What is the best way to travel in Iceland? A common question with a very simple answer. A self-drive tour is by far the best way to explore our amazing island and here's why.
It's no understatement that Iceland is packed full of interesting places and incredible sceneries. The list of natural wonders is near endless and you should see as many as you can while you are here.
Prepare And Planning To Drive
There are two key elements for making the most of your trip to the land of ice and fire. First is having a rental car and second is planning. Planning a self-drive tour offers you the freedom to go where you want, when you want and stay for as long as you want. This is extremely important as time is limited and there is so much to see and do.
This article will help you understand the conditions in Iceland and assist with preparing your dream road trip. Whether it is exploring our fiery volcanos or icy glaciers, our powerful waterfalls or incredible hot springs.
How to Navigate in Iceland
Being able to navigate is highly important when traveling. Especially when you travel on your own. You need to know where you are and where you are going. Choosing the right route could make a huge difference for your vacation. How you do this is of course optional. However, the most common and effective way to know your way around Iceland is by using Google Maps.
Just Use Google Maps
Google Maps works extremely well in Iceland and is widely used by locals. The cellular connection is in general good, so staying connected should not be a problem in most areas.
One of the great benefits of using Google maps is searching for locations by name. Whereas GPS usually requires an address. That can be problematic if you need to search for sites which usually do not have listed addresses.
It also bypasses Icelandic characters. Meaning you can write names of locations without using the except spelling. This will come very handy when looking for places such as Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir geyser, Glacier lagoon or Thingvellir National Park.
So, you don’t need a map, compass, or GPS on your self-drive tour in Iceland. Just bring your phone and get on the road.
How's the Weather?
Like most travelers, we are constantly wondering about the weather. When you live here it's hard not to think about the weather.
The weather in Iceland is rather unpredictable. It is however not as bad as you might think. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, a warm ocean current which warms up the clement. But the Gulf stream can only do so much for a country sitting on the arctic circle. It can also be really cold here as well.
As a result, the weather in Iceland is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you´re going to get.
Local Weather Conditions
Iceland is surprisingly large. The rugged landscape with high mountains and deep fjords makes the weather very changeable from where you are on the island.
There can be strong cold winds blowing in one part and calm and warm in others. At the same time there can be rain, snow or sunny in different parts. It is confusing but the best advice we can give is simply to prepare for everything. As we sometimes say, the weather is only bad for poorly equipped people.
Can I Trust the Forecast?
Luckily the Icelandic Met office is used to the weather here. So, you can rely on their forecasts. At least for a few hours into the future.
When you plan your trip in Iceland long term forecasts will only give you some idea of what the weather could be. With that said, we recommend checking the weather conditions and forecast daily once you arrive. This is especially important during winter.
SEE ALSO: Is Iceland Awfully Cold During Winter?
Renting a Car in Iceland
Keep in mind that Iceland is large, and you need transportation to get from one place to the next.
Public transportation is limited, and you should not have to be on someone else's schedule. With a rental car you can decide what to see when you want to see it.
A rental car also gives you the opportunity to change your plans. After all this is Iceland and conditions might not always be as you expected. Or you just found something more interesting while traveling.
Your vacation time is limited and you should be able to make the most of it. In simple words, the rental car is freedom to explore.
SEE ALSO: Ensure a Good Vacation in Iceland
Do I Need Car Insurance?
The one thing you should not have to worry about on your vacation is hidden fees and charges coming back to you once the trip is over. This can absolutely ruin the whole experience and leave you with nothing but a bad taste in your mouth.
We want you to leave with nothing but fond memories from your adventures. The second you leave we want you to start planning your next visit. That is however not going to happen if you leave unhappy. The best way to ensure a good vacation and avoid inconveniences is by having insurance.
Spend a Little To Save a Lot
It should come as no surprise that Iceland is expensive. Everyone knows it is an expensive country. As such, charges and fees are extremely high. The cost for insurance might seem high but trust us when we say, they are nothing when comparing everything else here.
You would not believe the cost of fixing a car. Even the smallest damage will be ridiculously expensive to repair. Why not just have a carefree vacation and be fully covered for everything? This is Iceland and literally everything can happen. And if it does, you will not regret having insurance to cover the cost. We guarantee that!
