Trip duration: 1/15/16 to 1/24/2016
Route: Dallas => Frankfurt => Reykjavik => Berlin => Frankfurt => Dallas
Flying Method: Award redemption (36K AA miles) for DFW=>FRA roundtrip, plus cash payments for one way flights in between.
Alrighty I’m finally taking out the dusty notepad and getting this much ignored blog some loving. First trip of 2016 has been checked off the list. Oh how I missed ya, airports. kidding. This trip was planned back in April or May of 2015. My friend and I both wanted to go to Iceland and we both had some AA miles to burn. After researching the AA hubs in Europe (Paris, Heathrow, Madrid, Frankfurt) as well as taxes, fees, and connections to Reykjavik, Frankfurt became the obvious choice.
One of the Iceland attractions that draws my interest is the aurora borelis / nothern lights, which is most visible in the winter season. Okay so winter in Iceland it is (brrrrrr). Lucky for us, winter time is the off-peak season to fly to Europe from the U.S., and there are plenty of AA milesavers reward seats. We were able to snag a roundtrip economy flight between DFW and FRA for 40,000 miles per person. Using the Citi AAdvantage credit card to make this redemption, we also received 10% of the miles back (4,000). At the end we each spent 36,000 miles and paid around $100 for taxes and fees. Since we’re flying in and out of Germany, we decided to squeeze in Berlin in the itinerary. This initial trip planning is my favorite part. It’s like putting puzzles into place except there are no right or wrong ways to do it. Our final trip looked like this: 5 nights in Reykjavik, 2 nights in Berlin, and 1 night in Frankfurt/Mainz. We were able to find reasonably priced one way flights later in the year.
Land of the vikings! Prior to this trip I knew nothing about this country except it sounded really cold. Upon arrival, we located our transportation which took us to our hotel (the flybus which can be booked online ahead of time, it’s about $35~$40/person roundtrip. The bus stops at the flybus central terminal 1st and you get on smaller bus which then takes you to your respective hotels). We booked 5 nights at the Skuggi Hotel (booked via expedia) and would definitely recommend this place (free breakfast btw. It helped tremendously since meals are very expensive in Iceland). Here are the highlights from our visit and some random facts:
- 70% of the Iceland population lives in Reykjavik. The #1 source of income in the country is fishing, #2 is tourism.
- The sun does not rise until 10am, and it goes down at around 6pm during the winter time. It makes mornings pretty useless (perfect for sleeping in).
- Icelandair has free stop-over in Iceland (up to 7 days i think) if you’re traveling between the U.S. and Europe.
- The Golden Circle tour is a do. It takes all day but well worth it. We prebooked the tour through viator. The hotel desk was able to call and modify our reservation to include a stop at the thermal pools in Fontana (sadly the widely popular Blue Lagoon was closed for upgrade the week we were there so we didn’t get to go there). I enjoyed the volcano heated thermal pools so no disappointment there. We also took a dip in the nearby lake. Well only my feet and they went numb immediately. (thermal pool->sauna->ice cold lake)! yes that really happened.
- Northern Lights tour: This is very weather dependent. It seems like most operators don’t confirm it until after 5pm whether the tour that night is a go or no go. The #1 key is the clarify of the sky. If it’s cloudy, chances to see the lights are slim. However even with a clear sky there’s still no guarantee. I’d suggest doing this tour during the early part of the trip. You’ll be able to get a voucher for another day if you didn’t see the lights. The brightness of the lights ranges from 1-9. The night we did the tour the brightness level was a 2, but the sky was clear. There is not a set place they take you to for light gazing. The guide actually called it a “hunt”. She literally changed the route while we were on the way after talking to her sources on the phone. Our coach bus parked on some rural street (along with other tour buses nearby) after driving an hour northwest of Reykjavik. I guess they all use similar sources. We got out of the bus, stared at the sky, and just waited……stared……waited……and waited some more. After about 30 mins of the miserable cold and nothingness, we were told to get back on the bus and maybe we might catch a glimpse on the way back. Before the driver took off, he exclaimed and pointed at one direction. Apparently, that was the lights!!! YAY!!!!!! The lights weren’t as big and vibrant as what I’d seen on ads and brochures, but the phenomenal was still VERY mind blowing. The lights actually look better on those fancy cameras than what you actually see. Regardless, mission accomplished and i couldn’t be happier. 🙂
- Lava caving tour: I’d have to say this is my favorite tour. The caves were formed from the volcanic processes. Inside the cave you can see the lava formation on the ceiling which has been there from hundreds of years ago. We crawled, got on all-4’s, squat-walked, planked…etc. What can i say, I’m a sucker for non-traditional things.
