After our 12 days in Iceland, and over 2600km driven, Dana and I arrived back in Reykjavik with stinky clothes, a very dirty SUV, and an entire country of love in our hearts. We had driven through every region of the country, cut few corners, and even delved into some absolute hidden gems in Iceland. But as always, there was that niggling feeling that we didn’t see enough.
Lets be real, a place like Iceland, you will never be able to see it all. So another trip is surely in order.
There were all kinds of learned lessons along the road trip, as long as some surprises and absolute deviations from assumed reality. Iceland as a country is hard to put your finger on. The landscape and weather changes so frequently, there is no time or space to get bored and no lack of scope for exploration. Since I’ve been back from Iceland, answering the question “So how was Iceland?”, in any kind of short form, is near impossible.
It’s Just EVERYTHING:
Travel Tips for Your Own Epic Iceland Road Trip
The best way I can describe Iceland as an entire country is by resorting back to the overuse of adjectives: EPIC! AWESOME! INSANE! GORGEOUS! WOW!!!!
Ok, that last one isn’t an adjective, but it was an exclamation that came up very frequently.
But for my last blog from my amazing 12 days in Iceland, I wanted to bestow some wisdom from the road, tips that came from Dana’s and my experiences, what worked, what didn’t, what to bring, where to go and general things to know about travelling in Iceland in a rental car.
Iceland Itinerary 12 Days
Dana and I had kind of planned out our itinerary for Iceland, but in that plan, great space was left open. We knew that we were going to have one night in Reykjavik before heading West to the Snaefellsnes and the Westfjords, then North to Akureyri and east to Hofn. So basically clockwise around the country. Which would turn into 2600+ kilometres in fact.
We had 12 days, and I wouldn’t say we were too rushed and while I would have loved some more time in the Westfjords and maybe in the North, 12 days was enough. I don’t know how people drive the whole Ring Road in 7 days or less with that Iceland Air free layover, but they do what they have to do. I have also heard of someone driving the entire Ring Road in one day, which makes no sense and is a waste of gas.
I wouldn’t want less than 10 days in Iceland. There is so much to see and you don’t want to just drive past everything alongside the road. Dana and I took a solid 6 hours to do what could have been a 2 hour drive from Reykjavik to the end of the Snaefellsnes. And that was totally fine.
Iceland Road Trip Travel Tip #1: Leave time for the unexpected, because in Iceland, the unexpected is everywhere.
Iceland Self Drive Tours
Far and away the best way to see Iceland is with your own wheels. I know what you’re thinking, “Well Emily is a tour bigot so of course she thinks everyone needs to drive themselves”. While you would be right in such an assessment, but that truth doesn’t make me wrong. Road trips really are the best way to see any country, hands down. Iceland is full of detours and turn offs, exciting sights off the beaten path, and secret hidden gems. You don’t want to miss any of that for the simple fact that you don’t have your own wheels.
Like stopping to pet random horses.
Ignoring my massive aversion to tour buses, having your own rental vehicle means you can leave first thing in the morning, go chase the Northern Lights at night, or get down to that beach at the very end of the worst road in the country. It also means you can stay in accommodation that is not in the centre of a town, like a farm stay or a beachside guesthouse.
We rented our 4×4 Rav 4 from SadCars, a rental agency with a fleet for the more budget minded adventure traveller. They have offices in Reykjavik and near the Keflavik airport, so pick up is easy. Our Rav 4 definitely was not pristine, there were weird quirks about it, and was probably the most difficult manual transmission I have ever driven. But that thing was an absolute workhorse. It took us everywhere we wanted to go, and the support we received from Sad Cars along the way was timely and useful.
Iceland Road Trip Travel Tip #2: Rent a vehicle, and choose the vehicle depending on the trip you want to have.
Iceland Car Rental Tips
Most folks who do a self drive tour of Iceland will rent a car. Unless they buy a car, which seems like a pretty large commitment.
After doing some math, I determined that it would actually be cheaper to rent the car directly from the airport and then drop it off again at the airport even though we were spending a night in Reykjavik at the get go. This is because the bus from the airport to the city centre for two people was actually more than for the extra day of rental. Also, like with most rental companies, there is a fee to pick up and drop off in different locations. There are definitely some things to know about driving in Iceland, so check them out before you get behind the wheel.
So we had a pick-up from the airport upon arrival, and within an hour were driving in Iceland! Make sure you do a thorough check over of the vehicle before you leave and take photos of any previous damage. Sad Cars was chill when I returned the car at the end, but I could just imagine some shifty dealer trying to pin damage on a naive renter.
Thankfully, mud washes off, or else we could have been in trouble.
There are two types of roads in Iceland, F-Roads and regular roads. If you have any desire to maybe get off the beaten path and onto the F roads, you need a certain type of 4 wheel drive, since apparently not all 4 wheel drives are created the same. Our Rav 4 could take us on F roads, because we didn’t want any limitations. Even when we were not on F roads, many of the roads we were on were pretty dodgy, so as the driver I was glad to be in a vehicle that I knew could take it. That said, I don’t think we ever went on any roads that totally mandated the use of an F road only car. But it was sure nice to have anyways!
