The Ultimate Guide to Planning a Road Trip in Iceland
A road trip through Iceland is an epic adventure. On a single day driving Iceland’s Ring Road, the transformation is astounding: An otherworldly expanse of moss-covered lava rocks will evolve into rolling farmland sprinkled with sheep. Then the setting transitions into snow-capped mountains and glaciers, then coastline framed by black-sand beaches on one side and towering cliffs on the other. Driving in Iceland is beautiful and not especially physically challenging, but to do it well, it does ask for a little advance planning. We’ve got 21 tips to get you revved up and ready for the most exhilarating road trip in the world.
Reserve your rental car early
As soon as you have a loose idea of your timeframe on the road, book your vehicle from Keflavik Airport or downtown Reykjavik. I booked my SUV three months out and paid less than what it would have cost had I waited until closer to my arrival in Iceland. With insurance, I paid about US$110 per day for a car through Sixt—a steal considering most day excursions from Reykjavik cost more than this per person. Also book any ferry crossing tickets early (e.g. to the Westman Islands), especially in summer, because vehicle spots aboard ferries are limited.
Upgrade to a 4x4 vehicle
Having a sturdy, all-terrain vehicle is a major bonus when it comes to safety and security. This is especially important outside of summer, when snow and sleet will factor into your drive. Even though much of the Ring Road, the country's most popular route, is flat and relatively well-paved, veering off it to explore attractions or park at camp sites and B&Bs will take you onto unpaved gravel roads. And if you head into the West Fjords at all, this is especially true for its steep mountain passes.
Get the ash-and-gravel insurance
Standard CDW insurance does not cover this type of damage, and it’s a true reality in Iceland. Driving in this country is not like driving anywhere else in the world, and kicked-up gravel can cause damage to cars. Plus, most of the rental cars in Iceland are white, which means that any damage will be obvious. You'll read many horror stories on travel blogs by people who didn’t opt for this additional insurance—and paid thousands of dollars for it. Better safe than sorry.
Purchase the Wi-Fi option
Instead of renting a GPS from the car rental company, opt for the Wi-Fi and use your smartphone’s GPS. Having Wi-Fi also allows your co-pilot, if you have one, to do on-the-fly research while you’re driving.
Stock up on snacks
Meals in Iceland can be pricey. Solution: Stock up on non-perishables such as granola bars, nuts, and dried fruit at Iceland grocery stores such as Bonus. My traveling companion and I decided to forgo lunch most days, thanks to our supply of snacks, then splurge on a really nice dinner. This tip helped us cut costs.
Bring a reusable water bottle
No need to waste money on bottled water when the most pristine and freshest stuff is found flowing—for free!—from Iceland’s faucets. The country’s supply is exceptionally pure thanks to the wealth of fresh rivers that flow from the mountains and glaciers. (In fact, when I tried to buy a few bottled waters at the onset of my road trip in Reykjavik, I got a “Tsk tsk” from the store clerk, who reminded me that the tap water in his country was perfection.) As long as you have one go-to bottle, you can fill up at rest stops or directly from your hotel sink.
You'll be happier with a Thermos
Bring (or buy) an insulated bottle to fill up each chilly morning with coffee or tea to get caffeinated for the day ahead. Many hotels, B&Bs, and farmstays include breakfast in the price, but most don’t have to-go cups. You’ll be glad you have your own: Towns are often miles apart, so you’ll sometimes drive for more than an hour without any convenience store or rest stop.
Bring your own music
Despite Reykjavik's reputation as an epicenter for the indie music scene, I found Iceland’s radio stations lacking, especially the farther from Reykjavik I traveled. Make sure your mp3 player or smartphone is fully charged, and use your rental car’s Bluetooth feature to play your tunes. (Tip: Download Bjork’s Greatest Hits album ahead of the trip. She is, after all, the country’s most iconic songbird and provides stellar sounds for an Icelandic carpool karaoke.)