SEE ALSO: Ensure a Good Vacation in Iceland
See the Northern Lights
The Northern lights, or aurora borealis, are undeniably the most amazing light show in nature. They are as mysterious as they are beautiful and there is no better place to see them than Iceland!
For those interested, the Northern lights are in fact charged particles which hit earth’s atmosphere as a result of a solar storm. Under the right condition you can see them dance majestically in the sky. Appearing in all colors.
But nature is unpredictable. You can't make an appointment with the auroras when you visit Iceland. You might need to go hunting for them.
Your best chance of seeing the Northern light is by having a car. So, if you really want to see auroras when you are in Iceland, and you should, renting a car will increase your chances significantly.
SEE ALSO: Hunt for the Northern Lights in Snaefellsnes Peninsula
How To Pay in Iceland
There are three things you need on your self-drive tour in Iceland. A rental car, a phone, and a credit card.
Like in other Nordic countries, cash is not widely used in Iceland. It is accepted and a valid payment method, but it is not commonly used.
The Icelandic Krona is counted in the thousands, often tens or hundreds, so it is just more practical to use cards when paying here.
Using Credit Cards
You should not run into any problems using a card when paying. Most companies in Iceland accept all major credit cards such as Visa, MasterCard, and American Express.
Debit cards are also widely used. However, not all companies accept debit cards for online payments or deposits. For example, some hotels and car rentals.
That’s why we are so pleased to inform you that Zero Car does indeed accept 16-digit number debit cards both for payment and we do not hold any deposit during the rental.
SEE ALSO: ZERO CAR INFO
Going To the Blue Lagoon
If we must choose the hottest spot in Iceland, the Blue Lagoon is clearly the winner. This geothermal hot spring pool is a world of wonder of its own.
Situated in a lava field and full of rich minerals which gives it its iconic and unique blue color. It is also conveniently located right between Keflavik airport and Reykjavik.
Therefore, even on the shortest trips it is easy to stop by if you have a rental car. Either on your way to Reykjavik after landing in Iceland or making it the last stop on your way back home.
Can you imagine how great your flight home would be if you just stepped out of the Blue Lagoon before boarding the plane?
Useful Travel Tips
Plan, plan, and plan some more. Iceland can be a tricky place. Anything can happen and it never hurts to be prepared.
You might not always be able to do everything you want, and it is not unlikely that something interesting will pop up while you are here.
The best advice we can give is to travel with an open mind. Having your travel schedule partly open can save you a lot of trouble.
Make Your Own Travel Plan
Iceland is big and distances are often longer than you expect, and more time consuming. We know that time is limited but try avoiding traveling on a tight schedule.
Just take all the time you need and enjoy being on the road. There is no need to rush. Getting to your next destination should be half the fun. The Glaciers and hot springs are not going anywhere.
Finding Gas Stations
You shouldn't have to worry about running out of fuel when driving in Iceland. Gas stations are located in every town and at various locations on the main road system. There is usually never more than about 150 km between gas stations except in extremely remote areas.
Both petrol (95 okt) and diesel are available at all gas stations.
Iceland is unique for so many reasons. Not just for our beautiful nature. We have an interesting culture as well. Like the Northern lights, glaciers and hot springs, exploring our culture should also be on all visitor itineraries.
There is no need to be shy, we love introducing our culture. In fact, we encourage every visitor to try out our local food, drinks, and activities. So, while you are here, why not have some fermented shark and black death snaps (Brennivín)?
Keflavik International Airport
There is one official international airport in Iceland. That is Keflavik International airport. For most visitors that is the first and last place they visit on their trip here.
The airport is about half an hour drive from Reykjavik. It is however not in Reykjavik City, it is actually in a city called Keflavik.
This does sometimes cause a little confusion as usually flights are listed “Reykjavik” at airports all over the world. But in reality, it is going to Keflavik.
From the airport you should have no problem finding your car rental. Most of them are located within the car rental area close to the airport and there is a free shuttle service available as well.
Reykjavik Domestic Airport
Almost all international flights to Iceland go through Keflavik International airport. However flights from Greenland and the Faroe Islands arrive at Reykjavik Domestic airport. If you are flying in from there you will actually land in Reykjavik City.
