The Real Iceland Experience

I was fortunate to visit Iceland for the third time last week. It’s hard to stay away with Wow Airlines making fares to the small and uniquely beautiful North Atlantic Island so cheap. What made the trip even more affordable was that my wife’s expenses were paid. She designed an alternative spring break course for 12 university students to visit Iceland and study sustainable business practices. Iceland, being one of the more sustainable and energy independent nations on earth, was the perfect place for it. I, of course, had to tag along.

My itinerary broke away from the group for a couple days as I traveled by car from Reykjavik to Stokksnes way out in east Iceland – a 6 hour drive total. I stopped along the way to photograph some places I’d been to before, as well as some new locations. I slept in the back of the rental car at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, as a cold wind roared over Iceland’s largest glacier and snow pounded the car windows. It was a frigid and restless night, but the following morning revealed some spectacular sights and excellent photo opportunities. 

Kirkjufell at Sunrise, Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Kirkjufell at Sunrise, Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Challenges: Bad Weather and Tourists

Winter in Iceland is harsh (though, ironically, it was colder and snowier back home that week). I experienced about every type of rough weather that Iceland could throw at me during my two-day south coast road trip. Day one, alone, included rain, sleet, heavy snow, light hail, high winds in excess of 40 MPH, and temperatures well below freezing. Low hanging clouds covered most of the landscape and whole mountain ranges were not visible for almost the entire day. Photography was challenging in these conditions.

While shooting the view over the Reynisfjara sea stacks from Dyrhólaey, I was perched high on a cliff where winds were strongest. I had to hold my tripod with both hands while shooting. I was using a polarizer and 6-stop neutral density filter for long exposures. I needed to blur the waves as they fanned out across the shoreline in just the right curve. It was raining very hard, and sideways. Using a cloth to wipe my lens between shots, I was finally able to capture the wave I was hoping for. Most of the shots show water spots on the lens, but I was lucky to get two or three out of a dozen that were spot free. The method was to wipe, press the shutter, pray, and review the image on the LCD with my gloved fingers crossed. That was the second shoot of day one (after a short hike around the Solheim Glacier, which produced few pictures), and I was already damp and tired with several hundred kilometers to go. If there is anywhere you will have to work extremely hard for your images in challenging conditions, it’s Iceland.

Dyrhólaey

Dyrhólaey

The long drive from Vik to Jökulsárlón provided zero photo opportunities. Rain, sleet, then snow, obscured my views of the moss-covered lava fields that I was hoping to capture. I arrived at Jökulsárlón and the glacial lagoon to find no change in the conditions. I took a walk around the lagoon, and later the famous “Diamond Beach,” in the rain without any camera gear simply to get a sense of the place I had come so far to photograph. My original plan was to shoot the icebergs at Jökulsárlón and scoot on down Route 1 to Höfn an hour east to photograph sunset at the mountains of Stokksnes. I wanted to sleep in Höfn and return to Jökulsárlón for sunrise. That didn’t happen. Nature has little empathy for a photographer’s plans. The weather was obviously not going to let up as heavy snow began to fall and the winds became dangerous. Realizing that it had taken me much longer to get to Jökulsárlón than anticipated and that the clouds were going to snuff out any possible sunset, I decided to hunker down at Jokulsarlon and get some much needed sleep (I had not slept for 3 full days…long story).

After a long, cold, and uncomfortable night in the back of a RAV4 with nothing but a 30 degree sleeping bag (thinking, “why do I do this to myself?”), and having eaten nothing the day before other than an energy bar and gas station muffin, I arose at 5AM to find the beach and lagoon already swarmed with buses, tourists, and photo workshops. It was amazing. I had seen more-than-average crowds at popular spots the day before, but why were so many people way out in east Iceland at 5AM? (See my article: Is Iceland Overcrowded?) Noticing the precipitation had stopped and the sun was peaking under the dark clouds on the far horizon, I made a split decision. I would relieve myself of the crowds and book it over to Stokksness for sunrise. It was risky. I had an hour and a half until sunrise and it was an hour and ten minutes from where I was, but I decided it was worth a try. Stokksnes was at the top of my shot list, and I was going to shoot it come hell or high water…and high water there was.

Along the gorgeous drive to Höfn in decent weather I saw reindeer, fields of grazing horses, and glacier carved mountains. The light was coming through the dark clouds, which no longer covered the snow-capped mountain peaks. It was nothing short of magical. I quickly realized in my sleepy underfed daze that the light wouldn’t last. I had to make another decision, either continue to Stokksnes and hope I don’t miss the light, or stop at one of the designated pull-offs along the way to shoot the pink alpenglow that was forming on the mountaintops. I decided to shoot what was in front of me.

Mountains in East Iceland

Mountains in East Iceland

I pulled over at the next available pull-off (one that tourists are allowed to stop at), jerked my camera out of the bag, selected a lens, popped it on my tripod and shot three or four images of the pink sunrise kissing the snowy mountains. I expected this glorious light to bathe the majority of the mountains from top to bottom, but instead, it only grazed the peaks and vanished within maybe 60 seconds. The resulting images are among my favorites from the trip, so I’m glad I stopped.

