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Iceland driving tips – How to avoid these common mistakes

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How to drive in Iceland – the best guide for driving in Iceland

Doing a road trip in Iceland is the best way to see it.  It’s as though this country is built for road trips.  You can set your own timetable, go wherever you like and stay as long as you want.

Along the way, you will see some truly spectacular landscapes, some of which you may never have seen before!  Every minute on an Icelandic road trip is different, with changing weather and changing scenery.

Driving in Iceland tips for surviving Icelands roads

Vehicles are easy to hire in Iceland but it’s important to be aware of some important driving tips.  Driving here can be difficult due to a range of factors.  Take the time to read through and understand what’s required, and it will set you up as best as possible for a safe and enjoyable time.

This is no ordinary guide.  It’s a detailed list of what is required to keep yourself and those you are travelling with safe.  It’s also designed to keep others on the roads safe.  It’s our guide, written by experienced road trippers.

We drove around Iceland in a campervan for eight days, without incident.  However, we were prepared for everything, took advice from as many people as possible, and made sure we had full insurance.

Here’s how you can prepare yourself too.

Iceland driving the ring road

General tips for driving in Iceland

The basic requirements for driving in Iceland

  • In Iceland, vehicles are left-hand drive and drive on the right-hand side of the road.  Overtaking is therefore done on the left-hand side.
  • Drivers must have a valid licence from their own country.  The license should have a photo, license number and a date of validity.  If your license does not include these items then an international drivers permit will be required.
  • The driving age in Iceland for foreign drivers is 20 years old.  Some hire companies may incur a fee for drivers under the age of 25.
  • Blood alcohol limit for driving in Iceland is zero, perhaps another good reason to have two drivers.  It is also illegal to drive whilst drug affected.
  • Speed limits vary and use the metric system of kilometres per hour (kph).
  • In cities and populated areas, the speed limit is 50 kph and 30 kph in residential areas.  Out on the Ring Road, it is usually 90 kph or 80 kph on gravel roads.  Signs will only be displayed when the speed limit changes so it is your responsibility to remember the speed you should be travelling at.
  • Don’t speed.  The weather conditions will dictate your speed, but even in fine weather, there’s plenty of on-road things that can cause an issue.
  • Whilst you won’t see many police on the roads, you will see police speed cameras, especially in Reykjavik.  There is no signage to say they are there and the cars are unmarked, ordinary looking vehicles.  All you will see is the big flash and know that an infringement notice is on its way.
  • Fines can be quite severe in Iceland and if you are hiring a vehicle, the hiring company will charge you an administrative fee for processing the fine.  Fines start at US$195 for travelling 26 kph over the top speed in a 30-35kph zone and can go as high as US$690 for doing 41 kph over in the 90 kph zone.
  • Seat belts must be worn at all times and headlights must be on whilst driving at all times, even during the day.

Have more than one driver

If possible, have at least two drivers.  Note that most hire companies in Iceland will charge for an additional driver and you must be named on the hire contract.  Failure to do so will void any insurance you might have if the driver is not listed.  Having two drivers reduces the opportunity for fatigue but there is also another reason which may not seem immediately obvious.

Be aware of your own driving expertise

It might sound strange but it’s also good to keep any ego or over-inflated sense of driving skill out of the equation when it comes to driving in Iceland.  I’m a good driver, but I know Stirling is an exceptional driver and I know that if we’re in a difficult situation, he’s the one I want driving, not me.

I remember driving, on a summer’s day, over the “terrifying mountain of death”.  We were in the east of Iceland and had taken a detour off the Ring Road to visit a town that was, ultimately, worth the drive.  However, there is only one road in and out and it involves going over the top of a mountain, on a very narrow road, with no barriers at all.

Normally this wouldn’t bother me, as much of Iceland can feel like this.  However, on the day we went, and I’m quite sure many of the days were like this, it was frightening!  A complete whiteout met us not long into the hill climb and never left us until we got to the town of Seydisfjordur.

