Photo credit: Visit Greenland
After countless trips between the United States and Greenland, traveling northward became a second nature for me. But how quickly I forget that, not long ago, I too was a first-timer wondering how on Earth to get to the top of the world! So, after my friend over at The Fourth Continent taught us about How to get from Down Under to Up Over earlier this month, I decided to share 6 basics about traveling to Greenland (with a focus on the United States/North America as the starting point and Iceland as the preferred connection point), plus bonus material of a few veteran tips and a step-by-step look at my typical journey starting from Washington, D.C.
- There are 0 direct flights to Greenland from the United States/North America. Sorry about it.
- There are 2 cities with direct flights to Greenland, listed here from closest to furthest distance from the United States/North America. Look on the map and realize that both of them take you past Greenland just to bring you back west… 😉
- Reykjavík, Iceland ( NOTE: There are two airports: Keflavik International Airport and Reykjavík Domestic Airport. Both are used for international transportation to Greenland. See Routes section below).
- Copenhagen, Denmark
- There are 2 airlines that fly into Greenland, each with distinct routes in different seasons. See #5. Note: for anyone that is a very thorough researcher, you may have found mention of smaller airlines also offering service to Greenland (namely Greenland Express and Aluu Airlines). Both of these were upstart companies that have unfortunately not get gotten off the ground (pun intended).
- There are 6 international airports in Greenland, listed here in clockwise order starting in the east.
- Nerlerit Inaat (East Greenland) – CNP
- Kulusuk (East Greenland) – KUS
- Narsarsuaq (South Greenland) – UAK
- Nuuk (Capital Region) – GOH
- Kangerlussuaq (Arctic Circle Region) – SFJ
- Ilulissat (North Greenland) – JAV
- 2 big factors determine which airline and which route you will take into Greenland. Ask yourself these questions, and look below at the various route/season combinations.
- When do I want to go to Greenland?
- If you want to travel in summer, both airlines will be flying out of Reykjavík/Keflavik to multiple locations in Greenland, and you can travel on nearly every day of the week in the big picture.
- If you want to travel in winter, there are limitations regarding route and frequency. If you need more flexibility or your dates are fixed, it might make more sense to connect via Copenhagen.
- Where do I want to go in Greenland?
- It always makes the most sense to connect through Reykjavík/Keflavik with a direct flight to your destination, season permitting. If you are traveling during summer, you can reach all 5 regions of Greenland via Reykjavík/Keflavik.
- If you want to travel to Kangerlussuaq, specifically in autumn & winter & spring, check the economics – depending on ticket price and availability, it might make more sense to connect via Copenhagen than to connect via Reykjavík plus take a domestic flight in Greenland.
- International Routes & Seasons. (*** Disclaimer: these routes and seasons are pretty set, but always refer to the airline booking systems for the most up-to-date information, linked above in #3.)
- Copenhagen – Kangerlussuaq (Air Greenland, year round)
- Copenhagen – Narsarsuaq (Air Greenland, summer)
- Keflavik – Nuuk (Air Greenland, year round)
- Reykjavík – Nuuk (Air Iceland Connect, year round)
- Reykjavík – Kulusuk (Air Iceland Connect, year round)
- Reykjavík – Ilulissat (Air Iceland Connect, spring & summer & autumn)
- Reykjavík – Narsarsuaq (Air Iceland Connect, summer)
- Reykjavík – Nerlerit Inaat (Air Iceland Connect, spring & summer)
- You can also travel to/around Greenland via cruise ship.
MY TYPICAL JOURNEY (Washington, D.C. to Nuuk, Greenland via Reykjavík, Iceland)
Step 1: It always starts with a 6-hour direct red-eye flight, via Icelandair, from Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. to Keflavik International Airport in Reykjavík, Iceland! Just like clockwork, I select the departure around 20:00 and arrival around 06:30 the next day, local time.
For Americans/North Americans not starting in DC, Icelandair also operates flights from Boston, New York, Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Denver, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Anchorage, and others, and WOW air, an airline no longer in operation, had budget North American flights from Baltimore, Boston, Toronto, and Montreal, Los Angeles and San Francisco. I tried them once from Baltimore. I was pleasantly surprised. Read my experience here.
