Tips on Traveling in Iceland, Part 1: Driving/Renting a Car

So, I’ve had a lot of people recently mention they are planning a trip to Iceland soon and are looking for recommendations for when they travel. I figured it might be best to blog about my thoughts/tips instead of writing to each individual person. I was going to try to do one big ol’ blog post, but then I ended up writing nearly 2,000 words on just driving alone, so I figure I’ll split these up and spread them out (making them more digestible AND making me feel more productive on the blog front)!

Hopefully this information will prove useful to people, though definitely keep in mind there is much more to consider beyond my experiences and opinions. Also keep in mind that I am currently traveling during their spring/summer period, so the weather conditions are considerably different than if you are planning to come here in the winter. I’ll try to note some additional considerations you’ll need to make for other times of the year, but since that falls outside of my own experience, you’ll probably want to do some additional research if you’re coming here during the winter months.

For a little background on me for those who might have found this blog through a friend or an independent search: I’m currently in the middle of my 2nd trip to Iceland. The first one was more of a quick, tour-heavy, pre-planned excursion, which was perfect for the 4-day venture me and my travel companions had set out for (we found a pretty reasonably priced deal through Travel Zoo that include airfare, hotel accommodations in Reykjavík, and a Northern lights tour that brought us here in November 2013).

The trip I’m currently on is a month-long tour of the country, though I am primarily based in Southern Iceland, fairly close to Rt. 1, the main road in the country, also known as the Ring Road. Although one of my main intentions while being here is to write, I’m also trying to see as much of the country as possible. And considering that Iceland is about the size of Ohio, there’s plenty of opportunity to achieve this in the time I’m here!

This particular blog deals with getting around in Iceland, specifically with my experience of renting a car. I know many people debate doing this, both because of the fear of driving in a foreign land and because of the price, but based on my experience, I think having your own vehicle is worth the expense.

Although you can find public transportation in/around Reykjavík, this is not something as readily available in other areas of the country, and if you really want to have full independence while traveling, having your own vehicle is your best bet. I did quite a bit of research on where to rent, since a lot of the places I checked were pretty pricy, but lucked out and found a really good deal at Holiday Autos. (Note that I don’t think they take Visa debit cards, so I needed to use a credit card to book with them.) You can decrease the cost of your rental even more if you know how to drive stick (I contemplated learning before my trip to save a few extra bucks, but I decided I’d rather go with what I know for this particular venture, although it’s on my list of Things to Eventually Do).

The type of car to rent depends heavily on the type of travel you’d like to do while you’re here. If you’re fine sticking to the main paved roads (which is generally recommended anyway), then you’re good with a smaller car. If you want to try to travel off the beaten path a bit more, then definitely get a car that can handle it. I cannot stress this enough–even in the warmer, “summer” months, there are still plenty of areas where the road conditions are still not ideal. Just last week I traveled to Gullfoss Waterfall and overheard someone trying to get help because their car got stuck when they attempted to venture off the main roads.

Traveling by car in the winter is a completely different beast than in the summer months, so do keep that in mind. Oftentimes even the main roads are closed and impassable, so depending on when you come renting a smaller car–or being able to drive at all–might not even be a feasible option. This website provides you with information on currently road openings and closures.

Also, I know that there’s all sorts of ways that travel companies try to drive up the price of your rental, but when exploring the coverage options available, definitely look into gravel insurance. Although it’s best to stay on the main paved roads, some of the “paved” roads means it’s covered in little stones/pebbles. And even when traveling at moderate speeds, it is very feasible that one of those little buggers might kick up and land on your windshield. Of all the different coverage options out there, that one might be worth considering.

I admit that before I came, I was pretty nervous to drive around Iceland since this was really my first experience driving outside of the US. But for the most part, it’s been a pretty easy adjustment. They drive on the same side of the road as we do in the states, and for my friends from NJ (and the UK), you’ll appreciate the fact that they also are big fans of traffic circles. For someone not as familiar with these, it might take some time to adjust to, but the only time I’ve really experienced any sort of actual traffic has been in Reykjavik, so you should be able to have the chance to get comfortable with these when you’re journeying along the countryside.

As someone who really hates driving at night, the fact that it’s essentially continuous daylight/twilight is an added benefit. I feel like I’m able to go for long stretches at a time without that nervous feeling that I have to try to outrun the sunset. (Granted, the ongoing stretches of day can be a little maddening, but this is definitely one aspect of it I’ve appreciated!)

