Iceland is the most beautiful country I’ve been to so far, and I don’t get tired of saying it. Seriously, it is that pretty!! Last year I road tripped there for two weeks, and while I saw a lot of the country, I left feeling like I had to come back for more.Iceland is so visually captivating in ways I’ve not seen elsewhere. I drove past active volcanoes, blue icebergs, roaring waterfalls, and gorgeous stand-alone mountains that seemed like taken out of fictional landscapes.
Iceland is so visually captivating in ways I’ve not seen elsewhere. I drove past active volcanoes, blue icebergs, roaring waterfalls, and gorgeous stand-alone mountains that seemed like taken out of fictional landscapes.
If you’re looking for an unforgettable adventure travel experience, a road trip around Iceland’s Ring Road and its interior will not disappoint.Since I’ve already gone through the process of planning an awesome road trip in Iceland –and I’m going through the process all over again to visit this summer for five weeks– I want to share with you everything you need to know to plan an amazing trip there.
Since I’ve already gone through the process of planning an awesome road trip in Iceland –and I’m going through the process all over again to visit this summer for five weeks– I want to share with you everything you need to know to plan an amazing trip there.First of all, why are you going to Iceland? And when?
First of All, Why are You Going to Iceland? And When?
Knowing the answer to this question will determine when is the best time to visit Iceland. Do you want to see the northern lights? Then winter time is for you. Go hiking in the Westfjords? June to August are your best months.
Here are a few more key dates for specific activities:
- Midnight Sun – Around June 21st
- Northern Lights (aurora borealis) – Late September to March
- Whale Watching – Year-round. More sightings between April and September, with June being the peak month.
- Puffins – May to Mid-August
- Ice Caves – November to March. Some Ice caves can form (and be visited) in the summer, but they come and go as the ice melt.
- Lupin Flowers – Mid-June
- Frozen Waterfalls – January and February
- Autumn Colors – September
- Icelandic National Day – June 17th. Biggest holiday in the country.
- Pride – Early August. It’s the second largest holiday in Iceland.
How’s the Weather? And, How are the Crowds?
Other things to have in mind when deciding when to go are crowds, weather, and accessibility. Iceland has very moody and unpredictable weather year-round, but the best weather can be found between June and August. During this time, you’ll have more chances of sunny or overcast days with relative warmth during the day. While sunny days are more common during the summer, be ready to get a few showers now and then. If it’s raining, don’t be discouraged. It can be raining here now, but drive for five minutes, and it (probably) will be sunny over there. Clouds come and go all the time.
During spring and fall, rainy days are quite common. During fall or winter, sudden snowstorms are common, and roads can be treacherous or even impassable. There’s also the amount of daylight to consider. During winter, you could get about 4 hours of daylight while in the summer you can get 20+ hours of daylight. During summer I got to see the sunset around 11:15 pm and it never got pitch black at night.
To keep an eye on the weather, I recommend checking this local weather site.
Crowds can have an effect on your trip too. Iceland’s recent tourism boom has had a hard impact on its limited tourism infrastructure. Naturally, high season happens during the summer months (June to August), and most guesthouses get fully booked way in advanced. Same goes with car rentals and some tours. So, if you’re planning on going during summer, book your accommodation a few months in advance.
Shoulder seasons during September-October or April-May can also be a good time to visit as prices are lower and fewer people are on the road. Additionally, days become shorter, so it increases your chances to see the Northern Lights in decent to good weather.
Lastly, accessibility. If you’re planning on driving only along the ring road, you’ll be able to do this year-round. But, if you’re planning on hitting some of the interior F roads, these are only accessible between June and September. Specific opening and closing dates change every year depending on weather conditions. I’ll go over driving on F roads soon.
Where to Go? How Much Time do You Have?
Unless you’re arriving in Iceland by ferry from Denmark, you’ll most probably be arriving at Reykjavik (the ferry arrives at Seydisfjordur). Actually, you’ll be arriving at Keflavik Airport, which is in Keflavik; 45 minutes south of Reykjavik. Reykjavik is an excellent base point since it is “centrally” located to most of the famous sights in Iceland – just a few hours drive in each direction. By the way, if you’re curious about the ferry from Denmark, this is their site.