By the time I arrived at Stokksnes, parked, paid my entrance fee (unexpected), and drove out along the beach access road for the best view, clouds had formed and completely snuffed out the morning light. It became so dark and overcast that the color images I shot actually look like black and whites at first glance. The mountains at Stokksnes are made of black rock and sand. The peaks and folds were sprinkled with snow. Only the tall grass along the shores gave any color. It’s a barren and ominous place when the clouds take over. 

It All Comes Crashing Down

Despite it being just after sunrise, tourists and other photographers had already trampled the beach. Getting the classic composition of the rolling black sand dunes in the foreground was not possible due the scattered footprints. There were several vanloads of photographers on workshops and two camper vans (one camper van was stuck in the sand and some of the photographers were helping to dig it out). I counted 40 people on the beach that morning. I am still amazed at how many people were out on that beach in the middle of nowhere in Iceland in March. Luckily, about the time I found some good spots to shoot from the crowds had all but moved on entirely. I almost had the place to myself. I set up on a rocky bit of coastline, examining the height of the waves. I wanted a long exposure of the waves crashing and flowing through the rocks in my foreground, the beach in the middle, and the craggy mountains of Stokksnes in the back. I set up in what I thought was a safe and dry spot. Just before I pressed the shutter for my first shot, a large and unexpected wave crashed into me, soaking me from the chest down and drenching my camera gear! The next wave didn’t even come close. It was a strange fluke. No other wave came crashing up the rocks that high. I was wet, cold, hungry, and pissed. I clambered back up to the sandy dunes, dried my gear with a towel, and sat in the car for a few minutes, trying to gather my composure and warm up in the air conditioning.

Stokksnes

Stokksnes

After I had cooled down in temperament and warmed up in body temperature, I headed back out to the beach and pulled off a few decent exposures of Stokksnes. Then it was back to Jökulsárlón, stopping once to photograph a herd of Reindeer running along a beach (another magical moment). I arrived around 9AM to find hardly any parking. I expected more crowds around this time, but was still shocked at just how many people were there. It seemed that every automobile sized iceberg at Jökulsárlón had 10 photographers pointing lenses at it. Regular tourists flocked from iceberg to iceberg taking selfie after selfie. It was a nightmare for a working travel photographer with a shot list. Getting an image without anyone else in it was a big challenge. I joined the swarm after finding a parking spot on the beach. I knew the shot I wanted, so I set up my equipment in advance. This time I didn’t want to get wet, so I slipped on the rubber rain boots I packed. I walked up and down the beach looking for the least populated spot and settled on a big blue iceberg sitting in the black sand about the size of a small car. I wanted the waves to encircle it so I could capture the action of the sea foam swirling around the iceberg. Gaging the waves, I determined that I would probably only get my knee-high boots wet up to my ankles. I composed my image and just as I was about to press the shutter release, noticed a wave coming closer, it seemed to quadruple in height by the millisecond – crashing over the iceberg and enveloping me from the waist down. Foiled again! The following swell brought the water, which had been barely touching my toes minutes earlier, over the tops of my boots – filling them with frigid salt water. I stood in amazement. I could not believe this happened to me twice in one morning!

Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

I hobbled back to the car with squishy boots to find that someone had parked so close to the driver side that I could not open the door. I was so mad the water in my boots started to boil (seemed that way anyway). I emptied my boots on the passenger side and climbed over to the driver’s seat to park elsewhere. After repeating the same drying off ritual as I had at Stokksness, I returned to the beach and to the same iceberg – this time getting my shot. I then went over the to glacier lagoon to shoot the icebergs floating in the calm water. I forgot how cold and damp I still was once I started examining the various shapes, sizes, colors, textures, and patterns of each iceberg. I got into my “zone” and forgot the crowd buzzing around me. By noon, I had a much better outlook (tons of images and much dryer clothes). The sky was clear and the light became harsh, so instead of making any stops on the way back to Reykjavik, I simply enjoyed the ride through natural scenes that were too cloudy to see the day before. I joined back up with my wife and her tour group, had some excellent Indian food (my first real meal in two days), and enjoyed the comfort of a warm bed.

Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

Things Are Looking Up

The remainder of the trip went rather smoothly compared to the first few days. The weather was generally more cooperative and I enjoyed tagging along with my wife’s group of students as we toured the Golden Circle and ate amazing burgers and ice cream at Efsti Dalur – an organic dairy farm near Geysir. The next day, I got to have an experience I had never had before. I rode an Icelandic horse (rather nervously, but I got use to it) across the snowy fields of Hveragerði surrounded by mountains. This was my first horseback riding experience, and though it was a bumpy ride, it was as majestic as you might expect. The day ended with a great dinner at Icelandic Fish & Chips.

