Have you ever done something super last minute and unplanned?
Like book a flight for travel on the same day, to a place you knew nothing about??
Well, I have (by accident) and it’s a little nerve-racking but exhilarating all at the same time! Find out how I ended up on an island that sits between Europe and America, completely solo for 24 hours on my birthday!
Last year I decided to take an international trip and celebrate my birthday in Amsterdam! Luckily, my dad was on his way back from Eritrea and was passing through Amsterdam anyway so we planned to meet up there and explore together. However, on my way to Amsterdam from Los Angeles, I had a sudden change of plans and had to quickly recalculate my route while I was in New York for my layover.
To give some context, a few years ago my brother started working for Delta airlines and put me on as a companion, seriously the best gift ever! This meant flying would become a lot easier for me to do and as a result, traveling would become super spontaneous! Flying as a companion or standby passenger meant that I could literally pick up and go somewhere, the same day, without having to reserve a flight in advance and the cost is minimal to non-existent. So, against my nature as a planner, I’ve slowly evolved into a last-minute and spur of the moment travelista! And my birthday last year was no different.
Considering I’m able to hop on a flight without any notice and travel anywhere that Delta flies (practically for free) has taken me to some interesting places. However, in exchange for this flexibility, depending on when and where you go, you may face some delays on your journey as a standby passenger and that’s exactly what happened on this trip. In this case, I made it to New York from Los Angeles and only had one more flight before I was in Amsterdam, yay, except there were only a couple flights left for the day and my chances were not looking good. As a professional companion traveler, I started to look at my other options just in case I didn’t get on the flight.
As it turned out, on the evening before my birthday all flights going from JFK to Amsterdam were all booked up and I had to quickly think of alternatives. One option was to stick around NYC until the next flight but I studied in New York and made many trips to the city over the years so naturally this wasn’t a super exciting option for me. I was honestly just eager to get to my destination and experience something new.
Not knowing where I would be for my birthday (the whole point of this trip) I began checking available flights for literally any country that was remotely in the direction I was heading and Iceland was one of them! I never had a strong desire to go to Iceland but if it gets me closer to Amsterdam and would allow for a new and unique experience then why not?!
With absolutely NO PLANS I got on the flight to Reykjavik, Iceland and took a chance on the unknown because it was my birthday and why not?! And trust me when I say I was not prepared at all but I still went and just knew that I would be okay.
You Have Arrived
We landed in Iceland around 6:00 am the next day and I was nervous, excited, and tired (I didn’t sleep at all on the flight). While this trip stretched me to be spontaneous and go to a new country with zero plans, I was a little unprepared to say the least! I thought to myself, I don’t know anything about this place, what have I gotten myself into?
After getting off the plane and going through immigration I began to see all the (prepared) tourists with their serious winter gear and snow boots and now I’m slowly freaking out! I was not prepared for super cold weather, like at all! I only had these very thin leggings that were mostly for in-flight comfort, ankle socks, and sneakers which is my go to outfit when traveling. And if you know me, you know this African hates being cold! Luckily, I brought a long peacoat for Amsterdam’s gloomy weather but it was still pretty thin, so I had to improvise and layer up.
After getting through immigration I found a coffee shop in the airport, got a latte and started searching for hotels. At this point, I had been up for 24 hours and had to figure out how to make the most of the next 24 hours in Iceland and that meant no sleep for another day! Once I booked my hotel I found the kiosk for shuttles and booked my ride to the hotel. Stepping outside to catch the shuttle I’m faced with 30 degrees and blowing snow, great! Luckily, the shuttle runs every 30 minutes so I didn’t have to wait long.
When I arrived to my hotel, I quickly added some layers to my outfit because it was freezing, and then I was able to book two tours back to back with little to no downtime in between. When I tell you every minute was utilized, I don’t even remember having time to nap!
Here’s a quick look at how my 24 hours went from touch down to take off!
6:00am | Landed
9:00am | Shuttle from Airport to Hotel
10:00am | Arrive at Hotel and booked 2 tours
12:30pm | Pick up time for the first tour (Golden Circle), 6 hours long
7:00pm | Back at hotel
8:30pm |Pick up time for the second tour (Northern Lights), 3 hours long
12:30am | Back at hotel, slept for 2.5 hours, 1 hour shuttle to airport
6:00am | Flight to Amsterdam!
As you can see there was no time to breath on this trip and I practically did not sleep for 2 days but I was able to do more than I thought with just 24 hours on the island! Honestly, I only survived by continuously drinking coffee. More details below on what I covered and how you can do the same, if you really wanted, or maybe giving yourself more than 24 hours to explore is wise.
