10 Reasons to NOT Drive the Ring Road in Iceland

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When it comes to planning a trip to Iceland, most of the questions, advice, and suggested itineraries center around Iceland's Ring Road. This road – also called Þjóðvegur 1 or simply Route 1 – circles the entire country of Iceland in 821.5 miles (about 1322 kilometers).

Driving the Ring Road (often in a campervan) has become the accepted, quintessential way to see Iceland. It's what most people assume you “have” to do in the Land of Fire and Ice.

But do you really HAVE to drive the Ring Road in Iceland to fully experience or appreciate the country? No, absolutely not!

Iceland Ring Road
Self-driving is not the only way to see Iceland!

In fact, it wasn't until my FOURTH trip to Iceland that I did a Ring Road trip of my own. On my first 3 trips to Iceland, I mostly based myself in Reykjavik, taking day trips and short (guided) overnight trips to places like the Golden Circle, inland glaciers, South Coast, Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and Blue Lagoon.

And while I did indeed LOVE my Iceland road trip, I loved those other trips, too. I firmly believe you can see some of the best things in Iceland without ever needing to get behind the wheel of a car yourself.

Reasons to NOT Drive the Ring Road

Here are a few reasons why driving the Ring Road might NOT be a good fit for you in Iceland!

1. You don't have a driver's license

Rental car in Iceland
A license and being 21+ is required!

The most obvious reason not to drive the Ring Road is if you don't have a driver's license in your home country!

Iceland does not require an international driver's license to rent a car or drive there, but you do need to have a valid driver's license from your home country will full driving privileges (meaning permits won't work).

You also need to be at least 21 to rent a car in Iceland, which is important to know!

2. You don't believe in rental car insurance

Potholes filled with water on an unpaved road in Iceland
This isn't even the type of road you legally need a 4×4 for in Iceland

Listen, I get it. I (knock on wood) have never been in a serious car accident at home, and generally consider myself to be a safe driver. I have definitely skipped expensive rental car insurance in the past (especially after I got a travel credit card that offers me rental car protection abroad).

But in Iceland, basic minimum car insurance is required to rent a car. You can't NOT pay for it (and no, it's not cheap).

Iceland is also unlike anywhere else you've driven. The elements are not simply *weather* in Iceland. The wind can gust so fiercely that it can literally rip off a car door or blow out a windshield. You also have to worry about damage from whipping sand, tires popping on rough roads, sheep traffic jams, and more. Many of these things are not covered under basic minimum car insurance in Iceland (tires and windshields notoriously cost extra), and some rental companies will either require or very firmly suggest additional coverage.

If you're not willing to pay for the extra coverage, it might also be best if you don't drive in Iceland.

3. You're not comfortable driving in remote areas

Amanda at Stokksnes in southeast Iceland
Even popular spots in southeast Iceland can be empty

In the west and south of Iceland, you're likely to see plenty of other tourists on the road and at natural sites and attractions. But when you head up north and into East Iceland, you may drive for miles without seeing a building or another car.

Iceland isn't a huge country, but it's sparsely populated outside of Reykjavik. Iceland is an incredibly SAFE country, so you don't have to worry about things like violent crime in secluded areas. But things like flat tires, bad weather, and errant sheep can crop up at any time.

If being on your own in remote areas makes you anxious, then you might want to think twice about driving the entire Ring Road.

RELATED: 15 Things You Need to Know Before an Iceland Road Trip

4. You only want to see the famous spots

Amanda at Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon in Iceland
You don't even need to drive to see the glacier lagoon!

If you're mainly going to Iceland to see things like geysers, glaciers, the Blue Lagoon, waterfalls you've seen on Instagram, and maybe the Northern Lights, you don't need to venture around the entire Ring Road at all.

The majority of “famous” sights in Iceland are concentrated in the west of Iceland (around Reykjavik), and along the South Coast. You don't have to drive around the entire country to see them. In fact, you don't even have to drive at all if you don't want to!

From Reykjavik, you can easily book day trips to see the Golden Circle, enjoy the Blue Lagoon, or chase Northern Lights. And you can book long day trips or quick overnight trips that will take you to all the major sights around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and South Coast.

Or you can plan a self-drive trip that focuses just on the west and south of Iceland.

5. You're visiting Iceland in winter

Snowy mountain road in Iceland in winter
I wasn't even driving on this “road” and it was scary

I'm going to be really honest with you here: driving in Iceland in winter can be scary. Even if you come from a place where snow and ice are the norm in winter, you will likely be taken aback by just how intense winter weather in Iceland can be.

