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The I Heart Reykjavík ultimate Iceland self-drive guide

– how to plan your own incredible Iceland road trip in a breeze –

Table of contents

You can read this guide as a book, chapter for chapter, you can use it as a reference guide jumping from one topic to the next. Whatever suits you best.

You can click the links below to jump to the topic most relevant to you. Each chapter contains an overview and links to helpful content containing more details to help answer all your questions. At the end of each chapter, you will find a link to get you back to this table of contents to explore more topics.

If you’re reading this page on a desktop, you can also always use the little arrow in the bottom right corner to get to the top of the page again.

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1: [ps2id url=’#practical-info’]Practical information about self-drive travel in Iceland[/ps2id]
2: [ps2id url=’#staying-safe’]How to stay safe on the road [/ps2id]
3: [ps2id url=’#where-to-go’]Deciding where to go [/ps2id]
4: [ps2id url=’#where-to-sleep’]Where to sleep on your epic Iceland road trip [/ps2id]
5: [ps2id url=’#what-to-eat’]Where to eat as you travel around Iceland [/ps2id]
6: [ps2id url=’#tours’]Tours and attractions to add to your self-drive journey [/ps2id]
7: [ps2id url=’#itineraries’]Sample Self-Drive Itineraries [/ps2id]

About this guide

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You’ve booked your flight to Iceland and decided that you want to travel around in a rental car but you’ve spent so much time researching your trip, scouring every corner of the internet for information, that you now feel more confused than ever and completely overwhelmed with the abundance of possibilities. Should you rent a 4×4? Will there be anything to eat? Will you die a sudden death attempting to drive in the snow?

The plethora of travel-related information about Iceland is a jungle and although everyone offering this information is doing so in good faith with the intention to help – the contradicting advice and myriad of recommendations leave you more perplexed than instilling confidence. With this no-nonsense Iceland self-drive guide I hope to help you navigate (pun intended) your epic self-drive adventure. From where to eat, sleep and drink and to how to avoid speeding tickets and accidents – I have you covered.

This guide is a work in progress and it will be updated regularly.

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1: Practical information about self-drive travel in Iceland

Winter vs. Summer

First thing you need to consider is whether you’re planning a summer or winter self-drive adventure. I am aware that there are two more seasons (autumn and spring – see, I’m smart!) but when it comes to traveling in Iceland they’re kind of irrelevant due to their brevity and the fact that often you can’t easily distinguish them from the other two main seasons. For example, we have an official first day of summer that is celebrated each year (ironically in spring) but it’s not uncommon that it snows during the celebrations.

In the interest of simplifying things let’s stick to this two-season theory and say that the winter season lasts approximately from the beginning of October to the end of April and the summer from the beginning of May until the end of September. Height of winter would then be November to March and height of summer June 15th to August 15th.

Winter

In winter, your main concerns are the weather, the driving conditions and the lack of daylight but as I explained in this post How dark does it get in Iceland in winter the darkness is not a constant but rather a circular something so it depends on when in the winter you’re traveling how much it will affect you.

Summer

In the summer there are not a lot of things you need to worry about except relative crowds in certain areas and subsequent lack of availability when it comes to accommodation and prices to match. Keep in mind that certain periods in the winter like new years, for example, are almost busier in Reykjavík and the surrounding areas than the summer though. The best thing about the summer is the long days but in June it almost never gets dark thanks to the midnight sun. And it’s slightly warmer but nothing like the summer temperatures you’re probably used to.

Is renting a car really the right way for you?

If you’re not a confident driver (meaning that you don’t drive often in your day-to-day life and you get stressed in traffic and unexpected situations) and you have no experience driving in demanding winter conditions (think snow, icy road and hurricane strength gale force winds) then you may want to reconsider whether a winter road trip is the way to go for you. The summer is much more forgiving and unless you’re a terrible driver and you haven’t touched a steering wheel in 25 years (in which case you probably shouldn’t be driving anywhere without getting some refresher lessons) most people should be fine.

Even though many people who have visited Iceland will tell you so until your ears bleed, renting a car is not the only way to travel around Iceland. This post Should I rent a car in Iceland or do day tours might help you decide if you’re still unsure about what is the best plan of attack for you.

