Iceland in 72 Hours: The Perfect Off-Season Layover on a Budget

Iceland is made to order for a two- or three-day layover on the way between North America and Europe — allowing a peek at Reykjavík, side-trips to the Golden Circle and South Coast, and a soak in the Blue Lagoon. There are many ways to plan your time, but after working on the first edition of our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook (with co-author Ian Watson), I came up with what was — in my mind, at least — the perfect way to see the highlights of that little country on a short timeframe. However, I had not yet had the chance to try it out.

Last October, my parents wanted to stop off for a quick “layover” look at Iceland on their way home from Europe. Could I offer them some advice? Challenge accepted! Not only did I craft the ideal itinerary, I quickly re-routed my own flight schedule home from Europe to join them in Reykjavík. Our goal was to get the best possible taste of Iceland in 72 hours, off-season, on a budget.

Spoiler warning: It worked like a charm. Here’s how.

Day 0: Welcome to Iceland

Touching down at Keflavík Airport, I have about an hour to get my ducks in a row before Mom and Dad arrive. I pick up our rental car with the cheerful assistance of the rental agent, who helps me figure out whether we need to take out extra insurance against blowing sand. (Hearing our itinerary and scanning the weather report, he says, “Nope — you should be fine!”) I load my bags into the car and wait at the baggage-claim exit, just under the sign advertising bus transfers into town.

My parents pop out right on time, and we drive through the twilight to our Reykjavík Airbnb. In early October, Iceland still enjoys nearly 12 hours of daylight (setting around 6:45 p.m.). But the sun doesn’t provide much warmth; driving through frigid, sideways drizzle on the 45-minute journey into the capital offers a foretaste of the days ahead.

Finding our Airbnb — tucked on the residential slope just below the landmark Hallgrímskirkja church, in the heart of Reykjavík — proves a bit trickier than expected, because the nearby streets are torn up. But eventually we ignore our GPS, plunge headfirst up a normally one-way street, and find convenient street parking right out front. (At just a buck an hour, and free overnight, street parking may be the best bargain in Iceland.)

A note about money: I’m saying that we’re “on a budget.” I mean a midrange budget —we’re not starving backpackers. The thing is, Iceland is very expensive. It’s easy to blow through a lot of money here. We spent just enough money to be comfortable and to use our time efficiently. If you’re truly on a tight budget, check out my Top 10 Budget Tips for Iceland.

On past trips, I’ve learned that Airbnb offers the best value for accommodations in Reykjavík — a bursting-at-the-seams city where hotels are in short supply, and priced accordingly. For the cost of a basic double room with a shared bathroom in a cheap-but-cheery guest house, you can rent a one-bedroom Airbnb apartment with a full kitchen, bathroom, washer/dryer, and living area. This trip’s apartment — a freestanding little cottage tucked behind a big apartment block — is exceptionally comfortable, well-equipped, clean, and cozy, for the cost of about $500 for three nights.

Heading out to explore, we discover the reason for all those closed streets: They’re installing radiator pipes beneath a busy roundabout, which will harness Iceland’s bounty of naturally superheated water to melt snow and ice in the winter.

We tiptoe past the construction zone, under cheery street art murals, to the only discount grocery store in the center: Bónus, hiding a block above the main shopping street at Hallveigarstigur 1. The store is packed with fellow budget-conscious travelers, stocking up just before closing time. While it may seem silly for our first stop to be the budget supermarket, the only alternatives downtown are the ever-present convenience stores, which charge double or triple — making this stock-up trip essential for sticking to our budget. We fill our shopping basket with enough skyr (yogurt-like dairy treat), rúgbrauð (dense rye bread), and saltlakkrís (salted licorice) to get us through the trip. For about $60, we’ll have breakfast, snacks, drinks, and a few basic meals to help defray the high cost of restaurants.

Before everything closes down for the night, I make two more shopping stops: I drop into the outdoor outfitter 66° North to buy a knit cap for the next few days (I can already tell that I’ll need it). At about $35, it’s double what I’d pay for a similar hat back home, but I can justify the expense by calling it a souvenir. Then I swing by my favorite pastry shop — the trendy, graffiti-slathered Brauð & Co. — just before closing time, to stock up on impossibly delicious Scandinavian-style sweet rolls to supplement tomorrow’s breakfast.

After unpacking our groceries back home, we go looking for a simple, filling, satisfying meal. We find it a few blocks away at Súpa, offering an appealing variety of affordable soups. For about $15 per person, we get a generous bowl of soup, home-cooked bread, and hummus or butter. Bellies full, we walk back home through the drizzle to get a good night’s sleep before our first big day trip.

Day 1: The Golden Circle

We awake to frigid, blustery weather. No, not blustery…hurricane-y. Ian Watson, the co-author of our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook (and longtime Iceland resident), once explained to me that for Icelanders, wind trumps all. They define “bad weather” as “lots of wind,” and “good weather” as “somewhat less wind.” Today? Today is a “bad weather” day. But at least the howling winds will clear out the clouds, providing us with occasional, brilliant sunbreaks.

Our plan is to drive that quintessential Icelandic day trip, the Golden Circle: a 150-mile loop east of the capital, connecting three big sightseeing stops (historic gorge, spurting geyser, spectacular waterfall) through a sampler platter of rugged scenery.

On a previous visit, I opted to begin my Golden Circle trip with a scenic detour, over the low mountain pass called Nesjavallaleið — and was glad I did. Ian had warned me that this pass can close due to bad weather as early as October. But today looks clear, and the sun is peeking out. What the heck? Let’s chance it. So off we head to Nesjavallaleið.

The Nesjavallaleið road was built to connect Reykjavík to a steaming geothermal plant, deep in the interior. And driving along that road, we follow a burly pipeline carrying scalding water to city radiators, taps….and those pipes buried under city roundabouts.

Pulling over to photograph some lonely sheep, grazing miles from civilization, we notice that the surrounding landscape has grown frosty. As we drive onward, gradually gaining altitude, the frost becomes flurries, and the flurries become snow. And by the time I begin driving up the road over the pass, my four-wheel-drive tires are sputtering over a few inches of uncleared snowfall.

We’re most of the way to the summit — we can practically see where the road drops down to snow-free lowlands. And we know that going back will cost us at least an extra hour of retracing our steps. Can we make it over just…a…couple….more…hills?

