis that you need. And if everyone has the same guidebook, the places listed in it can get jammed.

In the last few years, free advertising-supported travel information has become more and more easily available on the net. At its best, it's not biased, because the content is kept relatively separate from the advertising influence. (Advertising-driven Icelandic publications which separate content from advertising include the Reykjavík Grapevine and Á Ferð um Ísland.)

That means that guidebooks are becoming somewhat less important as information sources. Especially in Iceland, where books are expensive, it makes better sense to start planning your travel by using the library and online sources rather than buying guidebooks.

Here are some of the best general free online information sources, starting with sites that have comprehensive information on many cities:

  • tripadvisor.com and booking.com: These two sites collect candid reviews of hotels all over the world (restaurants too on TripAdvisor). On booking.com, check the box that says "I don't have specific dates yet" to simplify your search.
  • inyourpocket.com: Good free city guides to most of the major cities in Eastern Europe, downloadable in PDF format.
  • arrivalguides.com: These short online guides in PDF format are handy, free, usually include a map, and cover about 300 cities worldwide so far. They are pretty limited, though, and you should take their restaurant and hotel recommendations with a grain of salt.

Sometimes your best route for a particular destination is to find a locally based web site rather than a worldwide one. Here are some locally based websites that I think are particularly good:

While Wikipedia is great as an encyclopedia, their travel information site (wikitravel.org) has not worked as well, probably because the incentives for contributors don't generate quality prose as easily. While it can have good general information on destinations, I wouldn't look to it as a source for eating or sleeping advice.

There are also two other Icelandic travel websites. Utlond.is, run by Viðskiptablaðið assistant editor Sigurður Már Jónsson, is a helpful collection of destination information (hotels, restaurants, and sights) on European cities such as London, Copenhagen, Glasgow, Berlin, and Barcelona. The site also includes a useful roundup of Icelandic travel news. There is a lot of information on the site. It can be difficult to compare establishments because they appear on different pages, and it also hard to know when a given entry was written. Utlond.is funded by advertising.

Ferdalangur.net, run by Margrét Gunnarsdóttir, has an active mailing list and regularly sends out travel news and links of interest, which are also posted on the website. Ferdalangur.net is a fun and interesting site with lots of information. The site is organized as a blog, which means that it can be hard to find information on a specific topic. Ferdalangur.is is funded by commissions and affiliate links. So readers should bear in mind that the opinions on Ferdalangur.net are not always independent; sometimes it recommends the services that it advertises on the site. Margrét has recently held workshops on independent travel planning which have by all reports been popular and rewarding; these were advertised on the web site.

Maps

Because of high taxes on imported maps in Iceland, I recommend not buying paper maps, at least not before you reach your destination. You can find good satellite images of most of the world's countries and map data on many countries at maps.google.com. I used to be a satisfied user of www.viamichelin.com too, but I'm not sure there is anything it can do that Google doesn't do better. If you want a paper map, ideally wait until you reach your destination, where there is usually a better selection anyway (as well as easily available free maps). I miss the old romance of great map stores, like Stanfords in London, but the web is much more convenient.

Buying airline tickets

The Chinese philosopher Confucius is supposed to have said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. These days, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a trip to Keflavík Airport. And even before that, it begins with booking your ticket — which most people now do on line.

In order to leave Iceland, you have to use one of the airlines that flies here — which in most cases means Icelandair or Iceland Express. Once you have arrived in Europe or North America, you may then need to book a connecting flight onwards, which is not as simple as it might sound.

I always make sure I am not paying for any cancellation insurance (forfallagjald). The cancellation insurance offered by Icelandair and Iceland Express seems to provide little beyond the standard cancellation and change conditions and the protection afforded by your credit cards. (Though I'd like to read a good review of this issue.)

Icelandair and Iceland Express often have flight-plus-hotel packages to their regular destinations. With flight-plus-hotel packages, you are stuck with the limited selection of hotels that the airline has contracted with. Usually, you'll find that it's cheaper to buy the flight only and find a less expensive hotel on your own, but sometimes the hotel deals are at least decent, and have the advantage of saving time.

Both Icelandair and Iceland Express offer "contract rates" to companies and institutions in Iceland. My experience of these rates is that they take some of the stress out of bookings, by guaranteeing you a rate that is reasonable (even if it is sometimes undercut by special offers). Icelandair maintains a web page describing their corporate travel service.

A last piece of advice: Bring a sandwich. On both airlines, you'll have to pay for any food on board. Taking your own food is cheaper, and I also feel it's cozier and gives me a nice sense of self-suffiency.

Icelandair

Though they have much more competition now, Icelandair is still the main player in international flights from Iceland, and has a monopoly on direct flights to North America. It is best to book on their web site (www.icelandair.is), as booking by telephone or in person means an extra charge. The pluses with Icelandair are their good selection of nonstop destinations and their frequent flyer program. Icelandair now allows you to book one-way tickets at not unreasonable prices, which is probably partly an effect of competition from Iceland Express. Their website, which a few years ago was a disaster zone, is much improved, except if you are booking a connecting flight, where the website doesn't give you the full range of possibilities.

By all means, sign up for Vildarklúbbur, Icelandair's frequent flyer program, and check your points status online once or twice a year (you will need a username and password). Your points expire at the end of the third calendar year after you got them. Make sure to use them sooner.

Certain credit cards allow you to rack up more frequent flyer points through everyday purchases. Remember, though, that there's no free lunch, and you pay for the points one way or another, either through higher annual fees or higher prices. My advice is to limit the time that you spend thinking about frequent flyer points.

Most of Icelandair's passengers are actually European and American, and Icelandair's business strategy has been to serve slightly less popular airports on both sides of the Atlantic (like Minneapolis and Oslo) where there is no direct-flight competition so that a plane change in Keflavík doesn't put Icelandair at a competitive disadvantage. Icelanders benefit from this business strategy by having a much greater choice of destinations than a community of 300,000 people could otherwise support.

Iceland Express

Iceland Express (www.icelandexpress.is) is a classic "low-fare" or "budget" airline, which means in practice that they sell all tickets on a one-way basis; that they don't have a frequent-flyer program; and that they don't even try to make agreements with other carriers to allow you to book connecting flights. Iceland Express is best for the many Icelanders who make frequent trips back and forth between Keflavík and Copenhagen, London, or Germany and who don't want to connect on to other destinations by air. Iceland Express's emphasis on one-way tickets makes them convenient for people who want to fly to one European destination and return from another, or to fly one way and come back by sea on Norræna. Iceland Express is also planning direct flights from Akureyri to Copenhagen in 2009.

Booking with Iceland Express is a bit simpler than with Icelandair, largely because all tickets are e-tickets sold on a one-way basis, you cannot book connecting flights, and there is no frequent-flyer program. In my experience, despite the name "low-fare," Iceland Express is not actually cheaper than Icelandair. Prices are about the same. But Iceland Express feels more sincere to me than Icelandair. And I believe it is important to patronize Iceland Express if for no other reason than to make sure that Icelandair continues to have competition. After all, without Iceland Express, Icelandair would probably never have bothered to lower their prices and improve their website and service.

Other flights

SAS flights to Oslo. Other airline companies regularly see whether they can make a go of it in the Icelandic market, and SAS is the latest to try. They're a fine option if you are just flying to Oslo, but not so good for connecting to other destinations, as you arrive too late in the day to make most same-day connections to other cities and you have to overnight in Oslo. I have seen SAS offer decent prices on connecting flights from Iceland to Asian destinations (Tokyo, for example), but these actually connect through Copenhagen. The website is www.flysas.is.

Summer flights from Germany. Every year one of the German charter or low-fare airlines usually runs extra flights between Germany and Keflavík during the summer. In 2009 Germanwings (www.germanwings.com will be flying from the Bonn/Köln airport to Keflavík from mid-May to mid-September.

Buying just a seat on charter flights. The major Icelandic travel agencies (see list above) run charter flights from Keflavík to various holiday destinations all year long. The main reason they run these flights is to sell flight-plus-hotel and tour packages, which are sometimes good value. In most cases you can also purchase the flight only. While it is rare to see great flight deals here, prices are usually reasonable, and the real advantage is in getting a nonstop flight to a destination (like Prague, the Canary Islands or St. John's Newfoundland) for which you would normally have to connect to through London or Copenhagen at considerable bother and expense. Sometimes, Icelandair and Iceland Express also offer scheduled flights that go irregularly and work practically like charters.

Flights to the Faroe Islands and Greenland. These are run by Air Iceland and booking is on the website www.airiceland.is.

Booking connecting flights

So you need to fly somewhere which is not on the list of Icelandair or Iceland Express's destinations. It could be somewhere in southern Europe, in Asia or the Middle East, or in North or South America. Here's what you can do:

Step 1. Try Icelandair's website. Occasionally, it will turn up a reasonably priced connecting fare. If you can get a decent fare through Icelandair's site, your connection will be guaranteed. A guaranteed connection means that if your initial flight is late, the airlines assumes the risk and cost of rebooking you on a later flight if necessary. Don't hold your breath, though. It's more likely that the Icelandair website will, with an entirely straight face, quote you a price of 200.000 kr. round-trip. Icelandair's collaboration with other airlines is very poor — Icelandair doesn't belong to any international alliances, unlike other flag carriers. So while you can book connecting flights on other airlines through their website (say, Icelandair to Copenhagen and then Austrian Airways to Vienna), their prices for such connections tend not to be very competitive. Before you give up on this method, you might also try the SAS website. If that doesn't work either, you have a choice between two evils: the evil of buying from Icelandair at uncompetitive prices but with a guaranteed connection (Icelandair takes responsibility if you miss it), or the evil of buying the onward ticket separately at a lower price but taking the entire risk of missing the connection (you pay if you miss it). If you choose to assume the connection risk yourself, read the section on "Connection risk," below, and then proceed to step 2.

Step 2. Use one of the websites that specializes in finding connecting flights and ask it to come up with an option for your entire itinerary (from Keflavík to your final destination). Dohop.is is one of the best, as it searches not only the legacy airlines but also the low-fare airlines that don't participate in the legacy airlines' booking systems. You can also try momondo.com, kayak.com, and trabber.com, which search other search engines. For searching the legacy airlines, I still like using the once revolutionary www.itasoftware.com (click on "search airfares using QPX" and then "log in as a guest"). Whenever possible, however, don't actually book your ticket through one of these search engines, but rather through the airline itself, assuming they are offering the same or a similar fare.

Step 3. Not all airlines show up in the results from these websites. For example, Southwest Airlines, one of the best low-cost airlines in the United States, doesn't let search engines search its flights. Or, as I was writing this, Germanwings' summer 2009 flights from Keflavík to Köln were shown on its website, but not on Dohop's search results. So if you don't find anything good through the search engines, you might do some of your own research to figure out what budget airlines connect to your final destination. Whichbudget.com is an excellent list of low-fare airlines which is organized geographically.

