Renting a car & driving through Iceland was one of the best decisions we made on our trip. Driving is fairly easy if you use your head & are careful. They drive on the right hand side of the road, making things even easier for many drivers (sorry, Brits). Here are some of my best tips & everything you need to know about driving in Iceland.
Prepping for Your Trip
Our rental car was through Red Car Rental which is operated by Enterprise Car Rental in Iceland (our car was included in our Extreme Iceland self-drive package). The Enterprise associates we dealt with were extremely helpful & friendly – happy to help answer questions & made the process as seamless as possible. Some rental car companies have a desk right in the airport, while others require you to take a brief shuttle bus ride or walk across the parking lot (if you know where you’re going). It wasn’t entirely clear to us that we had to take a shuttle bus – we had been told someone would meet us with a sign – but the airport information desk was very helpful getting us on our way. While we almost froze our toes off waiting for the shuttle, the process was actually fairly painless.
We rented a 4×4 SUV because we didn’t want to be limited by a small car. In hindsight, I’m glad we had it (especially considering we basically lived out of the car), but it wasn’t really necessary & our car wasn’t approved to drive on F roads (interior roads) anyway.
Driving in Reykjavik
If you’re spending time in Reykjavik at the beginning or end of your trip, consider renting your car (or returning it) at the BSI bus station. Enterprise is happy to give you a ride to your hotel or elsewhere in the city after you drop off your car (I’m sure other companies do this as well). Parking in Reykjavik is hard to come by & expensive – in fact, most hotels don’t even have parking, you have to drive around & find a public garage. We actually got yelled at by a parking enforcement officer when we tried to stop with our flashers on in front of our hotel to unload our bags! If you do need to park in Reykjavik, the parking meters now take credit cards; but the instructions are all in Icelandic – shout out to the friendly passerby who helped me.
Driving Along the South Coast
Driving on the south coast ring road was surprisingly easy: the road is in good condition, but it is two lanes (one lane each direction) the majority of the trip. There are a number of one lane bridges, including some pretty long ones. Consider that you’re driving on a pretty popular stretch of road – these can be a bit unnerving, so take it slow.
Speaking of taking it slow, definitely watch your speed, especially when approaching a town. Most of the towns we drove through have speed cameras right at the spot where the speed limit decreases from 70 kph to 40 kph. We may have gotten two speeding tickets for going just a few miles over – that will be an unhappy piece of mail to receive in a few months!
While the ring road along the south coast is paved & in good shape, some of the side roads off it are gravel (this is where having a good map, that has gravel roads marked, is helpful). We found the gravel roads to be totally do-able, especially in a small SUV, but just take it slow.
Top 10 Iceland Driving Tips
1. Have a plan. Some things you’ll want to see are obvious on the ring road & Golden Circle, but many things will require you to know which random street to turn down.
2. Bring snacks & water for the road. We enjoyed picking up Icelandic snacks from the N1 gas stations around the country (they have an affinity for licorice…), along with bottled water. While the tap water is drinkable, as is much of the natural source water, we preferred the taste of bottled.
3. If you like music while driving you might also want to make some iPod play lists because the radio is, well… lacking! Around most of the country you’ll hear the two national broadcast stations, which do a lot of talking in Icelandic & play about five songs an hour.
4. Keep an eye on the gas gauge: we tried not to let it go below half a tank because we sometimes went 40 or 50km without seeing a fuel station. We also met a number of people on our tours panicking that they were nearly on E & there were no stations in sight.
5. Many gas stations require you to have a chip & pin card. While most Americans now have a chip card, most of us don’t have a pin, but a signature instead. If that’s the only type of card you have, make sure you visit a gas station during regular hours & you can pay inside. If you’re forced to use the machine outside (this is different than the U.S. pay-at-the-pump system), try the pin you set with your credit card company to allow you to use your card at an ATM. Mine worked on my Capital One card!
6. Watch if your car takes unleaded or diesel – they’re both widely available & the cars we saw seemed to be split 50-50 (we had a diesel).
7. The Icelandic language is… challenging. When driving, it’s best to make a deal with your copilot who is manning the directions on what you’re going to call places. We made up English names for some places, or I would only give the first four letters of the street sign we were looking for.
8. Despite the fact that you can’t read or pronounce of them, the signage around Iceland is fantastic. Even the smallest side road is clearly marked with a large yellow sign. When pulling back off the road, there will be signs pointing toward Reykjavik & the next largest town.
9. Watch for sheep! They roam everywhere & we had to stop hard once to avoid them.
10. Don’t pull over on the side of the ring road onto the shoulder! It’s not safe. It hurts other driver’s sight lines. There often isn’t enough room to pass. There are many short driveways & pulls offs that allow you to pull off safely.
PS This cheeky video from the Icelandic Transport Authority is actually really helpful in providing driving tips.