What is feasible within your time frame

The second thing you should think about is how much time you have for your road trip. 7 days in summer is a long time and you could easily do the full ring road (the road that circles around the whole of Iceland and is a very popular route in summer) while 7 days in winter is a whole different matter  There’s no perfect amount of time to visit Iceland but if you want to do the whole ring road I would say 7-10 days is the minimum, even though it can be done in less time. 5-6 days is a good amount of time for a short winter visit.

Staying on budget

Finally, as much as I hate having to admit this – Iceland is not a cheap destination so you want to make sure you budget appropriately for your trip and that you take everything into consideration like gas prices and how much you possibly might need to fork up if you happen to get into an accident with your rental car.

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2: How to stay safe on the road

Let it begin with me

When I had just got my driver’s license, my mother often said to me: Please be careful out there. It’s no you that I’m worried about – it’s all the other drivers! Although it’s true that we are at the mercy of other drivers when it comes to our safety on the road, another wise man also once said: Let it begin with me

There are a lot of things we can do to keep ourselves and those around us safe as we drive around Iceland. Although a lot of it is common sense that applies anywhere where there’s a motorized vehicle close by, some things are specific to Iceland and those traveling here.

I already mentioned in the practical info part of this guide how in winter the weather and the elements can severely impact your plans but it’s not just the winter. The first thing you should always ask yourself and answer honestly, regardless of the season you’ll be traveling in, is whether you are confident enough in your driving skills to tackle any unexpected surprises that you may encounter on your way. Whether it’s a gravel road, an unbridged river you need to cross to get to your destination (like in Þórsmörk) or white-out conditions in the snow. If the answer is no – you should not rent a car. Not just for your own safety but the safety of everyone around you too.

The roads

The roads in Iceland are often narrow,  poorly maintained (hello Westfjords!) and we have a lot of single lane bridges that have been dubbed death traps on national news here in Iceland recently due to the number of fatal accidents that happen around them. In recent years, many of those who get killed in these accidents are either tourists or the driver that crashed into them was a tourist. We have a lot of demanding mountain passes and blind hills and turns,  not to mention the weather and the havoc it can cause. Tourists are not worse drivers than Icelanders, we just have the advantage of familiarity.

Rules to live by. Literally

There are a few things that you can do to keep yourself safe. First of all, you should always keep an eye on the weather and conditions and follow local advice before you head out. Making sure you’re alert and awake by not driving long distances directly after long overnight flights or nights out partying and making sure you schedule enough time for rest should help too. Because of the narrow roads and the ever-changing conditions, you should adhere to speed limits even though the locals don’t necessarily always do so themselves. Always always wear a seatbelt and never never drink and drive. Don’t cram too much into the same day because sometimes you make bad decisions in a time crunch (like speeding in difficult conditions so you don’t lose your money on a tour you’ve booked). Study up on the traffic rules and signs in Iceland and remember that you should not turn right on a red light. Always remember to turn on your lights and if you want to stop for photos, make sure you chose a safe spot to do so (middle of the road is not safe – hazard lights or no hazard lights). No driving and texting or holding your phone while using it as a GPS. Oh and watch out for sheep!

You don’t need insurance until you do

Although I always pay for extra insurance no matter where I rent a car, I think that extra insurance is more important in Iceland than anywhere else because of our harsh conditions and unpredictable weather. If you saw the number of cars on the side of the road at any given day in winter, you would probably feel the same way.

If you rent a car in Iceland, it will always come with Third party Liability and Personal Accident Insurance and CDW. You can book a car directly with some agencies without the CDW by signing a waiver but if you use a service like Rentalcars.com or AutoEurope.eu it’s always included.

When we talk about extra insurance we’re usually talking about SCDW which is sometimes also called Full Coverage or Zero Excess Coverage and the Sand and Ash coverage (which ironically is not included in the Full Coverage options). The specific terms can vary between companies but you always pay an extra daily fee for both plans.

Keep in mind that if you have coverage through your credit cards (I have very good car rental insurance through both my personal and my business credit cards for example) you will still have to pay the full excess to the car rental company here in Iceland if you get into a mishap with your car and then you can claim the amount from the appropriate insurance company when you return home. A lot of people refuse the extra insurance because of these type of insurance and then get a big shock when they’re asked (or instructed, more like it) to pay when they return the car.

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3: Deciding where to go

FOMO is real

One of the biggest advantages of renting a car to travel around Iceland is that you can pretty much go anywhere as opposed to following a set route decided on by tour operators. The downside to that is that you can go pretty much anywhere which leaves you with so much choice that it quickly becomes overwhelming.

