Driving around Iceland is a fantastic experience and will greatly enhance any trip to the country. Iceland is an amazing country and with every twist and turn in the road comes a new breathtaking view.
However, driving in Iceland is probably much different than driving in your own country and there are many things you should know before you undertake the task.
Driving in Iceland is not as scary or bad as you may think and with a few tips here you’re likely to have a much more enjoyable experience around the land of fire and ice!
Tips for Driving in Iceland
Is it Safe to Drive in Iceland?
Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world! It was the third country I traveled to solo and the very first country I hitchhiked around. The crime rate is shockingly low, which makes it an ideal places to travel to for solo female travelers.
However, do not be lulled in by low crime rates because Mother Nature is a bitch. Clueless tourists find themselves in life-threatening situations as many as three to four times a day in the high season. It is usually of their own doing. Iceland’s weather is notoriously unpredictable and life-threatening, especially if you traveling Iceland in the winter.
Always use your head when in the wilderness, tell someone where you’re going, and make sure that you have a cell signal so you can call 112 in you are in unsafe conditions. I suggest checking out Safe Travel to stay up to date on weather conditions. Take the waves seriously, like on Reynisfjara black sand beach, as a number of tourists have drowned after being swept away.
Campervan vs Car Rental?
The two main types of cars to drive around Iceland with is either a campervan or standard car rental. You’ll see plenty of both on the roads. We went with a campervan because this meant we didn’t have to pay for hotels along the way. Plus we could properly enjoy being in nature, staying at campsites, and enjoying the company of other campers.
Cars are more fuel efficient, easier to drive, and cheaper to rent, but you will need something to sleep in every night and you may not feel that sense of community you get at campsites.
Rent From the Airport
If you plan to rent a car or campervan to get around make sure to pick it up and drop it off at the airport. It could end up saving you a buck. There is no public transport and the Reykjavik Express, one of the only buses from the Reykjavik city to Keflavik airport is 2400 Icelandic Kroner one way. That’s a $24 airport transfer on a bus! I would recommend picking up and dropping off your car at the airport to save on this fee.
If you want to rent a camper van like us, a good company to go with is Happy Campers. We had a wonderful experience with them and they are located nearby the airport and will provide you with a free transfer to their offices once your flight lands. You can easily book using this link, but make sure to book well in advance during high season.
Car and Van Rental Tips
Manual vs. Automatic
You should be prepared to drive a manual car and van in Iceland. As with the rest of the world (besides the US), most of the campervans in Iceland are manual, but there are a few automatic vehicles. If you do require one an automatic vehicle make sure to book well in advance and expect to pay a premium for it.
Consider the size of your campervan and car before you book. For campervans there are a few different size options ideal for one, two, three, and up to five people. We went with a Happy 2 for the two of us. The van was spacious and comfortable for two people. However, with a larger car comes reduced fuel economy so you’ll be paying more for that larger vehicle in more ways than one. Gas is really expensive in Iceland, almost $8 a gallon. Think carefully about the model of car you choose.
When checking out a campervan or car in Iceland you have a lot of options for choosing insurance. Happy Campers, for example, includes CDW as it is mandatory in Iceland. Also, look into what your credit card covers for auto insurance. Most American credit cards offer auto rental insurance as a benefit and I would recommend calling your credit card company beforehand to double check what they cover. If you don’t have a credit card it’s definitely time to get one as it’s an important part of travel banking.
What are the Roads Like in Iceland?
The roads in Iceland are, for the most part, paved, signed, and well maintained. The ring road is pretty straightforward to drive, but once you start venturing off it is when a GPS will come in handy.
It would be great to prepare yourself for small and narrow roads like many other countries in Europe. The speed limit is 30-50 km in populated areas and 90 km on paved roads. It’s important to go the speed limit as there are many speed cameras in Iceland. These cameras are not hidden and there is typically a warning stating that one is coming, but you don’t want to get caught flying by one as the ticket prices are between $250-$500!