Step 4. In Europe, consider connecting via train rather than air. Very often, the simplest thing to do is to fly into the closest airport served directly from Iceland, and then to take the train to your final destination. Certain airports (Frankfurt, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam in particular) have very good long-distance train connections. Train travel involves less hassle than airplane travel. There is less chance of delays or of your luggage getting lost. If you miss one train, there is less bother and cost involved in taking a later train than there would be in taking a later plane. Good examples of itineraries where you should consider this option are Reykjavík to Brussels (via Amsterdam or Paris); Reykjavík to Prague (via Berlin); Reykjavík to Munich (via Frankfurt or Friedrichshafen); Reykjavík to Zürich (via Friedrichshafen); Reykjavík to Kalmar (via Copenhagen). Sometimes the boat or bus can be a good option: if traveling to Tallinn (Estonia), look into flying to Helsinki and taking the ferry from there to Tallinn.

Connection risk

The problem with booking tickets from two separate companies is that you assume the connection risk. If the first leg of your trip is delayed, the second provider will usually not show you any sympathy. For example, I was once on a delayed flight from Keflavík to Oslo. I missed my connecting flight to northern Norway, but I had bought the whole ticket through Icelandair, so I was rebooked at no charge. Other people on the same flight had purchased plane tickets from Oslo to Trondheim separately (not through Icelandair). They had to buy completely new tickets at their own expense.

To minimize connection risk, leave as much time as possible between the two legs of your trip. If possible, give yourself an overnight. The cost of one night's lodging is very often less than the savings you get from having a more flexible time schedule for your flight bookings.

Also remember that when connecting from international to domestic flights in some countries (for example, Norway and the USA) you will have to take your luggage through customs and then recheck it for your connecting flight. This takes time and increases your risk.

Connection risk also applies when you are connecting to a train, bus, or ferry and your ticket is linked to a particular departure. This is an issue in countries like Germany and Sweden, where discount-rate train tickets are valid only on a particular train, and you must pay a fee to change the ticket if you need to take a later train. So the same rule applies for train connections in Germany: leave a good amount of time between your airplane's arrival and the departure of the train in order to keep down the risk of having to pay for changes.

The website flightstats.com offers free information about airlines' on-time performance, which can help you make smart decisions about how much time to leave between connecting legs of your trip (click on "On-Time Performance Ratings").

Keflavík Airport

The renovations to Keflavík Airport have created a lot more room in the terminal, though they have also robbed it of the cozy, homey feeling that it used to have. It used to be a building that Icelanders took pride in specifically, but now it feels just like any other international airport.

Keflavík airport's website, www.airport.is, has all the latest information on arrival and departure times and delays. The address www.leifsstod.is gets you to the same place. Some people still like to use the information at www.textavarp.is/400, but I find airport.is quicker and better. Sometimes there is more up-to-date information on the website of the airline involved.

Make sure to follow along closely if it looks like your flight departure will be delayed. Call the airline if necessary. Recently, one of the most common complaints about both Icelandair and Iceland Express has been that they haven't given passengers on delayed flights clear information about what to expect.

Getting from Reykjavík to Keflavík

My advice is to try and find someone to drive you to Keflavík. As of January 2009, the fuel cost of driving from Reykjavík to Keflavík and back (a generous 10 liters of gas at 140 kr./liter) was around the same as the price of a single one-way Flybus ticket (1500 kr.), not counting any costs involved in getting to the bus. So if you can get someone to drive you out to Keflavík, paying for their gas will work out a little better than taking the bus, even if you are traveling alone! If at least two of you are traveling, there's no question that you'll save by getting a ride to the airport.

If you can't get anyone to drive you, compare the cost of driving yourself to Keflavík and leaving your car there with the cost of walking, driving, getting a ride, or taking a taxi to BSÍ (or one of the other Flybus stops) and from there taking the bus to the airport. If you are alone, or are planning to be abroad for a long time, then you will generally save by taking the Flybus to Keflavík, as long as you can easily get to BSÍ or one of the other bus stops. The advantage of the bus is also that you arrive right at the airport terminal door, you don't have to walk over icy sidewalks from the parking lot to the terminal, and you don't have to drive tired. However, the more people traveling and the shorter your trip abroad, the better it works out to drive to Keflavík and park the car there.

Parking at Keflavík

The long-term parking lot is across the road to the north of the terminal building. The parking lots right next to the terminal are short-term only: don't leave your car there for a week or it'll cost you a lot!

At both the long-term and short-term parking lots, you can either pay with a Visa or MasterCard credit card (no debit cards accepted) in the machines by the gates, or by getting a receipt and paying at the parking office in the arrivals hall of the terminal. This office is open 24 hours a day (tel. 425-0444). Parking in the long-term lot costs 630 kr. for each of the first seven days or fraction thereof. The eighth to eleventh days cost 200 kr. apiece. The twelfth to fourteenth days cost 470 kr. apiece. The fifteenth to twentieth days cost 110 kr. apiece. The twenty-first and all subsequent days cost 350 kr. apiece. There's a handy chart illustating the prices at www.airport.is/menu/samgongur/bilastaedi).

The Flybus

Complete Flybus schedules are on their website (www.flugrutan.is or www.flybus.is), or you can call them at tel. 562 1011. If there's no traffic, the bus takes 40-50 minutes to get from BSÍ to the airport, but sometimes the trip can take longer. A regular Flybus ticket costs 1500 kr., but if you ask for a round-trip ticket, you will get two tickets for 2700 kr., or only 1350 kr. apiece. This saves a bit of money, and the tickets don't expire. Also, although the tickets say "Reykjavík-Keflavík" and "Keflavík-Reykjavík" on them, I've never been questioned for using (for example) a "Keflavík-Reykjavík" ticket to go from Reykjavík to the airport. So the lesson is: Never buy a single Flybus ticket.

After leaving BSÍ, the Flybus stops at Bitabær in Garðabær and Fjörukráin in Hafnarfjörður.

The parking lot at BSÍ is free, and some people like to leave their car there and then take the Flybus to the airport. I don't recommend this, as the parking lot is small, and not guarded in any way. Then again, the parking lot at Keflavík isn't really guarded either and takes no responsibility for your car.

Check-in and departure

The new self-checkin terminals are convenient and save time, but so far only available to Icelandair passengers.

The airport advertises on its web site that passengers can enjoy wireless Internet access from their laptops while waiting in the terminal. What they don't mention is that the cost of this enjoyment is quite steep: 490 kr. for one hour and 990 kr. for four hours. You pay by credit card in a browser window after your laptop connects to the network. The four-hour package might be worth it if you are stuck at the airport for some reason, but the one-hour package is awfully expensive. There are free computers (as well as free breakfast!) in the Saga lounge if you are lucky enough to be flying business class.

Duty Free Shopping?

There are several good reasons to shop at the Fríhöfn (the duty free store at Keflavík). If you're on your way into the country, alcohol is much cheaper there than at ÁTVR. The savings are the highest on hard liquor, pretty good on beer, and only modest on wine. You can also save a little on music and electronics. You won't save any money on candy at the Fríhöfn, but they do have a fairly good selection of foreign candy. If you want Icelandic candy you can just as well shop at Bónus. But remember that, theoretically, you have to pay duty on anything you buy in the Fríhöfn, just as if you had bought it abroad. And prices abroad are usually cheaper than at the Fríhöfn. So when possible, shop abroad rather than in the Fríhöfn. Most Fríhöfn prices (though not for electronics) are listed on their website, www.frihofn.is.

When leaving Iceland for abroad, you can shop at the upstairs Fríhöfn (in the departure/transfer hall). You should definitely shop at the airport if you want to buy Icelandic alcohol to take abroad. And if you want to buy Icelandic candy, alcohol or souvenirs for friends abroad, this means you can do so after checking your bags, so you effectively can carry more luggage than you are allowed under the limits. However, since Keflavík is not usually strict about enforcing luggage limits to begin with, it's not much of an advantage.

For more information, see the article I wrote on duty free shopping in the June 2008 issue of Neytendablaðið. For information on customs duty and duty-free allowances, see below under Shopping.

Packing and Baggage

You need to be careful about what you put in your hand luggage — put your pocketknife in your checked luggage and follow the new rules on liquids. Full instructions on what is permitted and not permitted in your hand luggage can be found at www.airport.is.

The official checked baggage weight limit for economy class travel to Europe is 20 kilograms. If you fly Saga class on Icelandair you get 30 kilograms. At Keflavík airport the check-in staff rarely make an issue of your baggage weight and I have flown undisturbed with as much as 28 or 29 kilos. But reports are that even Icelandic flexibility can get strained if you go over 25 or certainly 30 kilos.

If you are flying to or from the United States and Canada – not only on Icelandair – the rules are different. You can take two bags for free, each of which may weigh up to 50 pounds (23 kilos). The same is true on your return flight. Within the U.S. and Canada, all airlines except Southwest charge a per-bag fee which rises if the bag weighs more than 50 pounds.

When you fly back to Iceland from Europe, the airports tend to be stricter. Frankfurt is particularly strict. You may be asked to pay if you are even two or three kilos overweight, and you should expect to have to pay if you are five kilos overweight. In general, weight limits are more strictly enforced abroad. European low-fare airlines sometimes have very restrictive policies. Ryanair charges for each bag and limits passengers to 15 kilos overall (the charge is lower if pre-paid at the time of reservation). Many low-fare airlines strictly enforce their limits and make you pay for even a single kilo overweight.

My advice: check baggage policies in advance and be aware of them when comparing prices. In the United States, try to take airlines like Southwest whenever possible to reduce checked-bag fees. Consider taking the train or other surface transport.

It is ironic that if two passengers check in and sit next to each other on a flight from Frankfurt to Reykjavík, the one who is continuing on to the USA can take more baggage (46 kilos) than the one whose destination is Iceland (20 kilos). It is especially ironic because the ticket from Frankfurt to the USA is usually cheaper than the ticket from Frankfurt to Keflavík in per-kilometer terms, and often in absolute terms! The charge for overweight luggage on flights between Iceland and Europe is ridiculously high. Whether to charge is basically at the whim of the check-in agent. Since it is very easy and very common for entirely normal people to exceed the 20 kilo limit, the implied threat of enforcing the rules constitutes a main source of power and stress in the relationship between passengers and check-in agents. Meanwhile, the policies of airlines like Ryanair verge on an unethical business model where customers are encouraged to make "mistakes" for which they are then charged extra. Fairness and justice has yet to come to the checked-luggage world.

Buying and repairing luggage

In the last few years I have bought most of my luggage at discount stores in the USA, like Walmart and Target. You can buy really fancy, nice, hardsided luggage, but it is heavy and expensive. And let's face it, luggage is meant to be used and sometimes to be thrown away if it gets damaged, as it inevitably does. I really like being able to buy a 4-piece set, including 3 rollable bags, for only 99 U.S. dollars at Walmart, and then not worry if it gets banged up.