Not only can you expect rain and snow and icy roads, but the WIND in Iceland is what can be the most terrifying. Wind that will throw that rain and snow sideways across roads, and wind that is strong enough to blast through windows and rip car doors clean off. (This is why you're always urged to take out extra insurance for your rental car!)

And while the Ring Road is paved all the way around Iceland, it's not always cleared of snow and ice during big storms. Also, it's very common for parts of the Ring Road to close completely during very high winds, when it's too dangerous to drive.

If driving in these unpredictable conditions would make you anxious (it sure would make ME anxious, and I'm from Ohio!), then you're much better off basing yourself in Reykjavik and taking tours from there during the winter months. Let someone with more Iceland experience do the winter driving!

6. You're not allowing any flexibility in your plans

Erupting volcano in Iceland
These days, for example, you never know when a volcano might start erupting in Iceland.

Along this same vein, if you're planning a trip to Iceland (any time of year, really) and have packed your itinerary so full that you're not allowing for any flexibility in your plans, you might not want to try to drive the entire Ring Road.

It's impossible to predict bad weather, road closures, or other natural phenomena that might force you to alter your plans at the last minute. (For example, a volcano started erupting a week before my own trip to Iceland, but we were able to shift our plans to make sure we could safely go see it.)

7. Your Iceland trip is less than a week

Amanda in a thermal pool at Hvammsvik
If you're trying to pack too much into a short trip, you won't have time to enjoy moments like this!

You need AT LEAST a week to drive the complete Ring Road with stops. Any trip shorter than that will have you driving long distances and not being able to stop to see/do much along the way. (But I personally recommend at least 10 days for the Ring Road.)

If your trip to Iceland is less than a week, then I would recommend sticking to just one half of Iceland instead. (Again, there's nothing wrong with this, as most of the famous sights are in the west and south anyway.)

You can still see a lot with 5 days in Iceland – but it's not long enough to drive the entire Ring Road.

RELATED: An Epic 10-Day Iceland Ring Road Itinerary

8. You're traveling with a big family

Amanda outside a barrel cabin in Iceland
Accommodation in remote Iceland can be tough for more than 2 people in a room.

If you're traveling with more than 4 people, it's going to be tough to make a Ring Road road trip work comfortably. You *can* rent a larger vehicle, but it's going to be pricey. And finding hotels or guesthouses in Iceland with rooms that can accommodate more than 2 people can also be tricky, especially in high season.

So you'll be looking at a high rental car cost, AND possibly having to book two separate hotel rooms everywhere you stay. In most cases, you'd be better off renting a larger apartment in Reykjavik, and booking small group tours (or even private tours) from there.

(And if you're a family with 2 parents and 2 kids, be careful when it comes to campervans! These may seem like an excellent way to save some money in Iceland, but I can tell you from experience that these vans are often smaller in reality than they appear online. I can't imagine actually sleeping 4 people in most of them.)

9. You're expecting luxury accommodations

Mulagljufur Canyon in Iceland
Come to Iceland for the scenery, not the hotels.

Iceland is a Nordic country, and that means clean and efficient architecture, and a high standard (and cost) of living. But if you're going to Iceland expecting 5 star hotels throughout the whole country, you are going to be sorely disappointed.

There are some luxury hotels in the Reykjavik area (and at the Blue Lagoon), and a few luxurious rentals along the South Coast. But throughout most of the country, the most common form of accommodation is actually the independently-owned guesthouse. Guesthouses in Iceland are clean and cozy, but they are basically budget accommodation where all guests share bathrooms and common areas.

I've stayed at some lovely guesthouses across Iceland – but they definitely aren't fancy!

In some of the more remote parts of Iceland (in the north and east especially), there aren't even a ton of guesthouses to choose from. And if you're traveling during high season (which is summer), these basic accommodation options will be pricey and book up far in advance.

10. You're not excited about driving

Rainbow street in Reykjavik, Iceland
A city break in Iceland is still so fun!

If driving the Ring Road doesn't sound exciting or appealing to you… then don't do it! Don't let the peer pressure of social media persuade you to take trip that isn't really your style.

You don't HAVE to drive the Ring Road in order to enjoy a trip to Iceland. Focusing on a smaller area in Iceland will still make for a fantastic trip without any of the stress that comes along with driving all the way around the country.

What do you think? Is driving the Ring Road on your bucket list? Or not really for you?

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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9 Comments on “10 Reasons to NOT Drive the Ring Road in Iceland

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  1. While Valdis believes there is a right way to travel, indicating his way is it, I have a different point of view. I am an older traveler and rely on an expert traveler’s advice to help me make the right decision for me. Safety is high on my list when traveling but I also like fun, off the beaten path ideas too. Being thoroughly informed on all aspects of your trip, helps to ensure success and satisfaction. I have always enjoyed reading about Amanda and Elliots trips and have gained lots of good ideas from this blog.

