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Free stopovers lure travelers to Iceland

Olivier Morin / AFP/Getty Images

Winter is an ideal time for a soak in the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa surrounded by lava fields.

Schnapps and smoked reindeer. Steaming hot pools. Crisp views of the dancing northern lights.

These are a few of the reasons to imagine Iceland for fall or winter travel.

Tempting first-time visitors are off-season discounts and Icelandair's policy of allowing stopovers at no additional fare on flights between the U.S., Canada and more than 20 destinations in Europe.

"Most stopovers are two to three nights," says Michael Raucheisen, a spokesman for the airline. "Just enough to make you want to go back for a full trip."

Five hours by air from the East Coast, the capital city of Reykjavik, with its cozy cafes and village-like streets, makes a convenient base for viewing the aurora borealis, an atmospheric display of color often visible in the Northern Hemisphere between September and April.

Yes, it's dark here in winter, but not completely. The shortest days are in mid-December and the first part of January when the sun rises just after 11 a.m. and sets between 3:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. But darkness is the point, especially this year. Astronomers predict that the northern lights will be some of the brightest in decades due to a peak solar cycle.

"Of course, there are no guarantees," says Edda Jonasdottir, owner of Eric The Red Guesthouse, near Reykjavik's historic center. "It can rain for the whole period and people won't see it."

No worries. There's plenty more to do in Reykjavik, a sophisticated city with theater, museums, bookstores, bars and a lively weekend nightlife.

Despite its name, Iceland has a mild climate. Average winter temperatures are in the 30s, but biting winds can send the chill factor into the single digits, so plan to bundle up.

Plan a stopover on your way to or from Europe. Icelandair allows stopovers of up to seven nights in either direction, depending on seat availability and fares. The airline flies nonstop to Reykjavik year-round from Boston, New York, Seattle and Denver and offers seasonal service from Washington D.C., Minneapolis-St.Paul, Orlando, Halifax, Toronto and, starting in May 2013, Anchorage. 

Take advantage of the airline's hotel discounts, or book a guesthouse or small hotel near the town center. The couchsurfing movement started in Iceland; many members offer free lodging or the chance to meet up for coffee or sightseeing.

Not planning a trip to Europe? Take long weekend, and book one of Icelandair's all-inclusive three-night, four-day packages. Prices, including airfare, hotel, a northern lights tour and a glacier walk start at $787 per person, double occupancy for travel through March from Washington D.C., Denver, Boston, New York and Seattle.

Iceland is known for its geothermal spas and pools. Most famous is the Blue Lagoon located in a lava field and fed by water from a nearby geothermal plant. Save time and money by visiting on the way to or from Keflavik airport. Reykjavik Excursions offers transportation, admission and luggage storage via its Flybus shuttle for 8,000 Icelandic krona (about $65).

Less touristy and more affordable are the city's pools. The biggest is Laugardalslaug, with an Olympic-size pool, four hot tubs, a steam bath and a water slide. Admission is 500 krona, about $4.

Aside from the deals, a visit here can still feel pricey. Icelandic wool sweaters sell for hundreds of dollars. Better to make souvenirs out of bags of colorful marzipan-filled licorice sold at a weekend flea market on the waterfront.

For a splurge, Jonasdottir of Eric The Red recommends visiting a restaurant serving a holiday-season buffet of Icelandic specialties such as smoked reindeer and lamb.

The drink of choice: A type of schnapps called Black Death,  made with potato pulp and caraway seeds, traditionally chugged after chewing on a chunk of fermented shark meat.

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