No. No, we cannot. Cresting the penultimate hill, we get out of the car and survey our options: If we proceed, we’ll most likely slide our way down this next incline — getting hopelessly stuck in a snowbank in the middle of nowhere, wasting a precious day awaiting rescue. Or we can turn around and face the music. The choice is easy. I execute a sloppy 12-point turn, then put the car in first and let it ever-so-slowly trundle us down the snow-covered road, inch by inch, tire tread by tire tread. Feeling our tires grip bare asphalt after that white-knuckle descent, we don’t even mind the lost time…we’re just happy to not be stranded. A mile back down the road, with that treacherous pass in the rearview mirror, we see a tour bus zooming past us, in the opposite direction, towards certain doom. We’ll spend the rest of the trip speculating whether he made it (no way) and how many of his passengers froze to death that day (I’m guessing 10, maybe a dozen?).

Circling back around to the main road, we make our way to the Golden Circle’s first stop, Þingvellir (or Thingvellir) — a national park filling a gorge where the European and North American tectonic plates are slowly pulling apart. Þingvellir was also the site of the AlÞingi — the great gathering of the original Icelandic settlers (peace-loving cousins of the Vikings), dating back to the ninth century.

Stepping out of the car, we grip fast to our car doors; on a day like today, the whipping winds can pull them right out of your hand and crashing into adjacent cars (at best) — or even pull them backwards on their hinges. Pausing in the shiny new visitors center to pay the parking fee with our credit card, we stumble upon a giant screen showing road conditions all over Iceland…yup, Nesjavallaleið is closed, all right. Next time, I’ll check the map before heading out. (Side-note: In Iceland, you can pay for just about everything — parking, bathrooms, a cup of coffee — with your credit card. Cash is rarely necessary and never preferred. On this trip, we experiment by not taking a single Icelandic króna out of an ATM — and it’s never once a problem.)

Bundling up, we venture out for a look at the Þingvellir gorge, with a death-grip on the viewpoint’s railing to avoid being blown into Iceland’s “tourist casualty” statistics. Then we walk down the gorge itself — with North America on our left side, and Europe on our right — to the site of “Law Rock,” the focal point of those early clan gatherings. Battered by wind, we decide a few minutes is plenty; skipping the optional detour up to a pretty waterfall, we hike back up to the full blast of our car heater.

We follow rainbows through the Icelandic countryside, stopping periodically to snap photos of the pint-sized yet majestic Icelandic horses — who hitched a ride with those original Viking Age settlers. We pause at the lakeside settlement of Laugarvatn just long enough to stroll along the steaming shoreline, where natural reserves of superheated water bubble up in little hot spots in the sand.

It’s lunchtime, so we stop at a hilltop dairy farm, called Efstidalur II. I dropped by here on a previous trip for ice cream, but Rick Steves — who passed through a few months before — tipped me off that they also had a great full-service restaurant upstairs. There we settle into a rustic wooden table, peering through windows into the barn below, where cows munch on hay. We dig into tasty and filling $25 hamburgers (reasonably priced by Icelandic standards)…followed by $5 ice cream cones, of course.

Next up: the geothermal field called Geysir, which gave its name to hot-water spouts worldwide. Hiking in from the parking lot, we’re drawn close to the giant, steaming pools that bubble and spurt periodically, foreshadowing a big eruption. We wait in the frigid winds, lined up with dozens of other icicle tourists, gazing expectantly at that giant hole, well aware that the big geyser shoots up “about every 10 minutes.”

We wait. And shiver. And wait. And shiver. And wait. The geyser gurgles a few times, spurting up a few feet into the air, as if revving up for the big show. But eventually the cold overwhelms our curiosity, and we retreat back toward the car…only to hear, moments later, a big eruption splash behind us. Oh, well. You’ve seen one geyser…

The final big stop on the Golden Circle — unlike hit-or-miss Geysir — never disappoints. Gullfoss’ name (“Golden Falls”) is particularly apt today, lit up like a spotlight by the warm late-day sun.

Pretty as it is, it’s still darn cold. We batten down the hatches, pull our hoods tight around our hot red cheeks, and gingerly follow the damp, slightly icy trail down for a closer look at the falls. Icelanders call weather that looks pretty, but feels not so pretty, “window weather” (gluggaveður)…and today was a classic gluggaveður day. But it’s worth braving the cold, wind, and mist to stand in awe of Gullfoss’ thundering power.

Completing our loop back to our Reykjavík home base, we enjoy late-afternoon gluggaveður views of Iceland’s cinematic landscape. If we hadn’t lost time with our snowy dead-end, we’d consider a couple of more stops: the historic church at Skálholt; a quick hike around the rim of the colorful crater called Kerið; or maybe even a splash in one of the various thermal baths in the area. But the sun is sinking low in the sky, so we make a beeline back home.

Still satisfied from our hearty hamburger lunch, we make an Airbnb picnic dinner out of our discount groceries. Then it’s early to bed, in preparation of yet another day of Icelandic day-tripping.

Day 2: The South Coast

We awake to a rare Icelandic phenomenon: Sun and minimal wind. In October! We can tell immediately that it’s going to be a delightful day for touring Iceland — without requiring nearly as many layers as yesterday, when we encased ourselves in just about everything in our luggage.

On our way out of town, we pay a quick visit to the landmark church crowning Reykjavík, the Hallgrímskirkja. After strolling the tranquil, austere, light-filled Lutheran interior, we pay about $10 apiece to ride the elevator to the top of the tower. The cute Monopoly houses of Reykjavík splay out from our feet, with cheery colors that pop in the bright autumn sun — offering an ideal visual overview of the sprawling capital. From the top of this tower, we can see the homes of two out of every three Icelanders.

Back down on earth, we hit the road for the South Coast. Ever since working on the Rick Steves Iceland guidebook — and offering lots of travel tips to friends and relatives making their own Icelandic stopovers — I’m constantly debating which of the two big day trips from Reykjavík is better. Yesterday’s Golden Circle drive was a delight. But today’s 230-mile round-trip South Coast foray will come with perhaps even more epic scenery. (That’s why we saved it for the better-weather of our two days.) I warn my parents that I’ll be polling them later about which they prefer.

