Road tripping around Iceland is one of the best ways to see this incredible country. The Ring Road (Þjóðvegur 1, or simply Route 1) circles all of Iceland in 821.5 miles (about 1322 kilometers), allowing you to get up close to everything from waterfalls to volcanoes to glaciers in one trip.
And while Iceland isn't necessarily a challenging place for a road trip from a planning perspective, there ARE several things you need to know ahead of time in order to have an enjoyable trip.
If you're looking for a detailed Iceland road trip plan, then check out my 10-day Iceland Ring Road itinerary. Otherwise, keep reading for some Iceland road trip tips, and the essential things you need to know before you go!
Road tripping in Iceland FAQ
First, a few commonly-asked questions about doing a road trip in Iceland in general:
You don't necessarily NEED a car in Iceland. You can certainly plan a trip without one if you are happy to base yourself in Reykjavik and take day trips/overnight trips from there. (I have done this a couple times before, and actually prefer it during the winter months!)
But public transportation is not great outside of the capital area, and obviously if you want to do an Iceland road trip you will definitely need to rent a car!
On the whole, no, driving in Iceland is not difficult. Iceland is a right-hand traffic country (like the US and most of Europe), and the main roads are well marked and quite well maintained. And while you'll run into roundabouts in bigger cities, Iceland does not have major highways with tons of traffic to stress about.
The only times when driving in Iceland can get challenging are:
1. If you're headed up into the Highlands on unpaved F-roads. These roads can get gnarly and sometimes require river crossings – you MUST have a 4×4 vehicle and preferably some off-road driving experience for these roads. (But you won't encounter any of them if you're just sticking to the Ring Road and main sights.)
2. During the winter months. From October through March, Iceland frequently gets hit with icy storms with gale-force winds. Driving in these conditions is highly discouraged (roads often close entirely during high wind events), and doubly so if you're not used to driving in snowy/icy conditions.
Yes you can use your US license to drive in Iceland! You do not need any special license to drive in Iceland as long as your US driver's license is valid. The same goes for UK and EU driver's licenses, too. (But you do need to be at least 20 years old to rent a car in Iceland, or 23 to rent a 4×4.)
1. Like in most countries, you need to obey speed limits or risk a fine (more on this later).
2. Seatbelts are required to be worn by everyone in the car.
3. You need to drive with your headlights on at all times.
4. Driving while talking on/using a cell phone without the aid of a hands-free device is illegal.
I personally think you need AT LEAST 8-9 days to drive the Ring Road in Iceland, but 10-12 days (or even longer) would be ideal. I have a 10-day Iceland road trip itinerary you can use.
And now on to all the essential Iceland road trip tips!
Iceland road trip tips: what you need to know
Here are all the things you need to know before your Iceland road trip, and should keep in mind once you're there!
1. Rental cars in Iceland are not cheap
First things first, let's get this topic out of the way: Iceland can be an expensive place to travel. Don't let the cheap flights fool you; once you're there, you'll be paying a lot for everything, from basic hotels to restaurant meals. And this definitely extends to rental cars, too.
In fact, a rental car might end up being your biggest expense in Iceland if you're taking a longer road trip. Because of high taxes, high demand, and just overall higher prices in Iceland, you'll definitely be paying more to rent a car here that you would in, say, the US.
There are basically three types of vehicles you might rent in Iceland. From cheapest to most expensive they are:
- A regular 2WD car – You can absolutely rent a small car in Iceland, and it will be the cheapest option with the widest variety of choice (just about every rental company in Iceland will offer these). Manual cars will be even more affordable than automatics, and you can expect to spend anywhere from $40-$100 per day for just the car rental without any extras.
- A 4×4 (4WD) vehicle – A lot of people want to rent larger 4x4s for driving in Iceland, and in some cases they are recommended (like for winter driving, or for traveling up into the Highlands). These larger vehicles obviously come with a higher price tag; you can expect to pay $100-$250 per day or more.
- A campervan – Campervans are popular in Iceland, as they can double as both transport and accommodation (though you still need to stay in designated campsites!). These vans can be quite pricey though – especially if you want one that's also 4WD. You can expect to pay at least $100-$350 per day or more.
Note that all of these prices are a range because prices can vary a lot depending on what time of year you're visiting (i.e. how high demand is), how large of a vehicle you need, whether you need to book an automatic, etc.
I did a 15-day road trip in Iceland in August in 2022 (high season in Iceland), and we spent just under $2000 on a 2WD car with two drivers – averaging out to about $130 USD per day.