The domestic airport is in the center area of Reykjavik. Just a few minutes’ drive from downtown.
Can I Drive in Snow?
Not surprisingly there is snow and ice here during winter. Therefore, you will need winter tires when driving here in winter.
In case you’re wondering. No, we do not use snow chains for the tires.
There is however no need to worry. Studded winter tires are the standard equipment for winter driving in Iceland. All our rental cars are equipped with studded winter tires from November to May.
Just remember. Although the car has winter tires it does not mean it can go through everything. Be extra careful when driving in winter conditions. The studs do not automatically turn the car into a snowmobile.
Automatic or Stick Shift?
Can you drive a stick? That’s an important question when planning a self-drive tour in Iceland.
Manual cars are common in Iceland, as it is required to learn to drive with a stick shift to get a driver license here.
That's why it is important to check if the rental car you are interested in has manual or automatic transmission. If the car is labeled manual, it has a stick shift.
You can find most types of cars with both manual and automatic transmission. Unless you know how to drive with a stick shift, make sure to get the automatic type.
There are a few pointers when looking for a rental car in Iceland which you can keep in mind before making your decision. In our rental car selection, the type of transmission is displayed on our website.
Drive With Confidence
When it comes to choosing your rental car, get the type you feel more comfortable driving. If you do not know, or are not used to, driving a stick shift, take the automatic, even if it costs a little bit more.
Iceland is not the best place to practice driving. The roads are often small and narrow, and you can expect all conditions throughout most of the year. You need to be in full control and be able to handle the car in various situations.
The most important thing when driving in difficult conditions is that the driver has the most control of the car and can handle the situation. Therefore, it does not make much difference if the car is manual or automatic. Being safe while driving should always be your number one priority.
Expensive Repair Cost
Are there any situations or conditions where stick shift is more suitable? The short answer is no. Some people have the conception that driving a stick shift is better or even necessary in situations such as when driving in snow, mud or when crossing rivers. This is however not true.
You do not want to burn out the clutch. Although renting a stick shift might be cheaper, it will not be worth it if you burn out the clutch. A damaged clutch is not covered by the insurance and the cost will be extremely expensive. On top of that you will be stuck and forced to spend your precious vacation time waiting for a replacement car.
Our advice. If you drive a stick shift at home, rent a car with a stick shift. If you don't get an automatic.
Normal roads such as the Ring Road and other main routes in the main road system are open all year around. At least that is the way we want them to be. Main roads are only closed in cases of emergency.
The most common reason for these closers is usually snow. Parts of the main road system, including road one, are mountain passes which can close sometimes during winter. These are however only temporary. If that happens, we try our best to clear the roads as soon as possible.
Other temporary road closures can also be caused by road constructions, strong winds and other natural reasons. Such as earthquakes, volcano eruptions or floods.
The Highland F-Roads
There are also roads which are closed for part of the year. These are for the most part the highland roads and remote mountain passes. These roads are marked as F-roads. For example, road F 35 (Kjalvegur).
The Icelandic Road Administration announces when roads are closed. The easiest way to see if roads are open is to go to their website and see the road conditions. If the road is green, it is open. If it is red, it is closed. The site is updated regularly, and all travelers should be able to rely on the information.
While on your self-drive tour we recommend checking the road conditions daily. There you can also see special announcements with useful information for travelers on the road.
Do I Need a Four Wheel Drive?
It depends on how you plan your road trip, if you need a four wheel drive or not. In general you do not need it for driving in Iceland. It is not a problem to travel on main roads for most of the year on a 2WD.
But, if you want to go off the beaten track and for example drive on the F-roads you will need a 4x4 or AWD, as 2WD´s are not allowed on the highland roads.
We also recommend having a four wheel drive when driving in winter. It is just much easier getting around in the winter conditions with a 4x4. Especially if you plan on driving to remote areas.
The South Coast of Iceland
As we have mentioned, planning is the most important aspect of your self-drive tour. That includes finding interesting locations. For many travelers, and we agree, it makes sense going to an area where you can see many things in one trip. If you agree then the South Coast should be on your travel plan.
