You’re going to Iceland! Yeah! Congrats it’s the most beautiful place in the world and I’ve been craving to get back ever since I flew out of Keflavík a few months ago. The best way to explore the island is by renting a car and hitting the road (….and also camping out every night!). Driving in Iceland was vastly different than what I expected, so here are tips to help you out:
1. Rent a 4×4.
Like, an actual 4×4 not just some cross-over with said all-wheel-drive. If you’re going to dive head-first into exploring this magical place called Iceland, you’ll want a vehicle with high ground clearance and a proper four-wheel-drive system you can switch on and off. Bonus points if you can score a rental with a 4WL (four-wheel-drive low) or locking rear differential for some more aggressive off-road adventuring. I rented a smaller, robust Suzuki Jimny 4×4 that kicked butt on ungodly gravel bumpy F-Roads, through snow storms in the north and even forded a stream or too. If you’re planning on just driving the paved ‘Ring Road’ then a car will be fine. But what’s the fun of that? You’ve got the whole island to explore and a lot of the most amazing things I saw were after driving on gravel or dirt roads, up and down mountains for a few hours. BUT! Make sure before renting a proper 4×4 you know how to drive a 4×4 and are confident doing so.
2. Opt for Three-Pedals.
Again maybe it’s my inner gearhead coming out, but opting for three pedals while traversing the vast roads in Iceland will result in three things: better gas mileage, cheaper rental car rates and a way more fun driving experience. Plus it’s so much more of a European thing to do. ‘Tis a shame we’re all afraid to buy and drive manual-transmissions in the United States. They’re everywhere in Iceland. I saved a surprisingly big amount of money by choosing a manual-transmission Suzuki Jimny 4×4 on my rental from GoIceland rather than the automatic. And if you’re smart and do end up renting a vehicle with four-wheel-drive, you’ll have way more control come precarious situations by rowing your own gears (‘shifting’ for you non-car speak folk). That nostalgia factor of driving a tough 4×4 with a manual gearbox is enough for me.
3. Prep Your Credit Cards.
If you’ve done your research, you’ve probably learned Iceland is a cashless country. I was there for fourteen days and never once used cash. Everything, everything, everything can be paid for with a credit card which is great for those looking to rack-up some points. But first you’ll need to get your plastics in-order. All credit card transactions in Iceland will most likely require a four-digit pin (similar to a debit card), so make sure you contact your bank and set a pin prior to leaving. Do this sooner rather than later. A few days before leaving for Iceland, I tried to set a pin on my U.S. Bank REI credit card and they told me they could only send me the new pin via mail and it would take up to ten business days. Kind of pathetic when I was able to do it instantly for my Barclay credit car on their website. I’ve heard horror stories of people forgetting to set-up a pin on their credit card and not being able to refill their rental car with gas. Also make sure you’re bringing a credit card that doesn’t have any foreign transaction fees. And always, always, always when paying with a credit card if you have the on-screen option to pay using U.S. Dollars (USD) or Icelandic Krona (ISK), choose the Krona. You’ll actually end up paying more than the listed price if you pay with USD. True story.
4. Consider Purchasing Additional Rental Insurance.
Following the trend with step three, see if your credit card already offers CDW (collision damage waiver) insurance for rental vehicles. If not, opt for it at the counter. Most travel credit cards, like the Barclay Arrival I use, already have built-in CDW coverage meaning you can avoid buying a damage waiver from the rental car company. This could save you a boatload of money. When I finished loading up my backpack into the trunk of the Suzuki Jimny, I did a full walk-around staring at every waking part of the car, top to bottom, checking for damage. You have to make note of any defect you see before leaving. I noticed a small rock chip in the windshield right at eye-level, about the size of a dime. I thought I had initialed it correctly on the form prior to leaving from Keflavík, but I didn’t. Fourteen days later, two-hours before my flight back home to the USA, the rental company noticed it and insisted that was new damage and the windshield will need to be completely replaced. Thankfully I explained and they let me leave without charging my card extra for the replacement. But that leads me to my next point, extra rental insurance. You’ll see all sorts of options when renting a vehicle in Iceland. Sand and volcanic ash protection, theft protection, super collision damage waiver, gravel protection and the list goes on. First things first- you do not need theft protection because Iceland is literally the safest country in the world, seriously. Volcanic ash and sand protection? Maybe, but I skimped on it and was fine. Gravel protection? Mandatory. You’re going to get chips in the paint or possibly a chip in the windshield from a haywire stone, especially if you hit the F-Roads or venture off the main paved ‘Ring Road’. It will happen, I promise you that, so spend a few bucks on protecting your beloved rental from flying gravel uh-ohs.
5. Fill Up Often.
You don’t have to worry about range anxiety over here for the most part, but if you’re taking lots of side trips and detours throughout this wonderful country you’ll want to keep that fuel gauge in the happy range. There are gas stations dotting the main paved ‘Ring Road’ and in most small towns you’ll find one or a lone pump that’s operable 24/7. Pay attention to your big road map, which I talk about below. I put around 3,000 miles on my rental car in just two-weeks, many of those miles racked-up by taking long, distant detours to explore other parts of Iceland like the East Fjords, gorgeous Snæfellsness (my favorite region) and the northernmost peninsulas. Anytime I deviated from the main ‘Ring Road’, I stopped at a petrol station to top-off. Again, study your map closely and plan out how far you’ll drive and if you need to get to a petrol station. In Iceland you fill-up by the liter by the way. One thing that I found neat was that there were tiny villages in some of the most remote corners of Iceland where they had just one, filling pump. No station, just the pump. So if you’re in a frenzy trying to find an actual gas station, don’t give up as chances are it may just be the filling pump nestled away behind some old boathouse near the ocean. Oh, and try to eat tons of the infamous Icelandic lamb hot dogs that are served fresh at nearly all full-service gas stations. They’re cheap and gloriously good. Onions on the bottom, yo.