Instead of throwing out your old luggage, you can give it new life by taking it to Töskuviðgerðin, at Ármúli 34 in Reykjavík (tel. 581-4303, open Monday-Thursday 10:00-18:00, Friday 10:00-17:00, closed Sat-Sun). I've gotten prompt and competent service there twice, and most recently paid a reasonable 1.400 kr. to have a bag of mine restitched.

If you come back to Iceland and find your bag was damaged through obvious mishandling, Icelandair and Iceland Express will let you file a claim and receive compensation. After the supports in my luggage were warped during a flight from Milan to Reykjavík, I brought it to Icelandair's offices at Loftleiðir, where I was given a voucher to bring the bag to Töskuviðgerðin. A few days later the bag was repaired and ready at no charge to me.

Taking the Boat: Norræna (and Eimskip)

There are four good reasons to take the Norræna from Seyðisfjörður. One is if you need or want to bring a car between Iceland and mainland Europe or the Faroes. A second is if you live in the eastern half of Iceland and are going to the Faroe Islands. It's easier to take the boat than to fly to Reykjavík and then onward. A third reason is if you are afraid of flying. And a fourth reason is if you simply like the idea of taking the boat, and don't mind the extra time and costs involved.

The biggest drawback to taking the boat is that it takes a lot of time. There's a lot of time on board: at least 48 hours from Seyðisfjörður to Denmark, and 48 hours back (more like 60 hours in spring and fall when the ship sails to Esbjerg). Then you spend a lot of time driving to Seyðisfjörður and also sometimes overnighting there while you are waiting for the boat. Some days, the boat leaves Seyðisfjörður at 20:00 and you are supposed to check in two hours before. You could drive all the way there the same day from Reykjavík if you leave early enough. But you will do better to drive there the day before, or to overnight along the way somewhere as it is a 681 km trip.

All in all, that means that the boat is not the best option if you just need to go to Copenhagen for a few days. Even those traveling from Reykjavík to the Faroe Islands are usually better off flying.

In 2009, Norræna is taking passengers to Iceland only from April through September. (In the winter of 2006-2007 they carried passengers to Iceland year-round, but decided to give it up after that winter.) The schedule has been rearranged this year so that the boat no longer sails to Norway or Scotland. The port of call in Denmark is Hanstholm from mid-June to late August; outside that time, it's Esbjerg. These changes are the result of a lot of soul-searching at Smyril Line after considerable losses in the operation of the boat. You can read a detailed discussion of the changes if you are interested.

Norræna's high season is between mid-June and mid-August. Prices decline significantly to either side of this. The price structure is a bit difficult to figure out. You have to sum several separate components: passenger transport, vehicle transport, cabin costs (svefnpokapláss is free), and a per-person booking fee. In the 2008 low season, taking two people and a car round-trip to Denmark and sleeping in svefnpokapláss costs only 58.000 kr. The same trip at high season in a two-berth cabin cost 196.200 kr. In general, you don't save much by leaving your car at home — the car costs only a little bit extra.

Norræna's Icelandic website is www.smyril-line.is, but there is fuller information, including photos of cabins, at the Faroese site www.smyril-line.fo. The Norræna has two Icelandic sales offices, in Seyðisfjörður (Austfar ehf, Fjarðargötu 3, 710 Seyðisfjörður, tel. 472-1111, austfar@smyril-line.is) and Reykjavík (Norræna ferðaskrifstofan, Stangarhyl 1, 110 Reykjavík, tel. 570-8600, info@smyril-line.is).

If you need a place to stay in Seyðisfjörður, here are two good options. Remember to reserve ahead for nights before and after the Norræna docks. The Hafaldan youth hostel, run by Þóra Guðmundsdóttir, is inexpensive. There are seven four-bunk rooms with a sink in the room and bathroom and kitchen down the hall (dorm beds 2500 kr, doubles 6000 kr, add 750 kr per person for sheets, discount for hostel members, tel. 472-1410, hafaldan@simnet.is, www.isholf.is/hafaldan). Hótel Aldan, in a historic nineteenth-century house, has nine rooms with bath (singles €110, doubles €145, breakfast included, cheaper in off-season, also ask about slightly cheaper rooms at the adjacent Hótel Snæfell; Norðurgötu 2, 710 Seyðisfjörður, tel. 472-1277, hotelaldan@simnet.is, www.simnet.is/aldanhf).

Many people ask whether you can go as a passenger on an Eimskip cargo ship. The answer is "yes, but not everywhere, and it's not easy or cheap." You can only travel from mid-April to mid-October; you can go only from Reykjavík to Rotterdam (Netherlands), Hamburg (Germany), Göteborg (Sweden), Århus (Denmark) and the Faroe Islands; and they cannot take more than three passengers at a time. And it's expensive (2008 rates from Reykjavík to Hamburg were €641 each way based on double occupancy). For more information, see www.eimskip.is/desktopdefault.aspx/tabid-59 or call Eimskip at 525 7800. Bookings are made through the Iceland Total website at www.icelandtotal.com.

Taking the train and the bus abroad

The great thing about using trains abroad is that they have good online schedule engines which makes it easy to plan ahead. Some train systems still have very simple pricing and, unlike airlines, mercifully relieve you of the need for a lot of complex thinking about how to game the system. Others, however (the USA, Britain, Sweden, and Germany, for example) have moved to airline-style pricing where you save a lot by booking early — and then you lose big with heavy change fees if you can't make the train you originally intended to take. Many travelers do well by buying one of the various railpasses that give you free or at least discounted travel for a given amount of time. Buses are also a good option. They are often cheaper than trains, and have simpler pricing. But it can be harder to find information about buses and there are not as many money-saving bus passes.

Train websites

For online trip planning in Europe — by which I mean anywhere from Ireland to Russia to Istanbul — my current favorite search engine is the Belgian one at plannerint.b-rail.be. It is clean, fast, and simple to use if you just want to look up times. I also use the German site (the quickest way to get it in English is www.bahn.de/international), partly since I have a username and password for it, which lets me order tickets to be sent to me by mail easily and conveniently.

Sometimes you get better information by going to the website of each individual country's rail system. To find it, go to www.railfaneurope.net/links.html, where you'll find links to the train timetables of first Western European, then Eastern European, and then all other countries (click on the flag in the "timetable" row; scroll down to find the country if necessary). Another good source of information on train travel in a given country is seat61.com.

It is becoming increasingly common to reserve and pay for train tickets online before you start your trip. Every country's website is in a different state of allowing you to do this — some don't, some do and allow you to print out your ticket yourself, some do but must mail you the ticket, and some do but require you to pick the ticket up at a station. I really like the convenience of being able to take care of my ticket before I get there.

Interrail and other railpasses

Buying a railpass rather than point-to-point tickets can save you money (depending on the way your trip is organized), and usually saves you headaches as well. Remember, though, that a railpass only covers raw transport. It doesn't guarantee you a place to sit. You still have to go through the bother of making seat reservations and paying for them. And you have to pay a supplement on fast trains, which eats into the savings that a railpass promises.

In Europe, the InterRail pass is the best known type of pass available to Icelanders. There are currently two flavors: the Global pass and the One Country pass. One-country passes are valid, as the name suggests, in only one country; some countries cost more than others. The Global pass is valid all across Europe — well, more precisely, in all of the InterRail countries. That includes the Balkans and Turkey, but excludes the three Baltic states, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and Albania. You can buy passes that are valid for 22 consecutive days, for an entire month, for 5 days out of a 10-day period, or for 10 days out of a 22-day period. Prices are lower for those who have not reached their 26th birthday on the first day of the pass's validity. InterRail passes have to be ordered online from interrailnet.com (shipping to Iceland is included in the price).

A few individual European countries also sell their own "one country" railpasses to anyone from outside that country, and these are sometimes a better deal than the InterRail One Country passes. For example, the BritRail pass (bookable via www.britrail.com) offers more options and is cheaper than buying an InterRail One Country pass for Great Britain. In Switzerland, www.swisstravelsystem.com sells passes which cover not only trains but also buses and city public transport. These passes are more expensive than the InterRail One Country pass, but they include correspondingly more.

An entire class of passes, mostly sold under the name "Eurail," are available only to non-European residents. If you are living outside of Europe (e.g. North America or Asia), you can buy these passes (go to www.eurail.com); if not, you can't.

Although it's oriented towards Americans and doesn't include InterRail, there's a very good guide to European railpasses available at the Rick Steves website. It has a lot of helpful information about how railpasses work and some maps which help calculate point-to-point fares for comparison. It's available both in HTML and PDF formats.

For the USA, Amtrak sells passes which cover eight, twelve, or sixteen "segments" of train travel. These passes must be used within a 15-, 30-, or 45-day period respectively. You use up a segment every time you board a train (or connecting bus), which creates an incentive to take long rides. Full details are on the Amtrak website, www.amtrak.com (click on Reservations, then USA Rail Passes). As Amtrak fares are low (especially with the 10% discount to members of auto clubs like FÍB), you need to do a fair bit of travel to make the passes pay for themselves. The pass rules are more complex than with European railpasses, and you have to make reservations for each trip. Unfortunately, unlike on European trains and like frequent flyer tickets, only a limited number of seats on each train are available to railpass holders, so the pass works best for those who can plan well ahead. Purchase the pass online (it doesn't matter whether you are in the USA or abroad); then you have to pick it up from a train station once you arrive.

If you are going to Japan, the Japan Rail Pass is a very good deal. Full details are at www.japanrailpass.net. You have to buy it before coming to Japan from a Japan Rail agent, such as Jalpak or JTB.

Buses

Buses tend to be cheaper than trains, and are the only option in some countries. But it can be hard to finding information about bus times and prices before you leave. Just because of the physical structure of train tracks, it makes sense to have one single centralized timetable database. But new bus companies sprout up every day, serving needs that change every year, and their routes criscross and vary with the seasons.

How do you find information on bus companies abroad? The best resource I've seen is www.busstation.net; choose a region and then a country from the menu bar and timetable sites are colored dark yellow. Some countries have comprehensive, multi-modal timetable sites that include bus, train, ferry, and public transport and those are quite useful as well (two good examples are Sweden and the Czech Republic).

Here are bus timetable links for a few major destinations:

Recently, low-fare no-frills bus companies have sprung up in many countries. Most require you to make reservations through the Internet. In the United States, the pioneer was Fung Wah (New York-Boston, www.fungwahbus.com), which offers tickets between New York and Boston for only $15. It has now been joined by DC2NY (New York-Washington, www.dc2ny.com) and Megabus (Northeast, Midwest and California, www.megabus.com/us). Megabus also has a British site: www.megabus.com/uk.

Car Rental Abroad

So the first thing you need to know is how to search. This is an area, like airline tickets, where sales have moved entirely onto the Internet. There's almost no mom-and-pop car rental market any more. You want to use the large Internet search engines, such as www.travelocity.com, www.expedia.com, and www.orbitz.com. I say that even though I don't like to use these sites to find hotels or airfares. But do use them for car rentals. What these kinds of searches will do is give you a price comparison of the major international car rental companies such as Hertz, Avis, Budget, Dollar, and so forth.