A journey of possibly 20km that felt like an eternity.  A hand-clenching, terrifying eternity!  I could see on our maps that there were glacial lagoons beside where we were driving, the only indication of where we were as I certainly couldn’t see it.

It was at that moment when I decided that hiring white cars in Iceland was not cool.  One slip off the road and no-one would ever find us.  Anyway, the reason for telling this story is to say that even with Stirling driving, it was still terrifying, and I knew deep down that we would be ok.  This was not a moment for me to be driving.  Know your skill level and your personality type and make a safe decision for everyone in the car.

This video shows only the start of the journey.  It got much, much worse after this, where we couldn’t even see the road in front by more than a metre or two.

You will discover very quickly that driving in Iceland is like a moving postcard.  The scenery is beautiful.  Having only one driver means that person doesn’t get to connect with the scenery as often as the person sitting in the passenger seat.  Share it around, and everyone will get to enjoy it, and keep focussed when driving.

Don’t stop on the roads

Iceland is a country almost like no other when it comes to photo opportunities.  Whilst it is definitely tempting to want to get every photo, if it means stopping on the ring road, or at the entrance to one-way bridges,  just don’t do it.

You are placing yourself, your vehicle and others at risk by stopping in a dangerous location.  There are limited places to stop on the Ring Road apart from dedicated parking areas at places of interest.

Despite this being a common sense approach you will inevitably come across people who just don’t have a clue when it comes to their own safety or the safety of others so just be prepared for anything.

Icelands roads - how to drive in Iceland waterfalls along the roadside
Beautiful waterfalls like this are common along the ring road. This photo was taken by the passenger, not the driver, without stopping.

Get maps

GPS has become a usual feature when hiring cars, but in Iceland, you don’t really need it.  Unless you feel more comfortable having one, our suggestion is just to have good maps.  It’s impossible to get lost on the Ring Road.  Alternatively, get an offline map app like maps.me or download the offline maps from Google maps, prior to your journey.

Signage is good

There is frequent and adequate road signage.  Having a map will allow you to recognise the towns far easier than trying to remember how they are spelt.

Watch out for cyclists

I admire these guys who get out on the roads and ride around Iceland.  We saw groups of riders out for a team ride and others who were clearly using it as their way of getting right around the country.  Either way, the roads are narrow, so keep an eye out for them, and do your best to keep them safe when you are passing.

riding along the road in Iceland cyclists

Have a plan

  • Have a driving plan.  Where are you going today?  How will you get there?  Which roads will you take?  Is it a reasonable trip km/time.  The weather will always play an important part of driving in Iceland.  Irrespective of the season, it’s a good idea to have some food, water and even warm clothing or blankets with you, just in case.
  • Severe weather can come in at any time, and roads may be cut or driving conditions too severe to continue driving.  That’s why hiring a camper in Iceland is such a good idea as it has all of these factors covered!
  • Have some food/snacks with you just in case.
  • Load up your devices with music, or have access to the internet to stream it.   Most hire vehicles have the necessary connections to enable this to happen.
  • Take car chargers to keep your mobile devices charged up and ready to go, especially in the event of an emergency.

Driving on Iceland’s roads

The roads are generally quite good but some are less than desirable to drive on and some are only accessible by 4WD. Driving any vehicle off-road is illegal.  Off-road and gravel roads are two different things.  The main road in Iceland is aptly named the Ring Road, and runs for 1,332 km around the country.  Travel can occur in both directions, although most of it is single lane each way.

Types of roads

Paved  – only around one-third of all roads in Iceland are paved.  Most of these you will find in the cities and on the Ring Road.  Many of them, especially those on the Ring Road are very narrow.  The roads are built up in most parts, meaning the shoulders of the road have sizeable drop-offs.

how to drive in Iceland paved roads
Some of the paved roads in Iceland are in good condition

Gravel – these are the unpaved roads and whilst many of them will be found in the interior of the country, they do exist in places along the Ring Road or as main access roads into many places of interest.

