Tours can be a nice way to see a new country. No driving, no planning, you can just sit back and relax while someone else takes care of everything. However, when it comes to Iceland, there’s no better way to explore the “Land of Ice and Fire” than driving yourself around the country.
Renting a car and driving yourself around Iceland gives you the freedom to stop anywhere you want, on your own schedule. You can stop at any glacier, volcano, or waterfall you find interesting. Fortunately, driving in Iceland isn’t that difficult either (at least not during the summer). Keep reading for everything you need to know about driving in Iceland.
Do you need a rental car in Iceland?
If you want to see Iceland’s amazing landscape on your own schedule, or in a more affordable way (tours are expensive), then the answer is yes. Public transportation in Iceland is almost non-existent. There are several car rental companies to choose from, but the major rental car companies in Europe are Sixt, Europcar, Hertz, and Avis. Take a look at RentalCars.com, AutoEurope, or Kayak to compare companies and cars.
Car Rental Locations
The most obvious choice in location for renting a car in Iceland is Keflavik International Airport, which is around 40 minutes from Reykjavik. This is where most people start their Iceland road trip. If you’d rather take a shuttle or bus to Reykjavik first and spend a few days seeing the capital city before exploring the rest of the country, there are car rental locations in the city as well. If you’re picking up your rental car at the airport, you may have to take a short shuttle ride to the car rental company’s location.
Driving in Iceland
Driving in Iceland isn’t just about getting to a particular destination, it’s also a part of the whole Icelandic experience. With constantly changing and dramatic scenery, you will drive through barren landscapes of volcanic rock and green pastures, past waterfalls and towering mountains, and so much more. Fortunately, there’s the Ring Road that makes seeing the main highlights of Iceland extremely easy. Roads are well maintained for the most part, and a pretty good job is done in keeping the roads clear during the winter months. For winter, however, it would be best to rent a vehicle with 4-wheel drive or snow tires.
Tips for Driving in Iceland
- Don’t Speed. There are numerous speed cameras in Iceland and there are heavy fines for just going a few kilometers over the speed limit.
- Download offline maps. Google Maps usually works fine in Iceland if you have signal, but having downloaded maps will help in case you lose signal.
- Follow the signs for “1”. The famous Ring Road is also called Route 1 or Hringvgur go around the country for the most part. Just follow the signs for Route 1 while driving in Iceland and you’ll be fine.
- Do not press “Fill” at gas stations. There will be two options at gas stations in Iceland: to choose “fill” or a designated amount. If you press “fill,” your card will be charged the equivalent of 250 Euros. Instead, choose one of the designated amounts. Also, keep in mind that many gas stations close around 9:00pm.
- Look out for animals. Watch out for free-roaming sheep or other animals on the road while driving.
Speed Limits in Iceland
There are three main speed limits in Iceland you need to be aware of, as well as that speed limits are in kilometers per hour. These speed limits are:
- 90 km/h (sealed roads away from built-up areas)
- 80 km/h (dirt or gravel roads)
- 50 km/h (cities and towns)
You may encounter other speed limits than what’s listed above, so just be sure to pay attention to the road signs. For anyone used to miles per hour, 50 km/hour is approximately 30 miles/hour, 80 is around 50, and 90 is approximately 55 miles/hour.
License Requirements for Driving in Iceland
You will likely be able to use your driver’s licence from your home country for driving in Iceland. Your license just needs to have a photo of you and a license number, as well as be printed in Latin characters. If your license doesn’t meet this criteria, you can get an International Drivers License, or International Driver’s Permit, before traveling to Iceland. Also keep in mind that some car rental companies have other restrictions like a minimum age to rent a car.
Which Side of the Road Do You Drive on in Iceland?
You drive on the right side of the road in Iceland, just like in the United States and most of Europe.
What are the Different Road Types in Iceland?
Most road surfaces in Iceland are sealed asphalt and most of the country’s attractions and sights can be reached along these paved roads. For example, the Ring Road is nearly completely paved, with just a small portion of unpaved gravel. The country also, however, has plenty of stretches of unsealed roads. These are most often gravel surfaces and vary in condition. Some of these unpaved roads are fine to drive on with standard two-wheel drive vehicles, but some require 4WD.
A specific road type in Iceland is known as an “F” road, which are found primarily in the Highlands and the roughest roads. These roads are often closed due to snow, but when they are open, a 4WD vehicle (with proper high clearance) is required to drive on them. There are usually large signs indicating if a road is an “F” type. You won’t be covered by your rental car insurance if you drive on one of the F type roads and suffer any vehicle trouble. Also keep in mind that if a road is marked as closed, it’s illegal to drive on it.
Can You Drive Off-Road in Iceland?
Off-road driving is illegal in Iceland, with significant fines imposed for driving off-road. Basically, if there is no marked route or track, you can’t drive there. Damage done by vehicles to Iceland’s delicate ecosystem can be extensive and lasting, so driving off-road to explore the wilderness isn’t allowed.
How Common Are Single Track Roads in Iceland?
Most roads in Iceland are dual lane, especially the roads you will likely be driving as a tourist. You may hit a section of road, however, that only has one lane for both directions. For these situations, vehicles have give way to each other. Single-track roads exist most often at bridges, and this is certainly the case on the Ring Road. Typically whoever gets to the single-track road first has the right of way. Longer bridges will usually have passing spot so vehicles can let others pass if needed.
Is it Safe Driving in Iceland in Winter?
When it comes to whether it’s safe to drive in Iceland in winter, it really depends. For the most part, driving in Iceland during the winter is safe, but weather conditions can make roads dangerous and roads are often closed due to build-up of snow and poor conditions. Because of this, it’s recommended to keep your trip to a smaller area if you’re visiting Iceland in winter, such as the main sights around Reykjavik and the southern coast. Try to rent a car with four-wheel drive or winter tires.
How to Buy Gas in Iceland
Generally, buying gas in Iceland is just about finding the nearest gas station and filling up your car. Gas stations will have instructions in both Icelandic and English, and sometimes other languages. There will usually be an American or British flag symbol on the screen that you press to switch instructions to English. If you rent a car in Iceland, you will often receive a key fob with a gas station logo (such as Olis), which can be used to get a discount on gas. Typically you just hold the fob against the electronic reader before you pay to apply the discount.