03 March 2015

Iceland in the Winter

There really is only one reason to decide to go to Iceland in the middle of winter and that is to try and see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis).  That was my primary objective several months beforehand when I decided to sketch out plans for the trip,  I even piqued the interest of some friends, who ultimately decided to go along.

The idea for the trip was triggered by a mailing I received from the travel arm of the Harvard Alumni Association.  They were offering an itinerary that fit right in with a long weekend over the Presidents' Day holiday.  I kept this in mind throughout the summer.  When I called to try and start the process of reserving slots, they told me that they were filled already, which surprised me a little since it was still several months away and it had not been close to being filled when I checked a couple of months beforehand.

Not to be deterred, I started to check out other options for doing the tour.  The Harvard tour centered on using Icelandair, so I checked on their website.  I found that they offered many tour package options of their own, including building your own tour itinerary.  It turned out that we could build an itinerary very close to what the Harvard tour was going to do (minus the academic lecturers coming along) and pick a schedule that fit better with our needs than the Harvard tour.

After consulting with my friends, I was set to put the package together.  The website let you pick from their hotel options, their flight options and a long list of packaged tour activities.  So we built our agenda to fly out of JFK Airport, pre-book our airport transfers, stay at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica, and select three tour excursions (including one extending into the evening to look for the Northern Lights).  It was easy to do, gave us the departure date that worked better than the Harvard date, and even came in at significantly less than the Harvard package price (due to one less tour excursion and fewer meals provided.  Once booked, we only had to book our positioning flights for New York and we would be set.  I also had one adjustment to make:  rather than sit in the Economy section of the Icelandair flights, I paid a surcharge to upgrade to the Economy Comfort section.  It wouldn't be Business Class (which I thought would only be of marginal value over the benefits of Economy Comfort).

We booked early-morning departures from the West Coast (me from SFO and my friends from LAX) into JFK.  Conveniently, United and Icelandair use the same terminal at JFK, so upon arrival, we did not have to leave the security area to get to our Icelandair gate.  We just had to make sure and handle the passport check at the gate prior to boarding.  Our flight to Keflavik Airport/Reykjavik did not depart until 10 pm, so we just hung out in United's space.  One benefit of Economy Comfort is use of the lounges, but we stuck with the United Lounge, since I had access to the Global First Lounge.

Another benefit of economy Comfort is use of a separate boarding line.  Initially, they started boarding the Economy section.  However, after a few minutes, a separate agent began boarding the Business Class and economy Comfort passengers.  One of the things I was confused about was where I was sitting.  On the website and seating chart websites, there is Business Class (called Saga Class) with 2+2 seating, Economy Comfort with 3+3 seating with the middle seat blocked, and then regular Economy with full 3+3 seating.  I was assigned (in both directions) a seat in the 2+2 seating area.  Upon boarding, I discovered why.  On the seating websites, the Icelandair 757 planes are described as having 6 rows of Saga Class, 12 rows of economy Comfort, and the rest as Economy.  Perhaps to adjust for demand (I don't know if this was seasonal or permanent), the designate Saga Class and Economy Comfort Class rows were fewer than the expected number.  They ended the Saga Class section with a curtain divider after row 4.  So my seat was normally a Saga Class seat (wider than the Economy seat).  And looking towards the back of the plane, I could see that Economy Comfort did not go back to row 19.  My added seating bonus was that no one ended up sitting next to me!

I should note at this point that Icelandair is very strict on luggage sizing, particularly if the flight is running full.  If the rollaboard does not meet the European standard (which is 5 cm smaller than the U.S. standard, they will gate-check the bag (there is a sizer at the gate).  I had feared this might be the case and purposely crammed a five-day trip into my smaller 20-inch rollaboard and had no problems.

Our overnight flight was going to time in at a quick 4 hours and 50 minutes.  At best, I was hoping for a quick nap.  With Economy Comfort, I also received in-flight food for free (anything I wanted from the buy-on-board menu) and free earphones.  They also let us off the plane before the Economy passengers disembarked.

It's a little bit of a walk from the non-Schengen gates, passport control and  the Schengen gates to baggage claim.  Icelandair was pretty quick on the baggage delivery, so I had pulled my friends' luggage from the carousel by the time we met up.  From there, it was straight out to the buses.  Our printed vouchers allowed us to bypass the tickets line.  Outside, it was dark and there were two buses loading up for the transfer to the city.  Once we figured out which was the company matching our tickets, we were soon off for the 45-minute ride into Reykjavik.  The bus would drop all passengers at their designated hotel.  We ended up being the last stop.

As part of purchasing the tour components through Icelandair, our hotel was supposed to have our rooms available for early check-in (by 10:00 am at the latest).  We arrived at the hotel around 9:00 am.  After a about an hour. my friends were able to go to their room.  For some reason, my room took a bit longer.  In the meantime, I confirmed that they had my Hilton number on file with the reservation (I had to call it in separately after making the reservation through the Icelandair package).  They had it, but their system did not talk directly to the Hilton main system, so they did not know I had Hilton Diamond status.  After they verified my status in the back room, they gave me a key to access the Executive Lounge, where I waited a little more for my room.  Breakfast service was still out in the lounge, but I had already had breakfast at the buffet in the main restaurant.  The lounge also had a very generous evening selection of hot and cold finger foods and happy-hour beverages.