It is required to wear a seatbelt in Iceland. It is ILLEGAL to drive under the influence of alcohol at any limit in Iceland. So do your drinking after you have settled in for the night.
A 4×4 is Not Necessary for Travel Around Iceland
If you want to go down an unpaved or unmarked road make sure your car can handle it first! We saw numerous small sedans trying to push their car too much down bumpy roads and ended up getting stuck or tearing out the bottom of their rental!
You Absolutely Need a 4×4 to Go on F Roads in Iceland
The F-Roads in Iceland grant you access to beautiful, off the tourist path locations in Iceland. However, they are also the most treacherous to drive. Driving on an F-road is pretty much an off-roading adventure, and you will 100% need a 4×4 for these roads. If you get caught driving on an F-road with a non 4×4 vehicle your insurance is voided.
Our campervan was not a 4×4 so we took a special tour out to Landmannalaugar in a heavy-duty four-wheel drive vehicle. There was some sketchy roads and river crossings involved and I’m happy I didn’t have to navigate them myself. There is little to no cell phone coverage out on these roads and in the winter this can become especially challengig and dangerous to those who are not prepared.
It’s an epic experience with amazing views, just make sure you know what you’re getting into.
Get Off Iceland’s Ring Road
Some of Iceland’s best sites and attractions are not on the ring road. We suggest looking up the sites you want to see online and through guidebooks. Once you have an idea what you want to see, save it all to an offline Google Map. Regions that are worth mentioning not on the ring road are the Snaefellsnes peninsula, Landmannalaugar, Husafell, and Dettifoss. Here’s our exact route.
Everyone also recommended that we travel and camp in Iceland’s Western Fjords, as they are the least traveled place in the country. We, unfortunately, didn’t have the time to make the most of that detour.
Allocate Enough Time for Your Ring Road trip
How long should you spend driving the Ring Road? It depends. The Ring Road or “Route 1” is 1,332 kilometers, so technically you could do it in less than 16 hours and never stop – but what’s the point of that? We did our Iceland ring road trip clockwise in 10 days. We felt that it was the perfect amount of time to see all of the main sites.
Sure, we missed some things, but we never felt too rushed or that we hung around for too long in a place. In an ideal world, I would suggest 7-10 days to drive the Ring Road, but we met people doing it in 3-5, which just sounds exhausting.
Take Caution When Driving in Iceland in Winter
Speaking of winter, now is a good time to mention that Iceland is still accessible during the cold months. It’s actually a great time to travel as tourism is low meaning more beauty for yourself!
However like many places winter brings sketchy conditions to the roads. High winds, snow, and ice is common so you have to take care when driving in the winter. Stay up to date with Iceland travel alerts and join some Facebook groups so you can ask questions and get advice from other travelers.
You Cannot Drive Off Road in Iceland
It is ILLEGAL to drive off the roads in Iceland. If you get caught be prepared for a hefty fine and maybe even some backlash. Icelanders don’t like to see their precious environment ruined by visitors driving off the road so please don’t do it when driving around Iceland.
You Can Drive in Iceland with a Latin License
All you need to rent a car and drive in Iceland is a valid drivers license. You do not need a special International Drivers License, but your license does need to use the Latin alphabet.
Drive on the Right Side of the Road in Iceland
Like many parts of Europe and North America, drivers drive on the right side of the road in Iceland. The steering wheel is also on the left side of the car so those coming from North America should have no problem at all adjusting to the roads here.
Download Google Maps When You Drive in Iceland
We always pick up local SIM cards and recommend every traveler do the same. We suggest picking up a SIM card. There is a store right down the road from where we picked up our Happy Campers, ask when checking out and they’ll point you in the right direction. Or you can pay €40 for the WiFi add-on for the duration of your Happy Camper rental.
Also, we always download an offline map via Google Maps application and one via Maps.me. You cell phone GPS runs without needing data and since the maps are stored on your phone you have a working GPS for free! After driving overland across Africa, we don’t play around with directions – granted you’re only driving one road in Iceland!
