We began our adventure to the land of “Fire and Ice” with a flight on what I now consider to be the WORST airline I have ever flown. My friend Vanessa and I decided to go to Iceland on a whim. Although it has been on the list of places I have wanted to visit for quite some time and a priority destination to scoop out for our clients there were no definitive plans in the works. I had already had the week blocked off for another planned work trip and when it turned out I would not have to attend that training we decided on a whim to use the time to visit Iceland. We booked WOW air because Vanessa will be attending medical school in the fall and is trying to be mindful of budget. The price seemed to be an amazing value and we grabbed tickets without too much research. (Yes, normally a person who owns a travel company will due all the due diligence prior to booking anything new or unknown, but as often happens when it comes to our travels we sometimes go out on a whim).The tickets were priced at $360 r/t from LAX. We live in Phoenix, which is one of the worst cities for international travel because there are very few direct flights. So since we would have to make a connection on our flight to Reykjavik anyway, we figured that a r/t flight to LA would still save us money, we were VERY wrong!

Once we were in the process of booking our flights the extra’s started popping up like weeds in my garden after a heavy rain. Seat selection, carry on baggage, checked baggage, meal selection, on and on and on, everything was an UP-CHARGE. By this point we had mentally committed to the trip and the flights however and confirmed our booking. In an effort to make the 9 hour flight more comfortable and productive I upgraded my seats to an XXL which promised at least 35″ of leg room, paid for my checked bag and figured “how bad can it be?”…

  • Charges for a full-size carry-on; per flight
    • $49.99 when purchased at time of booking
    • $54.99 when purchased after booking confirmed but before the flight
    • $69.99 when purchased at the check-in desk
    • $99.99 when purchased at the gate
  • Charges for a full-size checked bag; per flight 
    • $69.99 when purchased at the time of booking
    • $74.99 when purchased after booking confirmed but before the flight
    • $79.99 when purchased at the check-in desk
    • $99.99 when purchased at the gate

Charges for Seat Selection;

Seat type Description Price at time of  online booking Price after booking & prior to check-in Price at check-in
Standard seat 29″-31″ legroom. Per guest, per flight leg. USD 8.99 USD 9.99 N/A
Standard+ seat 29″-31″ legroom. Per guest, per flight leg. USD 19.99 USD 21.99 N/A
XL extra legroom At least 32″ extra legroom. Per guest, per flight leg. USD 49.99 USD 54.99 USD 59.99
XXL extra legroom At least 35″ extra legroom. Per guest, per flight leg. USD 59.99 USD 64.99 USD 69.99

On the day of our departure we hustled to Phoenix Skyharbor Airport, caught a quick Southwest flight to LAX and made our way to the WOW air check-in. It was a preview of the flight to come. While I needed to check a bag, Vanessa had managed to economy pack all her belongings into a perfectly proportioned, carry on size approved suitcase, which she had of course pre-paid for. When we went up to the check-in counter however she was told she would have to measure the suitcase to ensure it fit the WOW air size requirements. She proceeded to place it in the very broken measuring contraption and had to maneuver it slightly to get it to fit. When the check in attendant noticed that she informed Vanessa that she would be required to check her bag as it was not up to standards. For a checked bag at the counter there was a $100 fee. I turned around and noticed the same conversation playing out all around us. Seems like a scam? It did to me!

Luckily Vanessa was not a newbie flyer and quickly unpacked her suitcase and exchanged the sneakers she was wearing for the slightly larger boots inside. Voila, the bag fit like a glove and there was nothing more the registration girl could say to extort the $100 fee. We proceeded to the gate and got in line for the bus that would bring us to the plane. Not having done too much research into the flight itself I had not realized that WOW air has NO onboard entertainment. No music, No Wi-Fi, No TV’s, nothing! Well, actually that is not entirely true because they do provide iPads for in-flight rentals, for a fee of course. While Vanessa had come prepared with her own movies all I had was my computer for work and a good book. It would be a long flight, since out of sheer principle I refused to pay for an iPad rental. This was already turning out to be the MOST expensive budget flight I had ever taken.

I will say that as soon as we boarded I knew the seat upgrade was worth it. As I had paid for an exit row on the left side, (the plane has a 2 seat- 4 seat- 2 seat configuration) with no-one in front of me I had limitless leg room and plenty of space. As it turned out, 9 hours is plenty of time to also make a new friend.My first in-flight surprise came within 30 minutes of departure when I asked for water and was kindly brought a 1/2 L bottle and told it would be $3.29. That’s right, there are NO complimentary drinks or snacks of any sort. For a 9 hour international flight this was the most absurd thing I had ever heard. I get thirsty on planes, doesn’t everyone, and spent around $20 on water and coffee. We had already known that they don’t provide food and luckily had grabbed dinner to-go at LAX prior to boarding.After our “quick” nine hour long red-eye we arrived 20 minutes early at the lovely hour of 4 am. What many people may not realize is that many of the flights from the US arriving in Iceland, get in around 4-5 in the morning, especially those on WOW air. As there was a major storm in the works heading or Reykjavik, we were unsure if we would be able to get in on time (or at all) but amazingly enough it was one of the smoothest flights and landings we’ve had in years. Apparently, practice makes perfect and one positive thing I will say about WOW air is that they must have their fair share of practice taking off and landing in completely crazy conditions. 

Signature Travel Network does not have any preferred properties in Iceland and although we do have some wonderful destination specialists here our plans were made last minute, and with our preferred partners completely booked, I opted to experience Iceland like a regular “tourist”.   No VIP treatment or comped rooms.  No one knew I would be blogging, reviewing and basing where to send our clients solely on my own experiences. On this vacation, we would get to see the country, the tour operators and the hoteliers as though we were PI’s on a secret mission.