Volcanoes and Glaciers of the South
Not only is the South coast home to the famous black sands there is so much more there to see. Including glaciers such as Mýrdalsjökull and Vatnajökull. Active volcanoes like Hekla, Katla and Eyjafjallajökull.
Waterfalls of the South
You only need to travel on the Ring Road, or Route one, to see the South coast. From the highway you can see and stop at many of Iceland's most famous natural wonders. For example, Seljalandsfoss waterfall and Skógarfoss waterfall.
Further up the South coast you can visit Vatnajökull national park. Home to Vatnajökull, Europe's largest glacier and the amazing Glacier Lagoon. See incredible ice caves and other amazing natural wonders.
Black Sands of Iceland
The South coast is perhaps most famous for the black sands. If you want to see Reynisfjara, Black Sand Beach, or Black diamond Beach you should travel to the South coast. They are all there and more. For example, Sólheimasandur. Another black sand beach most known for the DC3 plane wreck sitting in the sand.
These are just to name a few. There is more to see and explore. The point that we are trying to make is that you will have no problem finding something interesting. It might be a long drive, but the incredible scenery will make you forget time and place. At the end of the day, chances are you won’t have enough time and start planning your next trip on the way back.
Driving the Ring Road
The South coast is only one part of the island you go through when traveling the Ring Road. The Ring Road is, as the name suggests, a road that goes around Iceland. It is marked simply as Road one (1) on the map and by following this road you can go to all parts of the country.
If you want to travel north, east, west or south the Ring Road will take you there. The total length of the Ring road is 1322 km and it goes through many towns and cities. Selfoss and Vik in the south, Egilsstaðir in the east, Akureyri in the north and Reykjavik in the west.
We have a saying in Iceland. If you get lost on the road, just keep driving. Eventually you will end up at the same place where you started.
Going off the Ring Road
Although the Ring Road goes around Iceland there are also areas outside it that are well worth exploring. Areas that are ideal for having an adventure. Just to name a few are Snæfellsnes Peninsula, the Westfjords, Northeast corner and the Highland.
The Golden Circle
The most famous route outside of the Ring Road is however known as the Golden Circle.
There are three sites that make the Golden Circle. These are Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Geyser area and Gullfoss waterfall.
As it is only a short drive from Reykjavik, the Golden Circle makes a perfect day tour as you can easily visit and stop at all the sites in just a few hours. As a self-drive tour is the best way to travel, it is of course the best way to explore the Golden Circle.
By having a rental car, you can go at the time of your choosing and stay as long as you want. It also allows you to make other stops on the way and plan the trip however you like.
SEE ALSO: The Golden Circle in Iceland
Have you ever wondered why Iceland is the land of ice and fire? Well, the ice part is because there is a lot of snow and ice here. Especially in our impressive glaciers.
The fire arrives from our fiery volcanoes. Iceland is home to hundreds of volcanoes, many of which are firmly active.
Although Iceland is a volcanic hot spot and we do have many active volcanoes we cannot guarantee that you will see a volcano eruption here but there is always a chance when in Iceland.
It is possible to visit many of these volcanoes. The most recent eruption was in Fagridalur Volcano at Reykjanes peninsula in 2021.
However, that is only part of the attraction. By having your own rental car, you can always go and see a volcano. Even though it will not be spitting magma and ash, they are still a site to see.
The beautiful lava fields around them and the intense surroundings give you an idea of how powerful nature can really be. So, when in Iceland go see a volcano. You will be impressed, we guarantee that!
SEE ALSO: Can You Visit Volcanoes in Iceland?
Extra Travel Tips
Now you should be well prepared for your self-drive road trip in Iceland. At last we want to give some extra travel tips before you start roading in Iceland.
When you need to stop. Always try to find a safe place to park. The roads in Iceland are small and stopping on the side of the road can be extremely dangerous.
Bring sunglasses for your road trip. In summer the midnight sun is low and reduces visibility when it shines directly at you. In winter sunglasses will help you deal with reflection from the snow.
In order to rent a car with, the driver needs to be at least 20 years of age and has held a valid driver license for at least 12 months.
All foreign driver's licenses are accepted if they are valid and with Latin characters. If not, you need to bring an International Driver's License.
That's it for now. Hopefully this has helped and you have already started to plan your dream road trip in Iceland.