Where to start: Iceland or Japan?

One of the reasons why Tony and I decided that we weren’t going to buy RTW tickets is because we wanted the flexibility to travel at our own pace. Much to the annoyance of friends and family who wanted to plan short jaunts to visit us along the way, we also wanted the freedom to add or drop destinations based on feelings and/or finances (two very important things!) rather than being hemmed into a specific itinerary right from the get-go.

Still, I’m a planner at heart, so once we decided on the places we definitely wanted to try to visit on this trip, I figured I would sort out a route that would make some kind of logical sense and involve minimal backtracking and hopefully also limit the number of flights we would have to take. We wouldn’t be committed to the route, but if we got stuck, it would be something to fall back on. Also, because we knew we wanted to leave in August, I decided to figure out which direction of travel would likely maximize good weather while on our trip: I tried to factor in rainy seasons, as well as months that tend to be uncomfortably hot or cold in certain places. I also read this article over at Two Go RTW, about whether it’s best to travel East to West or vice versa. After juggling all of these factors, I came up with the itinerary that we posted here, which started with us kicking off in Japan and then making our way westward to get home. For months now, this has been the plan. On multiple occasions, we have almost purchased tickets to Tokyo.

So why am I having doubts now?

Honestly, it all started with this post over at L’Appel du Vide, in which Liz unveiled her upcoming plans to Iceland. Essentially her trip looks AMAZING—there are PUFFINS involved, y’all—and even though Iceland had never been on our itinerary (it seemed too far away from everything else… and also kind of cold), all of a sudden I felt like it was a place we should maybe try to squeeze in at the tail-end of our trip. But then, I started to think about how a few weeks back, during a fit of indecision, I had randomly been searching for flights to Europe and recalled seeing several stopping in Iceland that weren’t too pricey. If the price was right, maybe we should consider flipping everything upside down and start off by touching down in Reykjavik and then work our way East?

As it turns out, flying to Iceland in August from the United States is freakishly cheap.  

Our original plan was to drive down to Austin, TX so that we could drop off our car with our friend, Mike, who will be caring for our car during our trip. From there we were going to fly to L.A. The cheapest tickets I’ve found for that leg run about $300 for the two of us. We’ve been eyeing some cheap tickets on Malaysia Air from L.A. to Tokyo that would cost us about $900, so all told we’re looking at spending about $1200 to get the two of us to Asia. Through our credit card, we’ve racked up $780 credit towards travel, so in reality we’d only have to pay about $420 to get the two of us to Asia. Not a bad deal!

BUT, based on my snooping today, I’ve discovered we can fly from Austin to Boston for $285. Then we can fly directly to Reykjavik for just $640!!! That’s $925, but when you subtract our credit card bonus, that winds up only being $145 out of pocket!

The cold hard money facts are this: It would cost us $420 to get to Asia, or $145 to get to Iceland. Essentially, that means we would be $275 richer at the start of our trip if we started in Europe and ended in Asia.

We have been going back and forth about what makes the most sense for us.  Here are a few points we’ve been debating:

  • If we start in raucous Asia, are we at a risk of finding the European leg of our trip a bit dry? Perhaps in terms of a progression of experiences, it would be best to save Asia for last.
  • Asia is waaaaay cheaper than Europe, so we are of two minds as to the optimal placement of it in our itinerary:
    • We know we can travel longer for less money once we’re in Asia, so even if we spent 2/3 of our budget in Europe, we could still do a lot in Asia with the “dregs” of a travel fund. Plus, by the time we made it to Japan, we’d know that whatever we had left we could just blow so that we could experience the country in style.
    • After traveling for months in Asia, we’re likely going to experience extreme sticker shock once we hit even Eastern Europe, never mind Western Europe and the UK. Perhaps we’ll have loosened the purse strings after months of travel, but what if the reverse happens and we become miserly because everything seems so expensive?
    • We are more open to cutting out certain parts of our “Western” leg should the budget require it, but we’d hate to have to trim from Asia because we ran out of money. As we get older, we can always easily return to Europe, but backpacking in Cambodia might become less appealing.
    • We’ve read that traveling East to West would mean we’d lose less time due to timezone shifts and jet lag might be less extreme, but since we’re planning to travel for at least a year and go relatively slowly, we don’t know how much of a real concern this is.
    • In terms of weather, I think it’s a draw. We’d see Iceland in the latter half of August, then likely fly to London for a week or two in England, then make our way through France, Spain, Portugal and maybe Italy for the last bit of September and then October and November. While this might not be the absolute warmest time to visit these places, they shouldn’t be too cold as to necessitate packing special clothing, and we’d have the benefit of not visiting during peak season so hopefully this would be less of a burden on the budget.