Riding Icelandic horses in Hveragerði

Riding Icelandic horses in Hveragerði

My wife built a free day into her itinerary so we could go to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula alone. Waking at 4AM, we drove to Kirkjufellsfoss on icy roads. This day, there were very few others out and about. A few photographers were already at Kirkjufell when we arrived just before sunrise, but not nearly as many as I was expecting based on my experiences earlier in the week. Sunrise was spectacular, and I made images of both Kirkjufellsfoss and Kirkjufell Mountain in the bright and colorful morning light. It was by far the most photographically productive morning of the whole week. We even saw a few seals in the bay!

Kirkjufell at Sunrise, Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Kirkjufell at Sunrise, Snaefellsnes Peninsula

We continued around the peninsula and through the national park, stopping occasionally until we had visited every spot on our list. We finished early and decided to head over to a waterfall that we had never been to, Hraunfossar. Despite it being sunny, it was the coldest day of the trip and very windy. Because we arrived at the falls in the afternoon, the light was harsh and made for less than ideal conditions for photographing waterfalls. I employed my polarizer and 6-stop neutral density filter yet again and came away with several images that I was initially happy with. Back at the apartment later, I noticed I had made a critical mistake while reviewing my images. I didn’t cover my viewfinder while taking long exposures at Hraunfossar; so light leakage from the bright sun at my back caused awful purple streaks across my images. Rookie mistake…I should know better! For some reason I didn’t notice this on the LCD while I was shooting the images. At first I was devastated, then realized if nothing else, I could edit them as black and whites and the purple streaks would probably not be an issue. The winter moss was brown and drab in the afternoon sun, so black and white ended up being best anyway. I can’t believe I made such a novice mistake…lesson learned!

Hraunfossar

Hraunfossar

Still No Northern Lights

I know better than to plan a trip around a celestial event as unpredictable as the Northern Lights, but I was still really hoping to at least see, if not photograph, the aurora this time. Alas, the storm clouds never parted at night while I was out in the boonies where I could most likely see them in the right conditions….maybe next time. I am happy with the images that I was able to get overall, despite the harsh winter conditions and crowded locations. As popular as Iceland has become it is still a challenging place to photograph well.

For my packing list including camera gear I used on this trip, click here.

Winter Scenes

Photography during the winter months here in the Blue Ridge Mountains is a challenge. It's been an unusually warm winter; and when there is no snow, I'm left trying to squeeze out exposures of brown forest floor and grey tree trunks. Not the most appealing of subjects. We've only had one major snow this season. Couple the lack of snow, which helps to simplify nature scenes, with the fact that the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed most of the winter, and photography becomes extra challenging. Elusive wildlife and waterfall scenes, generally developed as black and whites, are about all that there is to shoot. More than ever, I'm excited for summer. 

Ice on Roaring Creek after the first big snow of 2017.

Ice on Roaring Creek after the first big snow of 2017.

Despite the challenges of warm-winter photography here in Appalachia, I've been able to capture a few scenes that I'm happy with. My favorite being an image of sunset over Elk River Falls - a notoriously difficult subject. I've never been able to capture a good scene there in all the years I've visited the huge waterfall. Desperate for something better than black and white winter forest scenes, I drove out to Elk River without a camera to scout potential compositions and to find out where the sun sets around the waterfall this time of year. In the summer, the sun sets to the far side of the falls and lights one side, casting the other in dark shadow. This makes getting an even exposure difficult. It also means the colors of sunset are hidden behind trees. On my scouting trip, I found that the sun sets directly behind the falls this time of year. That means that once the sun has completely gone over the horizon, the colors will light up the sky right above the falls. I returned the next evening. 

Unlike the previous day, I was the only person there on the evening of my shoot at Elk River Falls. I arrived knowing exactly how I wanted to shoot it - I just needed to work out a composition or two. I used a polarizer to help saturate colors and remove glare on the water and used a 3-stop ND grad filter to even out the exposure. The foreground was significantly darker than the sky above, so the ND grad worked perfectly. This image was a lot of physical work! I wasn't happy with the traditional up-close-head-on view of the falls because there was no foreground interest. So, I decided, just as the pinkish hues of sunset were lighting up the sky, to clamber over a dotted line of huge boulders that stuck up out of the deep river. With my tripod fully extended and used as a walking stick, I hopped and crawled my way out into the middle of the river and onto a car-size boulder that was sloped at 45 degrees. I set up my wet tripod (which was very wet from being plunged into the water to find stability) and balanced myself precariously. The ideal spot would have been a few more feet over, but there were no more "stepping stones," just 6 foot deep rushing rapids. My slanted boulder would have to do. I made several exposures and in near complete darkness managed to get back onto the bank without getting myself or any of my gear wet except for the tripod. Success! 

The resulting images are the only ones I've seen of Elk River Falls from that perspective (as of this writing). It's a bit of an accomplishment. I've finally got my good image of Elk River Falls and managed to get a shot that no one else has, which is a big deal in the 21st century. 