      Thanks, Laurie! I always want to provide as much info as possible so people can decide if a trip is right for them. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t – and that’s fine!

      Hello, Laurie Frithiof & Co.! Thanks for responding. I am much, much older than you are! Age brings multitudes of experiences and exposure to what is new and different. Let us celebrate that and gain confidence from that. We should enjoy exposure to all that is not ‘just the same’. If we bring along what is common, predictable, everyday with us, are we truly traveling? I do not think so! old V.

    France is more than just Paris. England is more than just London. Finland is more than just Helsinki. Latvia is more than just Riga AND ICELAND IS MORE THAN JUST REYKJAVIK! You present a timid mindset, snail like needing a 100% assured shelter, always at hand, fearful of anything beyond a guided, predictable foray, to be among many others, returning to a homogenized, universal set. Being just an American city lady, you may not be aware of that. We, myself and the majority, do not travel to just stay in an upscale big city hotel and overindulge in a fancy, expensive restaurant. The amazing people of amazing Iceland, beyond the amazing airport, capital, Blue Lagoon, etc. will give you much, much more. Seek them out, learn what 1000 years of isolated history, unique geography and other parameters, etc. with all of the associated challenges, provided as a foundation for this culture, this nation. Do not limit yourself to the capital and the world class scenery viewed through a tour bus window but also the unpredictable. Life must be lived, not just a check mark on a bucket list. PLEASE!
    When we travel to see and experience another country, we should see that other country. Please do make that a priority, not just a perceived obstacle or fearful ‘what if…’ Life is more than that, enjoy it to the fullest! I and my late wife, then I and my son always rented a camper, always drove beyond the paved road, always circumnavigated the Ring Road, not just plunked down in some rented room. We were better off because of it. You do harm warning the limited (typically American?) travelers with this.

      Sir. Did you even READ this post beyond the headline? Did you bother to look at all the other Iceland content on my website where I talk plenty about the Ring Road, beautiful hikes, and nature that Iceland has to offer beyond Reykjavik? I’m guessing no, because that’s the only way your rant makes any sense. Not everyone is comfortable driving in a foreign country, and there are plenty of people that, frankly, should NOT be renting a car to drive around Iceland (I have seen my fair share of cars stuck in rivers and ditches to be convinced of this). There’s no right or wrong way to travel in Iceland, and this simply presents some thoughts for anyone who might not have any desire to drive the whole Ring Road, but are wondering if they can still go to Iceland and enjoy it (which of course they can, despite what your judgemental opinion is).

        Thank you, again, for your and Elliot’s response. Yes, there IS a right way and a wrong way to travel. To seek what is ‘safe’ and comfortable to near 100% of the time negates why we all should travel and to travel more. To be elsewhere, is to go beyond the home parameters, but obviously responsibly. It is delightful to order something and then be served an unexpected alternative. I recall on one of my first of many trips to Helsinki (my favorite city!) ordering two very early morning coffees, but then being served two Koff’s, a local beer! Giggle time for me and my wife! ‘Kiitos!’ I was pleased that my son, driving a rented 4×4 on the F roads in the Icelandic highlands, had to take a second run at fording a springtime stream, then reaching the opposite bank. What a feeling of accomplishment! High fives! I still do not know your reason to title your presentations ‘A Dangerous Business’ beyond the reference to Tolkien’s expression. It implies that travel can be/ is dangerous. It is unpredictable, as Tolkien said, but ‘dangerous’ is a misnomer, a faulty choice. But then the English language is not my first, second, fourth, fifth … I have a limited lexicon.

          I wholeheartedly disagree that there’s a “right” way to travel. To suggest so is judgemental and elitist, and I don’t promote that idea here. Which is why I write content to help a wide variety of travelers based on their style and interests – including people who would never, ever want to ford a stream on an F road in Iceland. Clearly my website is not for you, so please move along.

      I’m sure that in a lot of places, your comment makes sense. But your weak link is, this is earth.

        Hello Elliot! I thank both of you for responding. I am not sure what you meant by writing ‘your weak link is, this earth’. As I responded to Amanda, just now; Traveling is to be encouraged for many reasons. Primarily to provide a ying to the yang. It is so discouraging to witness some flocking to ‘safe’ McDonalds, large homogenized international hotels, etc, when they are away from home on their once in a lifetime escape. I encourage all to be more worldly, be braver, venture beyond. Again; my apologies to both of you for my aggressiveness.

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