Where you go in Iceland depends greatly on the amount of time you have. My recommendation is to have at least ten days there to have enough time to go around the Ring Road, but if you’d like to feel like you’ve covered a great deal, take at least 14 days in Iceland. Of course, the more, the better. Below are a few sample routes of what you can cover based on the amount of time you have there.
Should you only have a few days in Iceland, you could do a series of day trips or slightly longer trips overnighting in another town before coming back the next day or so. Popular choices for these short trips are the Snaefellsness Peninsula, the Golden Circle, and the south road until Vik to hit Seljalandsfoss waterfall and Skogafoss Waterfall along the way.
Should you have over a week, you could focus on adding more of the south until Skaftafell to see the glaciers and Svartifoss Waterfall. Drive a bit further, and you’ll also see Jokursarlon, the glacier lagoon.With enough time, you could also drive a bit into the interior to see the beautiful mountains in Landmannalaugar.
Should you have about ten days, you could do the entire Ring Road (drive around the whole country along Road 1) in addition to Snaefellsness Peninsula and the Golden Circle. This is one of the most popular itineraries.
If you have two weeks or more, you could do the Ring Road, Snaefellsness Peninsula, the Westfjords, and even taste a bit of the Interior of Iceland. If you can, try not to miss the Westfjords. Only about 14% of tourists do make it to the Westfjords, and in my opinion, it is one of the most beautiful regions of Iceland.
Last but not least, my itinerary. While I had two weeks, I decided to spend more time on the west and south to be able to cover the Westfjords, Snaefellsness Peninsula, and part of the interior along Maelifellsandur. I also gave myself a few days off to relax since there was a lot of driving involved (all on my own)! Here’s a list of most places I visited on my trip.
Here are a few more self-drive tour recommendations for you to get inspired. One recommendation, though, is not to plan your road trip with the driving times indicated on Google Maps. Not that they are wrong. It is just that they do not take into account that you will want to stop everywhere along the way. I’m serious; you’ll be stopping every few minutes to take a picture of every mountain, waterfall, valley, and more.
Where to Stay?
Being the biggest city in the country and the starting point for most people, Reykjavik has a full selection of hostels, guesthouses, and budget hotels.
Hotels, Hostels, and Guesthouses
Should you decide to stay in guesthouses all throughout your trip in Iceland, I’m pretty confident in saying that Reykjavik will be the cheapest city of them all. In Reykjavik, you can find a bed in a dorm room for $25+ a night and rooms for $50+. In other cities, like Akureyri and Isafjordur, among others, you could find hostels too, but they usually go for a higher rate, since the availability there is lower. I found beds in dorm rooms for $45+. Then, there are the guesthouses along the way. These are mostly old regular houses turned into guesthouses, located in some farm along the Ring Road. Most of these rent per room and the rates could be anywhere from $50+.
One thing to have in mind with some hostels is that they don’t include sheets and pillows on your reservation price. You’ll either have to pay extra to get them (up to $25 per person!) or bring yours or your sleeping bag if you have one. In theory, they do this to prevent the spread of bedbugs. In my opinion, it’s shit as I could spread bed bugs with my sheets. But, now you’re aware, so you can pay attention to this when booking.
I like using Booking.com for all my bookings, and while I was in Iceland, I was lucky to find some pretty good last minute deals with them. I even made a few reservations the day before since I was playing it by ear. But, only do that if you’re traveling solo or as a couple, and not during high season! Iceland’s tourism infrastructure is still developing, so a lot of guesthouses get full even months in advance (for high season). Even though I got lucky in a few places with good last minute deals, in others I slept in the car since everything was fully booked.
Since Iceland is excellent for road trips, a lot of travelers decide to rent camper vans to combine their accommodation and transportation costs. Campervans come in various sizes that can accommodate from two to five passengers (seated / sleeping). Depending on your group size and the type of campervan you rent, this could turn out to be a cheaper option than renting a car and booking rooms separately.
One good thing about Iceland is that you can park your campervan for free in all sorts of places (picnic areas, sports fields, natural open areas, parking lots) as long as it’s not forbidden to park/camp there. There are also dedicated campsites for a fee where you can plug in your campervan, use their shower and toilet facilities, as well as other amenities. Or, you can pay from $3 to $5 to just use the showers.