As you can see, there are pros and cons to both options, so now we don’t know what to do. Please help! We’re hoping some of you traveling veterans can help us out based on your own travel experiences. If it were up to you, would we be starting our big adventure in Iceland or Japan? 

Written by: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

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Read comments (18)

  1. May 4, 2012 at 7:55 am
    May. 4, '12

    Wow, that sounds like a really tough choice. I can’t really say for you, of course, but looking at the facts as you lay them out, it looks like starting in Iceland might be more profitable in the longrun? I don’t know. I guess for me, if the weather is a draw either way, the big thing would be where do I want to END my trip. Do I want to leave off in Asia, having that be the last memories, or in Europe. Either is fine, just an individual preference. For me, it would be a choice of familiarity – I would prefer to start in places I’m more familiar with (like Europe) in the beginning, so that I would feel less afraid, then move to the places where I know little about. Of course, that’s not necessarily the same places for you and Tony, nor do you necessarily have the same ideas about fear and beginnings as me. I think in some ways, it’s a toss-up, and really only personal preference can decide. Good luck!!

    PS – Are you staying in Austin for any amount of time before getting on a plane? A day? A few hours? etc? Because I live about an hour from Austin and depending on when in August you’re coming (I’ll be out of the state on vacation for part of it), we might be able to plan a lunch or something. 😀
    Amanda recently posted..Mistborn: The Final Empire – Group Read, Part IV

    • May 5, 2012 at 6:23 pm
      May. 5, '12

      Definitely hadn’t thought about the importance of where we end our trip, so that was a really good point! Also, I agree that starting in Europe would definitely ease us in, since although Japan is probably the easiest place to start an Asian leg culture shock-wise, anywhere in Western Europe would be easier even still!

      We’re planning to be in Austin around the beginning of August (maybe somewhere around the 5th?) and I’d love to meet up if you’re around then! Will send you an email!

      • May 6, 2012 at 6:42 pm
        May. 6, '12

        🙁 Sadly, if you’re there in early August, it won’t work out. We’ll be in Wisconsin from the end of July until around Aug 11th. Boo! How sad to miss by so little!
        Amanda recently posted..My feet hurt! (H&F, Week 2)

        • May 6, 2012 at 6:58 pm
          May. 6, '12

          Sad, indeed! But never fear: because we’re leaving our car in Austin, we will be back there at the end of our adventures, so hopefully the timing will work out and we can meet up then!

  2. May 4, 2012 at 8:01 am
    May. 4, '12

    Wow! So glad my Iceland trip had such an impression 🙂 I can’t imagine planning a trip of this size… So many options it would make the indecision impossible.

    One thing to consider is if you are going to Iceland you may need to pack warmer clothes. If you have old sweaters/coats that you are going to get rid of, you could pack those for Iceland and ditch them before you head to warmer climates.
    Liz | Traveling Liz recently posted..Misadventure Monday: Brooke from “Brooke vs. the World”

    • May 5, 2012 at 6:24 pm
      May. 5, '12

      Your post was super inspiring, though I do admit that I have seen some really pretty Iceland pictures prior that had put it on my radar. The puffins and glacier snorkeling sealed the deal though, I think! 😉

  3. May 4, 2012 at 10:11 am
    May. 4, '12

    I had the same thought as Amanda… Personally I’d rather start my trip in a more familiar place then ease into everything else. Plus I’d LOVE to go to Iceland.
    Sim recently posted..What a difference a year makes

    • May 4, 2012 at 1:32 pm
      May. 4, '12

      I haven’t ever traveled out of the U.S., but I will put in my two cents anyway! If money is a critical issue, go West. If it’s not, go East first. That’s my own personal preference though, as I would love to see Asia someday.
      zibilee recently posted..The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes — Audiobook Review

      • May 5, 2012 at 6:26 pm
        May. 5, '12

        @ Sim: I’m sure the fact that the flight to Iceland is much shorter than the one to Tokyo doesn’t hurt either, right? 😉
        @ Zibilee:Tony’s never really traveled abroad either, and he has tons of opinions, so yours are in good company! I think you make a good point that you would simply start with the place you want to see the most.

