We have put together a list of information that we wish we knew before planning our Iceland road trip.
I use the term planning loosely.
We just figured things out while on the road and used free WIFI wherever we stopped to eat to plan the next leg of our journey.
No landmarks or recommended stops are in this post. Just helpful background information that will get you started so you can set yourself up for a great trip from day one!
In this post:
- Iceland Road Information
- Choice of Vehicle
- Time of Year to Visit Iceland
- General Iceland Information
- Packing Tips
- Final Word
Iceland Road Information
The roads are modern and you will not encounter much traffic anywhere you go. Iceland is a sparsely populated country and we found the driver behavior fairly relaxed.
The network of rods and highways are numbered which makes it fairly simple to navigate with a good map.
Streets in Reykjavic were poorly sign posted, but outside of this, it was easy to just rely on the numbering system to get around.
For example, you can follow Highway 41 from the airport and take a right at Highway 43 to head towards the Blue Lagoon.
What is the Iceland Ring Road?
Highway Route 1 is known as the Ring Road and completes a full loop around the country.
It is approximately 1,300kms all the way around and most of the major sights you will see on your road trip and on or near this highway. Assuming you are sticking to the regular sealed roads.
Planning your itinerary is made simple by just looking at the section of the Ring Road you will be covering for the day and marking off the sites you wish to visit.
F-Roads (Mountain Roads)
For the more adventurous there is a network of dirt roads that take you into the mountains.
These roads are mostly inland and skirt the massive glacial areas.
Seasonal changes will limit what roads are accessible at any one time and you should check the Icelandic Road and Coastal Admin website for current conditions before heading out.
As you can see from the map below, you will be venturing away from established towns and infrastructure.
It is important that you plan for the worst here and take some additional safety precautions and supplies with you.
- Make sure that someone knows where you are going and when you are expected to return.
- Spare food and water
- Phone with internet so you can monitor changing weather and road conditions
- Note down the emergency services number (112)
Also, be careful to stick to the dirt roads.
Venturing off road will do considerable damage to the surrounding landscape and the fines for doing so are also considerable.
Some of the best things to see will not be found on any map.
There are countless smaller waterfalls, mountains, and stunning views and nothing can prepare for you for that urge you will have to stop when you see something jaw dropping.
This will happen several times on an average day.
So give yourself the time and permission to be flexible with your schedule. You won’t regret ever stopping!
Backtracking Your Route
Unless you are planning to drive around the whole ring road then every kilometer driven is one that you will have to cover on your way home.
A solution is to book your vehicle with a drop off location in Akureyri and get a domestic flight back to Keflavic (or vice versa).
This will ensure that all your driving time will be spent discovering new territory.
The downside being the one-way fee you will have to pay in addition to your car rental. This will set you back about $200.
Domestic flights are also not cheap, with the cost likely to be upwards of $200-$300 per person.
With that in mind, if you can extend your trip to two weeks so you can do the full loop – then just do that!!
What Side of the Road to Drive on?
Yes, I thought this was worth a mention.
You will be driving on the right hand side of the road. Which for my Australian countrymen will be the opposite of what you are used to.
But you will get used to it within the first hour of driving.
I always find the adjustment is harder when returning home.
Choice of Vehicle
Your choice of vehicle will determine what parts of the country you can access and if you have to also organize accommodation along the way.
Having a portable home on wheels isn’t for everyone. But it is lots of fun and one of the cheaper options.
If you wish to venture down the F-Roads then you will require a 4WD.
We had a brief accidental encounter with an F-road in our campervan and needless to say we didn’t make it very far.
Most of the F-Roads are inland from the Ring Road and venture into the mountain ranges.
If you plan on sticking to the well-trodden path of Iceland’s Ring Road then hiring a car will be fine.
You will need to organize accommodation and will be far more comfortable along the way.
No outdoor showers or cramped living spaces to deal with (but this is half the fun).
The overall cost will be higher with guesthouses, hotels, and hostels costing much more than camping grounds… Unless you stay in a tent, of course.
There is an extensive network of campsites around the country that can accommodate your vehicle of choice.
We traveled with just the two of us so a Campervan was more than adequate.
If you are good with small spaces then the two-person option is the most economical. We upgraded to a three-person van so we had a little extra space and a nice table inside the van.
Given that many locations are cold and windy, being able to sit inside the van for a meal is a must have option in our opinion.
The campervan that we rented for our first Iceland road trip was through Motorhome Iceland.
We chose these guys because they were the only rental company that operated 24 hours a day, and would pick us up from the airport late in the evening.
Some notable inclusions with the agreement:
- Airport pickup and drop off
- Unlimited KMs
- Full deposit was to be paid upfront (Approx. $4k)
We did not upgrade our vehicle insurance as our travel insurance policy covered any excess up to the value of $4,000.