These following sites are good alternatives to renting campervans:
A cheaper accommodation option is camping. As long as you have your tent and proper camping equipment, you can camp almost anywhere for free as long as it is a group of three tents or less, you’re not camping close to a building or on farmed land, or anywhere marked off-limits for camping. If it’s on private land, you’re allowed to camp only for a night. If your group has more than three tents, then you must seek permission from the landowner before setting camp. Alternatively, there are designated campsites with cooking and washing facilities (like the campervan ones) for a fee.
Iceland has a camping card that covers your camping fees for two adults and four children on 42 designated campsites across the country.
Alternatively, there are hundreds of additional free and paid camping sites all over the country not covered by the card. These you can find on tjalda.is or camping.info and just show up and pay there – if there’s a fee. Depending on the campsite, you could be paying anything from $5 to $15 per person per night.
Some hostels also allow you to place your tent on their grounds at a cheaper rate than renting a bed or room there.
If you don’t have camping equipment and are looking to rent while in Iceland, I recommend checking the Iceland Camping Equipment Rental site to pick your equipment beforehand.
Lastly, there’s CouchSurfing! I did a bit of CouchSurfing in Iceland and loved my experience there, as usual. My biggest recommendation, though, is that if you’re going during high season, start sending request around two months in advance. Yes, there are A LOT of couchsurfers in Iceland during the summer. I sent, not kidding, over 50 requests about two weeks before I arrived (my usual timeframe for requests), ALL of them were unavailable and busy with other surfers. I got lucky with some last minute requests I placed when I was in Iceland already. Here I share more on how to use CouchSurfing while traveling.
How to Move Around?
Unlike most of Europe, Iceland does not count with a railway system, but there are still plenty of options to go around the country. The most common is renting a car.
You can find budget cars for about $40+ a day, plus any extra insurance. One thing you should have in mind is that even though car rentals can be moderately priced, gas prices in Iceland are not. Frankly, gas in Iceland is expensive! Last year I was paying about 190 ISK per liter. That’s about $1.70 the liter or $6.42 the gallon. During my trip last year, I spent around $60 every time I filled up the car (a VW Polo) and filled it like six times for the 3,000+ kilometers I drove there. Sharing these numbers so you have an idea that gas can add significantly to your rental.
I rented my car with GuidetoIceland.is, which had some of the cheapest cars I saw online. Having said that, for the day I wanted to drive on the F roads to see Mt. Maelifell, I rented a last-minute 4×4 (the day before), and in that case, I found the cheapest 4×4 on Kayak.com and Skyscanner.com. So, for whatever car you’re looking for, I recommend looking at these three sites.
My recommendation before renting a car is to make a preliminary itinerary with the places you want to visit, so you have an idea whether it can be done with a small car, or if you’ll need to swap and rent a 4×4 for a few days. Coordinating this well is key to save money. When renting cars, make sure from which airport (or city location) you’re picking up the car. Reykjavik has two airports: Reykjavik’s Domestic (RKV) and Keflavik’s International (KEF).
Please, be careful driving on some Icelandic roads as it is not uncommon for horses and sheep to be crossing or standing right in the middle of the road. Also, in winter weather, some roads can become unpassable or slippery. This site has real time weather and road conditions, so you know what’s accessible and what not before leaving for the day.
Dealing with Gas (petrol)
Most gas stations have prepaid cards for gas. I recommend buying one and adding 5,000 ISK (about $45) in case you need to fill up on one of the several unmanned gas station (of the same brand you got the card with) while driving in remote areas like the Westfjords or in between small towns. While the pumps accept credit and debit cards, I had issues paying with my American cards in some of them and had to hop around until I found a manned gas station where I could pay at the cashier with my American cards.
Additionally, gas stations also have loyalty cards, and your rental company might already be subscribed to one of them. Using the card will help you save around 3 ISK per liter, which is not huge savings, but hey, it helps. BUT, always pay attention to gas prices. When I was around, there were other gas stations with cheaper gas than the discounted gas at the stations where I had the loyalty card. Also, diesel is cheaper, in case you get the option of a diesel vehicle.
If you’re traveling as a couple or as a group, renting a car (or even a camper van, as written above) might be a cheap option to move around, but if you’re traveling solo, it might be on the expensive side. In that case, you could move around with the public bus system. On the Straeto.is site you can check the schedule for any bus and plan your route within Reykjavik or even to go out to other towns across the country. Have in mind, though, that being a public bus, it makes a lot of stops along the way, so going to other towns with it will take a very long time. You can check here the current bus rates and cost of multi-ticket/unlimited ride cards.