Driving in Iceland guide to how to drive in Iceland gravel road
This gravel road is not in the Icelandic interior, it’s actually part of the Ring Road.

F-Roads – The F Roads are the unpaved roads in the Icelandic highlands, only accessible by 4WDs.  They are usually closed for winter and will be re-opened once they are safe and clear to drive on. If driving the F roads is really important to you, be sure to check they are open before hiring your 4WD.  They don’t open automatically at the end of winter.  We were there in the middle of June, their summer, and most had still not opened.

Off-road – Driving anywhere other than a designated road (be it paved or gravel) is illegal.  This includes doing u-turns off the Ring Road to go back the other way.  This is to protect the natural vegetation.

Drive to the road conditions.  This is a trick in itself as the conditions can change spontaneously, and not always for the better.  Howling winds, fierce rain and snow can all make driving an interesting experience.

Blind corners are common.  The roads can be windy, narrow and hilly, so it’s important to always scan ahead as much as you can, and slow down when visibility is impacted in any way.

blind hills on icelandic roads
Plenty of blind hills and blind corners on the Icelandic roads

Don’t turn corners too fast,  especially off the Ring Road where you may have a bit of speed up.  Gravel is present on a lot of the road shoulders, and on corners, it can be a disaster to go too fast.  There’s often not a lot of space to correct driving mistakes.  Similarly, if the road you are driving on changes from paved to gravel, the same scenario could occur.

Perhaps it’s growing up in Australia and driving on plenty of gravel or dirt roads that taught us to be careful and courteous, but it’s definitely something to consider here too.  Apart from it just being rude to drive past another car on a gravel road, spraying them with dust and rocks, it’s dangerous and can cost other people money!

If you hire a car, the idea is to hand it back to the hiring company in one piece.  Hiring companies in Iceland are incredibly pedantic about damage, including chips and minor dints, things that might get brushed off in other countries as wear and tear.

Here, there are penalties for ash damage and gravel damage, amongst others.  If you are doing the best you can to keep your car safe and then someone races past you on a gravel road spraying rocks everywhere, let me tell you that you won’t be at all impressed when those rocks cause damage that you must then pay for.

Be respectful to other people on the road, and treat them how you would like them to treat you.  When approaching an oncoming car on a gravel road, slow down and move over a little, providing ample passing room with limited impact.

Always keep your eyes on the road.  Whilst texting when driving is illegal in Iceland, it’s also stupid,  so don’t do it.  There is more livestock in Iceland than there are people and the sheep especially like to skip under broken fences and wander on the road.  Hitting an animal is not something I’d recommend.

There are many single-lane bridges meaning that you will need to give way to oncoming traffic. It’s not meant to be a game of chicken or “let’s drive really fast to see if I can beat them”.  If you see someone coming on the other side, pull over where it is safe to do so and let them through.

Driving in summer is also made easier by the lack of darkness, meaning you can drive as late as you want.  Whilst this is very useful, be aware of driving times and potential fatigue issues.    Driving in Iceland in winter poses its own issues with complete darkness and unpredictable, severe weather.

In the wintertime, I would limit driving at night unless you are very experienced.  Even then, factors outside of your control can impact driving conditions.  Snow tyres are a mandatory requirement after October.

If a road says it’s closed, then it’s closed.  Signs are put up in Iceland for a reason.  Whilst you may not be able to see the danger, assume it’s there and someone with more information than you is trying to protect you.

Buying petrol

If there is one tip to be made about filling up your car it’s this.  When you see a petrol (gas) station, fill up.  Petrol stations are few and far between and since these roads are not places you would want to run out of petrol, be wise and just make it a habit.  Some say to keep your tank above halfway.  Personally, I say fill up every time you see one!

Credit cards are necessary for travel in Iceland.  They take it everywhere, for everything, regardless of amount.  It’s an easy way to travel that’s for sure.  Petrol stations are no different, with many of them requiring pre-payment by credit card before the pump will start and many don’t accept cash.