Elk River Falls Sunset

Elk River Falls Sunset

Elk River Falls Sunset

Elk River Falls Sunset

(c) Jon Reaves Photography. All rights reserved.

Behind the Image: Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland

Cold, wet, windy, and miserable, welcome to Iceland! You know all those images by other photographers of perfectly clear skies or amazingly colorful sunsets in the Icelandic landscape? I've yet to experience that. I've been to Iceland twice now and have only seen the clouds part for minutes at a time, typically only on the final day of my trip. To be fair, both of my trips were during the most extreme seasons of weather conditions: Spring and Fall. Just like here in the Blue Ridge where I live, Iceland's transitional seasons have the most unpredictable and uncomfortable weather, with summer being the most pleasant. I'm about to return for a third time this coming March. It'll be late winter going on spring, so I'll probably experience the same wet and frigid weather I've come to consider the norm for Iceland. I'm definitely expecting to. Let's hope the sky clears enough to see northern lights next time. Despite the conditions, being battered by wind and constantly wet and cold, I came home from my October 2016 trip with a few images I'm proud of. I sure had to work hard for them. The image below of famous Kirkjufellsfoss is one of my favorites.

Cloudy Skies at Kirkjufellsfoss, Snaefellsness Peninsula, Iceland. (Nikon D600, 18-35G, Sirui T-025x Carbon Fiber Tripod w/ C-10 Ball Head, 26mm, f14, 1/4 sec, ISO 80)

Cloudy Skies at Kirkjufellsfoss, Snaefellsness Peninsula, Iceland. (Nikon D600, 18-35G, Sirui T-025x Carbon Fiber Tripod w/ C-10 Ball Head, 26mm, f14, 1/4 sec, ISO 80)

Good travel photographers always make a shot list. If it's not written down, it's at least a mental list. I always have a few shots and locations in mind that I really want to capture. Many of the things on my list were on the Snaefellsness Peninsula, and Kirkjufellsfoss was at the top of it. This famous waterfall near the base of Kirkjufell mountain is popular among photographers. Actually, that's an big understatement. Kirkjufellsfoss has become one of those iconic, signature symbols of Iceland. It's everybody's "trophy shot." I don't mind photographing things that have been "shot to death" as long as I can put my own spin on it. Having seen thousands of similar photos of this waterfall/mountain combination, I knew I would have to work hard to create an image that was a little bit different.

Normally, creating a unique image of a heavily photographed subject means shooting it at a different time of year, or under different lighting or weather conditions, than most other photographers. I hoped a unique sunrise would be the answer. I'd just let the weather do the work of creating atmosphere and color and I would compose and shoot. Every sunrise is different, right? I arrived just before sunrise (after a two hour drive from Reykjavik in rain and darkness) to find only dense and ominous clouds. There would be no colorful sunrise that morning. There were four other photographers there already, all set up with cameras on big tripods tricked out with ND filters and polarizers. They were all in a line side-by-side above the falls and shooting at eye-level standing. Essentially, they were all going for the same shot. I assumed they were part of a workshop, but they all dispersed later in different vehicles after only a few minutes of shooting. I gave the scene a wide birth on my way up to the top of the waterfall so I wouldn't be in their shots. Walking behind them, I could see on their LCD's that they were all, in fact, going for the same composition: a wide shot of the waterfall in the foreground, Kirkjufell in the back, and the ocean out on the horizon. It's the typical shot of Kirkjufellsfoss from above. One guy hiked down below the waterfall for the second most typical composition. I waited a moment to see what everybody was doing; I didn't want to plant myself in another photographer's foot steps for the same image. I wanted something at least a little different: my take on the Kirkjufellsfoss experience. 

It wasn't raining at the moment, which was miraculous, and the light wasn't going to change with all the dark overcast clouds as far the eye could see, so I took my time thinking through my compositions. I shot several images, never from the same spots the other guys shot from. I didn't use any filters, not even a polarizer. Though it wasn't raining yet, spray from the waterfall was coating my lens. I had to wipe between each exposure. Filters would have just added more glass to clean, and I didn't think they were necessary for this low contrast scene in the early morning twilight. It was tricky getting unique compositions. I often found myself on very narrow ledges only a few inches wide right on the cliffside. The ground was slippery and soggy, and my tripod legs kept sinking in the black mud. In the beginning, I was going for shots that included small plants and their colorful leaves carpeting the ground surrounding the falls. They were in peak Autumn color and added visual interest to the foreground. Then, I decided to get closer to the waterfall itself. I carefully walked a narrow ledge with my tripod/camera in one hand and the other clinging to the cliffside. I was eye-level with the top of the waterfall with a 20 foot drop only inches in front of my toes. It was precarious, and I was also trying hard not to disturb the moss and plant life bordering my path. Thanks to the small foot print of my travel tripod, I was able to set up on the narrow ledge. There was no room for me to get behind my camera, so I had to use live view and compose my shot while looking from the side at an angle. I made a few exposures, wiping the lens between each frame. The rain came after a few shots and water started to flow over my little ledge making it all the more soggy. As my weight caused the diminishing muddy ledge to begin to give way, I scrambled back up to level and solid ground. The very last frame I shot is the image above. It's simple, close, and compressed; almost as if it were shot using a telephoto lens. 