There are plenty of rental companies to choose from if you will be arriving within regular business hours.
We managed to get by with only the map provided with the van. This was scant on detail and I wouldn’t recommend it. We had our fair share of wrong turns but none that caused any major issues.
Once you get onto the ring road there are only so many turn offs. But, the signage around many of the great stopovers is either tiny or non-existent.
You will have a much easier time – especially around the city – if you buy a more detailed map ahead of time and put some time into planning your route.
We didn’t, and just kinda started driving and figured out the next day the night before.
When planning you will be far better off just buying a map beforehand and planning out your route in the comfort of your own home. Even if you will switch to a navigation app when on the road.
We recommend the Michelin Iceland Map. It is monstrously large but has good detail on the map in key areas where it is needed most.
Of course the easiest option is to purchase a local sim card at the airport and let your favorite navigation app be your guide. We didn’t test this so cannot comment on which app performed best, but given how developed the road network is I would expect any to work just fine.
You can expect to pay $20-$25 for a pre-paid sim with 10GB of data. This is much cheaper than the WIFI offered as an inclusion by some car rental companies.
The other option still being offered by most car rental companies is the trusty GPS.
Only an option we would recommend for someone actively trying to avoid smartphone access – reconnect with nature while you can!!
You will pay around $10 a day for this so unless it’s a weekend trip a sim card will be the cheaper option.
Time of Year to Visit Iceland
On returning to Australia after our trip just about every conversation started with did you see the northern lights?
In summer the sun doesn’t really go down.
You get a strange twilight that lasts from about midnight to 3am and then the sun is just up again.
So no, you will not see the northern lights – or darkness at all for that matter in the middle of summer.
The advantage of this is you have all the daylight hours you want to get out there. We crammed so much into our days and we just kept on going like never before.
Your body seems to respond differently than when darkness signals the end of a long day.
Fatigue can be a danger for the driver. You may lose out on some sleep and keep an eye on your sleep patterns.
Pro tip: Eye masks are a must!!
Average temperatures peak at about 11-13 degrees Celsius during the summer months. So you will still need your winter gear.
Given the polar extremes in this location, you can take my sunlight comment above and flip it on its head.
Darkness upon darkness is what you will encounter.
But you will have the opportunity to see the northern lights!! And the snow-covered landscape will completely change the experience.
We are going to come back to Iceland for a winter trip one day soon. Guaranteed!!
Oh, and those average temperatures – less than 2 degrees at its warmest. Less in the mountain regions… Ouch!
We had no trouble just rolling up at a campsite and paying our fees on the spot. No need for a reservation which gave us as much flexibility as we wanted.
With the daylight hours being very long we were able to cover a lot of ground each day and only stopped when we decided we had enough.
If we had an extra couple of days we could have spaced things out and relaxed a bit more, but every day was exciting and it really felt easy to just keep on going.
Each campsite charged for the following:
- Fee per person per night 1,000kr – 1,800 kr (approx. $8-$20 per person)
- Fee per shower – 300-500kr
Showers were not available everywhere we stopped. This left only one option – the drink bottle over the head outside in the elements.
This would be a serious concern in winter so I would encourage you to do some additional research in advance for campsites with proper facilities so you don’t freeze to death.
Warning: In Winter some campsites may be closed. So check the relevant camping ground’s website ahead of time.
Hotels and Guest Houses
We have not stayed in any so cannot yet talk to personal experience.
What I can say is that some of the guesthouses we encountered on the side of the Ring Road were in some absolutely stunning locations!
There was also more than one occasion where I missed the comfort of an indoor, hot shower.
This is obviously a more expensive option, but when coupled with the lower cost of renting a smaller car the difference may not be more than a couple of hundred dollars for the week.
All depends on your desired balance of comfort, adventure, and your ability to spend a week without standing up straight while inside.
General Iceland Information
Iceland is quite expensive so you can your average daily budget to be higher than other popular European countries.
Most items were about 10%-20% higher than what we were used to in Australia for things that are directly comparable…. Like the cost of eating at KFC – which we did a few times.
Our best tip to save money on your trip is to buy groceries and cook your own meals along the way. This is made easier in a campervan where you have a mobile pantry, kitchen, and dining room all in one!
With so many beautiful roadside spots you will be grateful for the freedom to pull up and eat wherever you please.
Below is the summary of all that we spent on our trip. We didn’t skimp, nor splurge. Just a typical middle budget kinda trip in the back of a campervan.
If we were more disciplined with prepared meals and bought some instant coffee we could have cut right down on the coffees and snacks we bought along the way. The difference is not massive though.
