The Do’s and Don’ts of an Iceland Road Trip

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iceland road trip

If there was ever a country perfectly suited for a road trip, it’s Iceland.

Majestic lava fields mingle with snow-capped mountains to create a world that will constantly leave you wondering, “is this real life? How can such a place exist?”

Existential questions aside, if doing an unforgettable road trip tops your travel bucketlist, head straight to Iceland.

The most popular (and pretty much only) road trip in Iceland is the Ring Road, or Route 1. 830 miles of adventure and surprises, the Ring Road, as you probably have already deciphered, encircles Iceland connecting major towns. While you can certainly cycle or hitchhike the Ring Road (in summer) the best way to see it is by car with a couple good friends and some good music.

iceland road trip

For our Iceland Challenge on a 7 day stopover with Icelandair, I had Inga, the local behind Tiny Iceland with me, along with Laura a talented photographer who was working with her this summer and one of my closest friends Marika, who designed my blog banner and who both shared their photos here!

4 girls. 7 days. 1 car. Things were going to get interesting.

This trip was epic and unforgettable in so many ways. And it definitely was a good life lesson for future road trips. Let me share a few things I’ve learned from a week exploring Iceland by car.

iceland road trip

iceland road trip

Do – pick a car that matches your trip

The most  important part of a road trip are the wheels that will carry you from point A to B and beyond. Iceland isn’t like other European destinations; it literally feels like the end of the world sometimes and it’s key to plan accordingly.

When are you going? July and August are the best weather months with the longest hours of daylight – i.e. the infamous midnight sun. If you are planning to do just the Ring Road or a short trip, you most likely just need a regular old car, unless you plan to go off the main roads in which case you’ll need a 4 x 4.

If you are thinking of roadtripping during the months with snow – i.e. most of the year, then you definitely need a car that can drive in all weather or has four wheel drive.

iceland road trip

iceland road trip

If you’re on a budget, consider renting a diesel car; gas isn’t cheap in Iceland so you can save money on a more fuel-efficient car. All obvious, am I right?

While we did drive the Ring Road, we also got off the main roads quite a bit, going over dirt mountain roads and back routes to small towns. Because we were four girls with a lot of camera gear planning to go on some more intense roads, we went with a Chevy Captiva SUV with Sixt, which was the perfect car for our journey.

If you only plan one thing for a road trip, plan the car.

iceland road trip

Important things to take into consideration like seat warmers

iceland road trip

Don’t – rush it

A good Iceland road trip needs a solid 7 days, which is perfect because that’s how long you can have a free stopover in Iceland for between Europe and North America with Icelandair. You can certainly do a lot less in less time, but if you want to spend time OUTSIDE of the car and exploring and getting lost (which is the best part, right?) minimum 7 days.

Trust me on this one.

iceland road trip

iceland road trip

Do – get out of Reykjavik

Iceland is a vast, unchartered destination waiting to be discovered. Every road, every mountain, every waterfall, every glacier is a National Geographic photo and deserves to be seen. You would be hard-pressed to find a country more stunning and visually captivating than Iceland, so take advantage of it and see places that are truly unlike any other in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, Reykjavik is an awesome city in and unto itself. It’s modern and creative and filled with viking hipsters which I LOVE, and I really liked the vibe of it. But you don’t go to Iceland for a city, at least I don’t.

If you have 24 hours in Iceland, my recommendation is rent a car and drive, drive, DRIVE!

iceland road trip

Don’t – forget toilet paper!

That joke about how there aren’t that many people Iceland, well, it’s pretty accurate. With a total population of 320,000 on a good day, most of whom are in cities, this means when you’re on the road, you will drive for a long time and not see a single soul.

Even though the Ring Road is a popular route, there are parts of it, especially in the east that, to put it mildly, are remote. Which means, dun dun dun, no toilets!

By the end of our trip, I felt like I really communed with nature in the sense that (how do I put this delicately?) I peed in every corner of Iceland.