This shot really simplifies the scene into a few key elements. You can't see them in the image, but I've craftily hidden some man-made objects that littered the scene. First, there was some large excavation equipment (plows and backhoes) at the top of the falls. At first I grumbled about it, then decided to embrace the challenge of removing it using compositional skills instead of photoshop. Second, at the base of Kirkjufell, were rows and rows of hay bales covered in white plastic to keep them dry. They looked like marshmallows. Very distracting. I used the rock ledge, and the hill between the waterfall and mountain, to hide them. The third distraction was the road between Kirkjufell and the waterfall, which you can barely see in the image. There were cars and buses (mostly tourists like me) driving by constantly. By getting low and close, instead of shooting wide from above, I was able to hide the road and the other distractions, limiting my compositions to include the most important elements. All in all, I think this is one of my more successful shots of the trip. To read more about my experience, click here. As always, thanks for reading!

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it."
— Ansel Adams

 

(c) Jon Reaves Photography. All rights reserved.

How to Afford to Travel (Not Just for Photographers)

Maybe I should be calling this article "How I Afford to Travel", since everyone has different circumstances financially and other obligations. I can't really tell you how you can afford to travel this vast and interesting world of ours. I can, however, tell you how I make it work, and hopefully provide some tips for making travel a possibility for you. I think everyone should get out of their comfort zone and see at least one part of the world far from where they live. I think travel experience broadens the mind and provides perspective. If nothing else, you gain some new skills from the experience and a better understanding of how diverse and complex this planet is. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there that don't venture out of their comfort zone. Some have no interest to go abroad even for a long weekend, opting to sit in their living rooms watching TV and scrolling through social media feeds on their phones. Others want to travel, but are under the misconception that it is too expensive. For the latter (those of you who have a pulse), and those of you who may have been somewhere once or twice and would like to travel more often, this post is for you. I'll be writing from a photographer's perspective, but the following can apply to anyone. In the last 10 years, I've traveled to France, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Canada (three times), Iceland (two times going on three), Sweden, Boston, NYC (twice), Chicago, Milwaukee (three times - great town), Philadelphia (three times), Charleston, SC, Savannah, GA (twice), Washington, DC, and my home state of North Carolina from the mountains to the Outer Banks. Notice I have not been to Latin America, Asia, or Africa as of now. This saddens me. But at age 31 and averaging two to three trips a year, I'll get to those places eventually.

Eiffel Tower, Paris, 2008. One of my first travel images.

Eiffel Tower, Paris, 2008. One of my first travel images.

If you are an aspiring travel photographer, I need to let you in on a harsh reality. The days of being paid thousands of dollars plus expenses to shoot exotic locations for major publications is all but over. It's very nearly a fantasy. Travel publications use stock photography from people like me who fund their own trips and eventually profit from licensing images. Commisioned or assignment work is very rare in the 21st century. Don't let this discourage you. You can still make money from travel photos. You just have to foot the bill yourself, taking time to build your skills and an impressive portfolio, before you can expect to see a return. The good news is that travel is never a waste, so even if you can't become a full-time travel photographer, it is worth the effort to experience and photograph the amazing things in this world.

How I (We) Afford Travel:

Let me start by making a few things clear. I am not one of those people that sold all their belongings and took a long adventure throughout the globe (as tempting as that is). I'm not a "nomad." I am not independently wealthy, nor do I come from a filthy rich family. As of now (January 2017), I have outstanding college loans, credit card bills, and a mortgage. So, how on earth can I afford to travel internationally a couple times a year? Frankly, the financial particulars of how much my wife and I make and all that are no one's business, but here is my list of ways we save money and afford to travel.

I Sell Travel Stock Photographs

I've been pursuing photography as a career for several years now. I've had lots of ups and downs, and it took the better part of that time (while working other jobs) before I was comfortable calling myself a "professional photographer" - meaning much (but not quite all) of my income comes from photography. Mainly, I license images through a few professional and well known macro-stock agencies (including Robert Harding and Alamy). I've licensed images for editorial and commercial use to buyers all over the world. I used to do the micro-stock thing, but grew out of it. I got tired of selling several images a week for only a few bucks each, so I ended my accounts with iStock, Shutterstock, and Dreamstime and shifted the whole of my expansive portfolio of hard earned images to more serious and professional stock agencies. I make fewer image sales in the macro-stock world, but much more per image. As my portfolio grows, so does the frequency at which my images are licensed. Micro-stock is fine in some ways, but overall I found that it was too much work for too little pay. If you're amassing a large portfolio of images, you might want to consider selling stock in order to make residual income. Over time, you might even be able to make a living at it.