If You Are a Nervous Driver There are Other Options for Driving in Iceland
If you don’t feel comfortable driving in Iceland, it’s okay – there are plenty of other ways to experience the country. On my very first trip to Iceland, I didn’t even think about renting a car to get around. Instead, I relied on public buses to get me outside of Reykjavik.
There are also numerous tour providers that will take you around the Ring Road. Or you can always try and gather a group together to find someone else who will want to do the drive with you.
If You’re Going to Pull Over for Photos, Do So Safely
Living near Banff National Park we see this all the time. Tourist pulling over anywhere they want to nab the perfect photo. It’s dangerous and annoying. If you see a great photo opportunity and need to slow down or stop to get your camera out do so responsibly.
Make sure you don’t slam on your breaks with cars behind you. It’s also important to pull over somewhere safe and away from the road protecting yourself and others from harm, preferably a designated spot for cars. If walking a half mile from your car to your photo spot means pulling over in a safe spot then do so.
Iceland is a photographers dream and of course, you’re likely going to want to take a million photos when driving, so it’s important to keep this all in mind.
Hold the Door!
In the lead up to our trip to Iceland, we came from a North Coast 500 road trip in Scotland and a road trip around the Faroe Islands so we knew what to expect. The North Atlantic and Iceland have some seriously high winds. When you’re exiting a car make sure to hold firmly to your car door – otherwise it may blow right off the car and that isn’t covered by insurance. We’re not kidding!
Get a Travel Credit Card
Have we mentioned Iceland is expensive? Iceland is a credit card nation and we got by almost our entire trip without using cash. Make sure to pick up a decent rewards credit card so that you can earn miles, points, or even cash back on your purchases here. It’s the small expenses that are key to our success in saving for travel.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
The more we travel the more we appreciate having travel insurance. Adventure travel, hiking, safari, snowboarding, and driving in foreign countries comes with an inherent risk. With the cost of healthcare and risk of needing medical evacuation we always carry travel insurance.
Reliable travel insurance covers you beyond health as it can cover rental cars, missed flights, trip cancellations, and more. Our recommendation is to pick up a policy with World Nomads as they’re excellent at medium – short term plans.
Download a Good Playlist
You will spend a lot of time in the car, so the right travel playlist is essential. Download one to your phone before you go so you are ready to roll!
Make Sure to Map Out Your Gas Stations
Be prepared to shell out some money when you head to the pump in Iceland. Gas costs nearly $2 USD a liter or $8 a gallon in Iceland. We also found American credit cards do not work at many of the pumps. To pay to make sure you ask an attendant to unlock the pump and then pay afterward inside with a credit card.
Make sure to be aware of distances in between fuel stations, granted we found them all over Iceland. For our ten day itinerary, we spent around $400 on fuel. Make sure to budget for this one, as it’s easy to forget.
Be Prepared to Spend a lot on Gas
I thought I was only going to have one heart attack in my life when we paid $2 a liter for fuel in the middle of nowhere Zimbabwe. We just hadn’t traveled through Iceland yet. Fuel in Iceland is expensive at about $2 a liter – that’s roughly $8 a gallon for all my American friends out there!
If you want to save what you can on the fuel, then opt for a fuel-efficient vehicle. If you’re traveling in a campervan or 4×4 like us be prepared to buck up and pay. We spent $400 on fuel to drive our campervan around the country for ten days. Check out our Iceland ring road trip itinerary (plus some detours).
There Aren’t Many Public Toilets
Be prepared to do your business before you set out for a full day of driving around Iceland. Public toilets in Iceland are a rare find especially up north and away from the most popular section in the south.
Even going number one can be a mission as there are typically many people around, especially in the summer so finding that hidden corner for (ladies especially) to squat and do their thing is a mission.
Know What You’re Doing Before You Cross Any Rivers
You’re likely only to come across river bed crossings on F roads in Iceland, but if there is severe rainfall or flooding, they can also happen on the ring road. Before you cross any body of water with your vehicle in Iceland, you should know what you’re doing and be a competent driver.