Be warned, there are no big trees in Iceland, so sometimes you are just on the side of the road hoping and praying that no one drives by at that moment, which there is a good chance, they won’t.

iceland road trip

iceland road trip

Definitely one of the best views I’ve ever had while peeing

Do – get off the Ring Road and explore!

The Ring Road is amazing, don’t get me wrong, but depending on how long you have in Iceland, definitely veer off it when you can.

My best memories from Iceland are when we went off on mountains roads to remote towns and villages (population 100) and got to see places that I’ve never heard about.

Iceland is full of surprises, quirks and overlooked spots if you take the chance to get off the beaten path.

iceland road trip

iceland road trip

Don’t – freak out when you see a one lane bridge

Again, because Iceland is so sparsely populated and because the landscape can change dramatically very fast, it doesn’t make sense to build many two-lane bridges. Just slow down when you see one of the signs and whoever gets there first goes first. On some of the really long bridges, there are shoulders to pull over onto to let people by.

So don’t freak, unless you come to a one-lane tunnel, then you can lose your shit.

iceland road trip

Image via Wander the Map

Do – eat a lot of hot dogs

For some reason the thing to do in Iceland is eat hot dogs, gas station hot dogs, and I can happily vouch, they are delicious. They love to put fried onions on them and they have  variety of sauces I’ve not seen before.

When you’re on the road, having adventures and exploring new places, the last thing you want to do is waste time sitting down for a long meal 3 times a day. With so much to see and do on a road trip, you have to make the most of the time you can.

I’m not really a hot dog person, per say, but as soon as I saw the prices for food in restaurants (and prematurely aged 10 years from shock!) I quickly became a fan. Hot dogs are cheap and delicious (only about 350 ISK or $2.90) and Icelanders love them, along with ice-cream (rather ironic, no?) so indulge! You’re on vacation, eat like a local!

iceland road trip

iceland road trip

Don’t – stop on the side of the road to take photos

Would you pull over on the side of a highway with no shoulder back home to take photos? Probably not, so why would you do it in Iceland?

I get it – every single inch of Iceland is gorgeous, and when you start driving and seeing it yourself, you are going to want to stop and take photos everywhere! I certainly drove everyone crazy in the car, saying every five minutes, “can we pull over? Just for a minute, just this one time!” until everyone was about to throw me off a volcano.

iceland road trip

Most of the Ring Road is narrow with no space to pull off, and of course there isn’t a lot of traffic, so it’s very tempting to just pull over and hop out for a quick photo; but need I say that’s really dangerous?

Several times we had to swerve around a stopped car ON the road with tourists taking photos. SO DANGEROUS! DON’T BE A DUMBASS!

There are plenty of driveways, farm entrances, lookout spots and side roads where you can pull off. Just wait and don’t risk causing an accident, there are more than enough gorgeous photo spots to go around.

If, heaven forbid, you do get involved in an accident of any sort, you’ll be sorry if you don’t have a comprehensive insurance plan in place to back you up. I recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance, which has a ton of customizable and affordable policies that fit with a variety of travel styles. They’re flexible, can be easily changed online and cover ALL the adventure sports.

iceland road trip

iceland road trip

Do – watch out for sheep 

In the summer months, sheep reign over Iceland. Let loose to roam the lands, once autumn hits, there’s a massive round-up of the sheep for winter, but until then, they aren’t enclosed in any fields or anything.

As you can imagine, sheep aren’t always the brightest of creatures, so be sure to watch out for them on the road. We had a close encounter with a wild sheep who darted out in front of us at one point, and I thought for sure we’d be having mutton for dinner and be scraping sheep off the Chevy for days. But luckily Inga swerved at the last minute and disaster was averted.

When you see a group of them lurking on the side of the road, your best option is to slow down and honk a few times to scare them off.

iceland road trip

iceland road trip

Don’t –  think the weather will stay the same

The weather in Iceland is as unpredictable as Miley Cyrus at an awards show.