Once you've used the search engine to find the best deal for the time period you're looking for, take a minute to go directly to the website of the rental company (www.hertz.com, for example) and put in the very same query. Sometimes you will get a rate that is a few dollars lower or that includes more flexible conditions. And in general, buying directly from the service provider is better than buying through a middleman.

Search tips: Always ask for the smallest car you can get by with. Always look for a rental with unlimited mileage unless you're sure you won't drive it much. Rates are generally lower when rented by the week. If you are a member of an automobile club like FÍB, this can often get you a 5-10% discount. If you forget to put this into your online reservation, bring your card when you pick up the car.

Picking up a car at the airport is sometimes more expensive than picking it up in town, so if it's the same to you, pick up the car in town. You might not really need a car for your first night or two in a new destination. On the other hand, in some places (particularly in North America) the price of airport transportation has gotten so high that it is cheaper to rent a car to get to and from the airport than to pay a taxi. For example, when staying in Washington, D.C. for three days, flying in and out of Baltimore airport, I found that it was cheaper for me to rent a car from the airport and return it three days later than to pay the round-trip taxi or train-plus-taxi cost.

When renting a car, your deal will often be made or broken not by the basic price that the rental company offers you, but by the additional services that you need. Perhaps you need a child or infant seat, you want your spouse or friend to be able to drive the car too, or you want a "one-way rental" where you drop off the car somewhere else than where you rented it. This usually costs money. Or you plan to drive the car into another country and back before returning it: this is sometimes forbidden. If one of these issues matters to you, make sure to read and print out the full details of the car rental agreement and have it with you when you pick up the car. Sometimes the language in these rental agreements is unclear; don't hesitate to ask for confirmation from the company. Some rental companies will waive the charge for an additional driver (for example) for people who have joined their frequent customer club; join up if it will save you money. Or sign up for a "corporate account."

The custom in the car rental world is still that you don't have to pay anything in advance. That gives you the freedom to cancel up until the last minute or to no-show. Some companies have now started giving you a discount if you commit and pay ahead of time. But this discount is small, and I'd avoid paying ahead if you can, as plans often change at the last minute, flights can be delayed, and it's good not to be locked in.

Buy-back, sometimes called leasing, can be more economical than renting if you need a car for more than two weeks. French car manufacturers have offered buy-back programs for many years and accept Icelandic customers, but this works out best if you start and end your rental in France. Visit the websites of Peugeot Open Europe (www.peugeot-openeurope.com) or Renault EuroDrive (www.renault-eurodrive.com) for more details.

Collision Damage Insurance

Rental companies will offer you all kinds of additional insurance, and will repeat these offers, often quite insistently, when you pick up the car. Rental cars (at least in the countries I am familiar with) have to be rented with basic liability insurance, which covers damage to other people and other peoples' property that you might cause with the car, and this is included in the basic rental rate. So don't worry, you cannot rent a car without the required minimum insurance coverage. Of the kinds of extra insurance that the rental companies offer, the only one you should definitely consider is collision damage insurance. This is insurance which covers damage to the rental car itself, as well as, in some cases, the lost revenue to the rental company of having the car out of service while it is repaired. Not having this insurance means taking a fairly large risk, all the way up to the value of the car, and being constantly scared about damaging the car. So I recommend that you have this insurance. It is sometimes also called "loss damage waiver." In Icelandic, it's usually referred to as "kaskótrygging bílaleigubíls."

You can pay the car rental company directly for collision damage insurance. But often, a better way to get this kind of insurance is to pay for the car rental with a credit card that includes this insurance as one of the perks of having that credit card. In Iceland, only the most expensive credit cards cover collision damage insurance, such as the Visa Platinum Card, the Visa Gull- og Silfurviðskiptakort, and the Eðalkort Sparisjóðsins. The annual fee for these cards is high: for example, a Visa Platinum card from Netbankinn costs 19.500 kr. per year. The per-day rate for collision damage on a rental car can be around 1.500-2.000 kr. So if you rent a car for more than about a week a year, it might actually be worth it to pay the annual fee for a card that covers collision damage insurance, especially since these cards come with extra perks (like access to the Saga lounge at Keflavík). Note that many American gold and platinum credit cards also cover collision damage insurance, and have much lower annual fees, so if you happen to have an American credit card, use that. If you plan to rely on your credit card for collision damage insurance, make sure to read the credit card terms in advance; make sure to decline, in writing, the insurance offered by the rental company; and make sure to follow all the instructions precisely if you do damage the car. Most credit-card insurance policies cover only rentals that take place outside your country of residence and last 30 days or less, and most exclude luxury cars and as well as all rentals in a few countries.

Booking a place to stay

The cardinal rule of booking accommodations is that you should use as many search tools as possible to find a place to stay, but when it comes to actually booking, always buy from the source. You need some kind of searching tool to find hotels or other lodgings. This could mean a guidebook, a hotel website, a travel search engine like Expedia, a city tourism website, or even a friend's recommendation. But let the search tool be a search tool. Don't let it book a hotel for you (or a guesthouse, motel, campsite, or whatever). It'll just take a commission. The search engine doesn't own the hotel. The hotel owns the hotel. So contact the hotel and book rooms directly through them. (This is a good rule for other services as well, such as transport or car rental.)

If the price that the hotel offers is higher than what you found when searching, quote the price that you saw to them and ask them for it, unless it's from an outdated guidebook. If they refuse — which they usually won't — only then go back to the search engine and consider booking through the search engine. It does occasionally happen that hotels let their rooms go for less through a third party than they do directly. Most of the time though, it pays to eliminate the middleman and to book direct.

Avoid booking accommodation through any web site that refuses to give you the telephone number or website address of the actual property owner. This is a signal that they don't want you to know this information — usually so that you will be more likely to book through the web site and pay them a commission. Sometimes it is easy to to find otherwise hidden website addresses via Google, but sometimes, hotel booking engines flood Google with misleading links. Tip: If all else fails, look up the hotel's phone number and give them a call on the phone. (For links to foreign white pages, try numberway.com or google "XXX white pages" where XXX is the name of the country.)

What are the best search tools?

-- Guidebooks are still a good way to find a place to stay. A good guidebook will give you an easy-to-grasp overview of accommodations in a given location that will help you choose exactly what's best for you, and will include phone numbers and hotel web sites. On the down side, guidebooks get outdated quickly, and they can only include a limited amount of information, so the listings in popular guidebooks often get overbooked.

-- Tripadvisor.com and to a lesser degree booking.com are very good resources if you want to check out what travelers are saying about a given property. You can also search both sites by location to get an overview of your options in a given spot. Try Tripadvisor.com first, as it has more listings and a wider range of properties (B&Bs, etc.). The biggest problem with these sites is that they deliberately do not link to the actual website of the property you are looking at, because they earn money if you book through their site or the links on it. There's much talk in the travel world about the reliability of these sites, and surely reviews have sometimes been planted by establishments or their competitors, but I think that the bulk of the reviews are honest. Still, always take them with a grain of salt, and ignore the most positive and most negative comment listed.

-- The major web search engines, like travelocity.com, expedia.com,, and priceline.com are good for locating potential bargains in a given location, especially for hotels and relatively more expensive lodgings. They helpfully allow you to sort by price or precise location. Unfortunately, sites like Travelocity, Expedia, and Priceline also won't give you the phone number or actual web address of the properties that they list, because they want you to book through them.

-- Google Maps (maps.google.com) is often useful as an accommodations search engine, though I usually use tripadvisor.com or booking.com first. You can just type in "pension Berlin" or "hotel stansted" and it will return a list of lodgings and a map that shows their location. It returns less comprehensive information than other sites, but it is easy to read and includes phone numbers and website addresses. Google Maps is often a good way to get the website address and phone number of an establishment that is listed on Expedia, Travelocity, or TripAdvisor. Finally, the satellite images at Google Maps are a great way to check out what kind of neighborhood an establishment is in and see what the establishment sometimes doesn't want to tell you on its own web site.

-- Local and national tourist offices sometimes still maintain unbiased lists of hotels and guesthouses. Many of these organizations can be reached through the website www.antor.co.uk (the Association of National Tourist Office Representatives). Britain and Estonia are two countries which do this well. A caveat: some local tourist offices have been transformed from consumer-oriented public services which try to market their destination honestly, to agents that make money off of bookings. This gives them an incentive to avoid disclosing full hotel contact details or helping travelers compare prices.

-- If you are planning to use youth hostels, there's a list of all "official" member hostels at www.hihostels.com, while hostels.com includes many independent hostels as well.

Finally, three tips. First, always keep in mind that you can bargain for accommodations rates. In order to do this, you should have started a telephone or e-mail conversation with the establishment and normally you should wait for them to make the first offer. Then ask if they have anything less expensive. Second, always make sure to ask if tax is included in a quoted hotel rate. Often it isn't, especially in the United States. Third, many chain hotels in the United States and elsewhere have started offering lower prices for non-cancellable, non-refundable reservations. This is tempting, but carries risk, as it transfers the burden of insuring against unforeseen events from themselves to you.

Alternatives to the standard per-night model

Renting accommodations for a longer term (a week or more) is always cheaper. Even hotel and guesthouses that don't list long-term rates will usually lower their regular rates if you ask. There are a number of websites which specialize in long-term rentals. With homeaway.com or the "vacation rental" listings on craigslist.org, you deal directly with the owner of the property and should be very careful about how the transaction is handled (avoid sending money in advance, and if you must, always use a traceable method — not Western Union; make personal contact with the owner, at least by telephone, before finalizing the agreement). It is also possible to go through websites like interhome.com or e-domizil.de. These websites serve as agents for the owners, so you pay them, not the owner, which gives added security. But their listings are not as diverse and tend to be limited to resort areas.

More than 100 Icelanders are registered at couchsurfing.com, a website where people advertise their willingness to host other travelers from the site for free in return for being able themselves to stay on their own trips abroad. I have never been registered with Couchsurfing myself but I have met many people who swear by it, and who tell me that the website is designed to be very safe and that there is very little risk of getting into any kind of trouble by staying with the people involved.

Home exchange, where you agree with someone else to literally swap homes for a period of (usually) a week or two, is also a great option, though it takes some dedication to make it work. The website that people I know have had luck with is homeexchange.com (note the double "e"). You can browse the website for free, but you have to pay a modest fee (currently US $100) to actually set up an exchange.

Money

How to bring money abroad is one of the more important things to consider when you are planning a trip. Changing your money in the right way can save you a considerable amount. While it is rather difficult to pick the way that will absolutely maximize your savings, it's easy to avoid the methods where you lose big. There are basically three sensible ways to change Icelandic crowns into foreign currency: you can visit a bank in Iceland and buy foreign banknotes with Icelandic crowns, you can take money out of a bank machine abroad with an Icelandic debit card, or you can pay for purchases abroad with an Icelandic debit or credit card.

As I write, the Icelandic central bank has limited Icelanders' access to foreign currency. Those traveling abroad are only allowed to change 500,000 kr. per month into foreign currency, and there are various other hindrances. For the time being I am going to hope that these limitations are temporary and I am not going to describe them in detail.