Be clear on the terms of your rental. Case in point, while we were in country, rains were hitting the interior pretty hard and people were getting stuck in river crossings like it was their job. We received word from Sad Cars confirming that any people who needed to get rescued from rivers bore any and all costs for the rescue, the damage to the car, and transportation out. Like, thousands of dollars in the end. So basically, don’t try to cross a river. Obviously. Your insurance doesn’t cover it, and you’ll be screwed.
Iceland Road Trip Travel Tip #3: Rent a vehicle that will get you where you need to go, don’t cheap out! This is not the place to try to save cash.
Iceland Road Map
We bought an road map to Iceland from Sad Cars when we picked up our car, but we could have bought the same thing ahead of time from Amazon and saved some cash. We were also travelling with the most recent addition of the Iceland Lonely Planet so we were well armed. Most car rental agencies will have GPS units for rent, I think it was 15 Euros a day from SadCars.
Surprisingly what we used the most for navigating Iceland was not either of these things, but the free app Maps.me. Maps.me is awesome, no need for wifi, all you do is download the country that you need when you are in wifi area and then you can use the map all you need while offline. The Iceland map is very accurate, and as it is crowdsourced, there are a lot of extra points on the map for travellers, like “great place to see Northern Lights” and “yummy hot dogs”.
Plus, it’s free!
Iceland Road Trip Travel Tip #4: Just use Maps.Me and save your cash, you’ll need it!
Iceland Trip Cost and Saving that Cash
Speaking of cash, Iceland is expensive, no doubt. But there are some definite ways to limit your spending in some areas. One, don’t get things you don’t need, like the GPS rental. See above.
One of the biggest costs in Iceland is food and drink. Bring your own reusable water bottle and fill it up everywhere you go. Buying water in Iceland is like paying for air. Tap water is pristine, and why create waste with plastic bottles? No brainer. Also, bring your own reusable shopping bag. Plastic shopping bags at the grocery store cost $0.50 a piece, which is both wasteful in terms of cash and the environment. Finally, go to those grocery stores! Every budget accommodation we stayed in had cooking facilities and then we would often just picnic in the car during the day for lunch. Prices for food at the grocery store were similar to home, and really who doesn’t love a bowl of ramen at the end of the day?
Prices at restaurants are mind boggling, so if you can save some cash by eating cheap breakfast and dinners, you may just have some money for a beer every once and while. Beers are also expensive though, just saying.
Accommodation is also not cheap, which is why I would personally not recommend Iceland as a solo destination. Which pains me, because I want everywhere to be a solo destination. But realistically, there is so much demand in Iceland, that hosts can basically charge whatever they want, and the space, even in September, was limited. They can make more cash selling rooms as privates than as dorms, so why would hoteliers have dorm options? Hate the game, not the player.
The last thing I could suggest to cut the costs, is to skip the really expensive, tourist heavy activities. Dana and I mainly stuck to natural, independent attractions, like waterfalls, parks, lookouts and the like, all of which were free. We did not do the Blue Lagoon because it is frightfully expensive and bonkers busy, but we did do alternative, cheaper hot pools (we did the Secret Lagoon and Myvatn Nature baths) and even some natural ones that were totally free!
There are also community pools in basically every town in Iceland, so if it’s hot pools you crave, you can spent $6 and just go to the community one. I went to the Keflavik pool on my last evening after Dana was gone and it was AWESOME.
Iceland Road Trip Travel Tip #5: Cut costs where you can with self-catering meals, forgoing the expensive add-ons, and going independent when you can.
Ring Road Weather
No matter how many people you are travelling with, the weather is your extra travel buddy during any road trip in Iceland. We experienced crazy heavy rains on a couple of days in the East, meaning that we were lucky to get over a bridge when we did. Several hours later, and that bridge was gone and we would have been screwed. There is a very good national website that the Meteorological department runs called Vedur.is, so make use of this all the time.
For specific road conditions, like when a bridge is washed out or a road is closed for the season, check out Road.is, another great government run website that is updated constantly.
Finally, weather also dictates how and when you see the Northern Lights in Iceland, but there are ways to forecast the activity of the lights, again back to the Met office website on the Aurora forecast page. With this site you can figure out where you are, what the activity of the lights will be in your area and then cross reference it with the weather forecast to determine if the skies will be clear. But then again, seeing the Northern Lights includes a heavy dose of luck, so just winging it may work too.
The weather along the Ring Road will change every day, and very few days will be completely clear and perfect. Iceland is a small island in the North Atlantic after all. Regardless of when you travel to Iceland, pack rain gear, solid footwear, and quick dry layers. And expect your vehicle to achieve that aroma of camping/sweat/mud. Mmmmmmm, road trips!
Iceland Road Trip Travel Tip #6: Prepare for the weather as much as you can, but recognize, you can’t control the Viking Weather Gods! Just go with it!