From Reykjavík, we drive through sunny mountains down to the southern coastline, where the jagged Westman Islands loom like a mirage just offshore. (If we had another 24 hours, that’s where we’d spend it.) We pull over for a WC and coffee break at the Lava Centre in Hvolsvöllur, where the free exhibits in the lobby illustrate the tectonic fissures that run diagonally through the island — the cause of all that geothermal water and volcanic activity. (With more time, or with kids in tow, we might pay to tour the Lava Centre’s exhibits. But we have a lot of miles to cover…)

Pro hack: Mid-morning, we pass the turnoff for the spectacular Seljalandsfoss waterfall. But I recall from past trips that at this time of day, the grand cascade will be mostly in shade. We’ll stop, instead, when we pass back through here on our way home — when the afternoon light will be perfect.

Instead, we carry on to the next stop on our South Coast day, a little pullout in the shadow of Eyjafjallajökull — the volcano that famously erupted in 2010, halting European air travel. We snap a photo of the farmstead that you’ll see in all the famous images of that erupting giant — today slumbering again, under its snowy blanket.

Carrying on, near Drangshlíð, we come upon a pair of rocky, steep cliffs with cow shed burrowed into the sides. We pull over for closer inspection (obeying the local farmer’s polite posted request not to actually enter the rickety buildings) and find our imaginations tickled by such fanciful structures. They call to mind the Huldufólk — they mythical Icelandic “hidden people” who must be appeased by humans.

Next up is Skógafoss — yet another grand waterfall, this one perfectly lit mid-day. After ogling the rainbows that dance in the mist, we find a picnic table and dig into another round of our discount groceries for lunch. It’s sunny, warm, and still — stripping out of our windbreakers and feeling perfectly comfortable in just long sleeves, we’re struck by the changeability of Icelandic Octobers.

Onward to the glacier called Sólheimajökull. We park our car and scramble over a gravelly path about 10 minutes toward a glacial tongue that reaches down and laps at a brown lagoon bobbing with little icebergs.

The sign suggests that we proceed only at our own risk; while my folks head back (looping down along the lagoon shoreline, then cutting across the pebbly plain to the parking lot), I venture farther, carefully hiking up troughs that have been carved into the nearest appendage of the glacier. Shovels are standing by to add more grit underfoot for traction. Reaching the point where properly outfitted adventurers begin their cautious hike on top of the glacier’s icy slope, I double back and follow the muddy lagoon back to our car.

We’re getting low on gas — alarmingly low — but I know that there’s a gas station in Vík, just over the next ridge. A half-hour’s drive later, we pull into that N1 station…and discover that the power’s out and the pumps don’t work. We have maybe 20 miles’ worth of gas, but the next nearest station is 50 miles in either direction. We cut it too close. The guy at the next pump matter-of-factly tells us he’s been waiting there for two hours, and was told it could be hours longer.

Just as our idyllic day is about to crash down around us, the gas station attendant walks up, tears down the “out of order” sign, and flips the switch to reboot the pump. Phew! A few minutes later, we’re gassed up and heading back toward Reykjavík. The lesson: Never wait too long for gas.

It’s getting late in the afternoon, but a few more stops temp us to delay our two-hour return drive to Reykjavík. First up, we turn off for the black-sand beach at Reynisfjara, where otherworldly sea stacks loom just offshore, and mind-bending basalt formations are etched into the cliffs.

Next up, we take another turnoff for the looming promontory called Dyrhólaey. Our four-wheel-drive car makes easy work of the steep, chopped-up-gravel road to the top. Once up there, we bask in spectacular views in all directions — black-sand beaches as far as the eye can see, with the open Atlantic on one side, and glacier-capped volcanoes on the other.

Circling around the lighthouse at the promontory’s peak, we peer down into sea caves excavated by the pounding surf.

On our way back down from Dyrhólaey, crossing the causeway connecting the promontory to the mainland, we notice several cars pulled over. We join them and venture out onto the black-sand flats at low tide. The bright sun, low in the sky, casts miraculous reflections against the wet black sand — making us feel as if we’re walking on water. It’s one of those giddy encounters with nature that seem to happen far more here in Iceland than just about anywhere else. Our stroll across the glassy water is the ideal grand finale to our spectacular South Coast day.

But there’s still a long drive back home — mostly back the way we came. On our way through, we pull off for a better look at Seljalandsfoss waterfall, now perfectly illuminated by the late-afternoon sun. It’s getting cooler now, so we skip the exhilarating but very wet hike on the heavily misted path behind the waterfall.

Heading back toward home, we enjoy the last few moments of sunlight. We could head all the way back to Reykjavík for a late dinner. Or we could stop for dinner along the way — getting home later, but full. I think through my favorite options in this area. For microbrews and excellent pizza, we could stop off in the town of Hveragerði at Ölverk. But it’s likely crowded this time of night…and it is our last night in Iceland. Maybe something a little more Icelandic?

I suddenly remember a tip from my colleague (and Rick Steves’ Europe cartographer), Dave Hoerlein, who had told me about a memorable place to try the Icelandic delicacy humar. Somewhere between a little lobster and a giant shrimp, the humar is the top-tier foodie treat for Icelanders. We call ahead to book a table, then take a slight detour to the coastal village of Stokkseyri, where we have a humar dinner at Fjöruborðið (“The Water’s Edge”).

We’ve been watching our budget so far, but we decide to invest in a blowout, when’s-the-next-time-I’m-gonna-be-in-Iceland feast, ordering a copper kettle with humar tails luxuriously sautéed in garlic butter and spritzed with lemon, plus generous side salads. At around $160 for all three of us (including drinks and a shared dessert), we realize it’s not that much more than we’d pay for a quality seafood feast back home. Who says Iceland is demoralizingly expensive?

On our way home to Reykjavík, I conduct my informal poll with my sample size of two: Golden Circle or South Coast? When all was said and done, my folks say they preferred the South Coast — despite the longer hours in the car, the scenery was that much more spectacular and varied. But it’s hard to know whether the significant difference in weather is what put the South Coast over the top. They agree that either would be a satisfying, concise look at Iceland…but doing both was well worth the time. Why not?

Back at the Airbnb, we’re ready to turn in early. But then, as I’m out for a late stroll, I glance up in the sky and notice a shimmering sea of lime-green light. My previous visits to Iceland have always been in the summer; not only had I not seen the Northern Lights, but I’ve never even seen Iceland in the dark. So this is my first time experiencing the aurora borealis dancing over Iceland — faintly, but it’s there. I instantly grasp why those swirling lights capture travelers’ imaginations…they are mesmerizing, almost mystical.

