“Should we self-drive in Iceland? Or should we just follow a tour?”
“How is the drive like? Is it dangerous?”
“What car should I drive?”
“Was it easy to self-drive in Iceland?”
“Which car rental company did you rent from?”
We’ve been receiving these queries (both on FB as well as through IG) from our readers since we shared our Iceland itinerary so I reckon it warrants a post.
Brief Background: I’m a driver with a good safety record. I’ve been driving for almost 30 years and I love driving. At times, I drive long distance – max of 5-6 hours but most times, it’s negotiating the busy traffic of the urban jungle in Singapore, KL, Penang and Melbourne. Note also that most times I drive on the left side of the road (as with most Commonwealth countries). In those many years, I’ve had two most memorable driving experiences. One was in Dec. 2016 where I drove in Hokkaido in its heaviest snowfall in 50 years. The other memorable one…yes, Iceland.
Don’t get me wrong, Iceland is a fantastically beautiful country and a self-drive holiday granted us the liberty to truly take in the stupendous scenery at leisure. However, driving in Iceland does pose some risks, particularly for predominantly urban drivers like myself visiting the country for the first time.
Here are the conditions which I was driving under:
Weather, Road and Seasonal Conditions:
Month travelled: Mid-June, 2017
Weather: Generally sunny but very windy with light drizzle
Temperature: Average high of 6-8C daily though the temperature drops dramatically when the wind blows.
Road conditions: Roads in towns are basically deserted (not jam-packed with cars). This includes the capital Reykjavik though at certain parts the roads in the capital can be narrow. There are moderate amount of pedestrians and cyclists but not as much as that in, say Copenhagen or Bergen (Norway) where the population is far denser.
Highway: Out of its capital Reykjavik, the highways are mainly well-paved, single lane but not very well-lit at night except at major junctions and small towns.
Night Driving: Road dividers are generally visible. Certain stretches of the highways may not have roadside barriers. Some of these stretches include hillsides and mountain sides (no, we did not deliberately wander off-road). These warrant extreme care if driving in the dark and when there are ice/snow on the roads (i.e. during winter).
Tunnels: Do expect to be travelling into single-lane tunnels, yes, single-lanes, where one has to negotiate, pull to one side to give way to oncoming traffic.
Toll: We did not encounter any tolls along the way (and hope they keep it that way!)
Animals: None. All farm / barn animals are well-kept within perimeter fencing. You may choose to stop at a convenient point to photograph them up close but do not trespass.
Daylight Hours: Summer poses a good time to drive as the sun is up virtually all day and night (it only grows dark for an hour between 2:30am-3:30am). The daylight will shorten considerably as winter approaches.
Road Conditions: While the highway roads are well-paved, there were certain stretches that were under repair. I remembered one stretch was for about nearly 10kms of gravel, small rocks and sand. In such situations, you can expect lots of sand to hit your windscreen if you’re driving at close distance to the car in front.
Give the conditions above, how did we survive a self-drive as a family with 2 young kids during our 10D9N trip?
1. Recommended Car Rental Company:
As the places in Iceland can be remote, renting our car from a reputable car rental company is critical. For us, after much research on travel forums, we rented our 4WDs from a reliable family-owned business, Lagoon Car Rental which has a good track-record and rave online reviews. Booking our car from theLagoon Car Rental website was a breeze. We received an instant quote and confirmation within the hour. We included a GPS and booster seat for our toddler in the car rental and everything was prepared for us in advance of our arrival. Whenever we emailed them to clarify some queries, the emails were always promptly replied within 24 hours. This gave us great assurance.
Once we touched down at Keflavik Airport, Lagoon Car Rental‘s representative was already waiting at the arrival gate for us – a strapping young man who spoke English very well and welcomed us warmly to Iceland. He was our first encounter with an Icelander and left a very good first impression! After a short transfer (10 mins) from the airport, we arrived at Lagoon’s office where the rows of rental cars were parked outside. The official documentation for the car rental was processed efficiently. In less than 30 minutes, we collected our car and was given a checklist to thoroughly check against any known defects. The staff also very kindly helped us input the first few destinations and waypoints into the GPS before we set off. While all that was happening, the kids helped themselves to the free flow of hot chocolate available (the adults followed soon after!)
