Driving in Iceland can be extremely easy if you are cautious and respect the rules of the road. As an American, I found it very simple to drive the Ring Road and around the cities and towns. Renting a car or campervan and driving the Ring Road around the country is the best way to really experience Iceland. I personally liked the freedom to take as many stops as I wanted (which was a LOT of stops) and control over my schedule. With a few helpful tips and important rules in mind, driving in Iceland is a breeze!
Renting a car
There are some important decisions you will have to make when renting a car in Iceland:
There are a number of international car rental companies with offices in Iceland such as Hertz, Sixt, and Budget. Iceland has a number of its own car rental places which can often hire out cheaper cars. Do your research well in advance and make sure the company offers the type of car you are looking for (for example, a manual 4-wheel drive may be easier to come by than an automatic).
Many rental cars are picked up near Keflavik International Airport, which is about 40 minutes outside of Rekjavik. Most car and van rental places have a shuttle to pick you up at the airport.
You must be at least 20 years old to rent a passenger car, and 23 years old to rent a 4×4 or minibus.
Automatic vs. Manual
Many cars are manual in Iceland, so you will have to request, and often pay a little more for, an automatic transmission.
4x4s and 4-wheel Drive
You’ll want to rent a 4×4 vehicle if you plan on going on any of the F-Roads in Iceland, which is the interior of the country and some of the Western Fjords. If you will be sticking to the Ring Road and the Golden Circle in the Summer, you will be fine with a 2-wheel drive vehicle. In the winter, you can still use 2-wheel drive in southern Iceland on the Ring Road.
Campervans are surprisingly expensive in Iceland, especially in the summer months when there are the most tourists. I have heard great things from friends that have rented campervans and made their way around the Ring Road, but my partner and I chose to get a car instead. We preferred meeting locals at quaint AirBnbs and sleeping in comfy hotels after long days of hiking. Incredibly, the cost for a camper van rental would have been about the same for the rooms that we ended up staying in. It is a matter of budget and personal preference.
Check the mileage limit your renter has in place, especially if you will be driving the entirety of the Ring Road. I chose unlimited mileage because I knew I’d be going at my own pace and adding stops, even if they were a bit out of the way.
Rental car companies will try to push you to rent a GPS, which I recommend ONLY if you don’t have overseas cell and data coverage. I just used Google Maps on my phone without a problem. You can also download an offline version of your route before you leave.
Collision Damage Waiver & Insurance
Most rental companies will also try to get you to buy more advanced insurance coverage options. They offer gravel protection, sandstorm and ash protection, ice protection, and river crossing protection. All of these are possibilities when driving in Iceland, especially if you will be taking F-roads.
Laws & Rules of the Road
Most of the Ring Road is one lane going in each direction, and is basically very flat and easy to navigate. You drive on the right side of the road in Iceland (just like in the United States). You need a driver’s license that has been issued for a year or more. You do not need an international license to drive in Iceland if you are from the United States, your usual state driver’s license will do.
You’ll stop, a LOT
Trust me, you’re going to be pulling over to check out a waterfall or amazing glacier every few kilometers. Make sure when you do find that picture-perfect location, that you pull your car all the way to the side of the road so that you don’t impede traffic. Do not stop in the road.
Left lane is for passing
Use blinkers and pass on the left if there is more than one lane. Make sure to follow signs which may limit your ability to pass in some areas.
Off-roading is illegal
In order to keep Iceland’s landscape pristine and beautiful, off-roading is strictly forbidden. Even F-roads that go through ice and gravel have clear markers to where you should and should not drive.
Headlights and seatbelts on
Headlights should be on at all times. If the car is on, your headlights should be to. Seatbelts are also mandatory by national law and should be worn by all passengers.
No cellphones while driving
Make sure you are not holding your cellphone to your ear or looking down at a text while driving. You can use GPS on your phone, and consider using a hands-free device or a holder to keep the phone level with your line of sight.