Grand scenery, check. Waterfalls, check. Thermal springs, check. Humar feast, check. And now, Northern Lights…check!

Day 3: A Quick Look at Reykjavík & Soaking in the Blue Lagoon

Our flight home to Seattle is scheduled for 5 p.m. Working our way backwards, that means dropping our car off at 3, and reserving a slot at the Blue Lagoon (near the airport) at 1. That gives us until noon to see Reykjavík.

You might have noticed that our “perfect” 72 hours in Iceland includes very little time in Reykjavík. The Icelandic capital is a fine city and a wonderful home base, and there are some worthwhile sights to be seen here. But if all you have is two (or even three) full days in Iceland, they’re best spent in the spectacular countryside. You can still explore Reykjavík in the morning and evening — or, like us, do an “express tour” on your morning of departure.

With our morning in Reykjavík, we pack up our bags, throw them in the back of our car, lock up our Airbnb (and stick the key in the lockbox), and head out to explore the city. We stroll through the compact core of town, pausing at “The Pond,” the city hall (with its giant topographical model of Iceland — allowing us to trace the routes of our two day trips), the sleepy parliament square, and the historic core of town, with its colorfully painted, steel-clad houses.

Since it’s a Saturday, we swing by the indoor flea market, Kolaportið, just as it opens at 11. it’s a fun opportunity to browse secondhand Icelandic sweaters, ruffle through used books in Icelandic, and get in from the cold.

Another pro hack: Iceland’s famous “hardship foods” are rarely sold in restaurants, and when they are, they’re way too expensive (priced to gouge curious tourists). If you’re in town on a weekend (Saturdays and Sundays, 11:00 until 5:00), the flea market’s food section has free samples of unique munchies ranging from dried-out “fish jerky” snacks (harðfiskur) to the notorious “rotted shark” (hákarl). This infamous dish — which tastes like strong fish mingled with ammonia — is sold for about $10-12 in a few restaurants, or you can buy a little plastic tub for $5. Or, at the flea market, you can just sample a tiny little gelatinous jiggling cube on a toothpick — the most you will ever want to eat, I guarantee — for free. To cleanse the palate (and you’ll need it), a nearby stand dispenses generous free samples of licorice treats dipped in milk chocolate.

Leaving the flea market, we head back to our car, wave goodbye to Reykjavík, and drive 45 minutes toward the airport. We have one more Icelandic experience on deck: the famous Blue Lagoon lava-rock spa, nestled in a jagged landscape a short drive from the airport. Knowing we’d want only a quick dip, we’ve reserved for 1:00. In retrospect, 12:00 would have been a less rushed timeframe before our 5:00 flight. But as it turns out, our timing is ideal…today is not the day to linger at the Blue Lagoon. As we drive through the lava landscape, a howling sideways wind kicks up, pelting our windows with frigid liquid BBs and threatening to muscle our car right off the road.

We grab our swimsuits, bundle up, and walk from the parking lot to the Blue Lagoon entrance. The quarter-mile walk, through horizontal sleet, feels like climbing Everest. We’re soaked to the core by the time we get inside. But as soon as we change and lower ourselves into the opaque, hundred-degree water, we forget all about the cold and rain.

Except…we can’t really forget about it. Because the wind is skimming across the surface of the lagoon like a jet ski, swirling up substantial white caps that keep slapping us in the face. Our skin turns pink from being pelted by freezing rain. We try to ease the pain by smearing the free exfoliating silica goo on our faces. But it just gets blasted off by the rain.

Seeking a more relaxing experience, we find our way to a little cove, more protected by chunky rocks, and where thundering waterfalls offer an incredibly relaxing shoulder massage. (If only I could do this just before every transatlantic flight…) Periodically I venture out across the sloshing lagoon waters, swimming hard against the current, with frigid hurricane-force winds whipping refrigerated needles at my face. But I soon return to the relative tranquility of my protected cove. Usually the Blue Lagoon is an entirely relaxing soak — but today it feels like an adventure water park.

A word about the Blue Lagoon: It’s expensive (around $100 per person) and requires advance reservations. For these reasons, it’s not worth a visit for every traveler — particularly those on a budget, or those for whom a hot-water soak is not appealing. (For penny pinchers, Iceland has a whole world of municipal swimming pools, fed by natural thermal water that’s every bit as hot as the Blue Lagoon, for a tenth the price…but without the dramatic setting and spa elegance.) As for me, I’m a fan: Even under the worst possible circumstances, the Blue Lagoon is undeniably memorable.

After soaking, we head back inside, dry off, get dressed, and head to the airport. (Total cost for the three-day car rental: $250, plus one-and-a-half tanks of gas for about $120 total.) And before we know it, we’re heading home from our Icelandic layover — pleased as punch about how we’ve made the most of our limited time.

Despite sticking to a budget and traveling outside of peak season, we were able to bring home memories of a unique land that we’ll treasure for a lifetime. We’ll be back…and next time, we may be tempted to stick around even longer.


This is just one family’s 72-hour Iceland layover. But you could use it as a blueprint for a trip of your own, modifying it as you like. Step-by-step details for every last thing described here are laid out in the Rick Steves Iceland guidebook.

In the summer, things are more crowded (and more expensive), but the daylight is endless — allowing you an even better look at Reykjavík early or late.

And in midwinter, days are much shorter and roads can be dicey, making it more tempting to stay close to Reykjavík, or to book guided excursions to leave the driving to an expert.

If you’ve got 48 hours, pick just one of the day trips — I’d give a slight edge to the South Coast over the Golden Circle, but it’s a toss-up. With an extra day, add the Westman Islands. With yet another day, settle into Reykjavík. For more advice, see my posts on Icelandic itinerary tips and the best day trips from Reykjavík.

For more on Iceland, pick up a copy of our new Rick Steves Iceland guidebook; check out the blog series I wrote while working on the book; and watch my 75-minute Iceland travel talk.

2019 Discovery: Glacier Lagoons and Diamond Beach, Iceland

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Crowds got you down? This post is part of a series of 10 European Discoveries for 2019 — off-the-beaten-path gems where you can escape the tourist rut and find a corner of Europe all your own.