Me photographing a waterfall in Thingvellir National Park Iceland, 2016 (Photo by my wife, Alison)

Me photographing a waterfall in Thingvellir National Park Iceland, 2016 (Photo by my wife, Alison)

We Search for Cheap Flights on Budget Airlines...Hard

My wife, Alison, and I first visited Iceland in 2015 after hearing that a new budget airline called Wow Air offered $99 flights to Reykjavik from DC. It sounded too good to be true and a lot of people passed it up. We didn't. There was no catch, only that the $99 got you to Iceland and not back. The return flights were still some of the cheapest we had seen to any European destination, so we jumped on it. I believe the total cost for round trip tickets for two ended up being $895. Not bad. This started an addiction to the Wow Air website, and after constant searching over the course of several months, we were able to book flights for our second trip to Iceland for only $600 round trip for two. That's a great deal. The flight plus apartment totaled $1,068. When we tell people about the flight deals we find, they almost never believe us. They assume that I am confused and mean to say that the flight only totaled $1,068 each, but I know what I paid for. Wow flies from several North American airports to Reykjavik, but doesn't just stop there. You can also continue your flight from Iceland to Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, London, Alicante, and Amsterdam to name a few. That's how we got to Sweden so cheaply. We flew from Baltimore-Washington to Reykjavik, then from there to Stockholm and back for $964 round trip for two. There are other budget airlines of course, Aerlingus, Jet Blue, and Spirit Air just to name a few. 

The key to finding cheap airfare is constant search. That, and being flexible with your dates. I don't recommend using sites like Orbitz or Travelocity or whatever. They've never given me the prices I want (that's where you'll usually get ridiculously crazy fares like $1,400 per person round trip to London and that's exactly why people think travel is expensive). Instead use Google Flights, which includes budget airlines in their search results, or simply go directly to the airline's website. Other good options are Skyscanner and Momondo. I used STA for my first international trip when I was 20 because, at the time, they had the best fares for students. I believe I paid less than $500 for that round trip flight to Prague. Not too bad. 

Also, keep in mind that your local airport may not be the cheapest place to fly from. Check ones relatively nearby, too. Our nearest international airport is Charlotte-Douglas, but we rarely fly from there because few budget airlines do and their fares are nearly always much heftier than larger airports. When we fly Wow Air, we drive up to Baltimore-Washington. It's a six hour drive, but saves us several hundred dollars. It only costs a tank of gas and half a day to get to BWI, but if we added two round trip flights from Charlotte to D.C., we would be paying $300-400 extra each to get there in the same amount of time (2.5 hours drive to CLT, plus 2 hours for check in and security, plus 2 hour flight). If you live in a major city already, this isn't usually a problem. Boston, NYC, Toronto, and Los Angeles have some of the cheapest fares abroad I've ever seen.

A very cold, wet, and soggy morning on the Snaefellsness peninsula, Iceland, 2016

A very cold, wet, and soggy morning on the Snaefellsness peninsula, Iceland, 2016

Selfie in Nytorget, Stockholm, Sweden, 2016.

Selfie in Nytorget, Stockholm, Sweden, 2016.

We Choose Apartments and Use Airbnb Instead of Hotels

I do not like hotels. I do not like paying high rates and taxes and shelling out extra for crappy food. A typical hotel in a downtown area costs an arm and a leg. A typical hotel that is more affordable is probably too far out in the boonies. There's no winning. But thanks to Airbnb, hostels, and independently owned apartment rentals, there are alternatives to stuffy, expensive hotels. We search Airbnb first because it's usually where we can find the most affordable options in an area we want to stay. I love Airbnb. They have listings all over the world. I actually help run one owned by my parents here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Occasionally, the rates for an Airbnb listing may be no cheaper than a hotel or apartment (such is often the case with Reykjavik and Savannah, GA for example). Our next option is to search for an apartment rental company through a site like Booking.com. That's how we found Rey Apartments in Reykjavik. They have awesome, fully equipped apartments with full kitchens for lower rates than hotels and they're centrally located. We can typically expect to pay less than $100 per night in Reykjavik, which has a reputation for being an "expensive" place to visit. Hotels are much, much more and are not centrally located in Reykjavik. 

Then there's the hostel option. It's cost effective for sure, but my wife doesn't like to rough it or share a bathroom. The first hostel I stayed in was not your typical sleezy college kid backpacker hole in the wall where 10 people share a bathroom and sleep on cots. It was in Prague, located in the beautiful historic district. It was a large studio apartment on the top floor of a historic building with great views of the city and a fully equipped kitchen with a private full bathroom and exposed wood beams. It was also cheap. I don't remember the exact amount paid, but I'm pretty sure it was around $200 (that may have been in Euros) for the week. I wish I remembered the name of the place because I would definitely stay there again. If you're on a really tight budget, hostels are the way to go. Keep in mind that they don't have to be sleezy tenement-like accommodations, they can, in fact, be quite nice. If you're on an even tighter budget, camp. 

Prague, Czech Republic, My first international trip, 2006 (At this time I was a complete novice. This image was shot using a 4 megapixel Kodak point and shoot.)