OK, first the basic advice.

Never withdraw cash from a bank machine abroad with your credit card, as the fees are very high. Use your debit card. And if you want to buy foreign banknotes before you leave Iceland, get them at a bank in town, and not at Leifsstöð, where they will cost you an extra 1%.

The cost of withdrawing cash from a bank machine once you arrive abroad with your debit card is about the same as the cost of buying banknotes from an Icelandic bank, so there is no special advantage to buying cash in Iceland. However, the limits on your credit or debit card may mean that you'll want to withdraw any large amounts of cash at a bank before you leave the country.

Tips on paying with credit and debit cards: It's generally better to pay for as many purchases as possible with plastic. This guarantees you a reasonable exchange rate, and also gives you more security in case something goes wrong with the transaction. Whether you use your debit or credit card is actually not terribly important. In my experience, though, the Icelandic debit-card exchange rate is most often slightly better than the credit-card rate.

A note on per-transaction fees: In the United States, when withdrawing money from bank machines, the bank-machine owner often takes a fee of $1.50 to $3.00 for processing the transaction. If the fee is $2, a $30 withdrawal will cost $32 and a $300 withdrawal will cost $302. That means it makes sense to withdraw the largest possible amount at a time to make the fee proportionately smaller. (One of the explanations for this is that in the United States, bank machines are not always set up by banks but sometimes by private companies as money-making operations.)

A tale of four exchange rates

If you really want to understand the Icelandic exchange rate system, you need to understand that there are currently four different exchange rates used in currency exchange:

  • "Almennt gengi": the rate used for debit card transactions (and also for international money transfers). It can change up to several times a day, and can vary slightly from bank to bank.
  • "Seðlagengi": the rate used for transacting physical banknotes. It can also change up to several times a day, and can vary slightly from bank to bank.
  • "Kreditkortagengi": rates set by MasterCard and Visa (each has its own rate). It appears that the kreditkortagengi varies from day to day, but not within a given day.
  • "Miðgengi Seðlabankans": the "middle" rate set by the Icelandic Central Bank, which favors neither currency buyers nor currency sellers. You would use if you were exchanging money with a friend or for various tax purposes.

The actual exchange rates that a consumer receives are then calculated as follows:

  • Purchase of foreign banknotes at a bank in Iceland: seðlagengi + 0%
  • Purchase of foreign banknotes at Leifsstöð: seðlagengi + 1%
  • Bank machine withdrawals with a debit card, at Leifsstöð: seðlagengi + 1%
  • Bank machine withdrawals with a debit card, overseas: almenn gengi + 2%
  • Bank machine withdrawals with a credit card, overseas: kreditkortagengi + 2,5% (minimum 300-440 kr, varies from bank to bank)
  • Purchases with a debit card: almenn gengi + 1%
  • Purchases with a credit card: kreditkortagengi + 0%

Take a moment to study the list above. The relationship between the kreditkortagengi and the almennt gengi determines whether it makes better sense to shop with a debit or credit card abroad. The relationship between the seðlagengi and the almennt gengi determines whether it makes better sense to buy (for example) euros at a bank in Iceland or to withdraw them with your debit card at a bank machine in France. In general, the almennt gengi is only slightly more costly than the miðgengi Seðlabankans. Both the seðlagengi and the kreditkortagengi are usually somewhat more costly than the other two. However, this is not a hard and fast rule and there are sometimes considerable swings in the rates.

You can check all of these rates online: the miðgengi Seðalbankans on the Seðlabanki Íslands exchange rate page (www.sedlabanki.is/?PageID=7), the kreditkortagengi on the VISA exchange rate page (www.valitor.is, then "Kortalausnir," then "VISA gengi") and the MasterCard exchange rate page (www.borgun.is/mastercardgengi, or just www.borgun.is if you only want today's euro or dollar rate), and the seðlagengi and almennt gengi on your bank's website (for example, www.landsbanki.is/markadir/gengigjaldmidla).

If you need an exchange rate for a minor currency that's not listed on these websites, check www.oanda.com/convert/classic or www.xe.com/ucc.

Tipping

We should be proud of not having tips in Iceland. But restaurant tipping is common in the United States, Canada, and western Europe. Tips are NOT expected in Scandinavia, much of eastern Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. My experience is that there is no relation between whether tipping is customary in a given a country and the quality of its service standards.

In western Europe, restaurant tips normally do not exceed 10% and very often, you round up the amount you pay to the next round number. So if your bill is for €18.50, you can just pay €20. Often, you tell the service person how much you want to pay as you hand them the money. So for example, you might get a bill for €22, hand over €30, say "24," and receive €6 in change. If the restaurant menu says that service is included, there is no need to tip at all.

In the United States, tips are sometimes paid in cash and left on the table, but there is also a standard procedure for tipping when you pay a restaurant bill by credit card. After getting the bill and giving the server your credit card, you'll receive a credit card slip. This slip will show the subtotal and then there is a special line for the amount of the tip. It used to be that 10-15% was the norm, but now 15-20% is more common. Americans often calculate the tip as a precise percentage of the bill, but you don't necessarily need to do this. If you get a bill with a "subtotal" of $25.00, and want to tip 15%, that would be $3.75. Write $3.75 on the "tip" line and then the total of $28.75 in the "total" line.

There are a number of other circumstances in the United States where tips are common: for example, taxi drivers, hotel cleaning staff, bellhops who carry your luggage in a hotel, and pizza or restaurant delivery workers. Generally, travel guidebooks include tipping recommendations. For an incomplete guide to tipping customs worldwide, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tipping_by_region. It is very difficult to know when a tip is expected. If you accidentally insult someone by not leaving them a tip, don't let it trouble you. You can't hold yourself responsible for not knowing something that no one has told you about.

Those interested in tipping as a custom should look for Kerry Segrave's book Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities (1998).

Shopping abroad

Shopping has long been one of Icelanders' main motivations for foreign travel, even when access to foreign currency has been limited. The small Icelandic market, the high tariff barriers that sometimes seem designed to line local merchants' pockets, the high transaction cost of paying VAT on postal imports, and the lack of competition and selection in Icelandic stores means that it pays to use your duty-free import allowance to the full to avoid the high consumer prices in Iceland. Icelanders take empty bags out and full bags home.

This toll-free allowance is currently 65.000 kr. per person (32.500 kr. for children under 12). No individual item can cost more than 32.500 kr. You may not have more than 18.500 kr. or 3 kg of food. If you are over these limits, you pay only on the amount that is over, not the full value of the item. Of course, breaking these limits is practically a national sport, and customs officers at Keflavík are (rightly) more concerned about drugs than about books or cheese. But still, quite a lot of people are stopped and caught for exceeding these limits, so consider yourself warned.

You can find the full rules on the website of Tollstjórinn, including the alcohol rules, which are rather complicated.

I recommend buying alcohol on your return to Iceland at the duty free store in the airport, simply because it is so hard to transport liquids by air these days. I used to regularly bring in wine from abroad, taking my three-liter allowance in my carry-on luggage. Since the ban on liquids in carry-on luggage came into effect, I can't do that any more. That leaves checked luggage as the only option, and the higher checked baggage allowances coming from America make bringing liquids practical, but it is really chancy to pack glass bottles in your checked luggage. I'm tempted by the soft "Bot'lPak" wine bottle sleeves sold by BottleWise for $21.95 apiece plus shipping. But David Rowell, who writes the Travel Insider blog, gives them mixed reviews, the price seems high, and it's probably simplest just to make do with the alcohol selection at the duty-free store in Keflavík.

To minimize the time you spend shopping abroad, and maximize the time you have for business, sightseeing, or seeing friends, I recommend buying in advance of your trip abroad, over the Internet, and having goods mailed to your friends, relatives, business partners, or even just the hotel where you will be staying. I have done this frequently with books, music, clothing, stationery supplies, children's toys, and much more. Amazon in the USA (www.amazon.com), Canada (www.amazon.ca), Britain (www.amazon.co.uk), France (www.amazon.fr), and Germany (www.amazon.de) should be your first stop, but remember that there are many other good websites: www.bookfinder.com for used books in both Europe and North America; American clothing and outdoor equipment stores like www.campmor.com, www.ems.com, www.llbean.com, and www.landsend.com; and Canadian clothing and outdoor equipment stores like www.mec.ca and www.marks.com.

See the Keflavík airport section for advice on duty-free shopping at the airport.

Telephone, mail, and the Internet

It is really amazing to see how wide the range is that you can spend on a single phone call. Pick up the room phone in a hotel in the United States, or sit on the bed and use your GSM phone, and you may pay 100 kr. per minute to call Iceland. But the same hotel may offer you free Internet access, and using a VOIP program like Skype on your laptop lets you call Iceland for free. My experience is that it takes only a little bit of trouble, pre-planning and computer setup to save a lot of money. Many Icelanders' telephone costs are paid by their business, but this is not a very good excuse to settle for Síminn's and Vodafone's high rates. Tell your boss to look into cheaper means of communication.

The cheapest way to make international calls these days is to call over the Internet — assuming that you already have access to the Internet, which is becoming more and more the norm in hotels, workplaces, and cafes all over the world. If you are bringing a laptop on your trip, download Skype (www.skype.com) and bring a headset or a USB phone along on your trip. If you just want to talk to your family or a few select people back home, have them download Skype too. If you want to be able to make calls more widely, purchase Skype credit, which allows you to call any phone anywhere quite cheaply (to Iceland: €0.025 per minute to land lines and €0.237 to mobile phones).

Mobile phones are the best and worst of ways to stay in touch — you are always available, but the cost is high. The European Parliament passed the Eurotariff law in spring 2007, which mandated a ceiling on mobile roaming costs, and it finally became law in Iceland in November 2008. The cost for receiving a mobile call while you are in Europe has generally fallen to around €0.27 per minute, the Eurotariff-mandated level. But some other prices for calls in Europe (for example, from one other European country to another, like from Denmark to Sweden) is not yet Eurotariff-compliant. And the prices for making or receiving calls when you are in non-European countries can be extremely high. In some countries, like Russia, they are absurdly high. Check on the website of your mobile provider before leaving home. Also, sending and receiving SMS messages abroad, which was once cheap, is now surprisingly costly.

The one thing you should definitely do with your mobile phone when you go abroad is to turn off your talhólf (voice mail box). In fact, I keep mine turned off in Iceland too so I don't forget. The reason is that if you don't answer a call when you are abroad, or if you press NO to reject the call, it is routed to your talhólf. But for the connection to the talhólf you will pay the same cost as if you had dialed your talhólf from the country where you are right now. This means that rejecting or failing to answer a call can cost you hundreds of crowns, and even in the Eurotariff countries it will cost you real money. This is not a God-given state of affairs, and the phone companies could surely change it if they wanted, but for now they are making a lot of money off such mistakes.