The speed limits are pretty universal and simple. Don’t speed! Fines for speeding are high and there are speed cameras all over the place. See a list with photos of all the traffic signs on Wikipedia
- 90 km/h on paved roads
- 80 km/h on gravel roads
- 50 km/h in urban areas
One lane bridges and tunnels
Sometimes you will arrive at a narrow bridge or tunnel with only a single lane. Don’t panic. Normally whomever reaches the entrance first gets the right of way.
This sign will warn you of an oncoming one-lane bridge. Sometimes it will also tell you the length of the bridge in kilometers.
This sign will warn you of an oncoming one-lane tunnel. Sometimes it will also tell you the length of the tunnel in kilometers.
There are some toll roads, especially in the Western Fjords. Pay attention to signs for what to do, when and where to pay, and costs.
F-roads and 4x4s
F-roads are only passable by four wheel drive vehicles, and even then with caution. You literally cannot use these roads with a 2-wheel drive car, you won’t make it and it’s not legal. Some roads are closed in the winter, especially in the north. For more information on driving on F-Roads see this page.
Tips for Driving in Iceland
Always get gas
Don’t let your tank get too low. If you see gas and you have half a tank left, stop and top off. In some areas gas stations are few and far between. Always check ahead to see where the next station is.
Gas is expensive
Gas can cost up to $80 to fill a regular sized sedan’s tank. Gas is very expensive and Iceland and you should budget accordingly.
Road conditions and closures
Iceland is the land of fire and ice, and often there are road closures for, you guessed it, ice. Check the website road.is to see real-time road conditions, detours, and road closures. If the website says that a road isn’t navigable, don’t try it!
Watch for animals
There are sheep EVERYWHERE in Iceland in the summer. Many are sent out to free roam and casually walk in the streets at their leisure. There are also the famous Icelandic horses which sometimes wander out of their fields and into the road. Wild reindeer can also be seen near or on the Ring Road.
Campervans & Camping
Use campsites when they are available and always avoid protected areas. Do not go off-roading to find a campsite. Make sure to follow all local rules considering camping, parking, and setting up a site.
Crossing rivers and streams
Sometimes you will have to cross water on certain F-roads. You should only attempt this in a 4×4 vehicle. Know the water line of your particular 4×4, which is the max depth your car can go into water before it gets damaged. For glacial rivers, try to cross in the early morning when the water flow is lower and slower. Drive diagonally downstream and only cross at marked crossing points.
Bring snacks and drinks
There are places to stop and stock up on food and drinks, but there probably aren’t as many as you’re used to at home. I enjoyed having picnics on the road, stopping at a waterfall or beautiful beach to have a sandwich and take in the scenery. There are hot dogs at every gas station we stopped at in Iceland, they are almost like a national dish.
There are some risks involved, but with planning, caution, and preparation you should have no problems driving in Iceland.
Weather changes quickly
Heed all weather and wind warnings. You can be cruising along the Ring Road, turn a corner and WHAM! The wind almost pushes your car off of the road entirely. Wind can be fierce in Iceland and change over the course of a few hours. Watch your doors when you leave the car, a door caught in the wind can come off of it’s hinges! Stick to the south in the winter to avoid bad weather and subsequent road closures.
Check tires frequently
Inspect your tires often, especially after driving on gravel roads. There are a number of road rangers that patrol the Ring Road to help out if you get a flat tire, but you’ll save yourself a possibly long wait if you check for problems frequently.
Emergency number is 112
Call 112 for all of Iceland’s emergency services. There is also the 112 Iceland App, where you can check in before driving or hiking anywhere risky. The app will record your location in case of emergency so that they can find you more easily.
You should know the basics of driving in snow and ice. Roads can become slick with ice and you can easily lose traction.
Be sure not to go over the speed limit on gravel roads, you risk losing traction.
Breakdowns, flat tires & stuck cars
If you do breakdown, call 112 and wait for one of Iceland’s road rangers to come help. Always stay by your vehicle, especially on the F-roads. F-roads are patrolled by search and rescue teams so stay with your group and with your car.
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