Prague, Czech Republic, My first international trip, 2006 (At this time I was a complete novice. This image was shot using a 4 megapixel Kodak point and shoot.)

Alison looking out of the window of our Airbnb rental in Stockholm, 2016

Alison looking out of the window of our Airbnb rental in Stockholm, 2016

We Cook Our Own Meals and Embrace Cheap Eats While Traveling

One simple way to save money while traveling is to make at least one meal a day at your place (provided it has a kitchen). We typically eat out for lunch when we travel and make our own breakfasts and dinners using local products from a farmers market or grocery store. This not only saves some cash, it allows us to experience life a little more like locals than tourists. We try to stick to goods made in or popular in the country we're visiting instead of foods also available in the states. I love to cook, and spent a decade working in various restaurant kitchens from up-scale to casual, so I have experience cooking and am very comfortable with it. It's not a chore for me. In most western European cities, one trip to the grocery store for a week's worth of goods is equivalent to the average dinner out for two. That's how we are able to save money in both Stockholm and Reykjavik, which are misunderstood as a expensive food towns (check out Bonus Grocery Stores in Iceland). If you stay in a hotel, you're going to spend a ton on eating out three times a day (or simply eating their crappy "complementary" breakfast). So, rent a place with a kitchen! We do usually splurge on one dinner out on the town, however, just to make sure we're not missing out.

Alison (embarrassed) about to enjoy one of Iceland's famous (and cheap) hotdogs, 2015. Finding cheap eats is essential for budget travel.

Alison (embarrassed) about to enjoy one of Iceland's famous (and cheap) hotdogs, 2015. Finding cheap eats is essential for budget travel.

Enjoying a simple breakfast of cinnamon buns, cheese, local strawberries, and other quality grocery store goods in Stockholm, 2016.

Enjoying a simple breakfast of cinnamon buns, cheese, local strawberries, and other quality grocery store goods in Stockholm, 2016.

We're Frugal at Home and Abroad

We're not extravagant people. We have one car. We don't have cable (waste of time and money). Our mortgage is cheaper than the average monthly rent in little old Boone (the nearest town to our secluded mountain home). We're not impulse buyers and don't do much shopping. We heat our home with wood that I harvest myself. We only eat out once a week and it's usually for less than $20 total (not many great restaurants in our area anyway). I cook every other night and keep our meals under five bucks each despite using the best organic produce and products I can get (it's all about smart budgeting!). I also grow a small garden, which helps offset food cost greatly. We even make about nine out of every ten loaves of bread we eat and make our own laundry detergent. All those little things add up to big savings. I like to be as self-sufficient as possible. My wife enjoys canning and preserving produce as well. All of these easy-to- learn skills help us keep our bills down so we can more easily save for travel. 

If you're not the homesteading type, there are still was to save in your day-to-day life. I feel like these options are obvious, but also feel the necessity of stating them. Quit smoking. It blows my mind that anyone smokes cigarettes in the 21st century, but lots of people do. In our area, a pack of cigarettes averages $5-7. A pack a day chain smoker, at minimum, pays over $1,800 a year for cigarettes. That's crazy. That's also more than enough money to go to Paris, or Costa Rica, or Thailand, or wherever you want to go! In fact, I'm confident that I could squeeze two awesome trips for me and my wife out of $1,800. So, when a smoker (and this does happen to me) tells me travel is too expensive, I'm thinking, "more expensive than cancer?" Other vices include daily coffee purchases. Cut out Starbucks. Make coffee at home. It's easy. We very rarely go out for coffee. Buy a french press and a pound of quality grounds, doctor it up any way you like, and watch the savings pile up! It never ceases to amaze me that people will spend $3-5 a day on a cup of Tanzanian-mocha-soy-latte-jiminy-crickets-gluten-free-cold-brew-caramel whatever. That's another $1,800 a year! Another biggy is eating out often. That gets expensive fast, even with fast food. Cook at home. Plan out meals and stick to a strict budget. Believe it or not, you don't have to skimp on quality to save money at the grocery store either. Meals consisting of real food (aka "whole foods") are not only better for you than salty-preservative-riddled junk food and pre-prepared crap, they actually cost less in the long run. Say you go to McDonald's (or wherever) 3 times a week for breakfast or lunch, if you order a value meal every time, you're going to spend $5-7. That's $15 a week minimum, or $780 a year. That's a plane ticket at least (plus, your arteries are in bad shape). Trust me, $15 a week goes a lot farther at the grocery store in meat and produce than at any fast food restaurant. 

Ross Island Lighthouse, Grand Manan, Canada, 2011. I shot this image on a small and remote island in the Bay of Fundy during my second trip to Grand Manan. This little side trip was free, no boats or ferries; I simply had to walk to the island at low tide.

Ross Island Lighthouse, Grand Manan, Canada, 2011. I shot this image on a small and remote island in the Bay of Fundy during my second trip to Grand Manan. This little side trip was free, no boats or ferries; I simply had to walk to the island at low tide.