Iceland’s rugged, stunning South Coast can be seen on a long day trip from Reykjavík. But, as with many things in Iceland, those willing to venture farther are rewarded with even more spectacular sights. Beyond the casual tourists’ South Coast, about four hours from Reykjavík, sit two dramatic glacier lagoons: Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón. Formed where tongues of great glaciers lap at serene pools, the lagoons bob with giant chunks of centuries-old ice.

Visitors bundle up, pack into RIBs (rigid inflatable boats), and zip across the frigid, glassy water, weaving between icebergs and listening for the shotgun-like crack of new ones calving off the glacier.

Arguably even more stunning — just downriver from Jökulsárlón — is “Diamond Beach,” where those icebergs wash up on a black-sand beach in the last stage of their slow-motion journey to the open Atlantic. I was on the beach around sunset (in June, that means midnight) to watch hazy sunbeams filter through these glittering chunks of ice — gigantic diamonds scattered across an endless expanse of black velvet.

While there are plenty of reasons to invest an entire week in doing the full “Ring Road” drive around the perimeter of Iceland, these glacier lagoons may just be reason enough to extend your Icelandic layover.


Heading to Iceland? Here’s how to get ready:

1) Pick up a copy of our new Rick Steves Iceland guidebook.
2) Check out the blog series I wrote while working on the book.
3) Watch my 75-minute Iceland travel talk.

Top 10 Icelandic Experiences: Volcanoes, Glaciers, Puffins, and More

Rick Steves Iceland is one of just two Rick Steves guidebooks (along with Istanbul) that has its own “Experiences” chapter. That’s because here in the land of fire and ice (and puffins), visitors enjoy experiences they can’t have anywhere else. This post — the grand finale of my Iceland blog series — is a roundup of 10 Icelandic experiences you should not miss. As always, thanks to our co-author, Ian Watson, who taught Rick and me everything we know about Iceland. And thanks for following along with my series. Goða ferð!

Experience a volcanic landscape.

Westman Islands, Iceland

Iceland sits smack in the middle of the Mid-Atlantic Range, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are constantly pulling apart. This line — carving a lopsided “X” through the middle of Iceland — is where you’ll find Iceland’s many volcanic and geothermal sights, from the famous Blue Lagoon spa to the simmering plain of Geysir, and from to the geothermal sights around Lake Mývatn to Eyjafjallajökull (the volcano that halted European air travel in 2010). The odds of seeing an active volcano during your visit to Iceland are slim (but not nonexistent). However, signs of past volcanic activity — and ongoing geothermal mischief — are everywhere. Iceland’s best museum about volcanoes is in the Westman Islands: Eldheimar Museum, built around a family home that was swamped by liquid rock during a 1973 eruption, and left just as it was when they fled. Outside, you can hike along a jagged ridge, noticing street signs marking where (50 feet below your feet) residential streets once ran. And you can even summit the still-warm volcano itself, which slumbers over the town it nearly wiped out.

Cruise a glacier lagoon and stroll “Diamond Beach.”

Southeast Iceland’s gobsmacking glacier lagoons (Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón) are some of the most stunning sights in all of Iceland. You can ogle the bobbing icebergs from shore, or go for a trip on a RIB (rigid inflatable boat). You’ll bundle up and cruise across the frigid water, ogling the deep-blue hue of newly calved glaciers. Then your captain leans over and hauls in a giant chunk of 500-year-old-ice for everyone to touch.

And just across the road from Jökulsárlón is another great sight that might even rival the lagoon itself: the so-called “Diamond Beach,” where those bobbing icebergs wash up on black sands on their last stop before being swallowed up by the open Atlantic. Diamond Beach looks like thousands of gigantic precious stones, tumbled by the turgid river, sprinkled across an endless expanse of black velvet.

Get to know a puffin.

In downtown Reykjavík, you can’t escape the puffins…in stuffed-animal form. As the unofficial mascot of Iceland, puffins are everywhere. Puffins live most of their lives adrift in the Atlantic, coming ashore only during the summer breeding season (usually from late May or early June until late August). if you’re in Iceland during those summer months, there are ample opportunities to see puffins in nature. Reykjavík has several companies offering birdwatching cruises to the so-called “Puffin Island” (Akurey), where the adorable birds roost. But the Westman Islands, with the largest puffin population in the world, is Iceland’s best puffin destination. And even outside of summer, you can be all of guaranteed of meeting a real-live puffin at the Westman Islands’ aquarium. This is the home of Tóti, a puffling who couldn’t take flight, and has since been rehabilitated and adopted by the museum. Tóti waddles around the exhibits, thrilling visitors with a close puffin encounter.

Hang out in a fjordside village.

Iceland has no real cities outside of Reykjavík (the “second city,” Akureyri — with just 18,000 people — feels like a small town). And yet, Iceland is surprisingly cosmopolitan; even ridiculously remote “backwaters” can be unexpectedly on-trend. One of my favorite examples is a little village of 670 people on the far-eastern fjords of Iceland, about as far as you can get from Reykjavík — Seyðisfjörður. Buried at the deepest point in a claustrophobic fjord, Seyðisfjörður is the only place in Iceland tethered to the outside world (by a ferry line to Denmark). A top-quality sushi restaurant sits across the rainbow-painted main street from an enticing microbrew pub. And just up the fjord is a funky bar/pizzeria downstairs from an art gallery. The bartender explained that, in the 1950s, a German artist moved to Seyðisfjörður and opened an art academy. And today, students come here from all over the country— and around the world — to study art and be inspired by Iceland’s majesty. Exploring places like Seyðisfjörður gives me a new appreciation for the can-do pioneer spirit that has kept Icelanders thriving since the first settlers sailed here in the Viking Age. Other delightful fjordside villages worth lingering in are Borgarnes, Húsavík, and Siglufjörður.

Splurge on a quality Icelandic meal.

Iceland’s high prices force many visitors into subsiding on hot dogs and groceries (and occasionally, on a dare, suffering through a bite of the notorious “rotted shark”). But if you cheap out on all of your meals, you’ll miss the fact that Iceland has an excellent food scene…no, really! Set aside enough of your food budget to splurge at least once at a quality restaurant where you can experience what top Icelandic chefs are doing today. As a compromise, consider doing your splurge at lunchtime, when even the most expensive restaurants have relatively affordable lunch specials in the $25-35 range. I had a memorable blowout dinner at Grillmarkaðurinn, in Reykjavík, but for other ideas — and an overview of what makes Icelandic food so enticing — see my post about Icelandic food.