Need to search for a rental car in Iceland? For everything other than campervans, I recommend using Discover Cars. And Iceland is one place where it is vastly easier to pick up/drop off your rental car at the major airport (KEF or Keflavík International).
2. You only need a 4×4 for F-roads
Having likely shocked you with how expensive it can be to rent a car in Iceland, I do have some good news: you may not need to rent a 4×4 in Iceland at all.
The majority of roads in Iceland (like the Ring Road, all the roads between major cities, and even the roads around the Westfjords and Eastfjords) are either fully paved or well-maintained enough that you can drive them with a 2WD car from May through September.
The only roads in Iceland that you are legally required to have a 4WD vehicle to drive are F-roads. These are mostly roads that go into Iceland's interior (AKA the Highlands), and they're all indicated with the letter “F” in front of the road number. F-roads are clearly marked on maps, and also on road signs.
F-roads are still official roads, but driving them usually feels like off-roading. These unpaved roads can be pitted, muddy, and difficult to drive. Some F-roads also require river crossings, which can be super dangerous in the wrong sort of vehicle (and sometimes even in the right sort of one!).
For these reasons, you are not allowed to drive any 2WD cars on F-roads, and if you do it will be a breach of contract with your rental car company.
Most people doing road trips in Iceland will never need to venture onto F-roads, though, so renting a 4×4 isn't necessarily essential. (And if you really want to get a glimpse into the Highlands, you can always book a day tour with a company that knows how to navigate F-roads safely like this one to Landmannalaugar.)
Note: You might also need (or at least be better off with) a 4×4 in the winter months, when Iceland frequently gets hit with icy storms that bring gale-force winds. Personally, I would not recommend planning a winter road trip in Iceland unless you are VERY comfortable driving in wintry conditions.
3. Know what's not insured
When you're renting a car in Iceland, paying for Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) insurance is mandatory – and the price is usually baked in to the total price of your rental. This basic insurance essentially means that if you're involved in an accident, there's a limit to how much you'll be responsible for (the deductible/excess amount is usually around $2500 USD).
But basic CDW in Iceland doesn't cover everything you might encounter on a road trip, and so it's important to know what's NOT insured.
Common things that you might have to pay extra to have insured in a rental car in Iceland include:
- Tires (if you're renting a 4×4 and planning to drive F-roads, pay to insure the tires)
- Gravel damage (to things like the windshield, undercarriage, etc.)
- Wind damage (a real risk in Iceland; bad winter wind storms frequently blow out car windows and can rip car doors clean off)
- Sand damage (another real risk, especially during those bad wind storms)
- Damage caused by hitting animals (there are LOTS of sheep in Iceland)
- Towing if you break down or get in an accident
You can upgrade the basic CDW insurance to cover more things with your rental company – just make sure you know what's NOT covered in whatever insurance package you choose.
4. Don't underestimate the weather
Why might you want to add some extra insurance coverage to your rental car in Iceland? Because Iceland's weather is INTENSE. Iceland can be hit with savage storms that come with strong winds, rain, and snow basically any time of year (though the worst storms are more common in the winter).
And don't assume that just because you live somewhere where it rains or snows a lot that you'll be automatically prepared for driving in Iceland. Iceland's weather – and especially its winds – are likely unlike anything you've experienced before! Think sideways rain and blowing black sand and wind strong enough to blow out car windows or literally knock you off your feet.
Road closures in Iceland in the winter months are common. The F-roads in the Highlands close due to snow, which is pretty standard. But other roads in the country (including even the Ring Road) close sometimes, too – usually because of that wind.
Don't underestimate the bad weather in Iceland. If Safetravel.is is saying it's not a safe travel day, then it's not a safe travel day and you should stay put where you are instead of venturing out on the roads. (More on sites like Safetravel later.)
5. Watch out for speed cameras
You likely won't see many police cars in Iceland, but there are plenty of traffic/speed cameras all over the country.
Unless otherwise posted (like when going through towns), the speed limit in Iceland is 90 kph on paved roads and 80 kph on gravel roads (though I can't image driving that fast on most of them!). Pay attention to your speed, and for any signs warning of an upcoming camera.
If a camera catches you speeding, you can expect a ticket in the mail from your rental company – and speeding fines are usually at least a couple hundred dollars.
6. You may face one-lane roads
Iceland's main roads are, for the most part, paved and well-maintained two-lane roads. But many non-main roads in Iceland are narrower – sometimes just wide enough for one lane of traffic. You can also expect to find one-lane bridges, and even the occasional one-lane tunnel!
If you find yourself approaching a single-lane bridge in Iceland, just be alert. At bridges, it's common courtesy for whoever arrives at the bridge first to cross first. If there's a line of traffic coming from one direction, usually you let the whole line cross. You can flash your headlights to indicate that you're waiting and that it's safe for oncoming traffic to cross.