For long distance buses, I recommend first checking Reykjavik Excursions. This is a bus/tour company, so you could use them either way. You can book day tours through them, book a one-way/roundtrip bus ride, or you could buy a “passport” and do what they call “Iceland on your Own.” There are several passport options, and they give you the freedom and flexibility to travel on specific routes for as long as the passport is valid – usually valid from June to September. Passport rates go from 14,000 ISK to 65,000 ISK ($120 – $570). Reykjavik Excursions also offers the FlyBus to/from Keflavik Airport to Reykjavik city center for 2,500 ISK ($22) each way.
Alternatively, SBA-Nordurleid has a few additional schedule bus routes on the east and north of the country.
Should buses still be a bit over your budget, you could do carpooling. Share a ride with other people looking for passengers to split the cost of gas. Samferda.net is a good site to check for rides or to offer rides too. Carpool World and Carpool Iceland are two options too but seem to be less popular than Samferda.
Lastly, there’s hitchhiking. Surprisingly, hitchhiking is very easy and welcomed in Iceland, which is one of the reasons why so many backpackers do it these days. I had my car, so I picked a few travelers here and there (at no charge) and took them to wherever they needed to go or as close to where they were heading along my route. It was a good way to meet people and share stories along the way.
While I didn’t hitchhike in Iceland, I can recommend it there. Most locals are very friendly and open to pick up travelers – if not tourists like me will do it eventually. Just be very patient, as sometimes it might take a long time to get a ride, especially in remote areas. One couple I picked on the Westfjords told me they had been waiting for at least two hours just for a car to pass by! This article will share much more on how to hitch a ride in Iceland.
Driving on F Roads. What’s All the Fuss?
There are two types of roads in Iceland – the regular number roads (i.e. 208) and the F roads (i.e. F208). Number roads can be driven with all kinds of vehicles – from small cars to camper vans and 4×4. F roads, on the other hand, are only for 4×4 and specially-equipped vehicles that can handle rough terrain and river crossings.
F roads are mostly in the interior of Iceland. These are not paved (mostly gravel, dirt, or rocky roads), and in most cases contain several river crossings that could range from small streams to severe rivers with strong currents. Even with a 4×4, you must assess the current condition at every river crossing as not all rivers are always passable.
Rental cars are not allowed on F roads, except for 4×4 rentals. If you drive a small car on an F road, you’ll void the insurance (should anything happen to it). And, don’t even try crossing a river with a small car. Just, don’t! Even on 4×4 rentals, the insurance won’t cover any river crossing, so make sure the conditions are safe enough to cross the river. You don’t want to attempt to cross it, get stuck in the middle, and find yourself stranded and with a massive bill in hand, because the insurance will not cover you. At least make sure you have travel insurance in case you need to be rescued or need assistance should anything else happen during your trip. I highly recommend World Nomads travel insurance.
If you don’t feel comfortable enough driving on F roads and crossing rivers, you can take the Reykjavik Excursion “all terrain” buses that take select F roads to get to some of the most popular spots in the interior of Iceland.
On the other hand, there’s plenty to see along the ring road and on the Westfjords. All those roads are regular number roads and totally safe for any car.
What’s There to Do in Iceland?
Iceland is all about nature, and the good thing is that nature is free to enjoy! Hiking is free, even on trails inside private lands. Usually, these trails have a ladder letting you go over the fence, and you’re free to hop over it.
As long as you don’t need the service of anyone (or a paid museum), everything is Iceland is free to admire. Waterfalls, beaches, trails, mountains, hot springs out in the open… all free. Now, when a service is needed, that’s when you’ll have to fork out some money – anything from $50 to $500+. There are tons of adventurous outdoor activities available during summer, winter, or year-round. Still, you can have an amazing experience in Iceland without having to pay for a single tour. Here’s a list of 20+ amazing places in Iceland, and most of them can be seen for free!
Still, if you’re interested in paid tours, I could recommend a few. I did the quad tour with Safari Quads, a diving tour in Silfra with dive.is (loved the experience with them diving between two continental tectonic plates! It was freezing, though!), hiking on the Svinafellsjokull glacier and inside an ice cave with Icelandic Mountain Guides (impressive glacier hike!), and taking the ferry to the northernmost point of Iceland (Hornbjarg) with West Tours. One activity I was looking forward to doing was paragliding with HappyWorld, but didn’t happen on last minute changes. Hopefully, will do on my next trip!