We had opted for 4WDs (4 Wheel Drives) and was assigned a rather new KIA Sportage. Throughout the journey, the KIA Sportage handled the road conditions well. We were blessed that there were no breakdowns, accidents or other mechanical issues at all. In fact, we were pleasantly surprised to discover the interior heating function in the car –the heated steering and warm passenger seats were a welcomed novelty for the kids!
At the end of our trip, returning the car was again handled professionally, with the same level of friendly and efficient service. Another representative drove us to the airport and dropped us off at the International Departure Terminal. Point to point, the entire car rental process was hassle free and communication precise. We would recommend Lagoon Car Rental for your car-rental needs in Iceland.
Lagoon Car Rental, Iceland
2. Do I need an International Driving Licence?
The car rental company (i.e.Lagoon Car Rental) accepted my Singapore driving licence. There was no need for an International driving licence. If in doubt, do check with the respective car rental company before you fly.
3. How much car insurance should I buy?
We are first time drivers in Iceland hence we bought the full coverage. Even after the drive, we felt it was very necessary as it is difficult to predict the weather and road conditions. Gravel, rocks, branches and even the occasional sheep were aplenty and they may cause multiple dents or scratches. Our extended family who travelled with us in a 2nd car had grazed something along the road bend unknowingly, sustaining a small scratch on the car front bumper and they were billed for damage amounting to 300 Euros (yikes!). Fortunately, the comprehensive car insurance package covered a large chunk of that bill and my uncle’s travel insurance covered the rest. So if you ask us, we always prefer more insurance, to cover for contingencies.
4. Is it tough to adjust driving on the right side of the road?
In Singapore, we drive on the left side of the road unlike in Iceland where they follow the US. The only place where I really needed to be more conscious of was in its capital Reykjavik. Apart from that, the inter-town highways were quite easy to get used to.
In a nutshell, you do need to be more focused especially when turning left into another street. Right turn was easy – just follow the curve of the road but turning left required me to consciously remember to turn into the RIGHT side of the roads.
5. Do I need a 4WD or any car will do?
If you are just going to be in the capital Reykavyk, you probably won’t need a 4WD. The capital is small and compact enough to walk or cycle around. However, chances are that you’d be venturing out to see the stunning scenery and surreal landscapes outside of the city.
During our 2200km drive around Iceland, though the roads were largely paved, we did encounter stretches of roads where they were quite steep and laden with gravel, rocks, sand etc…though we didn’t plan to go off-road.
Our 4WD came in very useful in these road conditions especially since we had a car-full of passengers (3 adults, 2 kids) and luggage (3 big ones and 2 smaller ones). The other tip is to get a 4WD and not an AWD (All-wheel Drive). The former is where I can switch between using 4 or 2 wheels. This helps to save on fuel consumption as fuel is expensive in Iceland – I was paying for diesel at Singapore’s petrol prices!
6. Do I need baby car seats / booster seats?
Yes, please get one and abide by internatrional safety standards when travelling with kids. Talk to your car rental company and they’ll be glad to include one approved model for you.
7. What other factors should I consider when self-driving in Iceland?
- Luggage size- ditch the huge luggage!: Pack your luggage in mid-size ones. We flew by Icelandair where huge luggages cannot be checked-in (See the baggage guide here). It was a blessing in disguise. With mid to smaller size luggage we were able to:
- Pack the 4WD in various combinations into the compact boot space of the 4WD
- Able to heave the luggage up our AirBnB apartments (Most AirBnB apartments in historical/older buildings don’t have elevators)
- Able to leave some luggage in the car with soiled laundry and carry only those we need up to the apartments
- ‘Shoot’ the Luggage – I took a photo of the luggage packing configuration that could neatly pack everything into the boot of the 4WD. This helped me to hasten our loading and unloading from the 4WD. Also, certain parts of Iceland can be very chilly, by packing this way, we were able to retrieve our thicker jackets at the outer most of the car quicker.