When it comes to river crossings there are several things to keep in mind. We’ve successfully done them on our travels several times around the world. First, you need to check the depth of the water whether that’s visual, with a stick or wading through the water. Once you selected a safe route you should approach the river at a decent speed and then maintain that speed throughout the crossing.
For good reference that’s about 12 mph or 20 kph, or second gear in a manual vehicle (don’t shift gears). At a consistent speed, you should be able to create a wave in front of the vehicle that keeps water from entering the engine or rolling over the hood.
You don’t want to damage your vehicle – or even worse – be in a life-threatening situation.
Know the Emergency Number in Iceland
112 is the single emergency number in Iceland. Remember it and store it in your phone in case you ever need it. You never know when you’ll be faced in a life-threatening situation – but remember only use it if you absolutely need to. Safetravel.is puts up all relevant alerts and warnings and should be checked regularly when driving in Iceland.
I also like to join relevant Facebook groups to stay up to date on current travel situations. People are generally quite helpful!
You Can’t Just Camp Anywhere
We came to Iceland expecting to pull up to waterfalls, cliffs, and oceans and camp at Iceland’s most stunning locations. We had our own gas stove and kitchenware, could shower at public pools, and use public toilets. We’d wake up at every destination with one of those killer #vanlife shots. We should have done more research. It is now the law that all campervans must have written permission to camp on the property, or in other words, a receipt from a designated Iceland campsite.
Given the explosion of tourism in Iceland, it was bound to happen. There are just too many tourists and campervans parking all over the country to allow anarchy. The legislation is targeted at vehicles and land rights, not specifically tents or camping. You can still pitch a traditional tent in the Iceland wilderness, but that means you have to be on foot.
So where do you camp in Iceland? There are plenty of campsites around the ring road. Most of these campsites provide necessary facilities like a toilet, shower, communal area, and maybe if you’re lucky some WiFi — campsites in Iceland charge between 1000-2000 ISK per person per night. If you are traveling between October and May, you may find many Iceland campsites closed. Don’t worry too much because a number of the sites allow you to camp for free in the offseason, with the lack of facilities as they’re locked.
Where Are the Best Campsites in Iceland?
Like previously mentioned, you will have to stay at designated campsites overnight while camping in Iceland. There are plenty around the country (see the full list here). Many of the campsites at least have hot showers available, but for the most part, you are paying for the right to park your car there. If you’re lucky, you’ll find some with WiFi, a communal area, and cooking facilities. A few of our favorite campsites in Iceland that we stayed at were Skaftafell, Snorrastaðir, and Staðarholt.
Do You Need to Drive in Iceland to Have a Good Time?
No! A car is not essential to your enjoyment in Iceland. However, it will greatly enhance your experience especially if you are short on time or want to explore as much as possible with endless freedom.
The first time I visited Iceland I did not have a car and based myself out of Reykjavik doing day trips. My only methods of transport were hitchhiking, finding another traveler or group to tag along with, or paying for a bus tour.
All are good options. However, I don’t think you see as much, are in large groups herded like cattle, and have to stick to a set route with a bus tour. Hitchhiking will only get you so far, although if you’re up for an adventure hitchhiking in Iceland is pretty safe. Meeting another group of travelers either online beforehand or at a hostel in Reykjavik is excellent for solo travelers.
When is the Best time to Visit Iceland?
In my opinion, the best times to visit Iceland are June, July, September, October, and December – but it all depends on what you want! June-August is high season, but it is also summer in Iceland and when you will find the most pleasant temperatures. It’s also when you will experience the most amount of daylight and get the most of our of your trip. December is great because it is winter, you stand a strong chance of seeing the Northern Lights, it’s low season, and the temperatures haven’t gone to complete freezing yet.
However, my favorite time to travel in Iceland is during the fall months. It’s during September and October where you will see the leaves change vibrant colors around the country. Temperatures are still mild, and tourism is slowing down. You can see the full month by month breakdown for Iceland travel here.
