These are some of the questions I’ve been asked most often. Feel free to leave a comment with a question at the bottom and I’ll do my best to answer it.
How do you decide where to go?
It varies. By hearing of friends’ travels, through my reading, word of mouth, the internet, and more reading.
I’d been dreaming of going to Iceland for decades. I have a few friends who went before me and they were stunned by its beauty and other-worldliness almost beyond words. I saw their photos. There’s the mystical factor as well: Iceland is home to the hidden folk, trolls, and various other creatures, if you believe the legends. I love the ocean, the north and cold weather. Language fascinates me. The Icelandic language has not changed significantly in 800 years. It is the same language the Vikings spoke. It sounds like a mix of Swedish, Elvish and German. In Reykjavik, I sometimes sat in public spaces just to listen to people talking. It is such a musical and strange language.
I like visiting dramatic landscapes and remote places shrouded in mystery, hard to reach and with sparse populations. Viking history and the sagas interest me. I love wildness, primal forces, ritual. And being a solitary sort of person, I have a thing for islands.
Iceland was a logical first solo trip choice.
So I went, and I fell completely in love with the country. At the end of the week, I cried on the plane during takeoff. I did not want to leave. It is very difficult to move to Iceland, but not impossible. If nothing else, I will go back. I want to go to Greenland (a 1.5 hr flight from Akureyri) and spend more time in the north of Iceland. I wish I’d had more time in Akureyri for many reasons.
How do you afford your trips? Are all of your credit cards maxed out?
I pay around 80% cash for my trips, 20% credit. I plan 6 months ahead of time and pay for each big piece one per month: one month I buy the plane ticket, the next month I’ll buy the AirBnB, etc. Spaced out over 6 months, the financial hit isn’t so bad.
I do take credit cards with me in case of emergencies, and in Czechia, I am glad I did because British Airways lost my luggage and I had to buy new everything, down to deodorant and socks and a whole new suitcase to put it in. (I now have four suitcases. No one needs four suitcases.)
So to answer the second question, no, my credit is not maxed out. But usually right around the time I pay off my cards, the next trip is about to happen.
Note on Lifestyle and Affording Travel
A few things to consider: I don’t have kids or a mortgage. I quit smoking. I don’t go clubbing. I don’t do drugs. I don’t care about the latest i-whatever. I don’t go to Disney World. I don’t buy really expensive clothes or eat at upscale restaurants very often. I make all my own art. So my expendable income goes to these trips. Trips, trip gear, books, art supplies, and the occasional tech indulgence. (Hell yeah, new solid state HD.) I spend my money on this stuff instead of 72 inch televisions, house renovations, new cars, going out to eat and drinking every weekend and whatever else people spend their money on. I don’t know what other people do. I stay home a lot.
I have no inheritance or recent windfall or secret money source. No one helps me. I do all of this on my own, with my own income. I am very fortunate to have a great career and a job that I love with fantastic management and a generous vacation policy. I know how fortunate I am and I plan to enjoy it while I can.
There are many resources out there for those traveling on a budget. This is not one of them.
An Abundance of Caution
Before I say numbers, let me emphasize I was IN NO WAY frugal in Iceland. I saved over almost a year before I went and I took way more money than I needed because I was terrified of getting there and something happening, like needing a Medevac lift out of a volcano or a 300.00 tow from in the middle of – and I mean this literally and with all of my heart – NOWHERE. There are rivers in Iceland that have never been bridged. There are places in the highlands no human has ever set foot. There is no AAA roadside service. Tow service outside of Reykjavik along the southern coast is one guy with a tow truck who might be 150 miles away. Or asleep. Or not working that day. The rental car companies have a service, but they’re all in Keflavik by the airport, a 45 minute drive from Reykjavik.
Point being, you’re going to be stuck for a while and weather in Iceland is the essence of unpredictability. Oftentimes there’s no mobile phone coverage. If you decide to take a non-4WD vehicle into the highlands and run into a snowstorm, you’re fucked. You’re probably fucked even without the snowstorm. If you turn your back on the ocean at Reynisfjara and a North Atlantic sneaker wave drags you out, search and rescue will try to save you but no guarantee. If you go hiking alone and fall and twist your ankle, I hope you figured the cost of a satnav into your trip budget. Otherwise, guess what.
Icelanders are a tough folk, and their country does not suffer fools. There are no bars at the zoo. It’s you and nature face to face, and nature must be respected. Not trying to scare anyone from going, just be prepared.
Breakdown for Iceland Trip
Counting everything – flights, stays, cash, cabs, my domestic plane ticket to Akureyri, tour fees, food, incidentals, airport bullshit, the rental cars, gas (10 bucks a gallon) – I spent around 7 grand total on the Iceland trip for 7 days in Iceland/9 days of travel. I did some extraordinary things while I was there that were expensive (and completely worth it). I also made a 200.00 cab mistake and spent about 1000.00 on souvenirs alone. You can travel to Iceland for a week on a third of what I spent if you are very careful.
Cost comparison to Bohemia trip
Prague, Kutna Hora, Saxon Switzerland national park and Munich this past Christmas were significantly less for around the same amount of time. Czechia is much cheaper than Iceland. Beer is cheaper than water in Prague.