- Walkie-Talkies: We used Walkie-Talkies to communicate between the 2 cars. I used a Motorola with an effective range of about 10km and an impressive battery lifespan of about 2.5 days. These helped when we were trekking to and fro waterfalls or when some of us got separated for a while.
- WIFI-Routers and GPS: We went with both a WIFI-Router (from Changi Recommends) and a GPS (from the car rental company). These were literally lifesavers for us as we relied heavily on Google Map over GPS.
Why both WIFI-Routers and GPS? Here are the reasons:
- With Google Maps, it was so much faster (and easier) to type in the destination names as the algorithm would ‘autofill’ the name for you without having to key-in the Icelandic symbols and Icelandic road names that can be tough to spell. Google Maps, also gave us real-time traffic updates and correct estimated arrival times.
- With GPS, we had to key-in the road names including the Icelandic symbols etc…and when we keyed it in wrongly, GPS can’t locate and we had to start all over. Quite frustrating. Yes, we can certainly go by category /attractions but not all the places we wanted to go is on the list.
- With a WIFI-Router, we can link multiple devices to it. So while I was using it to navigate, Angie was using it to check updates on weather, road conditions, supermarket closing times and restaurant locations etc.
Why need GPS then? Lost of WIFI signals: I remember there were at least two places where the WIFI signals were lost: at Jonkusarlon and Dettifoss. So we relied on the GPS to bring us to the nearest town where we could access WIFI signals and switch back to Google Maps again for navigation.
- Parking: The standard of living is generally expensive in Iceland (but that shouldn’t deter you from going there!). Parking in Reykjavik and in certain towns are chargeable. Some AirBnB apartments do not have free parking so we had to pay for overnight parking. To save costs, look for those areas where the overnight parking (say 6pm-6am) are free. Then during the day, plan to set out out of town as early as possible.
- Paying for Car Park: Parking is generally paid via a central meter and credit cards are accepted. In Akureyri, parking has to be paid at a local petrol kiosk or tourism office. When planning your trip, do ask your Airbnb hosts or car rental company to advice you accordingly, especially if you are arriving after hours.
- Fuel up! Drives between attractions can sometimes be long. Petrol stops may not be common. Our drives on average were about 2 to 3 hour-long across long remote plains. They are beautiful but very deserted. Do fuel up whenever you can. It is also essential to fill up the tank before you return your rental car or you’ll incur a penalty for it.
Should you come across any road stops or petrol kiosks, do the following:
- Fill up the fuel, especially if it has crossed the half-tank mark. Make conservative estimates.
- Go to the washrooms: Washrooms are generally clean. Use them or you may not come across another one for another half a day! Washrooms at attraction sites (e.g. waterfalls) are generally not as clean as the ones at the petrol kiosks.
- Stock up food: This pertains to meals especially after long drives. Restaurants and eateries may not be near your accommodation. Plan in such a way that you stop at an eatery or grocery store just before arriving at your final destination for the day to have a proper hot meal or to stock up breakfast for the next day’s drive.
- Avoid driving out again once you reach your accommodation as you may be tired (and cold) and you may need to revise your routes for the following day’s drive. As the driver, you certainly need an early good night’s sleep.
So, would we chose to self-drive again if we were to return to Iceland?
Yes! I personally still think self-driving in Iceland is the best way to enjoy this beautiful surreal country. It allows us the flexibility and control to travel wherever we want and hop down for a photo-stop whenever we like (trust us, you’ll be doing lots of that! The country’s simply too picturesque at every turn). Like most self-drive holidays, there are risks which can be mitigated with prior detailed planning. It is our hope to offer fellow travellers a safe self-drive trip in Iceland by writing this blog post. If you have any other tips to share or any queries on self-driving in Iceland, give us a holler! We’ll love to hear from you.
Do read also our: How to plan a self-drive holiday with kids to Iceland post.