There are no wrong answers

The thing that many people don’t realize is that everywhere in Iceland is beautiful. Some highlights are more Instagrammable than others but a camera can’t necessarily capture the essence of what I love the most about my home. Even words fail me sometimes.

In the end, it depends entirely on what expectations you have and what you want to get out of the trip where it would be best for you to go. Just because your cousin John and his wife told you that you can’t miss the Golden Circle it doesn’t mean that you won’t have a meaningful experience somewhere else.

East or west, north or south

If you haven’t decided where you want to go yet, I think this post about all the different areas in Iceland and how they might fit into your schedule, logistically and time-wise, is a great place to start. It discusses how many days you need really to visit each area and what you can expect overall. Like how you need some time to visit the Westfjords and if you’re only stopping over for a day, you may need to decide between the Golden Circle or the South Coast to check things off your Iceland bucket list.

Once you have a better idea about which areas fit into your time frame, you can start planning more of the details like which specific places you want to see in the area, where you want to stay and whether or not you want to do some tours along the way.

Some of my favorite travel moments in Iceland happened in unexpected places. I think I enjoyed them so much because I was open to the experience and was able to be in the moment instead of worrying about the next destination or what other things I was missing.

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4: Where to sleep on your epic Iceland road trip

Reykjavík vs. the countryside

When you travel around Iceland in your own rental vehicle you will quickly realize that you can basically divide Iceland into two areas: Reykjavík and then everywhere else. When it comes to accommodation, tours, restaurants and availability of all kinds of service you may require, there is a vast difference depending on where you are headed.

Reykjavík

There are a lot of hotels, guesthouses, hostels and AirBnBs in Reykjavík and most people should be able to find something that suits their standards, needs and budget. The market is quite competitive (we’ve had a lot of new hotels open up recently) so it’s not unlikely that you can find reasonable deals, especially in winter and during slower periods like April/May.

Outside of Reykjavík

Outside of Reykjavík, things are a bit different. First of all, you won’t find quite as many options as in Reykjavík in many areas and if you’re used to 4 to 5-star hotels the options become even more limited. You will have better luck if your OK with simpler accommodation and if you have a strict budget you may have to make do with hostels, shared bathrooms or basic cabins with almost no amenities.

Because of the limited availability in many areas, the most popular options often become quite pricey and you won’t always find the expected correlation between price and quality.

Just so we’re clear, I’m not saying that all accommodation outside of Reykjavík is expensive and terrible. Not by any means! All I’m saying is that due to fewer options in certain areas,  you should probably do your research, read reviews and compare prices in relations to quality and what’s on offer.

A family affair

It’s also worth mentioning that if you’re from the US or Canada, hotel rooms in Iceland tend to be quite a bit smaller than what you are used to from home and common offerings, like two double beds in the same room or adjoining rooms, may not be available. Because of this, it can be a bit difficult to find good family rooms in hotels which is why many families opt for apartments and hostels.

Problem areas

In the past few years, the south coast and around Lake Mývatn have been most difficult when it comes to accommodation. The way people travel around Iceland and the length of their trips have changed though and there are a lot of new options in those areas so it may not be as big of a problem as it used to be.

Due to these issues I’ve often told people, especially if they’ve been planning last minute trips during a busy time of the year, to plan their itineraries around where they can find suitable accommodation and not the other way around as is more common. It should be a lot easier to find reasonable accommodation if you start planning your trip well in advance.

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5: Where to eat as you travel around Iceland

Price of food

I think the biggest shock people often get when it comes to prices in Iceland is the cost of food. I’ve seen on travel blogs and forums people discuss this fact like it’s some kind of conspiracy designed to fleece tourists but that is not the case. There are many different reasons why groceries and restaurants are more expensive in Iceland than elsewhere, one of which is the fact we have to import almost everything. Plus, it’s hardly a conspiracy if we need to pay exactly the same prices.

In any case, you probably have to budget more for food than you normally would.

Eating on a budget

If you’re on a strict budget, you can opt to book accommodation where you have access to a kitchen where you can cook your own meals. Most bigger towns in Iceland will have at least one lower-priced supermarket but you can’t expect such luxuries in the smaller communities. For more information about supermarkets, check out these posts: The Ultimate Guide to Food Shopping in Iceland and Where do the locals shop for food? If you pack your own lunches and bring a reusable water bottle to fill up along the way you can save considerable amounts of money.