Calling through the good old fixed-line system is still a fine idea in many cases. The problem is that you need to assure yourself that you are getting a good rate. One good way to do that is to buy a prepaid telephone card that assures you, in writing, a low rate for calling home to Iceland — or to anywhere else that you are planning to call.

If you will be in a foreign country regularly or for long periods, and need to call local numbers frequently, it still makes sense to buy a local prepaid SIM card for your mobile phone (or for a second phone). There's a guide to prepaid SIM cards worldwide at prepaidgsm.net.

In some countries, you may need a new phone. Most countries in the world use the GSM 900 and 1800 frequency bands. But some countries (the United States, Canada, and most but not all of Central and South America) use the 850 and 1900 bands. Japan and Korea use yet another system. For complete information, see www.gsmworld.com/technology/roaming/gsminfo/index.htm as well as a helpful article on the Travel Insider website. You can buy a cheap 850/1900 phone if traveling in those countries, or just an inexpensive quad-band phone that can be used everywhere (my unlocked Motorola V195 cost me $60, including shipping, in the United States). Before buying a tri-band phone, make sure you know which of the four bands it doesn't support.

Health and safety

Rules on repayment of medical costs abroad

Icelanders are lucky, in comparison to citizens of some other nations, in having a robust national health insurance system that also reimburses Icelanders' health costs if they become suddenly ill while abroad. The system differs depending on whether you are in an EEA country or outside the EEA, and it also differs depending on whether you are an Icelandic citizen or an Icelandic non-citizen resident.

The simplest case is if you are an Icelandic citizen who becomes ill in another EES country (including Switzerland). You are entitled to the same standard of care, from the public health insurance system of the country you are in, as residents of that country would be. These rules also apply to citizens of other EES countries (such as Poland or Germany) who are residents of Iceland — in other words, if you are Polish and live in Iceland, but get ill in France, you are entitled to care from the French public health insurance system.

In order to make it as easy as possible to demonstrate your right to this benefit, you should apply for a European Health Insurance Card (Evrópskt sjúkratryggingarkort) from Tryggingastofnun using the link on their web site: www.tr.is/sjalfsafgreidsla/evropskt-sjukratryggingakort. Note that in my experience, doctors in Europe may ask you to pay for services upfront because they don't want to bother with the paperwork necessary to get reimbursed. When six-month-old Jakob was sneezing and coughing in Italy and we brought him to a doctor, he asked us for €60 for the visit, we paid it happily, and never bothered to try to get it reimbursed.

If you are traveling outside Europe, for example to the USA, a different, but also fairly generous system is in place. Tryggingastofnun will reimburse your medical costs overseas, up to certain limits. Tryggingastofnun calculates the cost of similar medical care here in Iceland and you receive full reimbursement up to this limit. For all costs beyond that limit (umframkostnaður), you receive 50% reimbursement for costs up to 75.000 kr., 75% reimbursement for costs of 75.000 to 10.000.000 kr., and 90% reimbursement for costs over 10.000.000 kr. For pensioners, students, and students' families, these proportions increase to 75%, 90%, and 100% respectively.

You must pay your expenses upfront, and then submit a claim, using the form called "Umsókn um endurgreiðslu erlends sjúkrakostnaðar."

There is very little further information on this process on the website of Tryggingastofnun. The best source of information is the underlying regulation #281/2003 as published in Stjórnartíðindi: "Reglur um endurgreiðslu kostnaðar vegna veikinda eða slysa erlendis."

Non-EES citizens resident in Iceland — for example, Americans who reside in Iceland but are not Icelandic citizens — cannot receive a European Health Insurance Card. They can, however, still get reimbursed by Tryggingastofnun for their medical expenses abroad (whether within in Europe or not).

Anyone covered by the Icelandic health system who is planning to travel outside of the EES, as well as non-EES citizens resident in Iceland and planning to travel within Europe, will do well to get a certificate from Tryggingarstofnun that they are covered by the Icelandic health care system. (Some American hospitals, for example, demand proof of insurance before admitting a patient.) The application form for this certificate is at www.tr.is/media/eydublod/dvolerlfrinamofl.dot.

A few important points if you need medical care abroad and expect to apply for reimbursement:

  • You can only be reimbursed for urgent care — something that really, truly couldn't wait until your return.
  • Your care should have been in a public hospital (in countries where this concept applies), unless you were brought unconscious to a private hospital, or otherwise had no option other than to receive care in a private hospital.
  • It is good to ask for documentation of your diagnosis and to submit this documentation with your application for reimbursement.
  • There is a clause in the reglugerð which mentions a 15.000 kr. deductible for reimbursement of care within Europe. (This doesn't completely make sense to me if European care is handled on a reciprocal basis with no cash changing hands between countries, and I haven't quite gotten to the bottom of this yet.)
  • If your expenses will be considerable or if you will stay for a long time in hospital, the regulations say that you need to notify Tryggingarstofnun.

All the major Icelandic insurance companies, such as VÍS, Sjóvá, and TM, offer additional travel insurance, and sometimes you may find that this coverage is already included in your existing insurance policy. As well, some Icelandic credit cards also include travel insurance. I am planning to make a fuller study of the travel insurance market in Iceland in 2009 — look for more information in the Ferðastofan newsletter.

If you are planning travel to countries where vaccinations are advised, consider making an appointment with Ferðavernd, at Mjódd in Reykjavík (tel. 535-7700), which offers both the injections themselves as well as advice on which ones are necessary. Go several weeks before your trip so that the injections have time to take effect.

Compared to residents of many other countries, Icelanders should be proud of working together to offer each other a robust and comprehensive health insurance system where they insure each other both at home and abroad. In other countries — Britain for example — the health system does not reimburse costs abroad, and insurance companies have jumped into the market with confusing and heavily advertised "travel insurance" products whose sales pitches strike fear into the hearts of travelers and whose agreements contain miles of small print. Icelanders should feel lucky to have the efficient and consumer-friendly system that is currently in place.

Safety

We all know that Iceland is far from a crime-free society, and that there is plenty of theft, vandalism, and petty crime here. But still, things in many countries in the world are much worse. When traveling, you need to see the world through slightly more cynical and paranoid glasses than you do here in Iceland. Don't leave your luggage or your laptop lying around in, say, a hotel lobby or on a bus seat. Think twice when someone approaches you and asks you to buy something, or help them, or share money that they have found: many classic scams start this way.

Pickpockets are very common in crowds and on public transportation in many cities. There is one virtually foolproof way to avoid having your money and passport stolen: keep most of it in a money belt. Your money belt is worn underneath your pants, and although it does make you look a bit fatter than you really are, it is almost impossible for thieves to get at. I have worn a money belt for years. I still carry a wallet, but it only holds the money that I need for the day.

Also, make sure to keep one or two credit cards or debit cards in a separate place from your main card — perhaps buried in your luggage somewhere. If your main cards are lost or stolen, that means you always have a backup.

Visas and passports

Icelandic citizens need no visa to travel in most European countries, Russia and Belarus being the exceptions. Among the most common tourist destinations which require visas from Icelandic citizens are Egypt, Georgia, India, China, Cuba, Laos, Nepal, Panama, and Vietnam. Australia and the USA require a travel authorization which they don't like to call a visa, though it is a sort of mini-visa when you get right down to it. Canada does not require a visa from Icelanders. The Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintains a very good list of visa requirements on the website www.utanrikisraduneyti.is/borgarathjonusta/Vegabrefsaritanir.

Technically, Icelanders don't need a visa for short personal visits to the United States, but they do have to have a "travel authorization" which one applies for on the Internet. The application must be filed at least 72 hours before arrival, but there is no reason not to apply long before that, because the authorization is valid for two years. The application web site is in many languages, Icelandic among them. To apply in Icelandic, go to esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/esta.html?language=is; you can also, of course, apply in English. The system basically asks for the same information that travelers have previously had to provide on the green forms on arrival.

If you are abroad and lose your Icelandic passport, what do you do? According to the Ministry of Justice's passport website (www.vegabref.is), you need to visit an Icelandic embassy (sendiráð), or failing that the office of any Icelandic consul (ræðismaður). They can issue a temporary passport (neyðarvegabréf) which is enough to get you home. Once you are back in Iceland you can apply for a new permanent passport. For a list of Icelandic embassies and consuls abroad, see www.utanrikisraduneyti.is/sendi-og-raedisskrifstofur/islenskar.

COPENHAGEN

Walking tours and guidebooks especially for Icelanders: Guðlaugur Árason runs the Islands Center in Copenhagen (+45 2190 8207, www.islandscenter.dk, loppan@simnet.is). He offers walking tours of Copenhagen once a week during certain summer months, and publishes several guidebooks to Copenhagen (in Icelandic). The most recent are Kaupmannahöfn — ekki bara Strikið, a collection of ten walking tours (2006), and Gamla góða Kaupmannahöfn (2005).

Jónshús is a social center for Icelanders in Copenhagen and has various events and meetings posted on its website (Øster Voldgade 12, www.jonshus.dk).

Here are some Icelandic-run guesthouses in Copenhagen (also check the links that Guðlaugur Arason maintains on his website):

  • Gistiheimilið Halldóru in Hvidovre (western suburbs), run by Halldóra Jóna and Alma Dögg, offers free parking and a big backyard, close to an S-tog line; the rooms share three bathrooms (single 450 DKK, double 500 DKK, triple 600 DKK, quad 700 DKK, 100 kr cheaper Nov-Mar if you stay at least 2 nights, no breakfast, Hvidovrevej 374, tel. +45 3677 8886, GSM +45 2460 9552, www.gistiheimilid.dk, email@gistiheimilid.dk).
  • Lavilla Guesthouse in Sundbyvester (southern suburbs) near both bus and metro connections to the center, is run by Vilborg Ingvaldsdóttir and has 8 rooms, all but one with shared bathrooms (singles 300 DKK, doubles 400 DKK; Nov-Mar singles 250 DKK, doubles 350 DKK; 1 more expensive suite sleeps up to 6 and has its own bathroom; no breakfast; Røde Mellemvej 16, tel. +45 3297 5530, GSM +45 2848 8905, www.lavilla.dk, lavilla16@hotmail.com).
  • Næturgisting Jónasar og Helenar, very close to the airport but beyond walking distance from the terminal, has two apartments for rent. Each has a bedroom with a double bed and two bunk beds, a kitchen, private bathroom, and private entrance; it's a 22-minute bus ride into the center (single/double 500 DKK, triple 600 DKK, quad 700 DKK, 100 DKK more for one-night stays, less Sept-Mar or for longer stays, free wireless Internet access, Højskole alle 11, 2770 Kastrup, tel. +45 3110 6412, www.sitecenter.dk/jonaso, jonasis@mail.dk).
  • Volosvej 15, run by Sigrún Óskarsdóttir, is in Amager, about 20 minutes by bus from the center on the way to the airport. It has three double rooms with shared bath for 400 DKK and one double room with private bath for 500 DKK (free wireless Internet, Volosvej 15, 2300 Köbenhavn S, tel. +45 32 58 29 58, GSM +45 26 18 29 58, www.volosvej.dk, sannur@sport.dk).
  • Herbergi.dk, also in Amager, has doubles with shared bath for 400 DKK (Nov-Feb 350 DKK, 3 rooms, free wireless Internet, no breakfast, minimum two-night stay, Jansvej 39, tel. +45 3542 2942, ivar@pc.dk). It's a 20-minute bus ride to the center.
  • Gisting.dk offers two nicely situated but small (50 m2) and rather expensive apartments on Magstræde very close to Strøget. The website says that each apartment can sleep five, but the apartments look small in the photos (1500 DKK, Nov-Feb 1200 DKK, 3-night minimum, tel. +45 3694 6700, gudni@post.tele.dk).