For the most part, the speed limit seems to be about 90 km, though it seems that most locals/people no longer enamored by the scenery will zip along the main roads (I lost count of the number of times I’ve been passed while driving). However, there are a lot of places along the way where the speed limit drops, and you better be prepared to slow down because despite there being no cops on the roads (seriously, I think that in the last 16 days I’ve been here I might have seen 1 actual cop car?) there are a lot of places monitored with cameras and trackers clocking your speed (often with little light-up signs that display how fast you’re going, with either a smiley face or a frown to indicate if you’re obeying the posted limit). It’s been pretty frustrating to get so many frowns along the way, especially considering just about everyone else on the road seems to think I’m going entirely too slow, but we’ll see if any of these offenses have actually garnered a ticket. (I guess I’ll find out when I turn in my rental car?)

I’d say the thing that’s been the most frustrating/confusing has been trying to figure out how to fill up my tank (and no, it’s not because I’m from New Jersey). A lot of the places I’ve stopped, especially the ones in more rural areas, only have their pump directions in Icelandic. (I wouldn’t say it’s the norm, but it’s happened enough times where I feel it’s necessary to mention.) Depending on where you go, you might have to pay at the pump, and essentially guesstimate how much gas you’ll need before you begin pumping, though in some instances you are given the “fill it up” option. (For the car I’m driving, which is a Toyota Yaris, it takes about 3000 kr, or roughly $23 US, to get to a half tank).

(People who know me well will be impressed to know that I’ve taken to religiously filling up at the halfway mark, especially when traveling around to areas that aren’t as heavily populated, since I’m never exactly sure when I’ll reach the next gas station).

At the larger, fancier gas stations, you can pump your gas and then go inside to pay the attendant. I also just learned about the option of purchasing prepaid gas cards that can be used at those gas stations throughout the country (I’ve used this for N1, which has more than 100 locations throughout the country. Some of the larger ones have Wawa-like convenience stores with coffee, food and snack options, and bathrooms, too). I definitely suggest going the pre-paid route when possible to avoid dealing with confusion at the pump or potentially overpaying at the pump. Also, I may have recently gotten overcharged at one little stop I went to (which my credit card company took care of/is monitoring), so all around, I think pre-paid is the best/easiest option if available.

These signs indicate that you're entering into a town (with the town name below the cityscape). When you're leaving a town, you'll see the same sign with a line through the silhouette.

These signs indicate that you’re entering into a town (with the town name below the cityscape). When you’re leaving a town, you’ll see the same sign with a line through the silhouette.

The other point to note when driving around is that you should definitely make the most out of the rest stops you find. My travel companions and I have been lucky that our bathroom, gas, and snack stock-up needs have well-aligned with actual places to stop, but there are significant stretches where there are no public toilets or gas stations. Being prepared and aware of this will definitely make your road tripping a much more pleasant experience.

Another feature that car rentals might try to sell you on are GPS systems for your car. I went back and forth on adding this feature to my rental, because I wasn’t sure how reliable my phone service would be while I was out there. But I have to say, I’m grateful I opted not to get this very expensive add on. TMobile has totally done right by me with their unlimited international plan that services more than 120 countries, including Iceland. I know that each phone carrier has a different plan set up, but with TMobile my GPS has pretty much consistently worked (as has my ability to text), although I definitely make sure to have my map loaded up when I have Internet access since there are definitely stretches on the road where I can’t get service.

And although for the most part Google Maps has done right by me, definitely be aware of the route it’s taking you on and use common sense. There have been a couple occasions where the suggested route was taking me up a mountain road or a “short cut” that my car was definitely not cut out for. If the road starts looking questionable turn around. Seriously–don’t just try to wing it here.

The one thing I did not bring that I definitely should have (and thankfully one of the other girls at the residency program brought!) is a car charger that is compatible with a car lighter. I brought my USB cord thinking that would be enough, but the rental I got doesn’t have a USB port. For how much I rely on my phone to navigate, I  definitely recommend making sure you have one of these with you if you plan on traveling the country by car!

I *think* that covers the majority

One thought on “Tips on Traveling in Iceland, Part 1: Driving/Renting a Car

Comments are closed.