One minute it’s sunny, the next minute it’s raining, and then you’re in a fog so dense you’re certain you’ve been transported to another world.

Just as the landscape varies astronomically, so does the weather. Be prepared for it to change in a second and have plenty of layers of clothes with you.

iceland road trip

What is this nonsense?

iceland road trip

Do – stock up on gas cards and gas when you see a station

If you see a gas station, stop and get gas. You never know when the next one will roll around. While you’re at it, get a hot dog too.

Sometimes gas stations will be closed or not monitored in the more remote spots, so before you leave, it’s better to buy gas credits loaded up with credit so you can just swipe and fill direct from the machines instead of having to pay at the counter.

Don’t – worry about taking cash out

I did not take out a single kroner while I was in Iceland! You can get away with paying for everything with a credit or debit card. It’s really convenient!

iceland road trip

iceland road trip

Do – bring a lot of water with you

And snacks to much on too. You never know when the next hotdog will be.

Lucky for us, we had a big supply of Icelandic Glacial water to keep us hydrated on the road, as evidence by the number of times we had to pull over for impromptu pit stops.

Jokes aside, the fact that we had tons of water with us actually saved us BIG TIME when our SUV overheated. And by the SUV, I mean we overheated the car by pushing it too far driving over a very, very steep incline mountain road, Hellisheiði Eystri, with the AC on full blast (it was hot, ok!), not to mention the car was loaded down with 4 viking girls and a ton of equipment.

iceland road trip

Tiny Iceland to the rescue!

iceland road trip

Literally on top of mountain somewhere between  between Jökulsárhlíð into Vopnafjörður ($100 to anyone who can pronounce that), with no phone service, we waited for the engine to cool down and to be able to add water to the radiator. Thank GOD we had enough water with us to keep both the car and us cool.

So remember to turn off the AC and pay attention to the fluid levels of the car and don’t push it when going over some of the crazy mountains. And also have a lot more water with you than you think you might need.

iceland road trip

iceland road trip

Sometimes shit happens, but sometimes you end up with a view like this when it does

Don’t – fight about stupid things and do be communicative

Blinding flash of the obvious, but  it bears stating, cough cough. 4 girls all with strong personalities and opinions stuck together in a moving metal vehicle for hours on end is bound to cause some drama.

“It’s MY turn to drive.” “Pull over, look at that waterfall!” “If I hear another Ben Harper song I’m going to kill myself.” —> disclosure, these might have all been me. Maybe.

You know, the usual. It had been a long time since I’ve been on a group road trip, and it was a good lesson for me to learn to compromise, or try to compromise. Ok, I’m not good at compromising.

iceland road trip

I think it all comes down to something fairly obvious, if something bothers you, say it, get it out there, work on it and move forward. Take turns. Negotiate. Compromise.

But above all, remember you’re on the trip of a lifetime and just BEING in Iceland and getting to experience it yourself is the most important thing.

Except for beer. Beer wins.

iceland road trip

Do – be prepared to fall in love with Iceland

Be warned, you will fall in love with Iceland. You will say over and over to yourself, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The rugged, wild, untamed landscape will blow you away, leaving you wanting more. Before you finish your trip you already will be thinking when you will come back again.

iceland road trip

iceland road trip

Many thanks to Tiny Iceland and Icelandair and Sixt Rental Cars for hosting me in Iceland. Like always, I’m keeping it real – all opinions are my own.

Also many thanks to Laura Hundersmarck with Tiny Iceland and Marika Summers for sharing some of their photos here!

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261 Comments on “The Do’s and Don’ts of an Iceland Road Trip

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  1. My husband and I drove the Ring Road end of May. Unbelievable, outer worldly, amazing, wow!! Reading your travel log makes me want to go again. Iceland is totally pure! Pure air, pure water, pure people – words can not describe the beauty! I want to go back!!

    1. Claudia: My husband and I are also going at the end of May this year. I’m wondering if you can tell me any of the specific favorite places you visited or hotels you stayed in or anything we should skip in May? Thanks!