Our first Icelandic experience upon debarking was driven by an intense need and desire for caffeine. We were exhausted, extra dehydrated and slightly delirious from the time change so when we spotted a coffee shop/juice bar combo we were super excited. Unfortunately, we learned that purchasing food and beverages in the airport at Reykjavik is not as simple as one would assume!YES, you are only allowed to make purchases upon Departure and YES, they check tickets. We were stunned and speechless. After a nine hour flight on the most uncomfortable airline we’ve ever flown,  we couldn’t even purchase a decent cup of coffee… Luckily, my new friend Elise had a connecting flight to Stockholm and we finagled a purchase for all three of us under her ticket. What can we say, she was extremely thirst!y!

Although our initial plan had been a self-driving tour of the South Coast of Iceland, we decided a few weeks prior to departure that given extremely variable weather, (icy and often impassable roads and large stretches which are completely unpopulated), to opt for booking most of our itinerary with drivers and guides and only renting a car for one day.  Unsure if our flight would arrive on time due to the inclimate weather mentioned above, we did not prebook our transportation but were happy to find shuttle buses conveniently located by baggage claim. As taxis (and pretty much everything else) are extremely expensive in Iceland, I highly recommend purchasing round trip shuttle tickets. The shuttle bus was comfortable and prompt and we were excited to get another 45 minutes of sleep on our way to town.  Of course the best laid plans often go awry and we learned approximately 10 minutes later that we would be dropped off at a bus station with all of our luggage and instructed to wait. For whom and how long they did not say to come pick us up and take us to our hotel.

Freezing cold and raining, you can imagine this was a miserable experience but alas our private driver arrived minutes later and shouted our hotel over the swarms of people. She spoke almost no English but was super friendly and proceeded to “chat” with us for the remainder of the ride. Approximately one block from our hotel she stopped at yet another bus stop and instructed us that buses were not allowed in the city. Now we had been to many European cities, towns and villages and seen impossibly narrow streets but this was most definitely not the case or reason.  The streets in Iceland are newer, paved and quite spacious. The city, however wants to be kept clean and therefore, they do not want the chaos of big buses, tour vans or apparently any vehicle over 7 passengers.Upon arriving at the hotel we realized that despite all our delays including the 30 minutes sneakily obtaining and then thoroughly enjoying our airport coffee, our general navigation confusion, time spent booking our shuttle and multiple stops we arrived at the hotel CenterHotel Plaza at exactly 6:30am. Not exactly check-in time but we hoped we could persuade reception to put us on the early check-in list.  We had already inquired about day-rooms but CenterHotels do not provide that amenity. “We are at full capacity and check-in time is 3pm” is what I was told on my initial encounter, but of course I don’t give up that easily. I replied as kindly as possible that I knew people would be checking out early in the morning for tours and airport departures and that we would so appreciate getting their rooms as soon as they were clean. No promises but we were very persistent.

Then having been up for over 24 hours with nothing else to do we checked our Yelp app and found a super cute restaurant called Bergsson Mathus, that shockingly opened at 7 am for breakfast.  After reminding the night manager one more time that whatever room checked out first was ours, we were off.

Although we had already heard about Iceland being expensive, this was our first experience with true restaurant pricing. I love to travel well and eat well and have been to incredible hotels and restaurants all over the world and would say that the pricing at a Reykjavik caffe is comparable to 5-star hotel in London, Paris or NY.  Expect $25 eggs & toast, $18 porridge and $5 croissants.We came back to the hotel around 8:45 am and hung out in the lobby watching people check-out and smiling at the desk manager every few minutes, in case he forgot we were first in line for en early check in. Turns out persistence pays off and we got into our room at 10 am (for a $30 early check-in fee) but we couldn’t have been more appreciative.

View from our room at CenterHotel Plaza

The hotel itself was quite lovely, with decent size rooms, pretty views, great complimentary breakfast and a fantastic location. We immediately fell asleep and woke up only when my phone rang to let us know that the Horseback riding tour we had booked was cancelled as they were unable to do rides in such extremely cold, rainy and windy weather. This seemed to be an ominous sign, given the fact that they were Icelandic Horses, seemingly bred for the elements. Since we had no other plans for the day we ventured out into what we would affectionately call the worlds coldest self-guided walking tour. Soaked by the rain, beaten up by the winds, frozen from poor choice of clothing we none-the-less had an amazing time exploring this beautiful capital city.The stores were expensive but charming, the cafes and pubs inviting and the mood surprisingly upbeat given the fact that simply walking out the door was an enormous feat.We finished our evening at a cute restaurant Le Birstro Boissons that we happened upon because we were simply too cold to explore any further.  Tired and hungry we enjoyed an interesting dinner consisting of strange combinations of Icelandic and French cuisine.  This was also our first exposure to traditional Icelandic food, such as rotten shark with shnapps and Icelandic sheep head for dinner. To be honest, neither of us is all that adventurous when it comes to food so we were content with taking a photo of the menu as opposed to expanding our palate. We also realized that because Iceland has exploded on the tourist map relatively recently, the city and country are still catching up, therefore just as the hotels and tours sell out months in advance, restaurant reservations must be made prior to arrival.

We finished dinner full, happy and finally almost warm and walked extremely briskly back to our hotel. Day 1 in Iceland was an adventure, a test of our will and determination and a reminder of the fact that nature can be both magnificently beautiful and extremely harsh.