On some longer bridges and in single-lane tunnels, though, you often cannot see the other end. In these cases (and when driving on one-lane roads), keep your eyes peeled for pull-out areas/lay-bys; one car pulls in to the lay-by in order to let the other car pass.
Some bridges and tunnels have signs at each end denoting which direction of traffic has the “right of way” (i.e. which direction is supposed to yield and use the lay-bys). A white or black arrow in the direction you're traveling means you have right of way; a red arrow going in your direction means you're supposed to give way.
In practice, though, not everyone pays attention to these and you may just have to use your own judgement for when you should use a lay-by.
7. Only pull over when it's safe
Speaking of pulling over… most of Iceland's roads (including the Ring Road) are just two lanes with barely any shoulder area. I KNOW the Icelandic scenery is incredibly epic and that you'll probably want to stop a lot for photos.
But please DO NOT stop on the side of the road to take photos, and definitely do not open your car doors into the road to leave your vehicle. This can be very dangerous both to you any other drivers on the road.
If you absolutely must stop, find a lay-by, rest area, parking lot, or other spot to safely stop that won't impede traffic. (Or you can do what my friend Kate and I did, and designate the passenger as through-the-windshield-photo-taker when you're driving.)
8. Make a plan for getting gas
If you're driving the Ring Road (or otherwise driving 4-5 hours per day as you explore Iceland), then you'll probably need to fill up your gas tank every 1-2 days. And if you're traveling in some of Iceland's more remote areas (including pretty much all of East Iceland), gas stations can be few and far between. So it should go without saying that you should gas up whenever you can, just to be safe.
There are two two main types of gas station setups in Iceland: manned and unmanned. The first is what you're likely used to, with several pumps outside a small convenience store with cashiers inside. At these, you can either pay at the pump or pay inside.
Unmanned stations, on the other hand, usually just consist of 1-2 pumps (sometimes just on the side of the road or in a random parking lot) and no cashiers. At these, you usually need a credit or debit card with a PIN number – which is not always something that American travelers have on hand.
If you don't usually travel with a debit card and don't have a PIN number for your credit card (most US credit cards don't come with them), another option is to purchase a pre-paid gas card from a manned station at the beginning of your trip. Then you can use that card like a debit card at any pumps from that same gas company all around the country.
(Some gas stations/pumps accept Apple Pay or Google Pay now, too, but I would not rely on that out in the middle of nowhere!)
Gas in Iceland is expensive, too. You fill up by the liter, and prices when I was there were 320-330 ISK per liter (equivalent to about $2.25 USD per liter, or $8.55 USD per gallon).
Pro tip: It's also worth noting that many self-service/unmanned pumps in Iceland don't give you the option to “fill up” your tank. You'll have to select the (monetary) amount of gas you want to put in before you start pumping. So pay attention the first time you fill up to see how much it costs.
9. Gas station food is good!
And since we're on the topic of gas stations, manned gas stations in Iceland usually double as convenience stores AND cafes. In fact, some of the bigger gas stations in Iceland have full on sit-down restaurants inside, where you can order everything from hot dogs to fish and chips to chicken sandwiches from the counter.
Gas station food in Iceland is actually pretty good (Icelandic hot dogs just hit different!), and is some of the cheapest food you'll find in Iceland outside of shopping in a budget grocery store. If you want a quick and cheap meal that will taste good, don't forget about gas stations.
10. You don't travel to Iceland for the food
Sure, Iceland does have some nice restaurants (especially in Reykjavik) that serve up good seafood, but on the whole Iceland is not known for its culinary offerings. And when you're road tripping, you may go long stretches – especially in the North and East – without seeing any restaurants at all.
My tip? Don't be too precious about where you eat, and take advantage of whatever you do find.
Like I said above, gas station food in Iceland is actually good. And any tiny roadside cafes you stumble across are likely to be uber cozy AND serve up simple but decent food.
Another tip? Stop in to a grocery store early on in your trip (the Bonus chain is the most affordable) and stock up on things that don't need to be refrigerated that you can keep in the car for those times when there just isn't anything else available.
11. Download apps and maps
There are a few smartphone apps/websites that will be useful for any Iceland road trip. A few I recommend include:
- Safetravel.is (website, app or follow them on Instagram) for info on weather alerts, travel disruptions, closures, etc.