If you need to use cash, stop at one of the larger service stations and only during opening hours.  Filling up after hours can only be done by credit card.  Also, make sure it is a chip and pin card.   If you want to avoid hefty credit card fees, check out some of the no-fee credit cards or travel cards.

Know what petrol is required for your hire car.  Filling it with the wrong one can be an expensive exercise.  Take the time to look at the pumps, the names of the petrol and the colour of the handles to make sure you are using the correct one.  Colours and naming conventions can be different from country to country.

There are various companies that sell petrol along the Ring Road with the main ones being N1 and Orkan.  Many vehicle hire companies will have a discount card that gives approximately 5% off the price of petrol.

Pre-paid cards can also be purchased but be aware there are no refunds if you don’t use the full value.

Insurance

It’s an oldie but a goodie.  If you can’t afford insurance, you can’t afford to travel.  So much of what happens to travellers is unpredictable, uncontrollable, unforeseeable.  In Iceland, these words have never been more accurately aligned to driving a vehicle.  There are varying levels of insurance, and they cover different types of damage.  Take the time to understand what’s available, what they all cover and consider these across the risks.

Like any insurance, you can’t necessarily insure for every possible risk.  There are some risks in Iceland which are much more common than others and which carry a great financial penalty if the event occurs.  Assess all options, make your decision, buy your cover, and then accept if something happens that you didn’t insure for, then you might have a bill at the end of your hire.

Regardless of what you hear anyone say, you should never drive a hire vehicle onto roads that are in contravention to your hiring contract.  In a discussion with our hiring company, they told us they knew exactly where all of their vehicles were driven through GPS tracking that cannot be turned off.  Whilst this function is there for emergencies, you just never know!  Besides, damage to the undercarriage or water damage from driving through creeks is not covered by any insurance.  Do this at your own risk!

Vehicle rental in Iceland

If you are planning on staying in Reykjavik, you won’t need a car.  Everything is easily accessible on foot.  Only hire a car when you want to leave Reykjavik and travel around other parts of Iceland.

There are many reputable companies in Iceland including  Hertz and Auto Europe.  We hired our campervan through Camp Easy but GoCampers and Go Iceland are also good hiring companies.  Like anything, the more well known the brand, the less likely you are to be scammed or have issues.  We used Car Rentals in Iceland.

Read our review on hiring a campervan in Iceland.

Look after your hire car.  Treat it like your own.  Don’t park it in silly locations.  Keep it safe at all times.

Allow for the wind

Wind is something you will need to factor into your road trip.  With Iceland being the third most windiest country in the world (the other two are uninhabited), it’s likely you won’t have had to think about this before.  Make no mistake, the wind here can be fierce.  As I write this, the airport and most of the Icelandic roads have been closed due to severe wind.

It makes sense then to consider this when parking your vehicle.  Face it into the wind and be mindful when opening car doors.  Hold onto the door handle and never, ever let it go.  The wind here can be extreme and leaving your body parts in places where doors could slam on them should be avoided at all costs.

Opening doors into the wind could see them get torn off.  This is no joke.  The force of the wind was so severe sometimes that I couldn’t open the door to get back into the car!

how-to-drive-in-iceland-the-best-guide-for-driving-in-iceland

Hiring in summer is more expensive

Whilst summer makes for easier driving conditions, it’s also peak visitor season, meaning vehicle hire in Iceland is more expensive.  If you are trying to save money, look to the shoulder seasons.

Don’t discount hiring a camper

Cars are great but don’t be put off driving a camper.  Unless you need a big motorhome to fit everyone in, consider taking smaller campervans which are easy to drive and easy to park.

We cover off where to park your campervan in Iceland in this article: Awesome overnight locations for campervans in Iceland.

Protect yourself when hiring a vehicle

There are plenty of stories online about people getting “ripped off'” by car hiring companies particularly as it relates to damage.  Whilst I can’t attest to the integrity of the people making the complaints, the company or the validity of the story, there are several ways to avoid any problems.