24 Hour Itinerary
There are plenty of shuttle operators at the Keflavík International Airport and I purchased my transfer upon arrival (6:00am). I booked my shuttle from the airport to my hotel in Reykjavik and the buses are located right outside of the terminal. The process was super easy and the trip takes about 45 minutes into the city. The best part was the shuttle dropped me off right at my hotel and offers free Wi-Fi onboard.
I recommend the Flybus airport transfer with Reykjavik Excursions. You will never have to wait long as they have shuttles every 30 minutes! They service a wide number of hotels in the city but make sure your hotel is on their list.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the 22 Hill Hotel, a boutique hotel in a quiet area and absolutely loved it. Not only did they let me check in early, they also helped book my tours for the day! The room was a little on the small side but if you’ve traveled throughout Europe at all you’ll know that’s pretty common, plus I wasn’t even in my room to sleep, it served as a storage place for this trip. Overall, I highly recommend 22 Hill Hotel for a clean and convenient stay, especially if you don’t have time to search for options!
22 Hill Hotel
Tel: +354 511-3777
What to Do
Golden Circle Tour
Duration: 6 Hours | Cost: 8,500 ISK
I chose the Golden Circle Express tour with Gray Line Iceland in order to see as much as possible and it also came highly recommended by the hotel staff. On the tour you’ll see some of Iceland’s most iconic and historical attractions. With 3 main sites to see, this tour combines history, culture, and nature!
Þingvellir National Park
Our first stop was Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site where the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia are pulling apart, very slowly. An extraordinary geologic site to see!
Next, we stopped by the Gullfoss waterfall, meaning “golden waterfall.” Plunging 105 feet, this massive waterfall is one of Iceland’s natural wonders. Get up close and personal to this impressive waterfall.
Lastly, we visited an active Geysir geothermal area where we got to see the hot springs of Geysir and Strokkur erupt every few minutes. At this point I was freezing so I didn’t spend much time outside and kept missing the shot when the geysir actually erupted! But you can still see the steam in the pictures and the views were beautiful and even better from inside!
Northern Lights & Stargazing
Duration: 3 hours | Cost: 4,790 ISK
Finally, after hours of touring the island I had one more tour to go! I booked the Northern Lights tour with Reykjavik Sightseeing and went on a search for the Aurora Borealis aka the Northern Lights. They say the best time to see the Northern Lights in all of its glory is during the winter months; I happened to be there in March so my chances of catching this natural phenomenon – where the sky lights up with green hues – were good! Iceland is one of the few places where you can actually witness the Northern Lights and people come from all over the world at a chance to experience it.
It was definitely an experience to remember. We went from location to location and stared at the skies until we saw a glimpse of what was in fact the Northern Lights! I’m not going to lie, the process required a lot of patience as you’re waiting for hours outside in the cold since you’ll never know when or where they will appear. My lifesaver on the journey was being able to rent a full-length down jacket and winter boots for the evening and this was the only way I was able to bare the cold Icelandic night!
I’m glad I got to experience the Northern Lights on my first attempt because I probably won’t try again. I’m just not built for chasing anything in the cold but it was a beautiful sight and I do suggest you give it a try at least once! Since my time was limited I had to choose between the Blue Lagoon or this spectacular wonder. While I would prefer to stay warm in the geothermal spa of the Blue Lagoon I had to go for it and take my chances at chasing the dancing lights since the odds were in my favor!
This trip tested me in new ways but also helped me understand what I’m personally capable of. I don’t want to get so comfortable with travel or anything else I’m doing that there’s a lack of excitement and even a little fear. I wouldn’t have experienced the beauty of Iceland if I just stayed back in New York, in my comfort zone, and waited for the most direct path to my destination. In order to grow, I have to continually stretch myself, take risks, and challenge myself in the unknown areas.
I’ve also learned that there’s a time to plan and a time to be spontaneous and I now know that I can go between the two fairly easily, however, I think I prefer just winging it these days. Even though my birthday destination was Amsterdam and I ended up spending my full birth-DAY in Iceland, I didn’t let that affect my mood or sense of adventure. Don’t stop dreaming or making plans for yourselves but please don’t assume that there’s only one way to get there!
I could have let this bump in the road of not reaching my destination get to me but I tried to make the most of it and now I have this special moment in Iceland where I can look back and say I can’t believe I did that and had a blast! Flexibility at all points in the travel journey is critical and I recommend placing more value on having a new experience over the actual location itself. Even in the planning stages, if you’re flexible on the location you can save a ton by choosing the destination that is simply the most affordable option.
So, when you have a plan or direction but it doesn’t always turn out the way you thought, you must improvise. There will be delays and yes, re-routing will occur but I learned that being flexible in travel and in life is key!
Have you been to Iceland?
Would you book a flight and travel on the same day?
How spontaneous do you think you really are?
Friends, enjoy the ride and allow yourself to be spontaneous!