With that said, I am very aware of the struggle it can be to keep a quality restaurant outside of Reykjavík open all year. Because of this, I try to support local eateries when I travel around Iceland. The only thing I can do to make sure they stay where they are is to spend some money there (and then recommend them to you if they’re good!). I’m not talking 3-course meals every day but a soup here and a fish of the day there to leave some money behind in the communities I visit.

Quick and easy

If there was an official roadside snack or meal in Iceland, it would probably be a hot dog or a hamburger. In most towns, you’ll find at least one gas station that will sell either just hot dogs or both. It has to be said that in most cases these burgers are nothing to write home about but the hot dogs are more or less the same everywhere so they’re probably a safer bet. Plus, they’re usually pretty affordable. In most gas stations you’ll also find ready-made sandwiches but just beware that oftentimes they are packed in Reykjavík so just make sure you check the date if you’re sensitive to things not being totally fresh.

More official restaurants

Many towns will also have at least one restaurant but bigger towns, such as Akureyri, will have more places to choose from. Many farms that offer accommodation and countryside hotels will also have a restaurant but some, of course, offer better quality than others. You can usually count on finding at least one fish dish (often fish of the day) and something involving lamb on most menus. Often the smaller places have to cater to a lot of different people and their menus reflect that with a strange mix of courses.

It’s good to keep in mind that in winter many restaurants are closed for lunch or they’re just closed altogether for the season. With many of the more popular places, like Slippurinn in Vestmannaeyjar and Norð Austur in Seyðisfjörður (both of which, by the way, are only open in summer), it’s always better to book a table in advance.

Surprisingly good food carts

If you are looking for a warm meal but you’re not in the mood for a full-blown restaurant or a gas station burger, you could also check out many of the food carts that have started to pop up everywhere. They’re often close to popular attraction and at least half of them sell fish and chips or meat soup (that you might call lamb stew). Many of them are surprisingly good and fairly priced. I really like the Finsens fish and chip stand in Stykkishólmur, for example.

For the love of beer

For beer lovers, there’s a lot of stuff happening in the craft beer scene and it’s entirely possible to plan your stops on the ring road around local breweries if you’re so inclined.

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6: Tours and attractions to add to your self-drive journey

Although Iceland is full of easily accessible natural wonders and you could spend a whole month just driving between them, doing nothing but admire them in awe, it can really take a trip from great to an amazing life-affirming experience to descend 120 meters into a dormant volcano or witness the wonders of our rapidly receding glaciers from inside a blue ice cave. If Iceland is a really delicious and juicy cake, a good tour is the cherry on top. Or if you’re Icelandic, the raisin at the end of the hot dog.

Because everyone who visits Iceland is so different, it’s impossible for me to say which tour is the best. It really just depends on your interests and what excites you the most. I can tell you, though, that my favorites have been Snorkeling in Silfra, Ice Cave adventure from Jökulsárlón and the Puffin Tour in Ingólfshöfði but all of the tours I’ve done have been great in their own way.

Fun all year

There are actually surprisingly many tours that are available all year, especially if you take into account the notorious reputation the Icelandic winter has. Out of the tours that are available all year the glacier hikes, both in Sólheimajökull and Skaftafell, are among the most popular. Another popular all year activity is the snowmobile tours in Langjökull and Mýrdalsjökull. If you like that sort of thing, you might also enjoy the ATV tour in Sólheimasandur.

Although the summer is better for whale watching, you can see whales in Iceland all year round. Here in Reykjavík, you will mostly see minke whales and a few humpbacks but if you’re lucky you might spot an orca or two. Outside of Reykjavík, you can see whales all year round in Dalvík and from Akureyri

Horse riding tours can be enjoyed in any season and although snorkeling in water that is consistently around 2°C in the middle of winter may not seem appealing to all – it’s actually amazing in winter too. Caving tours like the Lava Tunnel and Vatnshellir cave are also operated all year.

Although the ice caves in the Vatnajökull region are only accessible in winter, you can visit the Ice cave by Katla Volcano all year. The same goes for the Inside the glacier or the ice tunnel in Langjökull although that’s quite a different experience and cannot be compared to the natural ice caves. It’s a very kid-friendly tour though and after I did it myself I’ve been recommending it more and more to families traveling around Iceland.