Lodging near the airport: The only hotel that's directly at the airport is the Hilton Copenhagen Airport, but rates start at about 1700 DKK per night for a double without breakfast (Ellehammersvej 20, +45 3250 1501, reserve through www.hilton.com or try to get a cheaper rate through one of the big search engines). To reach the large Quality Hotel Airport Dan, you have to cross the expressway over a pedestrian bridge and then walk several blocks north of the airport, about 15 minutes in total. Reviews on TripAdvisor suggest that it is a fallback choice rather than a hotel to look forward to, but it does have more reasonable rates and is closer to Kastrup than some other hotels billing themselves as "airport." I found double rooms without breakfast offered for roughly 800-1000 DKK on their website, cheaper if you are willing to make a non-changeable, non-refundable reservation (Kastruplundgade 15, +45 3251 1400, http://www.choicehotels.no/hotels/hotel?hotel=DK021).

If you want a hotel, you may do better by taking the Metro or a cab from the airport to cheaper hotels downtown or in other suburbs. One very inexpensive city center option is the 350-room Cab Inn City at Mitchellsgade 14, right near Tivoli and the train station (singles 545 DKK, doubles 675 DKK, tel. +45 3346 1616, www.cabinn.dk, city@cabinn.com).

Kastrup Airport website: www.cph.dk. The new Metro runs between the airport and downtown.

Copenhagen transport info: www.dsb.dk, or www.m.dk for the Metro.

LONDON STANSTED

The easiest thing to do is to book yourself into the 500-room Radisson SAS London Stansted Hotel, which is connected to the terminal by a covered walkway. Staying here requires absolutely no thought or bother, although it is not particularly cheap. The lowest room prices usually run about £99-109 for one or two people, not including breakfast, and make sure to note any cancellation penalties. (Waltham Close, London Stansted Airport, Essex, CM24 1PP, England, +44 1279 661012, info.stansted@radissonsas.com, www.stansted.radissonsas.com).

There are many smaller places near Stansted that offer lower prices and varying degrees of help getting travelers back and forth to the airport. You can't get any closer than the several small B&Bs in the village of Takeley, just over two kilometers from the terminal building. Here are three which I have either heard good things about or seen good reviews for:

  • Pussy Willow has 3 rooms, all with private bath (singles £40-50, doubles £50-60, breakfast included, internet access, credit cards accepted, free pickup at airport; Mill House, The Street, Takeley, Nr Bishops Stortford, CM22 6QR, +44 1279 871609, enquiries@thepussywillow.co.uk, www.thepussywillow.co.uk).
  • High Trees Bed & Breakfast has 4 rooms, one with private bath (singles £35, doubles £49-55, breakfast included, cash only, free internet access; Parsonage Road, Takeley, Essex CM22 6QX, +44 1279 871306, mobile +44 7767 431491, jeanhightrees@aol.com, www.stansted-bandb.co.uk).
  • Oak Lodge Luxury Bed & Breakfast has 3 rooms, all with private bath (singles "from" £50, doubles "from" £60, cash only, internet access, about 1 km outside Takeley village; Jacks Lane, Stansted, Hertfordshire CM22 6NT, +44 1279 871667, mobile +44 773 451 6995, oaklodgebb@aol.com, www.oaklodgebb.com).

A second choice: I have stayed at Phoenix Lodge, a functional 11-room guest house run by Hamid and Zalma in Bishop's Stortford, very close to the airport. It's a £1.80 bus ride or £12 taxi ride from the terminal. Phoenix Lodge is not especially cozy but it does the job, as long as you are sure of being able to check in before 23:00, when they lock up tight (singles with bath £39-50, doubles with bath £55-59, triples and quads £59-75, add 2% for credit cards, 2 singles without private bath available at lower prices, last check-in 23:00, packed breakfast included, wireless Internet, 48-hour cancellation policy; 91 Dunmow Road, Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire, CM23 5HF, +44 1279 659780, bookings@phoenixlodge.co.uk, www.phoenixlodge.co.uk).

The website http://londontoolkit.com/travel/stansted_hotels.htm lists a number of further options.

Stansted Airport website: www.stanstedairport.com

Getting to and from Stansted: The Stansted Express train is right under the terminal gets lots of press (£18 one-way), but taking the bus into London is no less convenient and much cheaper (£10.50 to Victoria Station with National Express, £9 with Terravision, round-trip discounts, check the airport website for other operators too).

LONDON HEATHROW

As usual, going a little off-airport gets you reasonable accommodations deals. The website http://londontoolkit.com/travel/heathrow_hotels.htm is especially useful in reviewing Heathrow hotels and explaining how to get to them by bus, Tube and taxi.

The 364-room Jurys Inn Heathrow is easy to get to from the airport and, though isolated, convenient for those planning to go into the city during their stay. Their website explains several simple ways to go by Hoppa H9 shuttle bus (£4), public bus #285 (free), or tube from the airport to the hotel. Singles and doubles go for around £70. From the hotel it is a 3-minute walk to the Hatton Cross underground station; note that the hotel isn't visible from the station (Eastern Perimeter Road, Hatton Cross, Hounslow, Heathrow TW6 2SR, England, +44 20 8266 4664, heathrowhotels.jurysinns.com).

A smaller family-run place in a village setting close to the airport is Harmondsworth Hall, a 12-room guesthouse with singles for £70 and doubles for £80 (all with private bath and breakfast). It's an an £8-9 taxi ride from Heathrow and they recommend that you call the local taxi company at +44 1895 444333 rather than using Heathrow taxis (Summerhouse Lane, West Drayton UB7 0BG, England, +44 208 759 1824, elaine@harmondsworthhall.com, www.harmondsworthhall.com). This is a decent option for those with a rental car, but not the best for those planning to spend time in London, as public transport into the city involves a bus to West Drayton and then a suburban train from there to Paddington Station (a 1-hour trip).

There are two expensive hotels directly connected to the terminal buildings at Heathrow. The Hilton London Heathrow is connected to Terminal 4. Expect to pay at least £170 a room (+44 208 759 7755, www.hilton.co.uk/heathrow). The 605-room Sofitel is connected to the new Terminal 5 and rooms are in the £150 range without breakfast: (+44 208 757 7777, www.sofitelheathrow.com). Both these hotels discount these rates somewhat if you are willing to pay in advance and waive any right to cancel.

Heathrow Airport website: www.heathrowairport.com

Getting to and from Heathrow: Even though it's slow, the London Underground is by far the cheapest way to get to Heathrow and stops at all terminals (roughly £4 to get to your choice of downtown stations, compared to around £15 for the Heathrow Express to Paddington). Note that Underground trains alternately skip Terminal 4 or Terminal 5.

BERLIN

With Icelandair and Iceland Express flying to Schönefeld Airport, Berlin is becoming more and more of an important way station for Icelanders traveling abroad.

There is no hotel directly on the Schönefeld airport grounds, not yet at least. An acceptable nearby hotel is Hotel Albergo Schönefeld, which is only a 5-10 minute walk from the terminal; if you exit towards the S-Bahn station, you'll want to walk left (southwest) along the main road parallel to the S-Bahn tracks. Doubles are advertised at €79, breakfast €7.50 extra per person, but look for cheaper deals through search engines and hotel booking websites. The hotel is between the S-Bahn line and a busy road, so not a great place to sleep with your window open (Wassmanndorfer Chaussee 2, +49 30 634 840, www.albergo.de).

Another option is the 151-room Leonardo Airport Hotel Berlin Schönefeld. It's more expensive and beyond walking distance from the airport, but advertises a free shuttle bus, and is set right by the Grünbergallee S-Bahn stop (doubles around €109, breakfast €10 per person, but look for cheaper rates online; Schwalbenweg 18, +49 30 679 020, http://www.leonardo-hotels.com/Airport_Berlin_Schoenefeld_Hotel).

The S9 S-Bahn line runs directly from Schönefeld through the center of Berlin. I still like to stay at the small hotels and pensions around the Savignyplatz stop, near Bahnhof Zoo in what used to be West Berlin. My old favorite — I've stayed here many times both with group tours and on my own — is Pension Peters, which is run by Annika and Christoph Steiner, a Swedish-German couple. They offers singles for €58 and doubles for €78 (they also have a few rooms with private shower but shared toilet which cost less; Kantstrasse 146, +49 30 312 2278, info@pension-peters-berlin.de, www.pension-peters-berlin.de).

Schönefeld Airport website: www.berlin-airport.de (this also covers Tegel airport). Note that only local and regional trains stop at the Schönefeld station, so for fast trains you need to connect at Berlin Hauptbahnhof.

FRANKFURT

If you need to overnight at Frankfurt airport, first remember that it's a really easy and quick trip from the airport S-Bahn station to Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof (main station), which is ringed by reasonably priced hotels. Also, Frankfurt airport is directly linked into the German long-distance train system, so within an hour's train journey you can be in a more interesting place to overnight.

In the village of Kelsterbach, which is just across the expressway from the airport, I recommend the quiet, respectable, 36-room Airport Hotel Tanne, in a residential neighborhood (singles €62-68, doubles €82-90, prices rise to €85 and €120 during conventions, breakfast €10 per person, Tannenstrasse 2, 65451 Kelsterbach-Süd, +49 6107 9340, info@airporthoteltanne.de, www.airporthoteltanne.de). Hourly bus 73 from the airport stops near the hotel (about 5-10 minutes' walk away) but it's probably best to call a local Kelsterbach taxi at +49 6107 4141 to come get you (other cabbies don't like taking such small fares from the airport). The Kelsterbach S-Bahn station is one stop from the airport on lines 8 and 9 (direction Mainz), but from the station it's a 15-minute walk to the hotel.

The only hotel actually at the airport is the ridiculously expensive 1000-room Sheraton Frankfurt Hotel & Towers (+49 69 69770) which is connected by bridges to the upper levels of Terminal 1.

Frankfurt Airport website: www.airportcity-frankfurt.com.

PARIS

Icelanders heading to Paris should definitely check out the website www.parisardaman.com — it is run by Kristín Jónsdóttir, who lives in Paris with her French husband and two children. Krístin offers guided walks of Paris in Icelandic (regularly in summer). Her website has lots of information about everything Icelandic in Paris, good accommodations listings for Paris, and links to houses for rent by Icelanders in the French countryside. Kristín also has an e-mail newsletter. Those heading further south in France might also like to look at frakklandsferdir.is, run by Louisa Stefanía Djermoun and Arnaldur Haukur Ólafsson, who organize travel in Languedoc-Roussillon.

