This post really should have gone up at least a month ago but various circumstances have delayed that. IcelandAir is ending it’s buddy program for 2016 at the end of April but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it come back next year.
Have you heard about the Buddy Program? It’s a very clever promotion from IcelandAir where you can apply to have an IcelandAir employee be your buddy for the day during a layover in Reykjavik. You just fill out a form with your interests and they match you with a willing employee.
I think it’s a brilliant idea. Stopovers between the US and Europe are some of IcelandAir’s biggest business, and this is a great way to promote that. Plus, in a country as small as Iceland (only 350,000 people live here), it’s a great way to make a personal connection and really experience something out of the norm. So I was pretty psyched to be paired up with a buddy during my work assignment there in February.
To be upfront: my experience wasn’t typical. My trip was super last minute, so in lieu of a form, they selected a buddy for me based on who was available, not necessarily on interests. Plus, I was kind of a tough cookie: what do you do with a travel writer who is interested in food and nature, but also 3 months pregnant? It’s a tall order.
So they pulled out the big guns. I first spotted my buddy in IcelandAir’s inflight magazine. Margret is a 64 year old flight attendant and part-time nurse with four daughters. She’s from the outskirts of Reykjavik and has worked for IcelandAir for over 30 years and several of her daughters also work for the airline. I was her first “buddy” too but she was already lined up to escort a few more high profile journalists around town.
After graciously letting me sleep off some jetlag, Margret met me in the hotel lobby around noon to discuss our plan of attack. Usually the buddy program lasts only a single day, but she would be accompanying me for my entire three days in town.
On our first afternoon together Margret drove me all over Reykjavik and it’s suburbs. She showed me everything from the President’s House (you can walk right up to the front door!) to her own local hot springs, giving me tons of local insights along the way. It was a ton of stuff I never would have seen otherwise, like having a friend or relative to show you around town.
Over the next few days Margret and her husband Gunnar treated me like an honored guest. We toured the Harpa, the fantastic new performing arts center, went on a Golden Circle Tour and ate at several of their favorite restaurants. I even met one of their daughters for dinner one night.
The whole experience was totally unique, if a little bit weird. The age difference, the pregnancy, and activities kind of made me feel like I was hanging out with someone else’s Mom. Which I mean I guess I was, but it was a strange dynamic. Three days straight is a long time to spend with someone you’ve never met before. Add in some introversion, jetlag, general first-trimester crankiness and I found myself less than totally enthused.
By the last day I was thrilled to get a few hours to myself to wander around Reykjavik and have lunch at my leisure. I walked down to the docks and bought myself an ice cream (even though it was below freezing outside), then browsed some souvenir shops and generally relaxed. It was very chill and closer to my preferred method of travel.
Which isn’t to say Margret wasn’t wonderful and crazy welcoming. On our last evening together she gave me a novel by a famous Icelandic author we had discussed. She told me I was like a fifth daughter to her and welcome to visit anytime. She asked me to please send her pictures of the baby once it arrived. I gave her a travel journal I’d bought (she was constantly taking notes during our time together) and a nice card. It was touching and a real connection that I couldn’t have otherwise made.
Would I do it again? Yes, but with some caveats.
I think that spending time with a local is a fantastic experience and a way to explore new or lesser known parts of Iceland. Three days was really too long, at least for an introvert like me who likes her solo travel solitude. The sheer amount of small talk was just too much. One day, with someone with similar interests, really would have been perfect.
Would you try the buddy program?
Disclosure: I visited Iceland on assignment for another publication and my trip was paid for by Iceland Air. All opinions are my own.