It’s becoming increasingly popular for travelers from the US and Canada traveling to Europe (and vice versa) to stop over in Iceland on their way across the Atlantic, either for a few hours or a few days. Sometimes the stop is necessary because of connecting flights but then you also have initiatives like the Icelandair Stopover Program that are designed to encourage you to check out more of Iceland by allowing you to do a stopover for up to seven days without any extra charge.
Judging by the number of e-mails I get from people that are lost about what to do during their short stopovers this offer is tempting to many but people seem to run into trouble when it comes to maximizing their short time in the country. Which is exactly why I’m writing this post.
For the sake of keeping things simple I’m going to assume in this post that you’re traveling in summer and that summer opening hours apply.
Because the Icelandic airlines work around the fact that they use Keflavík airport as a hub for their international connections there are certain patterns that most of their arrivals follow. Most flights from the US and Canada, both Icelandair and WOW air, land in Keflavík early morning or between 4 am and 7 am. Then the flights to Europe leave between 7am and 9am giving the passengers from North-America enough time to get to their connection flights. For their more popular destinations they often have a second departure in the afternoon or early evening and in some cases that’s the only departure that is offered.
Before you plan any sort of excursions out of the airport you have to keep in mind that you have to be back at the airport at least two hours before departure to check in and go through security. In the summer the airport is very busy and the security can take a while. Which is why it’s recommended to follow these guidelines.
Because Keflavík airport is 45 minutes away from Reykjavík you have to take the traveling time into account when trying to figure out just how much time you have to do something. So if you arrive at 6 am and your connection flight leave sat 4:30 pm for example you only have until about 1:30 in Reykjavík because you need to be at the airrport again at 2:30.
Arriving from the US or Canada on a morning flight (around 4-7 am) and leaving the same afternoon.
The most straightforward option during such a short stopover would be to visit the Blue Lagoon. In the summer it is open from 8 am to 10 pm and it’s only a short 20-25 minute drive from the airport. You can opt to be there when it opens, soak in the lagoon as long as you want and even book a massage or other treatments and then eat at Lava restaurant for lunch. This would probably feel the least rushed and you can check the Blue Lagoon off your list.
You can also visit Reykjavík in this time and you could even do my walking tour at 10 and have a nice lunch somewhere before it’s time to go back to the airport. You could also do a whale watching tour or an ATV tour or even a horseback riding tour. If you just want to spend some time in the city you could also consider doing a private walking tour with us with an earlier departure and then use the rest of your time checking out everything we mention on the tour.
Another option would be to rent a car and drive around the Reykjanes peninsula. Or you could consider doing a private tour around the area with a guide. Just keep in mind that you’re arriving after an overnight flight and if you didn’t get any sleep on the plane you might not be in the best shape to drive.
Arriving from the US or Canada on a morning flight and leaving the next morning
If you arrive on a morning flight from North America and you don’t leave until the next morning you have a bunch of options. You can basically do any day tour leaving from Reykjavík at a time that suits your arrival time. Passengers arriving with WOW air have a bit of an advantage here because they usually arrive a bit earlier and therefore they should be able to make any day tour leaving Reykjavík after 8:00.
You have to take into consideration that you might be very tired though and maybe you are not in any condition to drive. Especially if you are one of those who can’t sleep on planes. Another thing you should also consider is that Iceland has more or less 24 hour daylight most of June and July so you can take a nap and then go out and explore if you rent a car to do it.
If you are not a fan of driving yourself and you want to cram in a lot of things it might be worth looking into getting a private transfer or tour.
Arriving from Europe on an evening flight and leaving the next day
Most of the flights to the US and Canada from Iceland leave in the afternoon or early evening or around 15:00 to 18:00. Like before you have to keep in mind that you have to be at the airport at least two hours before departure so you might not have quite as much time to explore as you thought.
If you are arriving very late in the evening your options for day tours are limited but you could do a tour the next day. You would mostly be limited to half day tours like walking, ATV, horse riding and whale watching tours but if you do a private tour and depending on your actual departure time you might be able to cram in a visit to the Golden Circle for example. Or you could rent a car of course.
The good thing about doing a private tour or renting a car is that you can take your luggage with you and you don’t have to go back to Reykjavík for a transfer to the airport.
If you arrive around seven or eight in the evening you might also be able to visit the Blue Lagoon on your way in from the airport since it doesn’t close until 10:00.
Arriving from Europe on a morning flight and leaving the next day
Because you’re arriving in the morning but not leaving till the afternoon the next day you actually have a lot of options. You could do a day tour out of the city, explore Reykjavík and do the Blue Lagoon if you are smart about your planning.
Just remember to take into account the travel time and the two hours before departure arrival time at the airport.
Arriving from Europe on a morning flight and leaving the same day.
This is probably the worst combination because the flights from Europe tend to land a little later in the morning than the US flights and therefore you don’t have as much time as if it was the other way around. It also depends a bit who you are flying with as the WOW air flights usually leave earlier than Icelandair for example. All you might have time for in that case is taking a taxi to the nearby Keflavík for some good food and maybe a visit to some museums. Or if the flight times allow for it, a visit to the Blue Lagoon.
General advice on making the most of your short stopover
If you spend a little bit more and do private tours and transfers you can usually see more because it eliminates dead time that you spend on waiting for things like the Flybus or other passengers that might be more interested in something than you are. Renting a car is also a great way to control your time better but then you lose the valuable information a guide can provide. To counterbalance the cost, and because you’re not going to be spending a lot of time there anyway, you could save on accommodation by booking hostels or smaller guesthouses with limited amenities but better prices.
It also helps to have a local that knows how things works and what is possible to help you with arranging and booking things. Especially when it comes to timings and distances. Like myself for example or any reliable travel agent.