Finally, you can (and should) visit the many pools and hot springs no matter the weather. The Mývatn Nature Baths are a lovely smaller alternative to the Blue Lagoon and Krauma is a great spot to enjoy with your significant other.

Winter

By far, the most popular tours in winter are ice cave tours and anything to do with the northern lights. Last winter I put a special emphasis on trying a lot of different ice cave tours and out of all of the tours I tried, this ice cave tour from Jökulsárlón was the best one. The natural ice caves are normally only available from November to March with the exception of the Katla ice cave.

For northern lights tours, I wrote this comprehensive guide for all the different northern lights tours you can do in Iceland to help you choose the best one for you.

Summer

In the summer, you will see more whales than in winter and the whale watching capital of Iceland, Húsavík, opens up for business. In the spring and early summer, they sometimes see blue whales up there which I’m sure is a sight one never forgets seeing that it’s the biggest mammal on planet earth and all. But there are more sightings all over the country so you can just pick the one that suits your schedule best.

The summer is also when you can see puffins in Iceland but a lot of travelers don’t know that they spend the winter chilling out at sea. You can see puffins around Vík and in the Westman Islands but a puffin tour like the one in Ingólfshöfði takes you really close to them. If seeing them from afar is enough, you can do a short and kid-friendly puffin tour from the old harbor in Reykjavík.

Another popular summer activity is all kinds of hiking tours, organized or not, but a lot of the most beautiful hiking areas are mostly closed off in the winter. The most popular hiking route in Iceland is probably the Laugavegur trail between Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk but if you want something shorter and sweeter this Landmannalaugar Hiking Tour or a hike to Glymur Waterfall might do the trick. Or if you want to combine hiking and going inside a volcano, there’s also a tour for that that is only available in summer.

A little visual aid to help you map out your tours

When you’re planning your trip around Iceland (or just anywhere) it often helps to use maps to see where things are in relations to other points of interest. Which is why I decided to take all these tours I’ve been talking about and put them on a map so you can see more easily how they might fit into your schedule.

If you click on the little sign in the top left corner of the map you will see a list of all the tours where they’re filtered based on activity. If you’re not into whale watching, for example, you can simply click the checkmark next to the whale watching tours and filter them out. Each point on the map contains information about the tour and a link to more information and bookings. If you like this guide, you may want to consider booking your tours through us since that’s how we make the money that makes this blog and consequently this guide a possibility. 

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7: Sample Self-Drive Itineraries

Though we be but little, we is fierce

I Heart Reykjavík is a small company (at the moment, it’s just me and my husband ) and we realize we can’t be good at everything. I’ve learned that when you’re running a business, it’s important to identify your strengths and what sets you apart from your competitors and build on that instead of trying to play catch-up in areas where you’re at a disadvantage.

So instead of offering mediocre service to everyone, I decided that I wanted us to really excel at what we do by focusing on our strengths – even though it may mean we’ll be serving fewer people.

Time is the scarcest resource

Although we make travel itineraries for guests who plan to take advantage of day tours from Reykjavík every day (some days that’s all we do), we have mostly shied away from self-drive itineraries because they’re much more complicated. Complicated usually means time-consuming and because we don’t charge a fee for our planning services and we don’t offer ready-made car rental packages, we usually do not get adequately compensated for our time if we take these projects on.

I know what you’re thinking, why don’t we then just charge for it? That’s kind of tricky too and for the time being, we want to uncomplicate things. You know, Marie-Kondo our work life if you will (I kid – my drawers are full of clothes that don’t spark joy but I can’t get rid of). We may reconsider this in the future and if we do, you’ll be the first to know! Figuring out a fair way to offer a service like that is one of the many maybe someday ideas we have lying around.

Helping you help yourself

I Heart Reykjavík has always been about helping travelers helping themselves by providing you with all the tools you need to plan your own dream vacation in the form of free information. Any services we may have added since then are basically just to help those who need a little bit more guidance and of course, we somehow have to make a living too.

So in the spirit of the blog’s original mission, I’ve decided to share some sample itineraries I’ve made in the past for guests when I’ve had time for it. I might even make some new ones, especially for this section. Now, self-drive itineraries are still time-consuming and getting them to the point where I can present them as a post or a downloadable PDF requires even more time so this will be a slow process but hopefully, over time, we’ll have a good collection of itineraries to suit a lot of people’s interests. You can follow them in their entirety or you can use them as a starting off point to plan your own perfect trip.

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