The idea of driving in Iceland can be a bit overwhelming for some travelers. Iceland’s very name conjures images of roads covered in ice and snow, and the country’s reputation for otherworldly landscapes might make drivers wary of navigating. But driving in this country is actually very easy and -- with some precautions -- quite safe. It’s also the best way to explore a land where the scenery is the main attraction and roadside diversions include waterfalls, hot springs, and friendly horses. Here’s what you need to know to make the most of driving and renting a car in Iceland.
1. Four-wheel drive isn’t always necessary. If you ask a car rental office if four-wheel drive is necessary, the answer will likely be yes, as it’s more expensive. However, the need for it actually depends on a number of factors, including when you’re visiting and where you’re going. For example, if you’re visiting in the summer and sticking to the Ring Road -- the mostly flat, paved two-lane highway that circles the country -- you certainly don’t need four-wheel drive. If you’re coming in winter and traveling on the Ring Road and south Iceland’s popular Golden Circle route, you can probably get by without it as these areas are well-traveled and mostly paved -- just monitor conditions and drive carefully.
Should your plans include heading off into the Highlands in the country’s interior (where many of the roads are dirt or gravel), visiting in the depths of winter when snowstorms are frequent, or if you’ll be heading away from the capital at a time when the weather is questionable, four-wheel drive is recommended.
2. Know the laws. United States drivers’ licenses are valid in Iceland, and driving is on the right-hand side. The law requires that seat belts be worn by all passengers, headlights should be on at all times, and no texting while driving. There are big fines for driving under the influence or off-road driving. Many car rental agencies also restrict vehicles from Highland roads (F roads), which are often rough and deeply rutted; if you ignore the rule, penalties include a fine and costs for any damage to the car. In general, the speed limit is 50 km per hour in urban areas, 80 km per hour on gravel, and 90 km per hour on paved highways.
3. Insurance is worth it. Most car rental agencies sell additional gravel and windshield insurance. It’s wise to take this for the small extra fee per day, particularly if you plan to drive on any gravel roads. Even those small fragments can wreak havoc on the undercarriage of a car, and a stray rock can easily crack a windshield. It’s better to spring for the coverage rather than get hit with a big bill at the end of your rental.
4. Take extra precaution on roads in the Highlands. On maps and signs, Highland roads are marked with an “F.” These roads are often narrow and bumpy, and any rivers that cross them aren’t bridged. Unless you’re going into the remote interior in the summer, there’s no need to travel down one. Compact cars are no match for these thoroughfares, and even with a larger four-wheel drive vehicle, driving may be tough.
5. When in doubt, slow down. Many rivers are crossed with single lane bridges; when approaching, slow down to see if another car is already on the bridge. If one is approaching, yield the right of way to the closest car. Blind hills and curves are also common; again, your best course of action is to slow down when approaching. You should also ease up on the gas when passing spots where the road changes from paved to gravel because the car may slide.
6. Watch out for those unique roadblocks. Keep an eye out for livestock. Sheep on a roadway isn’t an uncommon sight in Iceland and drivers can be held responsible for the cost of the animal, plus the cost of a wrecked car.
7. Don’t forget to fuel up. A good rule of thumb is to fuel up any time you’re close to dipping below a half tank. Outside of the capital area, gas stations can be few and far between (see them on a map here) — and many aren’t your typical gas stations; some are just a credit card-activated single pump on the side of the road. If you’d prefer not to use a credit or debit card, buy prepaid credit cards at a larger station. Good to know: Expect to pay a fair bit more at the pump as gas is expensive in Iceland.
8. Bring that camera. There’s a reason road-tripping is a popular way to see Iceland; it’s a gorgeous country and you’re likely going to want to stop often to take photos. You might come across hidden waterfalls, hot springs, or friendly horses who amble right over to greet you. If you pull over to the side of the road for photo opps, do so in a place where the car is clearly visible to traffic in both directions (not hidden around a blind curve or hill) and pull over to the shoulder so that you aren’t blocking traffic.
9. Know the tricks to saving on car rentals. Iceland’s peak season is May through early September, and car rental prices surge along with the crowds. To save money, visit during other times of the year. Moreover, major rental car companies (including Hertz and Sixt) operate in Iceland, but be sure to compare rates with local companies like Geysir and Sadcars. If you don’t need the car rental for the whole trip, don’t book it for your entire visit. Most rental companies have offices at the airport, but will also pick up or drop off in the city (or at a city location) for a fee that’s less than an extra day’s rental.
10. Consider a camper. Open to camping? Consider a campervan. While more expensive than a regular rental car, it saves the cost of a hotel. There are campgrounds scattered all over the country, and most towns have public pools where you can pay a few dollars for a swim and get a free shower.