The single restaurant dinner probably gives you an idea of what eating out all the time will do to your budget. It was very nice, but not a fancy five star meal or anything.
We got lucky with the van rental company being happy for us to just use their car park on the first and last night – I also had at least three outdoor showers using a water bottle. Maybe add 50% to the campsite expenses to account for this.
Note: Exchange rates are changing all the time, so check the up to date costs in your local currency as this will be different by the time you read it.
Iceland is not part of the EU and therefore does not use Euro as its currency.
Icelandic Krona is the local currency.
If you are using credit or debit cards to manage your expenses then this will not matter. We managed to avoid withdrawing cash for the whole week.
Almost all campsites, restaurants and gas stations had CC facilities. Some of the more remote campsites were cash only so a small stash of cash may get you out of a jam.
As mentioned above, you can get a sim card with plenty of data for a cheap price.
We found free WIFI almost everywhere we stopped while in the more populated areas (KFC was always a sure thing).
Connecting was a breeze – none of that frustrating SMS a code to access nonsense that some countries insist on having!
In the more regional areas, Internet was much harder to come by.
Some campsites did have it if you paid a fee. But the connection was difficult to establish and it was expensive.
If Internet is important, just get the SIM!
The advantage of staying in the campervan over hotels and guesthouses was the ability to cook for ourselves along the way.
For our own eating habits we knew this would have two benefits:
- We would eat healthier food
- It would be far cheaper overall
- We could stop and cook a meal wherever we liked – and had some spectacular lunches!!
We also had a pantry on wheels. This made snacking an important part of our routine when on the road for 12+ hours a day!!
This did not stop us from eating out when we felt like it.
Pro tip: To keep your diet reasonably healthy on the road you can keep a reasonable baseline for your vegetables and fruit intake by smashing down a green supplement each morning. I love to do this, Anh doesn’t…
- Organifi – Reasonable price and one bottle will get you through a month. Love the minty flavor!
- Athletic Greens – more complex and beneficial, but also more expensive.
It is not customary to leave a tip in Iceland when dining out.
But if you wanted to I am sure it would be most welcome.
The tap water is some of the purest you will find anywhere in the world and is fine to drink.
We filled up our water storage just out of taps and hoses at campsites on our journey without an issue.
Don’t expect much here… The vast majority of coffee will come from machines.
Even in cafes and restaurants you will often just be given a cup and pointed to a machine in a corner.
Bringing along your favorite brand of instant coffee will be just as nice for those who are particular with their morning brew.
Most of the major landmarks have signs up saying no drones allowed.
This did not stop everyone from using them of course. Many of these locations are remote and not actively monitored for this kind of activity.
Yes, you will get some amazing shots if you use your drone.
But just be mindful that doing so is against the rules and makes you look like a bit of an ass.
Due to the climate, it will be necessary to pack as if you are going on a winter trip.
The only difference between your summer and winter kits for Iceland will be what level of cold you will be dealing with.
You will be at the mercy of the weather at all times, and it can change quick!! There a lot of little things that can make your life much easier here.
A quick word of warning, you will need a big suitcase!
This is not intended to be a full checklist. We have just listed down the not so obvious items that you may not have thought of. We assume that your basic clothes, smartphone, camera, toiletries etc. will be taken care of already:
- Clothing gear:
- Swimmers – yes that’s right! Hot thermal pools are amazing!
- Thermal top and pants – you can cut down on heavy cold weather gear in summer by having thermals as your under layer.
- A waterproof jacket – or something that will at least stand up to the wind.
- Hiking boots – sneakers are also fine if you are not too ambitious with your choice of hiking trail.
- Sandals/thongs/flip flops – handy for showering.
- Beanie – or your ears will freeze.
- Gloves – yes, even in summer.
- Hand warmers – Anh had these in her pockets every day!
- Towel – the provided towel in our campervan was a bit tattered.
- Chapstick – it’s windy as hell here!
- Sunscreen – deceptively sunny too.
- Eye mask – essential in summer!
- Earplugs – if you are a late sleeper in those campsites.
- Map – see navigation section for alternatives.
- For Your Devices:
- Waterproof bag, or sandwich bag – handy for ice-caving, and other times you may be getting unexpectedly wet.
- MP3 speaker – so much better than the campervan speakers and great for late-night movies.
- Travel adaptor – yes, the outlets may be different from your home country.
Now that we have got all the background info out of the way, you can begin the fun part of planning your route and destinations!
Iceland is a magical place and not a day has gone by since we finished our trip where I haven’t thought about going back.
A self-guided driving tour is the only way that I would do it.
Best of luck planning your Iceland Road Trip.
Don’t forget to also check out our detailed itinerary and full Iceland experience.