Transit Tourist: notes from the land of fire and ice

bus stop Laugavegurlaug

Just chilling at the bus stop. It looks like it’s in the middle of nowhere but it’s only five minutes from city center. Photos: Anna Chen/Metro

I recently ticked off one of my bucket list items and went on a vacation to Reykjavík, Iceland. (No, I was not able to take advantage of WOW Airlines’ recent promotional flights. Yes, I am really upset about that and want to go back to Iceland RIGHT NOW.)

Anyway, if you’ve ever looked up any information about traveling in Iceland, you’d know that driving is the preferred method of transportation. This is mostly because of the island’s super low population (about 323,000, just a little over the population of Riverside, CA), the weather and the rugged terrain. There is no public railway in Iceland, a fact that I — transit nerd that I am — found disappointing.

I don’t do a lot of driving to begin with, and I certainly wasn’t about to start in a foreign country with unfamiliar weather conditions (I have never driven in snow and ice, ever) at the outset of their winter. So I went to Iceland hoping that their Strætó bus system, which serves the capital area, combined with charter tour buses would be enough to serve my purposes. And they were.

I’m not going to get too much into the charter coaches but if you’re curious, they are very convenient. You can book tours to suit your tastes and they offer pick up from almost anywhere. Prices are also fairly reasonable. If you’re worried that you won’t be able to do things at your own pace in Iceland without a car, don’t be.

straeto map

Click map for larger version.


Waiting for the bus.

If you don’t want to shell out money on a bunch of tours, Strætó buses are accessible, easy to navigate and take you to plenty of destinations in the Reykjavík area. They also run a few intercity bus routes that can take you to the major towns, villages and attractions around the rest of the island.

I was able to use the buses to check out a few places that interested me, and I’ve always liked randomly riding around on buses to get a feel for neighborhoods and local scenery. Normally I do this through walking — and I did a fair amount of that as well, a lot of Reykjavík is definitely walkable — but when it’s really cold out and you’re tromping on winding, icy slick sidewalks, you get tired fast. So having buses available was important.

The buses were clean and mostly on time. This was great because while I was in Iceland, the average high was 37℉ and it was pretty much dark all the time, so I didn’t want to waste time waiting for my ride. Most lines ran approximately every 15 minutes and timetables were posted at almost every stop. You could also track buses and buy a ticket in advance with their bus app.

A single ride is 400ISK, which is approximately $3.10, and allows you free transfers within 75 minutes on city buses or 120 minutes on buses going to or from Reykjavík. If you plan on utilizing Strætó buses extensively during your stay fare does add up, so your best bet is to get a Reykjavík city card. I say this as a tourist because besides unlimited rides on any Strætó bus, the city card also includes entrance to many of the city’s museums and thermal swimming pools and gets you discounts at other attractions and restaurants. You could, of course, always just get one of the regular bus passes if you’re not planning on doing anything touristy.

reykjavik card

Depending on your needs, you can purchase a 24-hour, 48-hour or 72-hour city card. The card came in super handy for me because I spent almost every night at a pool (I love swimming), and it allowed me to hop on any bus I wanted if I got too cold while out and about. Some of the buses even had heaters right under each seat — a luxury I don’t think we’ll ever need in Los Angeles.

My other main mode of transportation in Iceland. You think I'm kidding, but I went riding. A lot.

My other main mode of transportation in Iceland. You think I’m kidding, but I went riding. A lot.

While I was in Reykjavík, I also saw a few places offering bike rentals and tours. I think if I had been visiting during the summer, when there’s less snow on the ground and more light during the day, I would have been inclined to try biking in Iceland. As the snow and ice started turning into slush, I could see there were well-marked bike lanes throughout the city. But given the conditions of my trip, the only people I saw on bicycles were locals secure in their knowledge of the streets and the quality of their equipment (it was my first time seeing a fatbike, which I thought was quite impressive).

I’ve heard there is a proposal to build a light rail line between Reykjavík and Keflavík International Airport, and I personally would love to see that become reality. Currently the best way to get from airport to city without driving is to take an Icelandic version of FlyAway, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, plane to train just sounds better (as it does the world over). There’s also talk of getting some light rail within the city, although I don’t really see that happening given that Reykjavík proper has fewer people than Pasadena and other cities in our county. Construction costs would probably be astronomical, and to be honest there’s nothing a light rail line could offer that buses don’t already more than adequately provide.

Reykjavík’s just not a place that screams “needs light rail now!” And that’s okay. You can still easily get around the greater Reykjavík area sans car, and as a tourist one of the best things any place has going for it is more options.

For more misadventures, follow Anna on Twitter / Instagram

Related: read our recent Transit Tourist post on Medellin, Colombia.


8 replies

  1. I see. I have been a regular metro commuter. LA metro fares are too low compared to anywhere in the world. Metro fares that currently cost merely 1.75 per trip in reality offer a value around 5 dollars per trip. Same way monthly fares of 100 offer a value of 500 practically. I wish metro reconsider increasing the ridiculously low fares soon. That would help improve the commuting experience.

  2. Iceland’s economy got burned several years ago and hasn’t recovered much. Their economy is mainly aluminium mining and fishing, so they’re trying to prop up tourism right now in order to bring in foreign money like the EUR and USD to Iceland.

    Best bet that if you haven’t taken advantage of the ultra-low fares from WOW, there’s likely more of it to come, most likely with heated competition with Icelandair already starting partnership with Alaska Airlines with flights from PDX and SEA, and eyeing on introducing services to LAX and SFO in 2017.

    Because of this, if you’ve never travelled abroad and always wanted to but high prices kept you off, Iceland will be a great place to go for the next few years; they’re basically doing what countries in Asia have done in the past – make flights ultra-cheap as a loss leader, in hopes that tourists will spend more money at the destination to help improve the economy.

  3. Nice write-up! Being a bike rider, I always tend to gauge cities on well they accommodate their bicycle riding public on the bus. Was there bike racks or something? If racks, was it for two bikes or three?

    • You know, I didn’t actually notice bike racks on the bus, but according to Strætó most buses are equipped with them. I get the feeling that because most locations are so close, if you’re biking you are unlikely to need to transfer onto a bus at any point. (And there is pretty ubiquitous bike parking.)

      Anna Chen
      Writer, The Source

    • Hey Jonathan,

      It was a bit pricey thanks to the time of year — certainly not $99 — but you can likely find good deals now that LAX offers direct flights. I also booked as part of a package deal with the hotel, so I don’t know if that affected the flight fare. On average I’d say be prepared to spend $1000 for roundtrip flight. Sadly, I did not make it to the Blue Lagoon. I wasn’t able to book tickets, and then they closed for renovations the remainder of my time there! Just another reason I have to return, of course. 🙂

      Anna Chen
      Writer, The Source