Relax in hot water.

Myvatn, Iceland

Many Iceland-bound travelers are familiar with the famous Blue Lagoon lava-rock spa. But that’s just the beginning of Iceland’s thermal bathing culture. Imagine ending each long day of sightseeing, hiking, and driving with a long soak in hundred-degree water. Aaaaahhh! Your choices range from “premium” thermal baths (my favorite is Mývatn Nature Baths, in the North), to hot springs that require a hardy one-hour hike, to municipal swimming pools where Icelanders gather with family and friends, and tourists find they’re outnumbered. If you need to escape from Iceland’s chill, or just recover from a busy day of Icelandic experiences, you’re never more than a short drive from a thermal bath. For all the details, check out my “Blue Lagoon and Beyond” post.

Geek out at an obscure museum.

Iceland does museums exceptionally well — even in the farthest reaches of the country. For example, one of my favorite sightseeing experiences in all of Iceland is the Herring Era Museum in little Siglufjörður, two hours away from just about anything, clinging to an almost-Arctic pinnacle of the North Coast. I never thought I could be fascinated by the herring industry. But this wonderful museum achieved that feat. In a trio of rustic buildings, thoughtfully designed exhibits explain how shoals of herring in the late 19th and early 20th centuries created a huge industrial boom in this little town — singlehandedly generating half of Iceland’s GDP and arguably helping bring about Icelandic independence, by making the country economically viable. In the attic of the salting station, you can walk through the dorms of the “herring girls” who came to Siglufjörður to work round-the-clock during the brief summer herring season. Walking between the bunkbeds and still-set tables, you feel like the workers have just stepped away for their shift. The Herring Era Museum is just one of dozens of unaccountably riveting sights scattered around Iceland; other favorites include the open-air folk museum of turf houses at Glaumbær, the Whale Museum in Húsavík, the state-of-the-art Lava Centre in Hvolsvöllur on the South Coast, the Settlement Centre in Borgarnes, and the Icelandic Emigration Centre in Hofsós.

Appreciate the midnight sun…or the northern lights.

For hyperactive sightseers, it’s a thrill visiting Iceland in the summer, when it never really gets dark. You could spend the morning splashing around the Blue Lagoon, then have lunch and putter around Reykjavík, before heading out in the mid-afternoon for a long day trip into the countryside (such as the Golden Circle). The sun technically sets, but dawn commences before twilight is complete. (In fact, summertime road-trippers are in danger of falling asleep at the wheel, because it’s so easy to lose track of how late it’s getting.) But the one disadvantage of visiting when it never gets dark is that you certainly won’t see the northern lights. For that, you’d have to come in winter — when (if you’re lucky, and it’s not too cloudy) you may get a glimpse of those mysterious dancing lights in the sky. Coming twice — once in summer, once in winter — is not a bad option. (For the pros and cons of off-season travel, see my post on itinerary tips.)

Appreciate Reykjavík’s street art.

Reykjavík has a salty harbor and some fine museums. But my favorite activity in the Icelandic capital is simply strolling and appreciating its endearing ambience. Reykjavík’s funky artistic spirit comes with some of the most eye-pleasing street art anywhere — the work of well-respected local artists, who are invited to paint blank walls before they can be tagged with ugly graffiti. Another fun Reykjavík pastime is to go on a scavenger hunt for little plastic action figures, which a local prankster nicknamed “the Toyspreader” has glued to signs all over the city center. For more on the Icelandic capital and its street art, check out my Reykjavík post.

Ford rivers in a monster-truck bus and hike high above the Valley of Thor.

Our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook focuses on destinations that can be easily reached with a two-wheel drive car. But we also include coverage of one of Iceland’s more difficult-to-reach hiking destinations, Þórsmörk — the “Valley of Thor.” While it’s only about 15 miles as the crow flies from the dramatic Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the South Coast, getting there is part of the adventure — you’ll need to ford several gritty rivers filled with milky glacial melt. If you don’t have a four-wheel-drive car, no problem: Various companies offer day excursions into Þórsmörk, on tour buses with gigantic monster-truck tires. After a long, slow, bumpy ride — thundering through of streams and rivers, windshield wipers flipping furiously to and fro — the bus deposits you at the base of some of the most rewarding hiking trails in Iceland. Summiting the little peak called Valahnúkur (a moderately strenuous, 3-hour-round-trip hike), you look out over a starburst pattern of valleys separating glacier-topped dormant volcanoes.

These 10 experiences are just for starters. Head over to Iceland and make your own list. You won’t regret it.

Happy travels!


Thanks for joining me for my Iceland blog series. Of course, you’ll find details on all of the experiences mentioned in this post in our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook, co-authored by Ian Watson.

In case you missed some of my other Iceland posts, here are all the links:

Top 10 Budget Tips for Iceland

Welcome to Iceland: A Stroll Through Reykjavík

The Westman Islands: Volcanoes and Puffins in Iceland’s Undiscovered Gem

How to Enjoy Iceland’s Thermal Baths: The Blue Lagoon and Beyond

Lake Mývatn: North Iceland’s Geothermal Wonderland

How to Drive Iceland’s Ring Road: The Ultimate 800-Mile Road Trip

What to Eat in Iceland

Iceland’s 4 Best Day Trips from Reykjavík

How to Plan an Iceland Itinerary — From a 24-Hour Layover to a 2-Week Road Trip

Family Travel: Visiting Iceland with Children

 

 

 

 

 

 

Video: Iceland Travel Tips

Working on our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook (with co-author Ian Watson), I learned a lot of practical tips for how to make the most of a trip to the land of fire and ice. When I got home, I distilled all of my best advice into this 75-minute talk (part of our Rick Steves’ Europe Travel Talks series). If you took me out to coffee to pick my brain about your upcoming Iceland trip…this is exactly what I’d tell you. Below the video, you can find links to the shorter “chapters” of this talk (excerpted from the full-length version), and my complete class handout for people attending the talk in person.

You can also view individual chapters excerpted from this talk:

Iceland Travel Skills

Reykjavik

Day Trips from Reykjavik

The Ring Road

Class Handout

Iceland 101

Why Visit Iceland? Astonishing, unique natural wonders; cinematic landscapes; easy stopover on the way to/from Europe; surprisingly rich culture/cuisine; wonderful people.

