What’s it Like Driving in Iceland?

Driving has to be one of the best ways of seeing Iceland. There are amazing places to visit, most of which are located away from population centers. While there is some limited public transportation, and there are tours available of all major sites, having a car allows you to go where you want, when you want, for as long as you want.  The car also makes a great shelter if you want to have a picnic and the wind is howling. If you are moving around the country, you always have a place to store your stuff, and it is nice to be able to spread out your gear in the car for easy access, e.g. camera gear, binoculars, food, etc.

However, driving in Iceland is a bit different to driving in other countries.  Keep in mind that physically this is not a tiny country – it is about the same size as the US State of Kentucky or about 25% bigger than Ireland.  The permanent population though is tiny at about 334,000, and by the end of 2017 they expect to have hosted more than 2,000,000 foreign tourists this year.

Driving in Iceland - two lane road with oncoming car with headlights on, overcast sky, steep mountains in the distance.
Driving in Iceland – two lane road with oncoming traffic.

Car Rental

Car rental, like most things, is expensive in Iceland.  For the least expensive car we could rent, we paid about double what I have paid anywhere else.  Because of the roads in Iceland (see below), one of the first decisions you have to make is if you want to be able to drive the mountain (F) roads, or not.

In the regular car category, Toyotas (especially the Yaris) and Hyundais are popular rental vehicles.  We ended up with a Yaris and although basic, it was fine for our purposes.  The Dacia Duster, a car probably unfamiliar to most Americans, is the most popular 4×4 we saw.

If you plan to use credit card insurance cover, make sure you have specific coverage in Iceland and for the type of vehicle you plan to rent.  If you do go for a 4×4, often credit card coverage does not extend to such vehicles or to off road driving, so you may have to purchase insurance from the rental agency.  Additionally there are some less common hazards in Iceland, and with lots of gravel roads, damage from gravel seems pretty common.

Roads in Iceland

Generally in this post I am talking about driving outside Reykjavik and the major towns during summer.  To me, Reykjavik is nice, but nothing special.  What I found to be the really amazing parts of Iceland were in the countryside.  If you are just going to be in Reykjavik, there are buses from the airport and it is an easy city to walk, so having a car isn’t necessary for a visit to just the capital.

Broadly speaking, in Iceland they have three kinds of roads:

  1. Paved roads, such as the main Route 1 which circles the country.  These are well maintained and would be comparable to a B road in the UK.  Most of these roads are a consistent width one lane in each direction, rarely with any barriers, and often with a steep fall off on the side of the road (i.e. no berm).  There are small turn outs. usually made of gravel, at pretty short intervals.
  2. So called gravel roads, which are unpaved roads (that may or may not have any gravel on them!)  It is not uncommon when off the main road for the surface to switch at short notice from paved to gravel and it is important NOT to hit your brakes on such transitions, but to just ease up on the gas.
  3. “F” mountain roads.  Rough, unpaved mountain tracks that may cross rivers, etc.  Only properly approved 4×4 vehicles can travel on such roads.  To drive an F road with a rental car, you need a much more expensive 4×4 vehicle that is specifically approved for such roads.  We did not rent one of these, so I can’t comment directly on driving them.  Although we did drive part of a stretch of road that was labeled as F on some maps but has been recently reclassified as just a gravel road.  It was really bumpy and not a comfortable ride, even for just the short stretch we drove.

Although the main road surfaces are in great shape, speed limits are surprisingly low.  The maximum speed limit on the main highways is 90KM/H or about 55MPH.  Often that reduces down to 70KM/H, especially passing through an inhabited area, and if you pass through a town, you will get slowed to 50KM/H, 30KM/H or in places just 20KM/H.  There are speed cameras and steep fines for speeding, so you can’t just ignore these limits.  Driving long distances, even in a small car, it is hard to keep the speed down to just 90KM/H.

Distractions and Dangers

While one has to be careful driving anywhere, Iceland brings a few extra challenges.

Distances

Distances can be long between stops.  A common mistake for first time visitors is to decide to drive the entire Route 1 ring road around the country in a week.  It can be done, but it involves very long days and doesn’t provide much time for stops.  We talked to other guests who had done that on prior trips and regretted it.

Stunning Scenery

Because of the spectacular views, it is easy for you (or the oncoming driver) to take your eye off the road.  With one one lane in each direction and no berm, there isn’t much wiggle room.

Fatigue

In summer, because it gets dark so late, it is easy to figure you can just keep driving later into the day than you might otherwise, which is why fatigue can be a much greater factor.

Icelandic road sign. Yellow square car with narrow bridge symbol and Icelandic text.
Road sign in Icelandic. “Single Lane Bridge”
Road signs

Signage is in Icelandic only, not English, which means reading them is a bit more difficult.  Also, while I would say that places are well signposted, there are often not many signposts, i.e. you may only have one sign alerting you to turn for your destination, which doesn’t give a lot of forewarning, and if you are not watching your progress, can be easy to miss.