My single person room was small but perfectly fine.

To start off our Iceland adventure, we signed up for an afternoon tour of Reykjavik.  The minibus stopped by the hotel on schedule to take us to the central terminal for Reykjavik Excursions, where we found the bus for our tour.  The metropolitan area of Reykjavik has a population of about 220,000 (two-thirds of the population of Iceland and less than half the population of the city of San Francisco) and so didn't feel very dense.  Buses were the only form of mass transit and, and there were a few 4-lane expressway roads in and out of the city.  We stopped at The Pearl, a facility build atop water tanks on a hill, for a city view, as well as Hallgrimskirkja Church, and the house where Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev met once.

 After our tour, the bus took everyone back to our respective hotels.  Since it had been a long day, we decided that the Executive Lounge food would be enough for dinner and then called it a night.

The next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast in the main restaurant (it came with our hotel room rate package).  Soon after, the Reykjavik Excursions bus came to take us back to tour bus central to board our bus for the Reykjanes Peninsula and Blue Lagoon tour.  The weather started out a little cloudy, but eventually turned out to be a very nice (but cold) day.

 We were allowed to climb this wedge out to almost the edge for a view out across the rift valley and the ocean.
The tour took us to some geothermal areas, lots of lava fields, a lobster bisque lunch, and several views of where the mid-Atlantic Ridge intersects and creates more of Iceland.

The last stop on this tour was the Blue Lagoon, where the bus would leave us if we wanted.  We could then take a bus back from there to our hotel.  The Blue Lagoon is a large, man-made geothermal pool facility.  The price of admission was not included in the tour, but we decided to go anyway since we were there.  You go in, shower, put on a swimsuit (your own or rented) and then go in and enjoy the waters.  There is food an drink to purchase (charged to your electronic wristband).

You just wander the different connected pool areas.  The bottom can be uneven with cobblestones or covered with a soft clay.  The temperature of the water changes as you approach or move away from the areas where the geothermally-heated water is fed into the pools.

When we returned to our hotel, we found a message from our tour operator for the next day (which wasn't Reykjavik Excursions) which said they were canceling all their excursions due to predicted inclement weather.  Unfortunately, this was the tour that included the search for the Northern Lights in the evening.  We called the tour provider to let them know that there was no alternate date we could do so we would be requesting a refund.  We then gathered brochures in the hotel lobby to look at other options.  We called Reykjavik Excursions and they were not yet canceling their daytime tours for the next day.  We decided we would wait until the morning when the local tour desk opened to see what we could book as a substitute activity.

Come morning, we were among the first in line at the tour desk.  We decided that we needed to do the Golden Circle Tour, which is the most popular highlights tour.  It was the same tour route we were going to do with the other tour company but would not include the Northern Lights activity.
The Golden Circle tour included a stop at a greenhouse farm, a geyser park with the Icelandic version of Old Faithful (Strokkur, a geyser with a regular eruption schedule), the Skogafoss waterfalls and ├×ingvellir National Park, with another view of a Mid-Atlantic Ridge rift valley..

 Our day started out overcast but fairly dry. As the day progressed and our altitude increased, the weather became wetter and windier.  After lunch, we had two more stops and both in the midst of extremely windy and wet weather.  It was a challenge to walk to some of the viewing sites, and despite getting totally wet, we persevered, if only to take a few quick photos.

Upon our return to the hotel, we went back tot he Tour Desk to make or bus reservations for our airport transfer the next day.

The next day was our departure day, but the flight was not scheduled for departure until 4:00 pm.  We had enough time to head back into central Reykjavik for more sightseeing.  The hotel has a nice service where you can sign out for a free bus pass good for up to four people.  This made getting into the center of town very easy and quick.  Fortunately, although it was cloudy, there was no precipitation.

We returned to the hotel in time to retrieve our luggage (The hotel granted me a late check-out as a Diamond member) and head downstairs early.  We were early enough to catch the bus that was a half-hour before our scheduled reservation.  We had a stop at the central tour bus terminal to fill up the bus with passengers, and then we were off.

The Economy Comfort/Saga Class check-in was fast (no lines).  There was not priority lane at security but the queue was not long.  It turned out that our flight was delayed by an hour because of a late inbound aircraft.

There is only one Icelandair Lounge and it's located in the Schengen area before passport control.  Their rules said that I am not allowed guests, so my friends went ahead through passport control while I hung out for a little while in the Saga Lounge.  The hot/savory food was just okay, but the dessert offerings were several and plentiful.  When I had my fill, I went through passport control (not much of a line) and rejoined my friends.

When we finally boarded, I was again in a 2+2 seat in Economy Comfort.  The food menu choices were the same as the outbound flight.  When we landed in New York, it was colder than it ever was in Iceland.  Global Entry got me through immigration and customs quickly.  We headed into Manhattan for an overnight stay (the evening arrival of the flight made it difficult to connect to transcontinental flights to the West Coast).  On Presidents' Day, we headed back to West Coast to complete our Icelandic holiday.

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