Don’t Visit Iceland…to save money; for great art/architecture; for hot, sunny weather.

Area & Population: 39,682 square miles (a little bigger than Maine) with 340,000 people (like Corpus Christi, Anaheim, or Honolulu) — 2/3 in Reykjavík area.

History: First settled by Scandinavians during Viking Age (9th century); was a collection of remote farms for nearly its entire history. Wrote down history and folk tales (the sagas). Starting A.D. 930, chieftains met annually at the Althing at Þingvellir. Christianized and came under control of Norway, then Denmark. Slow process of independence, made official in 1944. “Occupied” by Allies in WWII (built Keflavík airport); economic crisis in 2008/2009; tourism boom today.

Names: Last name is patronymic (-son and -dóttir); everyone’s on a first-name basis.

Icelandic: Old Scandinavian roots, tricky to pronounce. Key letters: Ð/ð = voiced “th” (breathe); Þ/þ = unvoiced “th” (breath); j = “y”; ll = “tl”

Money: Roughly 100 Icelandic krónur = $1. All transactions are credit card; don’t get much cash.

Budget: Expect very high prices. Seek out budget strategies. Fortunately, natural wonders are free.

Sleeping: Basic accommodations cost $150/double with shared bath; nice hotel is more like $300. Demand outstrips supply, so prices are high. Guesthouses with shared bath are common and cheaper. Airbnb is a budget-friendly option; consider staying in the suburbs for a local experience.

Eating: Icelandic food is good and worth splurging on. A basic meal costs $20-30, but for $10-20 more you can go high-end. “Hardship foods” (rotted shark, fish jerky, lamb’s head). But also delicacies: fresh fish, flavorful lamb, soup & bread buffet, skyr. Even top restaurants have great lunch deals for $25; splurge at lunch and skimp at dinner (picnic, fast food). Nice microbrew culture; happy hours help cut costs.

Itinerary Considerations

Summer vs. Winter: To really explore Iceland, I prefer summer (better weather, endless daylight) vs. winter (very short daylight, icy roads keep you close to Reykjavík). Northern Lights are winter-only, always chancy — don’t plan a trip around it (but thrilling if you see it). Prepare for cold/windy weather anytime!

Quick Layover (1-3 days): A quick taste of Iceland on the way to/from Europe. Home-base in Reykjavík but spend your daylight hours in the countryside: Blue Lagoon (near airport), Golden Circle, South Coast.

Longer Visit (4-8 days): This allows more day trips (Westman Islands, overnighting on South Coast, glacier activities), and more time for Reykjavík.

All Iceland (9-14 days): Driving the Ring Road is well worth the investment of time, and lets you see essentially the entire country.

Transportation: Car rental is best for most trips — most highlights are not accessible by cheap public transit. Bus excursions are convenient, but costs add up quickly. In summer, don’t splurge on 4X4.

Reykjavík

Iceland’s capital (pop. 125,000, or 220,000 metro, like Topeka or Charleston) and tourism hub lacks major sights but has quality accommodations, restaurants, and nightlife. On a short visit, home-base here but don’t over-invest your time; countryside is more rewarding.

Exploring Downtown: Low-key “Parliament Square” (Austurvöllur) with Alþingi (since A.D. 930) and statue of independence advocate Jón Sigurðsson. Better for hanging out: main shopping/nightlife drag Laugavegur. Icelandic sweaters are good but very expensive (consider thrift shops). Licorice candy is cheap and local.

Hallgrímskirkja: Lutheran church (1930s, state architect Guðjón Samúelsson), Reykjavík’s main landmark, views from tower. Statue of Leifur Eiríksson, likely first European to visit the Americas.

History Museums: Settlement Exhibition preserves foundation of 10th-century longhouse; National Museum of Iceland has well-described artifacts.

Harborfront: Cutting-edge Harpa concert hall, opened 2011. Nearby Sun Voyager sculpture already city icon. Whale/Puffin Watching boat trips…but no guarantees. Nearby Whales of Iceland, pricey but good exhibit with life-size models.

Day Trips from Reykjavík

The Blue Lagoon: Top-end thermal bathing complex in volcanic landscape, 45 min south of Reykjavík (near Keflavík Airport); pricey (starts at $80) and requires reservations (bluelagoon.com). There are also municipal swimming pools all over Iceland, including more than a dozen in Reykjavík. Filled with natural thermal water. Very relaxing local custom to adopt. Carefully follow procedure (shower first!) and go with the flow.

The Golden Circle: Iceland’s quintessential day trip: 150-mile loop with grand scenery, Þingvellir (site of Iceland’s Althing gatherings, along a jagged tectonic fissure), Geysir (steamy field with the original geyser); Gullfoss (thundering waterfall), other stops (including Kerið crater, hike 1 hr to Reykjadalur thermal river)

The South Coast: Rivals Golden Circle as Reykjavík’s top day trip: spectacular waterfalls (Seljalandsfoss is best, walk behind it), glacier tongue (Sólheimajökull), black-sand beaches (Reynisfjara), Eyjafjallajökull (famous 2010 volcano); Lava Centre in Hvolsvöllur.

Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar): Archipelago just off the South Coast, accessible by boat or plane (but weather-dependent). Famous Jan. 1973 eruption; today part of town still buried under lava rock. Excellent volcano museum; the world’s largest puffin colony; aquarium with a resident puffin (Tóti).

The Ring Road (All Around Iceland)

Logistics: Highway 1 encircles Iceland 800 miles on twisty roads, lots of worthwhile sightseeing stops and detours. Allow 5 days minimum (better with 6-7 days). Some overlap with South Coast; can also tie in Golden Circle and/or Westman Islands. I’ve described it clockwise, but it can be done either way. Can be done with small 2WD car. Best to book accommodations in advance. Some enjoy camping.

West Iceland: Borgarnes (Settlement Center); Víðgelmir lava tube (another volcano cave experience is “Into the Volcano”); Grábrók climbable crater.

Skagafjörður: Northern valley with excellent Glaumbær folk museum; scenic Tröllaskagi (“Troll Peninsula”) drive to charming port town of Siglufjörður, with excellent Herring Era Museum.

Akureyri: Iceland’s “second city” (pop. 18,000), feels like a mini-Reykjavík with landmark church.