I traveled outside of Prague by train for a night and almost accidentally ended up in Poland. The train transfer to get me back in the right direction only cost 2 dollars. But I raided the Sephora store and the Italian lingerie shop across from my apartment in Prague two days after Christmas in a fit of retail therapy while waiting on my suitcase. My credit card took a major hit that day. No regrets. I could have spent less but there were circumstances. I will go into more detail on the trip page.
Why do you to this? Why not buy a house or <insert other traditional life path>?
I have dreamed of traveling the world since I learned to read. I pored over maps, memorizing the coastlines of South America, of Norway, the Dead Sea, saying the names of foreign cities out loud, rolling their strangeness around on my tongue: Lima, Reykjavik, Moscow, Ushuaia, Dresden. Wanderlust started very young.
Traditional life paths were never going to be my jam. This is what makes me happy, so I do it. The thrill of buying that plane ticket and getting the confirmation email (Congratulations! You’re going to [X]!) is something really special. It feels to me like Christmas as a kid, that level of joy. That pure happiness gets harder to tap into the older you get, in my experience.
Some people are called to the priesthood, or to motherhood, or to a vocation like teaching. I am called to the unknown.
Aren’t you scared to travel alone as a woman?
No. I’ll write a longer post on that later on another page, but for now, no. Funny how no one asks men that. But that said, I was so scared when I took off for Iceland. Not of being hurt by other people, but just the sheer enormity of the unknown I faced. I almost didn’t go. Now I can’t imagine not traveling.
What’s it like traveling alone to these remote places?
As a solo traveler, you have to be flexible, think on your feet, do your research and make plans but be willing to ditch those plans on a dime if something better comes along, be able to tolerate feeling like a clueless tourist and let it humble you a bit.
You must enjoy being unceremoniously ripped from your comfort zone, be fully present and appreciate the priceless moments and also be able to laugh when things go horribly wrong – and they will. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable for long stretches and still manage to keep a good attitude. It is an adventure, after all. Things are going to happen. That’s the point.
You have to do all of the mental labor and it can be a lot. There is no travel partner to ask for advice, bounce ideas off, go grab you a coffee from the cafe down the street when you’re too jet lagged to get out of bed, or just get a second opinion on a trip decision. It’s a lot of work in that respect. It’s just you, and sometimes the kindness of strangers. One of my goals this next trip is to get better at meeting people and making new friends. I tend to stay to myself too much when I travel.
I try to learn at least basic conversational skills of the native language where I’m going. I learned some Czech but not enough to get by. That is a mistake I won’t repeat. I read up on the history and current politics of places before I go. I recommend learning as much as you can about the place before your trip. This enriches the experience.
Where to next?
My destinations list is long.
Are you against traveling with others?
Not at all! But I have not met anyone yet who likes to go to similar places as me and who wants to travel together. Plenty of people say they want to go but aren’t willing to put in the effort and investment needed to actually make it happen. I am all for traveling with someone else or even a small group, but it has to be right for everyone involved. Traveling can be really stressful, and everyone travels in their own way. Finding a good fit can be challenging.
What is your favorite trip story?
I’ll make a separate page for my favorite trip stories but here’s one. I hung out with some National Geographic photographers in southern Iceland one evening and it was a highlight of the trip. Those guys were a blast. We bonded over Viking beers and a mutual burning hatred of the tour buses.
Everyone in Iceland hates the tour buses. They’re 60-person monstrosities that fly up and down Ring Road, a two-lane road that often has no shoulder, and they go to each scenic spot of interest along the road and dump out a horde of tourists who flood the area. The bus pulls up and out pour a bunch of complaining, noisy tourists in pastel collared shirts and fanny packs – mostly Americans.
Imagine standing by a pristine waterfall in a lush green countryside, quiet other than the distant roar of of falling water and occasional bleating of baby lambs, a bucolic scene brimming with natural beauty, and then comes this giant black tour bus roaring into the parking lot, kicking up gravel and dust and blocking in half the cars. A crowd of people depart en masse and shove toward the front, push others out of the way and generally act rude and entitled, take a bunch of pictures for 15 minutes and bitch about the weather, then pile all back on the bus to go ruin the next spot. It was that day when I finally, perfectly understood why everyone hates American tourists.
My recommendation if you go to Iceland’s Ring Road is to track down the tour bus schedules, memorize them and then avoid them at all costs. Unfortunately, my Vik road trip ended up coinciding with one tour bus’s itinerary and I had two separate run-ins with the same damn bus group in one day.
Ring Road has not yet caught up with the tourist influx and it’s just not made for 60-person buses yet. It’s similar to driving a Hotard bus down a country road at 70 mph. The infrastructure and tourism industry – including availability of hotels and places to stay – in Iceland is still struggling to catch up to demand. AirBnBs in Reykjavik were selling out for summer by end of April last year.
I’d had a bad experience with a tour bus group person earlier that day – I got shoulder-checked by some douchebag from Boston at Reynisfjara beach outside of Vik and almost knocked down. He never even stopped much less apologized. Words were exchanged. I was sitting at a bar by the harbor in Reykjavik that evening after dinner, still a little upset and feeling down, when I met the NatGeo guys.
We proceeded to get hammered on Viking beer and Black Death shots and had a roaring good time trading travel stories and getting to know each other at that bar. By the time I stumbled back to my room, my faith in humanity was at least partially restored. It was an emotionally intense day but ended on a redemptive note thanks to those photographers and a generous bartender. That rollercoaster of extreme highs and lows was the daily norm for me in Iceland.