Don't forget a car charger and cord
This one's easy to forget, but there aren't a lot of places to buy replacements if you do. There’s nothing worse than getting to Skogafoss waterfall (pictured) and realizing that your smartphone’s battery is dead. Bring a car charger to keep battery power at 100 percent throughout the drive, especially if you’ll be using your phone for multiple purposes (email, music, GPS, camera) while on the road.
They drive on the right
This is a big relief to most Americans. In Iceland, traffic moves the same as in the U.S. No need to switch things up, as you would in other parts of Northern Europe. Just be sure when you book your rental car, you’re mindful of whether the vehicle is automatic or uses a stick shift.
Roads may be narrow
Roads in Iceland do not resemble the expansive, six-lane wide expressways found in the U.S.A. They can be one lane wide in each direction and relatively tight. I found myself driving in the middle of two lanes whenever there were no other cars around, which was often.
Go easy on the one-lane bridges
Iceland doesn’t seem to like two-lane bridges. In rural areas, most have just one lane each way. That makes it a little tricky (and scary) when there are cars traveling in opposing directions. Fortunately, drivers in Iceland aren't in too much of a rush so no one will be annoyed if you slow down and proceed with caution when you're around other cars on the bridges. I usually yielded to other cars, flicking my headlights to signal them to go first. Longer bridges may have sections that are wider where you can pull over to allow other cars to pass. (Seriously, why not just make the bridge two lanes?)
Resist the temptation to go off-roading
The expansive landscape often beckons for a spin off the well-marked roads, especially for us thrill-seeker types. But don’t do it. It's illegal unless clearly marked otherwise. If you get caught doing it, you could suffer a hefty fine—not to mention damage pristine property and possibly your car.
Expect few rest stops
I sometimes drove 80 km (50 miles) without encountering a rest stop. This means you should make sure your gas tank is topped off—always have at least a quarter full—and take advantage of bathroom breaks at every opportunity.
Brace for extreme weather changes
Iceland's weather can have wild mood swings. Be prepared for sunshine one minute, then rain the next, then snow and sleet, then back to sunshine. In winter, especially, drive with caution and anticipate not spending too many hours on the road (since daylight is also limited then).
Watch the speed limits!
In Iceland, the standard speed limit for cars is 50 km/hour (30 mph) in urban areas; 80 km/hour (50 mph) on rural gravel roads; and 90 km/hour (56 mph) on paved rural roads. Even though police aren’t patrolling as vigilantly as they often do on American expressways, Iceland’s speed cameras will get you. I was told they are turned on in full force during the summer months, when tourists are most likely to stray.
Know the rules on passing
Passing is permitted and done politely in Iceland, but there's a code of conduct. If you wish a car behind you to pass, make it known by putting on your left turn signal; if you wish to pass a slower car, make that known by putting on your right turn signal.
Keep those headlights on!
In Iceland, headlights are required as soon as the car engine starts. This makes total sense in the winter months, when daylight is lacking. But this rule extends to all seasons, even in summer when it's still sunny hours past dinnertime.
Enjoy the road signs—and the lack thereof
Iceland isn’t big on billboards—and thankfully so, as it would clutter an otherwise immaculate natural setting. But the official road signs along the way will make you laugh, especially if we cannot read Icelandic. My travel companion and I would take turns trying to pronounce the names. My favorite was this sign annoucing (unnecessarily) that we were no longer in a town.
Befriend the sheep
When animals wander into the road, give them the right of way—and savor the moment. Keep your eyes peeled for sheep, which aren’t always penned inside their farms, as well as birds, which sometimes lay their eggs near the roads to protect them from predators such as foxes.
Pull over more than you think you should
The scenery will inspire many, many stops. Don’t resist the urge to pull over. There's an incredible view around every bend, so take your sweet time and soak everything in—it's so much better than capturing regretful glances through the rear-view mirror.
Frommer's EasyGuide to Iceland
We publish an entire book's worth of specific tips and recommendations for an Iceland vacation. Click here to buy your own copy.