There are many decent, respectable hotels in central Paris which charge €80-90 for a good double room with bath and breakfast. There are a lot of good recommendations at www.parisardaman.com.

For those needing a place to stay near the airport, I have had good luck with the Premiere Classe Villepinte Parc des Expositions — although I have to warn you that it's not for everybody and especially not for the status-conscious. At €26 for a room with private bath and free wireless Internet access in the lobby, it was almost unbelievably cheap, and it's located across the street and down about 100 meters from the Parc des Expositions stop on the RER B (the stop before the airport). I wouldn't pay extra for the breakfast, which was very spartan. Of course this is a bare-bones hotel with no luxuries, so if you want luxury, stay elsewhere. The website is www.premiereclasse.com/hotel/en/FRA22131.htm. There are many very inexpensive hotels in France and other budget hotels in Paris can be found through the major search engines, such as priceline.com.

TÓRSHAVN (FAROE ISLANDS)

The Norræna's new 2009 schedule means that travelers from Iceland no longer have an enforced stopover in the Faroes on their way to or from Denmark, but the schedule is still set up so that during part of the year — mid-June to late August — travelers between Iceland and Denmark can stop in the Faroes for two or three days. In spring and fall one can only stay for an entire week. The website at www.faroeislands.com has lots of general information for visitors.

If you want a hotel: Hotel Streym, a new 26-room hotel along the coast a short walk north of the center, looks to be a good value (singles DKK 695, doubles DKK 995, less outside summer, breakfast and Internet access included, Yviri við Strond 19, +298 355 500, booking@hotelstreym.fo, www.hotelstreym.fo). Alternatively, if you aren't worried about your budget, it's hard to beat the location of the harborside Hotel Hafnia.

For cheaper guesthouse and hostel accommodations in central Tórshavn, check out Bládýpi and Skansin, which are run by the same company. Bládýpi, on Dr. Jakobsensgøta, bills itself as a youth hostel and guesthouse and has 12 rooms with bath, 7 rooms with shared bath, and 3 hostel rooms with a total 24 dormitory beds. Skansin, on Jekaragøta, is a guesthouse with 4 rooms with bath and 15 rooms with shared bath (single DKK 600, with shared bath DKK 450; double DKK 800, with shared bath DKK 650; hostel dorm beds DKK 200; breakfast included in summer, kitchen facilities, internet access; Bládýpi +298 500 600, Skansin +298 500 606, www.hostel.fo).

There's also the campsite on Yviri við Strond from mid-May to mid-September (+298 302 425).

If you have a car, you can go farther afield, for example to the beautiful guest house and youth hostel at Gjógv (www.gjaargardur.fo).

NEW YORK CITY

So you're looking for lodgings in New York. In Manhattan, it's pretty tough. "Inexpensive" chain-hotel rooms with private bath tend to run about $200 (see, for example, www.applecorehotels.com). There are cheaper hotels, but some of them are skanky. If you're willing to share a bath, there are respectable options, and one place downtown which we have heard good things about is Larchmont Hotel — but even here, you're still looking at well over $100 for a double and $90-125 for a single (reservations accepted only by phone, no e-mails, breakfast included; 27 W. 11th St., +1 212 989 9333, www.larchmonthotel.com). The 600-bed New York City youth hostel is also wholesome and has rates as low as $32 a person, but it's a ways uptown (891 Amsterdam Ave. at West 103rd Street), and you may be sex-segregated (book through www.hihostels.com).

I suggest you look into staying outside Manhattan. Most New Yorkers don't live in Manhattan. They commute in from places like Brooklyn, Queens, and New Jersey. Relatives of mine have stayed comfortably in Queens at the 220-room Pan American Hotel, 79-00 Queens Boulevard (rooms about $115, www.panamhotelnewyork.com). New Jersey is another option: there are inexpensive hotels in places like Secaucus that are only a few minutes' bus ride from the Port Authority Bus Terminal (and as the crow flies, surprisingly close to midtown). One of these is the Plaza Motor Inn, with doubles for about $95 a night (www.plazamotel.cc). These are not fancy places and you should not expect your room to look like the Presidential Suite, and the bathroom may even need a bit of renovating. But in expensive New York, you should be glad just to have a respectable roof over your head. If you're looking for something Icelandic-run, try www.luxusheimagisting.com (one room with private bath for rent in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for $150 a night). Remember that if you buy a public transport pass, this will be good for Queens or Brooklyn too (though not New Jersey), so you need not pay anything extra in transit costs by staying outside Manhattan.

Frommer's guides helpfully puts its New York hotel listings on the web: www.frommers.com/destinations/newyorkcity. Unfortunately they only include Manhattan, not New Jersey or the other boroughs.

Sleeping near JFK Airport

If you just need a bed for a night between flights at JFK airport, you'll want to stay out near JFK rather than in Manhattan. Here are a list of hotels right around the airport that I've seen get above average reviews. Rates are generally in the $100-$150 a night range for a double. Shop around for the best deal, and check Internet search engines. These are large and impersonal hotels and one doesn't normally hear people describe staying around JFK as the highlight of their trip. My understanding is that all these hotels offer a free shuttle bus from the airport; however, you need to call for the shuttle to pick you up. Sometimes there's a free "courtesy telephone" in the terminal building which allows you to call hotels at no cost. Note that I haven't visited seen these hotels personally — this is based on Internet research.

  • Fairfield Inn Marriott JFK Jamaica, 156-08 Rockaway Boulevard, Jamaica, NY 11434, +1 718 978-3300, marriott.com
  • Courtyard by Marriott JFK, 145-11 North Conduit Avenue, Jamaica, NY 11436, +1 718 848-2121, marriott.com
  • Days Inn JFK, 144-26 153rd Court, Jamaica, NY 11434, +1 718 527-9025, daysinn.com
  • Hilton Garden Inn Queens/JFK, 148-18 134th Street, Jamaica, NY 11430, +1 718 322-4448, www.hiltongardeninn.com
  • Best Western Kennedy Airport, 144-25 153rd Lane, Jamaica, NY 11434, +1 718 977-2100, bestwestern.com
  • Holiday Inn Express At JFK, 153-70 South Conduit Avenue, Jamaica, NY 11434, +1 718 977-3100, ichotelsgroup.com
  • Super 8 JFK Airport, 139-01 Jamaica Avenue, Jamaica, NY 11435, +1 718 658-1866, super8.com

JFK Airport website: www.panynj.gov, then click on "Airports" and then "JFK."

Getting from JFK to elsewhere: The most common route is to take the AirTrain, which stops at each terminal, to Jamaica Station (this costs $5). At Jamaica Station, you switch to the subway, which costs $2. You'll need to buy a plastic MetroCard ticket. You can also take the AirTrain to Howard Beach station, which gets you onto a different subway line that's less convenient for most travelers. Diehard money savers should look into reaching JFK on the Q3, Q10, or B15 buses, which stop at JFK's Terminal 4. There's also express bus service into Manhattan for $15, and taxis are always available. If taking a taxi to Manhattan, make sure both you and the driver understand that there is a flat fare, currently $45 (tip and any bridge or tunnel tolls not included).

BOSTON

Boston is the quickest flight from Iceland to the United States. I have found changing terminals at the airport a bit difficult (you usually have to take a bus), and the selection of competitively priced connecting flights is poorer than at JFK. But it's still not a bad place to fly into. The Unofficial Guide to Boston & Cambridge, written by Harvard students, is an excellent online guide to the city.

It is not too difficult to find decent places to stay in Boston, convenient to public transportation, for about $100 a night (except during university graduations). An inexpensive 20-room place in the Back Bay district, specializing in rooms with kitchenettes that are also rentable at weekly rates, is Copley Inn (www.copleyinn.com). A highly recommended B&B south of the center by Red Line subway is the Carruth House (www.geocities.com/carruthhouse). Two decent guesthouses in Cambridge, walking distance from Harvard Square, are the Irving House (www.cambridgeinns.com/irving) and A Friendly Inn (www.afinow.com). A somewhat more expensive boutique hotel in Back Bay is the Charlesmark Hotel (www.charlesmarkhotel.com).

If you need to overnight at the airport and are willing to pay for convenience, the 599-room Hilton Boston Logan Airport is the only hotel which is actually connected to the terminal buildings. From terminals A and E, take the skybridge to the central parking garage and then the separate skybridge from the parking garage to the hotel. (Icelandair flies from terminal E.) From terminals B, C, and D, take the free bus shuttle. Double rooms start at around $200 per night (One Hotel Drive, Boston, Massachusetts 02128, +1 617 568-6700, www.hiltonfamilyboston.com/bostonlogan). (Note that the competing Hyatt Harborside hotel correctly proclaims that it is also located on the grounds of the airport. But it requires a shuttle to reach, and is no cheaper.)

If you need to overnight at the airport and want to save money, there are a number of cheaper hotels nearby which offer free airport pickup and dropoff. One that gets good reviews on the Internet is the 227-room Hampton Inn, with rack rates running around $150 for a double (230 Lee Burbank Hwy, Revere, MA 02151, +1 781 286-5665, hamptoninn.com).

Logan Airport website: www.massport.com

MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL

There is no airport hotel at MSP airport, but there are a number of hotels along the light rail line that leads from the airport to the Mall of America, which is a three-stop, nine-minute trip away (see www.metrotransit.org/rail). The trick is to find something that is relatively inexpensive and doesn't involve a lot of walking from the tram stop.

Here are two hotels which are directly by the Mall of America, at the end of the tram line. The Days Inn Mall of America, directly across from the Mall of America, is a no-frills place but stands out for its low prices (doubles roughly $80 a night; 1901 Killebrew Dr., Bloomington, MN 55425, +1 952 854-8400, www.daysinn.com). The Country Inn & Suites at Mall of America is also directly across from the mall and gets good reviews but doubles start around $130 (2221 Killebrew Dr, Bloomington, MN 55425, +1 952 854-5555, countryinns.com). Both hotels offer airport shuttles if you don't want to or can't take the tram, and both even offer shuttles to the mall if you don't want to or can't walk across the street.

MSP Airport website: www.mspairport.com

THE LAST PAGE

On this page I am collecting bits of useful information for Icelandic travelers which don't belong anywhere else.

ROME: Rómarvefurinn, www.romarvefurinn.is, is maintained by Kristinn Pétursson and is full of information about the city.

SCOTLAND: Inga and Snorri, who live in Glasgow, offer group tours, countryside walking tours, and other services for Icelandic travelers in Scotland (see www.skotganga.co.uk).

FRIEDRICHSHAFEN: This little airport, served by Iceland Express, is surprisingly convenient. You walk out of the terminal building and in a few steps you are right at the Friedrichshafen Flughafen train station. Though it's on a secondary line, there are direct express trains to Basel, Ulm, and Schaffhausen, from where you can connect all over southern Germany and Switzerland.