You’re packed into your car. You’ve scraped off the ice. Your bags are firmly in the trunk. What comes next?
“Ugh, Isa, do I turn left or right?”
We hadn’t made it more than 100 feet (or should I say meters) from the car rental before this first question left my mouth.
“Right!” She cheerily chirped out.
Ah, Offline Google Maps — a lifesaver when you don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on roaming charges.
“That’s tip number 1,” I said to Isa. She nodded in agreement.
There are dozens of blog posts that give you the nitty-gritty details of navigating Europe’s second largest island. This article isn’t that. Instead, over the next few paragraphs I’ll try and provide you with practical tips and tricks you’ll want to know before you start driving in Iceland. All of the below information is updated as of March 2019.
Let’s dive in!
What type of car should I rent in Iceland?
I am biased. Why? Because back home in the United States, I’m a Volvo owner. Because of that, I’d highly recommend renting a Volvo T8 XC90 SUV. However, you’ll be hard pressed to find (or afford) one of those in Iceland.
Every rental agency offers 2 and 4 wheel drive vehicles. If you are planning on not venturing off of Ring Road, you can consider a 2 wheel drive car. Isa and I saw plenty of people in Hyundai i10’s for example, and they seemed to do just fine.
However, if you intend to get off of Ring Road (which you should!), or if you face any winter weather (which you will in nearly any month of the year) you’ll need a 4 wheel drive vehicle. Isa and I rented a Kia Sportage on our trip and loved it. Advanced safety features (emergency braking, lane keep assist, back-up camera), paired with great performance (downhill mode, a locking rear differential), and excellent fuel economy (we filled up only twice in a week of 700km of driving), make the Kia a great option.
I would not recommend renting a 2 wheel drive vehicle. Instead, your safest bet is a 4 wheel drive car like the Sportage.
Who should I rent my car from in Iceland?
Isa and I rented our Kia Sportage from Lagoon Car Rental, a family owned and operated business. It’s great knowing we supported a local business, and their customer service was excellent, however in retrospect, Isa and I agree that we would have gone with a different company.
When you arrive at Keflavik International Airport and make your way downstairs to the arrivals area you quickly realize that there is very little organization. The airport is beautiful, but the infrastructure for rental car companies is sparse.
There are a handful of rental car companies that have offices in the airport. Hertz, Avis, Europcar, and Budget. If you rent from any of these four you can avoid the waiting game I am about to describe. Isa and I both agree that when we come back next time we’ll rent from one of these four or one that the official airport shuttle runs to.
So what is this waiting game? It’s interesting to say the least (especially after an overnight flight!). You need to look for a sign. Not a big billboard sign, nor a fixed sign attached to an office, you are looking for someone holding up a piece of paper with their company’s name on it. This person will be walking around holding this piece of paper over their head, and you will be amongst all of your friends (hundreds of other tired and grumpy tourists), trying to find your specific company.
This is how the rental car shuttle system works at Keflavik. Isa and I waited about 45 minutes before someone from Lagoon Car Rental appeared. He was very friendly, and our experience at Lagoon was great, but getting off of our flight and immediately being confused and concerned if we were in the right place was not worth it.
Book with Hertz, Avis, Europcar, or Budget and spare yourself the chaos at Keflavik.
Gas or diesel in Iceland?
Do yourself a favor and rent a diesel vehicle. Why? Better fuel economy. Yes, Diesel is a touch pricier than gas (or petrol as it’s called in Europe), but the improved fuel economy is worth it. Plus, petrol in Iceland is high octane. The lowest octane you’ll find in 95. Where I live in the United States, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone that puts even 91 octane fuel in their Kia or Hyundai, instead, in the States they use 89. The higher the octane, the higher the price.
Isa and I rented an automatic transmission Kia Sportage. Compare the gas mileage in our diesel to that of a gas powered trim:
- Diesel: ~50mpg
- Gas: 25mpg
Considering it will cost ~$100 to fill up your tank, it’s a no-brainer that diesel is the way to go.