6. Avoid Night Driving.
To be honest, night driving in Iceland is terrifying. Not only because almost all the roads are narrow two-lanes with no shoulders, but driving on stretches of the ‘Ring Road’ is straight-up hypnotizing in the dark. On the main paved ‘Ring Road’, you’ll see reflective marks on either sides of the road every few car lengths apart. If you’re tired and on a flat, straight section of the ‘Ring Road’ passing dozens of reflectors, not seeing a single car for hours and not having curb with rumble strips to wake you up if you doze off… it’s not a good combination at all. Plus you’re missing all the heavenly terrain hiding in the night. Plan your days accordingly, keep an eye on the time and when the sun sets (when I was there in late fall/early winter, there were days it was almost pitch black by 4:30pm). Be safe and do your driving during the day.
7. Pay Attention and Don’t Speed.
The Icelandic 5-0 does not care for speeders. This is important for a latitude of reasons, not just because it’s dangerous, but because there are speed cameras just about everywhere…even in some long, dark underground tunnels. Posted speed limits on just about all paved roads in Iceland are 90 kmh or about 55mph. Gravel road speed limits drop to 80kmh or around 50mph, but I’d be very cautious of driving that fast on some unpaved stretches. Many detours that take you around the coastal fjords are on bumpy gravel roads, be careful and watch for rock slides. They will happen, so watch carefully around a blind corner. The paramount reason you shouldn’t speed- you’re going to miss seeing everything on either side of the road. Iceland is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, hopefully you’ll agree. You can’t soak up its allure if you’re passing it by fast. Last tip- in some rural, unfathomably desolate parts of the country…you will encounter sheep in the middle of the road. There’s your warning. The weather in Iceland can and will change in just seconds. From sun and blue skies to fierce snowstorms and exhausting, strong winds that will blow your vehicle all over the road. I bought a prepaid SIM card for a cheapo travel phone I got in Vietnam a few years ago and found myself calling ‘1777’, the Icelandic road conditions and weather hotline which is updated constantly. Remember most F-Roads leading into the Highlands region are blocked in the winter and weather will close normal roads that aren’t F-Roads. I’d also recommend saving ‘112’ into your phone’s contacts when in Iceland, you’ll be patched through to emergency response teams should you run into trouble.
8. Learn How to”Einbreid Brú”.
Every bridge (and tunnel) I came across in Iceland was one-lane , meaning you have to yield to whoever approaches first. You’ll almost immediately see signs for this type of bridge starting off on the ‘Ring Road’ when you’re approaching the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. I was told many accidents happen because tourists and travelers don’t know how these bridges work. If you’re approaching a one-lane bridge and see someone coming from the other direction, pull to the side and wait. Do not, do not, do not attempt to beat the other oncoming car. You’ll either end up in an accident or have to reverse backwards down a narrow one-lane bridge. Good luck with that. Learn the signs, all of them. The Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue has a helpful cheat-sheet you should probably take a look at before buckling that seat belt.
9. Don’t Stop in the Road.
This tip is just common sense. Like mentioned above, the grand majority of roads in Iceland are narrow, two-lanes. This includes the entire ‘Ring Road’. There is no room for you to pull over off to the side and get out to take a picture. Do not be that idiot tourist who stops in the middle of the road and gets out to take a photo. This will be a very hard temptation to resist. Tourists get killed every year doing this and it’s crazy dangerous to anyone else driving nearby, especially because passing maneuvers can at times be scary. There were a few times on the ‘Ring Road’ I’d come to a stretch in the road and have to downshift a few gears and push on the brakes hard while swerving around some foolish tourist taking a gazillion photos with his rental Kia SUV just parked in the right lane blocking traffic. Dumb, just dumb. Wait until you find a rest stop or scenic view pull-off, there are plenty of the later if you’re patient enough. If you do decide to stop and get out to snap a picture: do it only when there is not a single car to be seen for miles, not in a blind spot such as a hill or curve, and do it quick. Real quick. No photo is worth getting run over by a car for.
10. Skip the GPS, Buy a Map.
Not just because when you get home you can have it framed in glass and hung proudly on the wall of your apartment- but because they’re way more reliable and detailed than say a GPS or phone navigation app. Iceland is also surprisingly easy to navigate. One road, Route 1 otherwise commonly referred to as ‘The Ring Road’ loops the whole mainland part of the island with a network of straight-forward roads that deviate off it. Those are the roads that you need to drive to really see the country. Upon arrival at the airport or when picking up your rental car, purchase one of the ‘big’ maps and hit the road. For two-weeks I navigated the entire country solely using a big paper map that I constantly unfolded, and folded back up again. I never once got lost. You can jot notes down on it and you never have to worry about it running out of signal or battery life. I remember at some of the campgrounds I stayed at, at night travelers alike would sit and compare our paper maps over cold Icelandic beer…not cell phone screens.
Finally, I strongly, strongly encourage you to take some time and page through the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue’s SafeTravel website which has loads of helpful information about traveling and adventuring safe across Iceland. They also have a free app called ‘112’, for smartphones that allow you to check-in your current location with them, in case an emergency happens or you get lost. On here, you can also download crevasse maps and even rent personal locator beacons should you require SOS assistance in the backcountry.
This post originally appeared on my travel blog, www.robbyaroundtheworld.com