We Don't Have Kids

And here we arrive at the big elephant in the room. Readers with kids are now forming judgments about me and my wife without reading further. We don't have kids. That does, obviously, make it much easier for us to save money and travel and have lots of time and flexibility. Having kids does not have to mean that all of your dreams of world travel are over. Sure, it makes it a bit more pricey and complicated, but it is possible to travel with your kids, and if you employ some of the budget travel tips I'm providing here, you might find that (at least occasional) travel is a possibility for your family. Lots of people do it on a shoestring budget. Just google "how to afford traveling with kids", and I'm confident you'll find some helpful advice from people with experience in international family travel. I've never been on a plane overseas that didn't have at least one family of four on it. It is possible. It's up to you to figure it out. We do have two dogs that require boarding when we're away. If not for that extra cost, we could travel more frequently and cheaply. But as I'm constantly reminded by a cold nose or wet tongue in my face (sometimes mouth...you know how it is), dogs are the purest form of love in physical form. 

We Buy Experiences, Not Things

Our friends and family probably think we're super stingy because we rarely bring souvenirs home from our trips. One reason for that is that extra baggage weight costs money on budget airlines. The lower the cost of travel expenses, the faster I'll see a return from the photos I sell, and those baggage fees can add up fast. It's always tempting to buy things, especially at all those neat Scandinavian design stores in Sweden. Ultimately, we think our funds are best spent on experiences. We're not big on tours, but if they're the best or only way to experience a place, we'll do one or two. We prefer self-guided and free experiences. Things eventually wear out, get lost, or end up at garage sales. The experiences we have together traveling, however, will stick in our minds all our lives. I'll always remember renting a car, driving out to the middle of the Icelandic nowhere, and climbing a random volcanic crater with my wife, but I don't remember what kind of crap I brought back from my college study abroad trip or even where any of it is. 

Climbing an iron spiral staircase to reach the summit of a volcanic crater on the Snaefellsness Peninsula, Iceland, 2016. (Photo by Alison)

Climbing an iron spiral staircase to reach the summit of a volcanic crater on the Snaefellsness Peninsula, Iceland, 2016. (Photo by Alison)

Me at the Solheim Glacier, Iceland, 2015. (Photo by Alison)

Me at the Solheim Glacier, Iceland, 2015. (Photo by Alison)

We Studied Abroad in College

If you're in college, definitely try to take advantage of a study abroad opportunity. It can be a life-changing experience. My wife and I actually met on a study abroad trip to Europe while we were both studying history at Appalachian State. We had our first conversation under the Eiffel Tower (I was apparently supposed to kiss her then, but I couldn't read her mind...missed a perfect opportunity, though). Two major things changed for me when I traveled through France, Germany, and Austria that summer: First, I met my lifelong travel partner, and second, I decided that I wanted to be a real travel photographer. I bought my first DSLR right before the trip (a Canon Rebel) and had a blast taking pictures even though I barely knew how to work it! I actually left the manual at home. I learned a lot about photography through trial and error and by visiting galleries in Paris. I got few keepers, but I also got a lot of great memories (plus two A's and a GPA boost). The images below, though a bit amateurish, are a few of my favorites from that trip.

German Girl at Fountain, Munich, Germany, 2008. I often wandered away from the group during my study abroad trip. In Munich, I waited at this fountain, people watching, until the moment this little girl stepped to the edge of the water. 

German Girl at Fountain, Munich, Germany, 2008. I often wandered away from the group during my study abroad trip. In Munich, I waited at this fountain, people watching, until the moment this little girl stepped to the edge of the water. 

One of the many ceiling paintings and chandeliers at Versailles Palace, France, 2008. The galleries and museums of France probably had a lot to do with me being inspired to become a photographer. 

One of the many ceiling paintings and chandeliers at Versailles Palace, France, 2008. The galleries and museums of France probably had a lot to do with me being inspired to become a photographer. 

Eiffel Tower, Paris, 2008. This is one of my first travel photos. The exposure's a little wonky and it was mid-day, but it reminds me of some good times. I kept all the images I made that summer, even the terrible ones.

Eiffel Tower, Paris, 2008. This is one of my first travel photos. The exposure's a little wonky and it was mid-day, but it reminds me of some good times. I kept all the images I made that summer, even the terrible ones.

Go. Do. See.

Travel does cost money, but you don't have to completely drain your funds. You just have to figure out ways to make it work for you. You don't have to fly far far away, either. Most people in the U.S. live a half day's drive from something or somewhere awesome. Personally, I'd always rather allocate funds to experiences instead of stuff. It takes careful planning, patience, the willingness to jump at good deals, and some careful budgeting, but if I can do it, you probably can too. I've barely scratched the surface when it comes to the places I want to see and images I want to make, and I'll continue chipping away at it. I hope this article was helpful, and you're ready to jump on a plane. Happy travels and thanks for reading!

( Curious about the gear I use for travel photography? Check out my gear list. )

(c) 2017 Jon Reaves. All rights reserved.