- Museumes: We visited the National Museum of Iceland as well as the Saga Museum. My personal favorite is the saga museum. It’s a 30 minute audio assisted tour with scenes and historic figures….it explained the history of Iceland in a story form.
- My favorite foods in Iceland are the meat soup (with lamb-must try), skyr drinks/desserts (it’s almost like yogurt but is a type of soft cheese), and hotdogs from BBP (they do take CC now). We also tried puffin meat, mink whale, raw lamb at a tapas restaurant, and a sample of fermented shark from the fish market (mehhhhh). The delicacies are fun to try, but the common food the locals eat are fish and lamb. We also took a shot of the brennivin (Icelandic clear liquor). I forgot how it tasted but wouldn’t want to try it again. lol.
There are many more places to see in Iceland, and you get a different experience visiting in different seasons. I’d love to go back and maybe do a road trip in the summer time.
Here are some shots from the trip: The Hallgrimskirka church at around 10am and view from the church tower, pics from the Golden Circle tour (geysir eruption, Gullfoss waterfalls, thermal pool), and some random images in Reykjavik.
Some more pics of Reykjavik and pics from the lava tubes.
We didn’t spend too much time in Germany since this was more of a side trip. We spent 2 nights in the Alexanderplaz area in Berlin (Park Inn via booking.com). We took the bus from the airport to the hotel which only costs 2.70 euros (as compared to 40 plus euros in taxi fare).
During our short visit in Berlin, we did a city walking tour to maximize our time. Of course most of the city history revolves around world war l and world war ll. You can’t really see the remnants from the wars as buildings were rebuilt, wall torn, and damages erased. However the many memorials and museums in the city serve as a constant reminder of what happened in the past. It was definitely some heavy stuff to absorb. Our tour included: Brandenburg gate, Checkpoint Charlie, Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe, Hitler’s bunker (we stood on top of it which is now a parking lot), Berlin Wall, Reichstag Building…and the constant reference to Schinkel the architect. It was a very interesting day but info overloaded, and hella cold. =P Berlin was alot colder than Reykjavik (i didn’t expect that). We had to thaw our fingers and toes at a starbucks after the tour ended.
After Berlin we made our way back to Frankfurt. Our one hour flight was delayed for more than an hour because it started snowing in the morning. We got lucked out that it snowed “after” our tour and not “during”. Once arrived in Frankfurt, we took a train to Mainz to the hotel (Hyatt Regency for 12,000 hyatt gold passport points). Trains in Frankfurt are really convenient, and also really confusing. After a little bit of hiccup we finally found our stop and made our way to the hotel. Mainz is a quaint town with Rhine river serving as a border between nearby cities. The main city area has an old town vibe with cobblestone streets and cute colorful buildings.
So here are some i wish i knew’s from our trip:
- Double check the airline’s baggage policy prior to purchasing the ticket. We scored some fabulous one way ticket on AirBerlin for our Reykjavik to Berlin, and Berlin to Frankfurt flights. Little did we know, the baggage policy differs based on the fare class. Most of those short haul flights won’t let you carry on a backpacking backpack so we had to check ours in. We ended up paying $35ish per person for the Reykjavik to Berlin flight. It’s also cheaper to prepay instead of paying the day of at the counter.
- You can literally fly between Europe without anyone asking to see your passport upon landing. But, there are multiple layers of security checks when you fly back to the US from Frankfurt, even at the departing gate and when you have global entry. In a way it’s good to be vigilant for our own safety, at the same time it just doesn’t seem very efficient.
So who’s ready for another trip?! 🙂