    2. What was the weather like at the end of May.? I am going for three weeks and driving around the island.

  2. im laughing so hard at the one saying ‘you never know when your next stop/food’ will be so bring some. that is soooo true. i learned this the hard way. we always had crap foods like chips in the car we’d buy at gas stations, but i wish i had bought some fruit and stuff in rekyjavik to keep in the car with me. by the time i got back to the city i was so malnourished that i headed straight for a juice bar. no joke.

    i was just there for five days and that was long enough to see the south coast basically. i DEF dont suggest people go there with a week and try seeing the whole island. i think it is best broken up and explored deeply. when people take a road trip around the entire thing in a week, they hardly get to know the culture and people of the place i think. and i definitely think reykjavik warrants peoples time! at least two days (although can be explored in one day, but i think that is rushing it). one day to see the city and another day to see its cafes, sunsets, sunrises, bars, etc. icelandic people love chatting with people and its so fun to get to know them (even though they did give me a lot of anti-american nonsense).

    what i loved about having 5 days and seeing the south coast deeply was the ability to just sit at a place for 5 hours with no rush or having to go back to a car to see the next thing. it was SO nice. we were able to stop at restaurants that hadnt seen a person stop there in days.

    we just were there in late sept and i found it to be the perfect time to go. i had previously been in july and it was way more crowded in the country. in late sept there was hardly anyone there. i had an 8 person hostel dorm to myself (well, and andre) and the roads were so empty that we could park in the middle of the road for an hour and no one would pass.

    cant wait to go back there! think we are heading up to the northwest fjords next time 😉

    1. Definitely agree. I always wish I had more time in a place, but depending on what kind of trip you want, at least 7 days for the ring road, though I know a lot of people who managed to do it in 5. Definitely pushing it.

      When I go back I know I will focus on one spot or another and take it slow, that’s how I prefer traveling. I really want to go slow. I really want to go up to the fjords next time too, we missed those.

      Yeah I was like I need SOLID HOT food right now! No more chips or hot dogs haha. But meals def. put a dent in my wallet

  3. Hi Liz. I loved reading this post, and I have a quick question for you…

    I tried a few months ago to convince my parents to take us to Iceland this summer. I’ve been intrigued by it since a very young age. We usually do a nice family trip during the summer, but I was surprised that they turned down my proposition. I still really want to go though. I have an ample amount of money saved up to fund a one week vacation for myself, but I have a problem… I am only 18 years old and therefore not old enough to rent a car for myself. What should I do? Should I still go, and if not, what should I do instead?

    Thanks 🙂

    1. First off, I am not sure that you have to be 25 to rent a car in Iceland, I’ve seen places that rent cars to people under 25 but they charge an extra fee, which is do-able. Otherwise, I would look into doing a bus tour or an organized multiple day tour of Iceland. Reach out to Inga from Tiny Iceland and search through her site, she’s bound to have a lot of info about this. Companies like Intrepid and G Adventures do fun tours as well. Otherwise, depending on how adventurous you are, you can definitely hitchhike the ring road, it’s very common in Iceland and people are super friendly.

      You should DEFINITELY go!

      1. I think that you could (and should) hitchhike if possible. . .the ring road is long and (sometimes) precarious. The people in Iceland (my mother was one!) are incredibly friendly, helpful and FUN!!! (there may be a few fuddy-duddies – like a rancher my sister and I saw north of Reykjavik. . .he obviously didn’t think two women should be driving on “his” road) But, hey, stick your thumb out and see who stops – I’m sure it will be a great memory for you!

      2. Hey Liz!
        Can you give me a good website to look into car prices? and maybe you can give me the average for a 4 seat car? (its 3 girls total). thanks!

    2. Hi Liz,
      I would like to say ‘thank you’ so much for your blog post. It gave me heaps of very helpful tips for my trip, whether it is regarding the car or the credit card use or even the toilet paper! I am about to finish my little four day trip around the amazing island and lots is to do with your blog post. Forever grateful!

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