Furthermore some of the road hazards are unusual in Iceland, and the accompanying signs may be less familiar.  I would highly recommend reviewing such signs and reading driving advice (such as this) before driving in country.   IcelandAir have a cheesy video that does a good job of explaining some of the peculiarities of driving in Iceland.  It is an animated film narrated by Elfish that the family keep wanting to call Elvis.

Driving in Iceland in foggy conditions. Thick fog, two lanes with a barrier to the left.
Driving over a mountain pass in Iceland.

 

Weather conditions

The climate is a big factor in Iceland, and can change on a dime.  Looking at the photos in this post may give you some idea of the changing conditions.  The most challenging drive was on our last day when we drove through a mountain pass.  The low cloud cover allowed about 50 feet maximum visibility – after that the cars just disappeared.  Not only did I have to keep an eye out for any stoppages or slowdowns ahead, but I also had to be concerned about anyone driving into the back or me.  Let’s just say that there was some intense concentration going on for about 30 minutes each way on that drive.

Bridges

While there are some two lane bridges – it is very common to come across single lane bridges.  These may be quite short, or they may be surprisingly long.  The longer bridges will have an area where one car can pull aside to let traffic in the other direction get past.  On the longest bridge we went over there were three of these.  The rule of thumb is that the first to reach the bridge has right of way, but you have to be cautious as although you may have the right of way, the person coming in the other direction may not always stop.

Driving in Iceland. Two lane road, no traffic, grassland.
Driving in Iceland. The open road.
Blind Crests

Another hazard, especially in hilly areas, is blind crests.  Especially on gravel roads, which can be narrower than the main roads, this is where you approach the crest of a hill, but cannot tell if anyone is coming the other way.  There may or may not be room for two cars to pass at the crest, so you have to be extra cautious when warned of these.

Road Changes

As previously mentioned the transition between paved and gravel roads is another unusual situation.  Apparently many foreign drivers freak out when the surface changes, hitting their brakes, which causes the wheels to lock up and the car to spin.  If you come across a sudden transition to gravel, just take your foot off the accelerator, and if the car starts to swerve, turn into to the swerve.

Traffic

Traffic is highly variable.  You can go long stretches without seeing too many cars, but at popular spots, there can be a lot of traffic.   I am not sure what happened – maybe roadworks, an accident, but we saw a tailback that went on for miles, thankfully on the other side of the road.  Since the road was only one way in each direction with no alternate route, I guess the travelers in the other direction could only choose to just wait it out or turn around and abandon their travel plans.

Petrol

The expense doesn’t end with the cost of the rental. Petrol prices are the equivalent currently of about US$7.25 per US gallon.  There are a decent number of gas stations, but in some places there may be a long drive to the next one – keep an eye on your fuel level and don’t let the tank get too low.

Driving in Iceland - remote petrol station, car in front of pump. No attendants, fuel pump and card reader only.
Remote petrol station in Iceland.

The Icelandic remote petrol stations, like the one pictured above with our rental car at the pump, were something I had read about, but not encountered previously.  As you can see, these have only pumps and chip and pin card readers.  No attendants.  That means if you need gas, you must have a chip and pin card to use.  As I wrote in a different blog post, US credit cards are chip and signature, which will not work. However, we had no problems using our US ATM (debit) card.

Parking

Parking is generally not too big a deal in the country. I think the only paid parking lot we experienced was at Þingvellir, which was pay and display, and similar to the petrol stations, required a chip and pin card.  Most major sites have gravel parking lots. At some of the more popular sites, parking may be in high demand, but we always found an overflow lot that may be a slightly longer walk.

In central Reykjavik there are tighter parking restrictions and pay and display parking is common, however parking is free after 4pm on Saturday and all day Sunday in the center (at least where we parked).

Maps and Navigation

It is important to have good navigation data in Iceland.  If you have a data plan that covers you in Iceland, you may be able to use your phone and the cellular data network, but you can’t rely on that entirely.  BTW, cellular data for most US mobile phone users is astronomically expensive (I know people who have returned home to find unexpected $4,000 data bills!), so if you want to use your phone for data, be sure to plan for this in advance.  I use T-Mobile and one key benefit is that I get basic data services in most countries at no charge.  This is great for things like using my phone for GPS.

There are however places where you just can’t get a data signal, so be sure to either have a good printed map, or to download maps to your phone.  I use Google Maps and it worked great in Iceland.  Just make sure that before you head off, while you have access to WiFi, you download maps of the area you will be travelling to for offline use.

Conclusion

Driving in Iceland is amazing. If you go there and rent a car, have  great time, and stay safe!

Enjoy my other blog posts about specific destinations we visited in Iceland.

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