- Veteran Tip: Difficult as it is to sleep on the plane when you are so very excited to get to Greenland, DO IT! When you land, you have jumped ahead 4 hours from EDT (or 5 hours from EST) directly into Iceland’s morning, and your next chance to sleep won’t be for many hours!
Step 2: Next is a typically a 12-hour layover in Reykjavík, Iceland. The flight to Nuuk, Greenland does not leave until the evening, although if you’re going to Narsarsuaq, Greenland or Ilulissat, Greenland, for example, there are morning/afternoon departures, which are a bit more humane 🙂
You have many choices of what to do during a layover, depending to some extent on which airline you fly into Greenland with (which, in turn, depends on what time of year you fly…).
- If you take Air Greenland to a destination in Greenland, you will fly out of the same airport you arrived to (Keflavik International Airport). The Keflavik airport is a bit south of Reykjavik city center (45 minute drive), so you can either stay out of town near the airport or you can go into town and come back.
- ‘Stay out of town’ option: You could hit the nearby Blue Lagoon, a popular natural geothermal spa. Reykjavik Excursions provides round-trip bus transportation, and you can hire luggage storage at the spa. Or you could do another excursion, of course.
- ‘Go into town and come back’ option: Reykjavik Excursions provides bus transportation for this option, too, which I highly recommend over taking a private cab. For one thing, it’s cheaper (30 USD round trip, versus 200 USD round trip using a private cab) and for another, there is free wi-fi on board. You can hire luggage storage at the BSÍ Bus Terminal while you sightsee around Reykjavik.
- Veteran Tip: Unless you have a definite plan or an excursion booked first thing upon arrival to Keflavik International Airport, I suggest killing time in this airport for a few hours before making your way to Reykjavik city center or elsewhere. Remember, it’s quite early in the morning, and if you go into Reykjavik too soon, you run the risk that the shops, cafés, and sights are not open yet. Better to stay put with a guarantee of wi-fi and strong coffee 😉
- Veteran Tip: For extreme flexibility with your plans, you can wait to buy bus tickets upon arrival to Keflavik International Airport. Like clockwork, buses leave 30 minutes after every single international arrival, so check the schedule for your ideal bus departure. Tickets can be purchased at the Reykjavik Excursions kiosk. After baggage claim, follow the signs to Exit/Customs Declaration, and the kiosk will be on the right just before exiting the airport.
- If you take Air Iceland into Greenland, then you might have to transfer to a different airport (Reykjavik Domestic Airport). Please note: the flights to Narsarsuaq, Greenland and Kangerlussuaq, Greenland leave from Keflavik International Airport while the flights to Nuuk, Greenland and Ilulissat, Greenland and Kulusuk, Greenland leave from Rekjavík Domestic Airport.
- Reykjavík Domestic Airport is in Reykjavik city center so you must go into town no matter what. See the ‘Go into town and come back’ option and veteran tips above. A one-way ticket via the Reykjavik Excursions bus costs 18 USD, versus 100 USD for a private cab.
- Veteran Tip: Reykjavik Domestic Airport is very small with just a small cafe and places to sit. These days, there IS free wi-fi inside, so that’s a plus! Check-in does not begin until 1 hour before departure, even for international flights, so there is no need to arrive to this airport very early. Stay in town as long as possible!
- Veteran Tip: Always be prepared for delays or cancellations, and check the Departure Schedule frequently. Delays are a harsh reality of traveling anywhere in the world, but remember that you are flying in the Arctic. If there are unstable conditions in Reykjavík, in your Greenland destination, over the Greenland Ice Sheet, or anywhere in between, it is best to stay put until conditions improve. If a cancellation occurs, the airline will provide overnight accommodation for you, meal vouchers, and transportation to/from airport/hotel.
Step 3: Finally, Greenland-bound! The final step is a 2-3 hour direct flight from Reykjavík, Iceland to Nuuk, Greenland. It is a lovely flight, and with good visibility, you can see down to East Greenland and the Greenland Ice Sheet!
Flight time is still typically 2-3 hours even if you are not going to Nuuk.
Total travel time: Up to 24 hours.
Total ticket price: Don’t even think about it.
Total experience of traveling to the best country in the world: Priceless.