By Jono Duffy, Arctic Meta
Iceland is a country that seems to be on the top of everyone’s bucket list. It’s home to some of the most incredible natural attractions in the world, and the experience of visiting is completely different depending on what season it is.
Many people who come to Iceland decide to take control of their journey and see the country on their own terms by doing a self-drive tour. