How to Travel Independently in East Greenland
Greenland is a wild, stunningly beautiful, expansive island in the high Arctic. Due to it's remoteness, and the fact that Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, it is a very expensive travel destination. For even common items, travellers should expect to pay nearly double the price of the same item in Denmark, which is already expensive.
Many tourists either spend the majority of their time in the Ilulissat area or are travelling on expensive expedition cruises along the Greenlandic coast. There are also pricy day tours to Kulusuk Island from Iceland offered by Air Iceland, but to be honest, Kulusuk is one of the least interesting destinations in East Greenland. It would be unfortunate to fly all the way to Greenland and only stay in Kulusuk.
In this article, I'll explain how to travel to East Greenland on your own and not break the bank.
Let's start with some basic information:
Greenland's settlements are clustered in different regions and flights between the different regions are costly. So depending on the amount of time you have and what interests you, you may want to stick with one region at a time.
Air Greenland is the only domestic airline and they fly to all of the settlements using Nuuk (southwest), Ilulissat (northwest), Kangerlussuaq (west), and Narsarsuaq (south) as their hubs. Kulusuk in East Greenland is connected a couple times a week to Nuuk, otherwise, the east is most accessible via Iceland's capital Reykjavik.
This post will focus on independent travel in East Greenland. For West Greenland, I will write a separate post.
East Greenland Travel Essentials
East Greenland, known as "Tunu," is remote, quiet and far less developed than the more populous and well-connected settlements in the western part of the country. With the exception of the massive national park in northeast Greenland (which is accessible via the only settlement in that part of the country: Ittoqqortoormiit), most of the east's settlements are accessible via boat or helicopter and all flights arrive at Kulusuk Airport, the only runway in the area.
If travelling in the summer, hiring locals to ferry you around in their skiffs is more than doable. Air Iceland (not Iceland Air, that's a different airline) has relatively affordable twice-weekly flights from Reykjavik Airport (note: this is in downtown Reykjavik, not at the larger international airport in Keflavik) to Kulusuk Island. By relatively affordable, you can still expect to pay somewhere between $600 and $900 for a round-trip ticket. Be sure to book early, otherwise the prices can go up quickly, even though the flights are hardly full.
From Kulusuk, you can ask around for a spot on a local's boat heading to Tasiilaq or one of the settlements. This will likely only set you back a few hundred Krone, but may be hard to find. If you speak some Danish, you'll likely have an easier time with this.
Alternatively, if you don't want to wait around too long, you can hire someone to take you on their boat to some of the surrounding settlements. These include Kuummiit (Kuummiut), Tiniteqilaaq (Tinit), Sermiligaaq and Isortoq. 2,000 to 3,000 DKK ($400-$500) would be the approximate cost to hire a boat to cover such a distance one-way, which is certainly not cheap unless you are sharing the cost between travellers. These boats can typically hold up to 8 people, so travelling in a group of 5-7 people would be the most economical in East Greenland.
Helicopter service is available for around 900 DKK per person on scheduled flights, but this is spotty unless travelling between Tasiilaq and Kulusuk Airport.
Keep in mind, East Greenland has a cash economy. Bring plenty of Danish Krone before you arrive in Greenland. Changing money in the East is difficult and people do not typically want to accept USD or EUR.
Hotels exist in Tasiilaq and Kulusuk, but even there, the prices are exorbitant. The cheapest way to sleep in east Greenland is by camping-- which is free. If you bring your own tent and cooking stove, you can save a lot in terms of accommodation. Alternatively, renting out partially abandoned homes or staying in homestays is relatively affordable in the settlements. You can expect to pay between 200 and 250 DKK ($30-50 USD) a person per night.
The houses have kitchens and ovens with stove tops, but there is no running water in the settlements. A public watershed with clean, potable water is available to everyone to use for free and homes carry numerous water containers. Showers are available for free in a public community building in each settlement (grey building), which is open during the day only, and is closed on Sundays.
If camping, summer temperatures can still hover just above freezing, and while it does not actually get dark in the evenings, temperatures do drop quite a bit as the sun moves around the horizon line. Also, if you're travelling from late June through mid August, mosquitos and black flies will be a problem. Be prepared.
Travel Lodge Greenland in Tasiilaq costs 300 DKK ($50) for a bed and also has wifi, a laundry room and running, hot water. This is a great spot to rest, regroup and base before heading back out to the settlements.
Now, as for eating, you're best (and in many cases only) bet is the Pilersuisok supermarkets in the settlements (the blue building). They sell some fresh produce (very expensive), but the frozen meals are affordable and not all that much more than you would pay for them at supermarkets in Europe. With a stove, you can cook all of this stuff with ease. You can also look around the settlements for seal, whale and fish on sale. It's much cheaper per kilo, but yet again, it's highly seasonal. Local catches are more common in the bigger towns.
Whale meat is controversial. So let's briefly talk about it. The Greenlandic Government sets strict quotas on how many whales may be taken per year, with each settlement being allocated a quota. There is no commercialization of whale hunting in Greenland and the catch is used to support the local communities who have been hunting whale for hundreds of years. Whale is also cheaper than eating only expensive frozen and fresh imports from Europe.
And as for the taste? It's like a cow and a fish had a love child-- slightly fishy, mostly beefy. Don't overcook it, it has a lot of blood in it and will become "livery" if you cook it too long. A medium-rare is pretty perfect. There are also normally three different cuts on sale: lean steaks, fatty steaks, and blubber with skin. The lean meat is the cheapest.
Bringing your own salt, pepper, seasonings and tons of protein bars will go a long way in Greenland. Pasta is also very easy to make and affordable, along with canned foods.
Once you are in a settlement, it's actually not that difficult to travel affordably; transportation is really the highest cost. You can always talk with the locals (someone generally will have a limited command of English and ironically you're almost better off talking with the old folks instead of the younger ones if you're looking for someone with English skills) to figure out how to get around.
To hire a local to be your guide for the day is relatively cheap (200-300 DKK) and they can take you around the surrounding areas on their boat. Make sure to hire someone with their own boat! This way you can get some amazing up close access to glaciers, icebergs, fishing, hunting and other local activities. Hiking around the settlements is also stunning, especially when the sun is lower in the sky.
While Greenland is hardly an affordable travel destination, there are many ways to make it work without spending thousands and thousands of dollars, especially if you're travelling with a bunch of friends to split transportation and food costs.
It's an amazingly unique destination and the people are friendly, pace of life is slow and the natural scenery is straight up jaw dropping.
Questions? Reach out and I'll try to hook you up.