  4. May 4, 2012 at 5:26 pm
    May. 4, '12

    As partial as I am to Japan (it’s always going to be my second home), I would be inclined to suggest Iceland for most of the reasons above, especially regarding winter clothes!! You don’t want to be lugging those around for a year. And Asia is dirt-cheap, but Japan is NOT. I love that country but there is nothing cheap about it. The last time I went was with two other people and we stayed together in 3 person hostel rooms while we traveled around and even outside the big cities we were paying $30-60 EACH a night for a room. It is the most wondrous country, but it will easily drain your pocketbook. I think it would be a really lovely place to finish a trip after you are seasoned travelers – it is not dirty or noisy or dangerous or any of those things you often find in “backpacker” hotspots, so it would be nice and relaxing in that regard, but it can be overwhelming for a lot of people unfamiliar with the customs and language. Either way I think you guys will have a blast though 🙂
    EM recently posted..Money, where have you been all my life?

    • May 5, 2012 at 6:28 pm
      May. 5, '12

      Oh, we are well aware that Japan will be expensive. It’s one of the destinations we most want to go though, so it has to stay on the itinerary (and hopefully the rest of Asia will help balance it out). Also, it looks like Iceland is nearly as pricy in certain respects, and apparently puffin tours aren’t exactly cheap… 😉

  5. May 4, 2012 at 9:00 pm
    May. 4, '12

    I say go to Asia first. 1.) If for some reason you run out of money while on such a long trip, you would at least not miss the most adventurous part of your trip. And as you say Europe is much easier to do when you are hobbling around with a cane. 2.) Right now you are fresh for adventure. After travelling for several months in Europe, even though it is more familiar to you, and even though you are very much looking forward to lots of travelling, you will get a little travel fatigued at some point and what if you start to get cranky and homesick before you even have to deal with the culture shock of Asia.

    On the other hand, I can think of similar good reasons to go to Europe first. Wither way it will be fantastic.
    Thomas at My Porch recently posted..Overplayed "songs" I wish I never had to hear again

    • May 5, 2012 at 6:29 pm
      May. 5, '12

      You’re right that if we had to cut our trip short for whatever reason, the Europe part would be easiest to come back to at a later date. And we hadn’t thought about the importance of tackling Asia while still “fresh” so that’s a good point to consider too!
      Steph recently posted..East or West, which is best?

  6. May 5, 2012 at 11:18 am
    May. 5, '12

    I’m totally the wrong person to answer this, since Iceland is on my travel list and Japan isn’t, so of course I’m sitting here screaming “Start in Iceland!!”
    softdrink recently posted..May? Seriously?

    • May 5, 2012 at 6:30 pm
      May. 5, '12

      No matter what, I think it’s safe to say that Iceland is firmly on our radar and places we will travel! So whether it’s first or last, we will go! 😀

  7. May 6, 2012 at 1:52 am
    May. 6, '12

    To be honest flying to Iceland from the USA is always cheap due to Iceland Air. The problem with going East to West though is it could eat your budget quickly, causing you to skip out on places that are further flung, cheaper and more “foreign”. Fly West, it takes longer to get there, costs more and is much less accessible when you’re home from this trip. Anything you miss East of North America can be had easily in the future, probably better with a bigger budget than you’ll have on a RTW trip.
    thinkCHUA recently posted..Snapshot Sunday: Kek Lok Si Temple

    • May 6, 2012 at 10:59 am
      May. 6, '12

      Great points, thinkCHUA. We definitely know that the time investment to get to Asia from the East Coast of the U.S./Canada is not inconsiderable, whereas flying to Europe could easily be achieved outside the confines of a RTW trip. It’s good to know that Iceland Air always offers such good deals on flights, so this isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime deal we’ve stumbled upon!

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