Iceland Packing Essentials
As mentioned in the weather section, bring rain gear and layers. Dana and I both wore puffy down coats that would roll up small, solid water resistant hiking boots, thicker hiking tights and many layers for most of the time we were in Iceland. Other no brainers are a bathing suit (you will get into a hot pool eventually), sun glasses for the ever changing days, lots of wool socks, and a warm wool hat. I also had a lightweight down travel blanket that my Mom bought me which was awesome, and different sized packing cubes to keep my gear organized.
Another way to pack well and keep costs down is to bring your own sleeping bag and travel pillow. Many budget places charge for linen rental, so BYO a cold weather, small scrunching sleeping bag like this Farland camping bag and save the hassle and cash.
A simple gadget I threw into my bag last minute was a Dual USB car charger. Which was a brilliant move! Since Dana was using her phone constantly for navigation, and we were both using our phones for photos, there is no way the batteries would last all day. So we could charge both our phones, at the same time, on the go! Definitely take a USB charger, the kind that fit into the cigarette lighters in cars, and don’t lose power.
Along the technology lines, Dana was brilliant and brought a mini iPhone tripod for photographing the Northern Lights. There is a Northern Lights app that she bought for her phone, but like with any kind of lighting photography, a steady hand isn’t enough. So Dana brought along a small, fold up tripod that she could use with her phone, tadah!
For most of the time that I was in Iceland, I wished that I had a small pair of slippers. In Iceland, you leave your shoes at the door of the guesthouse. Only one guesthouse we stayed at provided slippers, and I was constantly wishing I had my own pair everywhere else. I know this makes me sound like an old lady, but sometimes old ladies have it totally spot on, so bring your own slippers! Find a pair that takes up no space in your bag but with some grip on the bottom so you don’t take a tumble, like these super cozy, cute, and comfy Memory Foam slippers!
Another piece of footwear that is super useful is a cheap pair of flip flops. Why? For all those hot pools of course! Wear the flip flops from the change room to the pool, from the pool to the bar, and back and again!
Iceland Road Trip Travel Tip #7: Pack light, but pack smart and for comfort. And buy the car charger!!!
Choose Your Road Trip Buddies Carefully
I am super wary of travelling with unknown folks, and the bigger the group the more hesitant I am to go along. When I figured I wanted to go to Iceland, I asked Dana because she is awesome, flexible, easy going, and I love her. Plus, we had travelled and done all kinds of fun adventures together in Kyrgyzstan, so I knew we were good.
I also hate listening to people talk all the time, and Dana and I are more than ok with driving along in quiet. To me, people who never shut up are the worst. Also, people who take too long to get ready in the morning. If you take more than 5 minutes in the bathroom ‘getting ready’, ugh!
The careful selection of a road trip buddy is crucial, because 12 days in a car with someone really is make or break. And the more people you add, the more room for error exists.
Be clear about what kinds of things you want to do in Iceland, the cost of accommodation you’re comfortable with, and the pace you want to move at. Travel styles collide at the best of times, but in a rental car, they can mushroom cloud into oblivion.
Iceland Road Trip Travel Tip #8: Choose your partners in crime wisely. Know yourself and don’t ignore red flags during trip planning for Iceland.
Bonus Travel Tip! Stay in a Budget Hostel near Keflavik Airport!
Keflavik Airport, where all international flights fly in and out of, is not right in Reykjavik. It’s actually a solid hour drive from the city centre. My departure time was 6am, which meant I needed to be at the airport by 4 am. Yikes. And I still had to drop off the rental car back at SadCars.
So I looked around and found Base Hostel, a clean well kept, and massive hostel only minutes from the airport and near most of the car rental agencies. Base was awesome and so freaking convenient. My room was a single private with a shared bathroom, there was a flat screen tv that I could watch Vikings on, and the laundry facilities were super cheap, so I was able to launder everything before packing it all up for Ireland. Something that was very much needed I will admit.
The folks working at Base were very helpful with letting me use their phone and pointing me in the right direction of that community hot pool. I asked their opinion on some local sights, and they were honest saying meh, just go to the pool. 10-4! Don’t have to tell me twice.
Base is a great option for people either getting into Iceland at a weird time or leaving so early like me. It has a 24 hour reception, and being so massive, I don’t see getting into your room at strange hours to be much of a problem. There are some fantastic common areas for chilling and a well stocked kitchen (actually crazy stocked because people clearly clean out their food packs on their way out of country). Parking is easy, reception is in the red building, and the property is well secured. All in all, a perfect place to regroup after my trip through Iceland and to get ready for my next travel destination: Ireland!
Bonus Travel Tip: Stay at Base Hostel in Keflavik and be at the airport in no time!
Iceland is a phenomenal country, with so much to experience, unless you move there, you will probably never see it all. But road tripping the country is definitely the best way to see the most. The independence of having your own wheels means the trip is everything that you make it, and you can do as much or as little as you want.
Iceland is, dare I say, maybe one of my favourite countries. I know, it’s a bold statement. But it’s hard not to love a country that feels like the end of the earth with marvels at every turn! Plus, with Dana as my co-pilot, I had such a blast exploring the far reaches. I mean, does travel really get any better than this?
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