Things to do in Iceland
There are literally so many things to do in Iceland I could write a book about it. Unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of time so I’m showing you the ultimate Iceland bucket list here. Some things that are a must do are go to an Iceland swimming pool, soak in a natural hot spring, stand under a waterfall, and see the Northern Lights.
Bring a Camera When Driving in Iceland!
A high-quality camera is an important packing item for Iceland if you want some great shots while on your vacation. We travel with our Fujifilm Camera and 200mm telephoto lens. Drones have sort of taken Iceland by storm, and can capture fantastic footage as well. We had our DJI Mavic in Iceland, but make sure to use your drone responsibly as many locals are getting increasingly annoyed at the sight of them.
Whatever you do do not forget a tripod for Iceland – especially if you plan on photographing the Northern Lights. You’ll need one for the long exposures.
Pack Smart for Your Trip to Iceland
I’ve traveled to Iceland in both the summer and winter, and both times it was pretty windy and cold. I would recommend packing clothes that layer well. Must haves are a good rain jacket and hiking boots. Even in Reykjavik, people dress pretty casually so there isn’t much need to be super fashionable. Pack comfortable, quick drying, and waterproof clothing for a good time. Read more about what to pack for Iceland here.
Other items to pack for Iceland
No matter what you should definitely throw the following items in your Iceland packing list.
- Reusable Bags: We don’t ever travel without our reusable bags that we can take grocery shopping. And this is no different for grocery shopping in Iceland. We love to save the world from yet another plastic bag – please consider picking some up!
- A good jacket: Surprise! It gets cold in Iceland, even in the summer. I learned this the hard way when I went hiking there in the middle of July without a proper jacket. I love my Patagonia nano puff jacket because it’s one of the best packable down jackets on the market. This should be on any Iceland packing list no matter the season.
- Ear Muffs: I love wearing ear muffs so I don’t mess up my hair. I also wear my hair in a ponytail a lot so ear muffs ensure that I can keep my pony! If you wear your hair down then consider a nice knit hat.
- Flannel: No matter what climate I am traveling to I bring my Patagonia flannel everywhere and it has never let me know.
- Swimsuits: I decided to skip the Blue Lagoon and went to the local hot springs instead. If you plan on doing you will want to bring a swimsuit unless you want to go naked.
- Hiking Shoes: If you plan on doing any short hikes I would bring a good pair of hiking shoes. I personally travel everywhere with my Merrell Moab Ventilators.
- Adaptor: Remember that Iceland uses the Europlug. Make sure you find a good adapter like the one I have to keep you charged. Otherwise, you may be paying for a cheap one once you land.
- Waterbottle: We found the water in Iceland amazing to drink, if you want extra assurance then we love traveling with our Grayl.
- Towel: Unless you are only staying at hotels you will need a towel in Iceland. If you are camping or in a campervan, a lightweight travel towel is best. The Icelandic pools will also charge you to rent a towel so it never hurts to have a good one in your luggage.
- Backpack: I would suggest bringing a backpack to Iceland if you are going to be in a camper or are backpacking, they are much less of pain to travel with. Read more about our favorite backpacks here.
More General Iceland Travel Tips
- Icelanders speak Icelandic, but every single person I came across spoke English.
- The local currency is the Icelandic króna (ISK). ATM’s are found throughout the country
- Have I mentioned Iceland is expensive as hell? Well, it is! Save money by eating in and cooking for yourself. Check out our Iceland grocery store guide for all the tips!
- Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world; however, it’s always important to use common sense when walking alone at night.
- Tipping is not customary in Iceland.
- Iceland has strong internet infrastructure and you should be able to easily stay connected.
- To feel more at home we use Airbnb you can check out some tips and read more about getting an Airbnb coupon code here. Or just take this coupon for your first stay!
- Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your hands when traveling. We recommend Lonely Planet to get you through those wireless nights.
- Don’t Forget Travel Insurance: We never travel without travel insurance with World Nomads. We ALWAYS travel with travel insurance. Natasha is a bit of a worry wart and would rather stay safe than sorry. World Nomads offers incredible flexible and great plans!
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