How to buy gas in Iceland
Okay, okay, this might seem like a bit of overkill, but I promise, it isn’t. I was VERY confused (and a bit intimidated) the first time we had to stop for gas. Driving in Iceland is identical to the United States (put your foot on the gas pedal and go), but the process for filling up the tank is a bit different.
First, you can only pay at the pump if you are using a debit card. Want to pay with your credit card? Head inside to the shop and request a prepaid card. You can pay for the prepaid card with your credit card and then use the prepaid card at the pump. If you need a full tank of gas you’ll want a 10,000 ISK card.
If you have a debit card you can easily use it at the pump, just enter your pin and you’re good to go.
Driving in Iceland in March
Did you know that winter in Iceland lasts from the end of October to April? That means if you go in March, when Isa and I did, you’ll need to be prepared for winter driving. What does that entail in Iceland? It means you’ll be thankful for studded winter tires!
During our travels, Isa and I experienced stretches with pristine sun and others with whiteout blizzard conditions. Expect to drive on snow covered roads. Even if it’s bright and sunny where you wake up in the morning, 30 minutes later it may be snowing (or at least snow covered). Isa and I experienced incredible weather changes during our journey on the South Coast. Expect the unexpected and take snow covered roads more slowly than you would otherwise.
Before you head out the door, refer to the Icelandic Meteorological Office’s official website to get a sense for what the weather will be.
Are there snow plows in Iceland?
On Ring Road, yes. On secondary roads? No.
Isa and I learned that a lot of local municipalities (away from Reykjavik) employ local farmers to plow the roads. These locals will plow only their municipality, nothing more and nothing less. That means if it really snows you’ll find plowed roads to be hit or miss.
However, during our travels on Ring Road, Isa and I saw one government owned plow. We were in the midst of whiteout conditions, going no more than 30km/hr and the plow truck had its plow up (that’s driving in Iceland for you). It wasn’t plowing. Isa and I laughed, evidently that wasn’t a section it was supposed to do!
Traffic circles in Iceland
Don’t be surprised if you don’t see a lot of traffic lights in Iceland. Outside of Reykjavik you’ll be hard pressed to find any. Instead, be prepared to drive around traffic circles — lots of them.
Here are some basic rules for how to handle driving through traffic circles from a Reddit user that helped me out greatly:
- Inside lane always has priority over the outside lane.
- Cars in the roundabout have priority over cars trying to enter the roundabout.
- If you’ll be taking the first exit, choose the outer lane
- If you’ll be taking the 3rd, or 4th exit, use the inner lane
- If you’ll be taking the second exit, use whatever lane you want, but be careful that if you take the outside lane you have to give way for a car on the inner lane trying to take your first exit or taking the second exit if that exit only has one lane. (If that sound too complicated just always take the inner lane if your taking the second exit)
Gravel roads in Iceland
Unlike the United States, you’ll find quite a few gravel roads in Iceland. These roads, known as secondary roads, are common off of primary thoroughfares.
The Icelandic government has a helpful website with information on road signs, driving best practices, and more. Click here to take a look. Don’t fear gravel roads, they’re easy enough to drive on. Just keep your speed low (80km/hr or less), and enjoy the slightly bumpy ride!
One-way bridges in Iceland
When driving in Iceland, something you’ll certainly be surprised to see are one-way bridges. Ring Road, the primary highway in Iceland is full of them.
These bridges are exactly what they sound like, they’re one-way, one-lane bridges. Generally they’re short in length, but occasionally you’ll come across a bridge (especially in the south coast), that takes quite a few seconds to cross.
As a general rule of thumb, whoever approaches the bridge first should enter first.
Final thoughts on driving in Iceland
For a foreigner, driving in Iceland should be a breeze. Expect wintry road conditions, rent your diesel car from one of the big four rental agencies, and be prepared for traffic circles — lots of them. Beyond that, driving in Iceland is just like driving in any other country. Oh, except for the absolutely incredible scenery, you don’t get that anywhere else in the world!