  1. Read the hiring contract.  Don’t scan it, read it thoroughly, for it is here that you will find all the fine print and all the terms and conditions that could see you pay large sums of money if you do the wrong thing.  It’s a good idea to ask your hiring company for a copy of the contract ahead of your hire so that you don’t feel rushed to read it at pickup.
  2. Ask questions.  If something doesn’t make sense, or you’re used to a different set of rules, it’s always best to seek clarification.
  3. Know exactly when you are to return it.  Icelandic hire companies are quite specific about the return time as they build their cleaning/maintenance and re-hire schedules around it.  It’s particularly important during peak hiring periods.  They are likely to give you about an hour outside your return time, but I wouldn’t push it much past then and not expect an additional hiring charge.
  4. Inspect it thoroughly before signing the condition report.
    1. Check windscreens and windows for chips and cracks.
    2. Check the roof.  Everyone always forgets to check the roof but there can be some serious damage up here.
    3. Check all paintwork and panels well.  In Iceland, mention every scratch or damage to paintwork you see.
    4. Check underneath as much as you can.  In particular, check the plastic guards underneath for previous damage and cracking.
    5. Check everything inside works well and the condition of it all.  This is more important in a camper where there are inclusions like fridges.
    6. Take photos of everything, especially any damage.  If someone does try to act unscrupulously, all your evidence will be in the photos.
    7. It is absolutely critical that you have the hiring company mark all the damage on the condition report before signing.  Keep a copy of it once signed.  Don’t let an employee of a hiring company tell you “that’s ok” and not mark it on the sheet.  When you return the vehicle you might get a different person, or it’s a high possibility that the original person won’t remember you or the conversation.  This is effectively your insurance policy.  Make sure you are well covered.
  5. Ensure you have all the necessary insurance.
  6. Don’t cause any damage to the car.  Bottom line, if you return it with damage, the hiring company WILL charge you for it.
  7. Understand that the amount they charge you for damage might seem unreasonable to you.  Whether or not you think a broken windscreen could be replaced for half of what they are charging you is irrelevant.  They will charge whatever is outlined in their terms and conditions.

We have never had an issue with any of this, therefore never had a need to complain, because we have always gone in with our eyes wide open and ourselves fully briefed.  We have had damage on motorhomes before, not in Iceland, but in Europe, through no fault of our own.  Having understood the hiring process, we knew there would be a charge and we also knew that our travel insurance would cover it.

If you do believe that you are being treated unfairly, hold your ground, show your evidence and ask to speak to an appropriate person.  If all else fails, there are various other escalation points you can seek out.

Apps and useful websites for Iceland driving conditions

There are some very useful websites and apps that can be downloaded to ensure that you always have the latest information for your road trip.  It’s a good idea to check these every day and to have some notifications set up to alert you to changes.

The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration have an excellent website.  Here you can get the latest weather and road conditions and access to webcams to see for yourself.  There is also information relating to road maintenance, road closures and openings etc.

The Icelandic Meteorological Office also provides up to the minute weather advice, with a focus on meteorological charts, maps and short and long-range forecasts.

The Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue website also provides similar weather alerts and conditions.  It also has an important role as a journey planner, allowing you to register your details, number of people in your travelling party and where you are planning on going, in the event of an emergency.  They also have the 112 Iceland app which can be downloaded to Apple, Android or Windows phones.

112 is the emergency phone number in Iceland.

The key to having a successful road trip in Iceland is to plan and prepare.  Once you’ve done all the pre-work, driving safely is all you need to do when you’re there to have an awesome trip.  Iceland is made for road trips!  Go on, give it a go.

driving tips for iceland
 

2 thoughts on “Iceland driving tips – How to avoid these common mistakes”

  1. Gosh I had never thought about the planning and things to consider when driving in Iceland! Great comprehensive guide.

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