- Road.is for up-to-date info on road conditions
- Veður (website or app) for detailed weather forecasts
- Parka to pay for parking in certain cities/at certain attractions
- AllTrails for hiking help
- Flush for finding public restrooms
I also highly recommend downloading maps to use offline for Iceland! Even if you have mobile service during your trip, there are several parts of the country where you won't have great phone signal. To be sure you can still get directions and use GPS, download maps for offline use.
12. Hitchhiking is fairly common
Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world, but also one of the most expensive to travel in. It also has a very limited public transit system outside of Reykjavik. These things added together mean that many backpackers and budget travelers to Iceland have to get creative about traveling around the country, and often resort to hitchhiking.
Obviously you don't HAVE to pick up hitchhikers, but just be aware that it's a fairly common and accepted way for backpackers to travel in Iceland. Use your own judgement of course, but don't necessarily ignore everyone you pass with a thumb out looking for a ride.
13. You need more time than you think
This goes for any road trip, really, but it's especially important to remember in Iceland: things will take longer than you think.
Driving from Point A to Point B can often take longer than Google Maps says it will, either because you find you can't actually drive the speed limit on some of Iceland's unpaved roads, or maybe because you want to stop a few times for photos, or perhaps because you get slowed down by a herd of sheep!
Similarly, stopping for hikes and to see incredible natural sights like waterfalls and black sand beaches might take you longer than anticipated, too.
You absolutely can plan a jam-packed road trip itinerary for Iceland (my friend Kate and I sure did!), but just keep in mind that you may have to cut some things, or move your itinerary around if you run out of time – or daylight.
Pro tip: Before your trip to Iceland, be sure to check on how much daylight you can expect to have throughout your trip! A summer Iceland road trip in June, July, or August, might net you anywhere from 16-24 hours of daylight, while a winter trip in November, December, or January might only give you 4-6 hours of daylight. You'll want to plan accordingly!
14. Book what you can in advance
Iceland is a tourism hot spot, especially during the summer months. But the country doesn't have a ton of tourism infrastructure in the way of hotels and other accommodation options outside of Reykjavik. Similarly, there are a finite number of rental cars available on the island, and only so many tour operators offering things like horseback rides, whale watching tours, glacier hikes, etc.
Iceland is a place where you really do need to plan your visit in advance, especially for a summer trip.
Get your flights and rental car booked as soon as possible, and don't leave hotel reservations until the last minute*. (When planning a road trip for August 2022, for example, most of the hotel options along the South Coast were already booked up by early June!)
You'll also want to pre-book any must-do activities, like snorkeling between tectonic plates in Silfra, going on a whale watching tour, visiting an ice cave, etc. If an activity gets canceled because of bad weather, it's much easier for the company to try to accommodate a date switch than you trying to scramble last-minute.
And while you don't need to book every hot spring in Iceland in advance, you DO need to book Blue Lagoon tickets before you arrive. The tickets tend to sell out year-round, sometimes days or even weeks in advance.
While planning so far in advance doesn't make for the most flexible kind of trip, take it from me that it really is necessary these days in Iceland.
(If you're traveling in winter, you can sometimes be more flexible – and you might want to be, in case one of those super bad storms forces you to change your plans – but I'd still recommend advanced bookings. Look for options on Booking.com that offer free cancelation/changes up to the day before your stay.)
*If you're camping in Iceland, that's the one exception; some campsites don't take reservations, and even at the ones that do, you may not need them. It IS still best to check for availability before showing up, though, and you can pre-book some sites through the Parka app I mentioned earlier.
15. Have Plans B and C, too
Iceland is a country you travel to to witness the awesome power of Mother Nature. But when you're relying a lot on nature for your entertainment, keep in mind that it can be very unpredictable.
Maybe bad weather will make a part of your itinerary impossible; maybe a road closure will reroute you for hours; maybe a volcano will start erupting right before your trip that you decide you NEED to go see (happened to us!); or maybe you'll just really fall in love with one area and want to stay longer than you planned.
In Iceland especially, it's good to at least discuss these sorts of situations with your travel partner(s) before your trip. If you run into bad weather, will you don rain gear and push through if you can, or will you scrap certain stops? Are you willing/able to make last-minute changes to your plans if a tour gets canceled, a hike takes longer than expected, or something absolutely amazing pops up?
I don't necessarily mean you should book multiple hotels or tours for every day of your trip, expecting for something to go wrong. But it doesn't hurt to have some extra things in mind to fall back on if you have to.
There are so many other things I could tell you about road tripping in Iceland (like, how the backs of your seats will probably turn into a drying rack for your swimsuits after visiting hot springs, or how you absolutely definitely want to make sure you have good windshield wipers), but these are all the important tips that I think are essential!
Have you ever taken a road trip in Iceland? If not, would you like to?