Mývatn: “Midge Lake,” named for the mini-mosquitoes here. Area of remarkable natural beauty, lava formations, thermal areas. Highlights include Skútustaðir pseudocraters, Dimmuborgir lava formations, and Mývatn Nature Baths (simpler version of Blue Lagoon for half the price). Just over the ridge is the striking Námafjall geothermal area and Krafla Valley, with geothermal plant, Víti crater, hikes.

Húsavík: Charming port town near Mývatn, with whale watching and whale museum. Just east is stunning Dettifoss waterfall.

Eastfjords: Jagged, sparsely populated, lots of long driving. Best town by far is fjordside village of Seyðisfjörður, beautiful setting, lots of art students, surprisingly cosmopolitan, ferry from Denmark.

The Southeast: Few towns, but Glacier Country (in the shadow of Vatnajökull (Europe’s biggest glacier). Stunningly beautiful glacier lagoons: Famous Jökulsárlón; less touristy and also spectacular Fjallsárlón; both have RIB rides. Nearby “Diamond Beach” where icebergs wash up. Also possible to hike or snowmobile across a glacier, or visit an ice cave (arrange in advance, consider sleeping in this area).  Skaftafell National Park with hike to Svartifoss falls.

The South Coast: The Ring Road route ends with a drive past the South Coast, described earlier, and back to Reykjavík.

Resources

Rick Steves Iceland guidebook

Reykjavík Highlights travel talk by Kevin Williams

 

Helpful Websites:

Grapevine.is — Reykjavík’s great English newspaper

IHeartReykjavik.net — Insightful local blog

GuideToIceland.is — Consortium of tour companies

Iceland.is — Official tourism website

Family Travel: Visiting Iceland with Children

With its imagination-stoking natural wonders — volcanoes, glaciers, and puffins — Iceland is practically made for kids. And yet, when we set out to work on our Rick Steves Iceland book, we realized few guidebooks do justice to family travel. So with the help of our co-author, Ian Watson (who raised his kids in Iceland), we wrote an “Iceland for Children” chapter, loaded with 11 pages of advice on where to stay, what to pack, where to eat, and the top sights and activities for kids around the country. Here are a few highlights from that chapter.

Child pointing at map

Iceland is packed with unique geological features, which are fun both to explore, and to learn about. If your child takes an interest in volcanoes or glaciers, deputize them to become an expert and play “tour guide” when you reach key sights. Help them figure out what their name would be in Icelandic (I’m “Cameron Kemptonson.” Rick would be “Rick Dicksson.”) And challenge them to master the pronunciation of the famous volcano, Eyjafjallajökull.

In the Mývatn volcanic area, your family will discover unique land formations, steaming geothermal landscapes, and easy nature walks. (But be careful! Iceland’s many geothermal areas are full of boiling water and hissing steam. Be sure your children understand how important it is to stay on marked trails at all times, and keep younger kids close at hand.)

Westman Islands puffin

In the Westman Islands, you can walk up onto a lava flow that partly covered the town in 1973, visit the excellent Volcano Museum, hike up to the still-warm summit of Eldfell, and meet a puffin at the local aquarium.

Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Iceland

Iceland also offers many opportunities to get up close to waterfalls. Surefooted kids particularly enjoy Seljalandsfoss, on the South Coast, where they can walk behind the falls. (Just be sure to bundle up, with waterproof shoes and jackets.)

Reykjavik Swimming Pool

The mellow, spa-like atmosphere at Iceland’s premium baths — such as the famous Blue Lagoon — feel very grown-up and may not be the best choice for kids. However, the thermal bathing scene at Iceland’s many municipal pools is perfectly kid-friendly. Many of the larger pools have colorful waterslides and other activities that are designed just for children, and there’s usually a shallow wading section for tiny tots.

Whales of Iceland

Kids also love wandering among the life-size models at Whales of Iceland, a pricey but riveting attraction tucked in a big-box store zone near Reykjavík’s harbor. The “whales” are impressively detailed and bathed in a shimmering, blue light, and you’re invited to wander under and among them (with the help of the engaging, free-to-download audioguide). You’ll find yourself face-to-face with majestic giants: pilot whale, humpback whale, sei whale, bowhead whale, minke whale, Moby Dick-style sperm whale, and the largest specimen, the blue whale — which can grow up to 110 feet long. The exhibit may sound gimmicky…but it’s genuinely cool. (And many families prefer this to actual whale-watching cruises, which can come with rough waves, unpredictable weather, and a less-than-guaranteed chance of seeing more than a fleeting glimpse of whales.)

Haafell farm, Iceland

In West Iceland, the Háafell Goat Farm is a fun, hands-on activity for kids. On a remote, unpaved road about an hour east of Borgarnes, this farm represents a one-family project by Jóhanna Þorvaldsdóttir and her clan. A few years ago, they set out on an idealistic quest to breed Iceland’s nearly extinct goat stock — descended from animals brought by the first settlers. Now the family invites travelers to visit their farm, meet (and, if you like, cuddle) some adorable baby goats, learn about their work, watch the goats butt heads playfully, and peruse the wide variety of products they make from their goats: feta cheese, ice cream, soap and lotions (from tallow), and goat-hide carpets and insoles.

Lastly, if none of these suggestions seem quite right for your jaded, older kids, you may be able to get their attention by mentioning that Reykjavík has a penis museum. Excuse me: Phallological Museum. Tucked at the far end of the city’s main walking street, Laugavegur, you’ll find a one-room collection of preserved animal penises and various depictions of phalluses in folk art. Surprisingly, it’s more educational than crass. And yet, it’s impossible to visit this place without making juvenile jokes. In some ways, 12-year-old boys are the most fitting audience possible for this collection. A 12-year-old-boy-at-heart, I spent quite some time wandering around here, cracking myself up as I scrawled notes in my little notebook. Here’s my writeup for the Rick Steves Iceland guidebook:

You’ll see more wieners than you can shake a stick at — preserved, pickled peckers floating in jars of yellow liquid. You’ll see a seal’s schlong, a wolf’s wang, a zebra’s zipper trout, a fox’s frankfurter, a giraffe’s gherkin, a dog’s dong, a badger’s baloney pony, a squirrel’s schwanz, a coyote’s crankshaft, a horse’s hardware, a reindeer’s rod, an elephant’s equipment, and lots of whale willies. If you can’t get through this description without giggling, maybe you should visit. If you’re about to set down this book and write me an angry letter…don’t.

And with that…happy travels to you and your whole clan!