There are all sorts of tours like whale watching, snowmobile tours, northern lights tours, and more activities that you can find and book on guidetoiceland.is, Reykjavik Excursions or Viator. I recommend going directly to each company I recommended above to get their current rates and availability.
Dealing with Money
Virtually everything can be paid with credit and debit cards in Iceland, so it is unnecessary to withdraw or exchange money. In the two weeks I spent there, I only withdrew money once, and by the end of the trip, I was only looking for ways to spend the Kronas I had in hand since I pretty much paid everything with my credit card. In fact, using your credit/debit card is recommended since there are no exchange booths in several small towns and sometimes ATMs can be hard to find if you’re staying outside any town center.
Food! What’s the Cheapest?
Food is expensive in Iceland (like pretty much everything else). But, like everything else, there are ways to save on food. Most hostels and guesthouses know this, so they have kitchens available for you to cook your meals. I recommend doing your groceries at Bonus Supermarkets. They are the cheapest supermarkets you’ll find there, and they have stores in Reykjavik and several towns.
For my trip, I focused on buying breakfasts and dinners from Bonus, while most lunches I bought out on the street since I was sightseeing around. For lunch, several restaurants offer lunch specials for 500 ISK to 1,500 ISK, so take advantage of that. The only international fast foods available in Iceland at the moment are KFC, Domino’s Pizza, and Subway. A regular meal on each will cost you around 1,100 ISK to 1,300 ISK on the cheaper side.
Another cheap eat in Iceland are their famous hot dogs! And trust me, you’ll eat a lot of hot dogs there! There are hot dog stands and carts pretty much everywhere in Reykjavik, at every gas station around the country, and other small shops. You can find hot dog + drink combos for 500 ISK+. Don’t miss trying the Baejarins Beztu Pylsur Hot Dogs! (I know, it’s a mouthful). According to The Guardian, they are the best hot dogs in Europe!
Tap water is drinkable, and everyone in the country drinks from the tap. I remember going to the supermarket and asking a local lady for help to translate the label to two water bottles (making sure I wasn’t getting the gassed one). The woman looked at me and giggled a bit while saying, “we all drink from the tap. You don’t need to buy water here.” I purchased a bottle just to have the bottle later for refills from the tap.
What Clothes to Pack?
Whether it is summer or winter, you’ll need jackets and layers. The key is layers, layers, layers. Summer days can get warm-ish, but you’ll still need a light jacket if it’s a cloudy day. Summer nights can get quite chilly, so you’ll need a layer or two depending on how warm are your layers. It is common to put on and shed layers during the day depending on how weather changes throughout the day (and it changes a lot!). Only one day during summer I had to wear several layers, head cover, and gloves. It was a hike in Hornbjarg, which is the northernmost part of Iceland and receives Arctic gusts on a regular basis. (it’s less than 10km from the Arctic Circle!)
Naturally, during winter you’ll need a few thicker layers during the day and night, especially good waterproof and windproof outerwear, thermals, head cover, gloves, and scarves.
There are three major cell phone carrier available in Iceland that cover all the country. They are Siminn, Vodafone, and Nova. Their GSM services cover most Iceland, there are though some blind spot in all the system, especially around big mountain rigs and fjords. Internet connection (3G and 4G) is not covered well in remote areas (especially in the interior and outside the Ring Road areas) but is usually very good in all towns and villages in Iceland.
Internet connection (3G and 4G) is not covered well in remote areas (especially in the interior and outside the Ring Road areas) but is usually very good in all towns and villages in Iceland.
I got a Siminn SIM card at the airport for 2,249 ISK (about $19) with 1GB of internet. It worked almost everywhere, except when I went to remote areas like Maelifellsandur.
I guess I’ve covered all the essentials to plan a trip to Iceland, so I’m going to leave you with this. Be flexible!
Iceland is gorgeous, and you’ll discover tons of places you were not expecting to see along the way. Give yourself time to stop and enjoy them, and give yourself the freedom to explore off the beaten path too. There are way too many places to discover in Iceland, so anywhere you go, I’m sure you’ll be in awe.
Enjoy the moment!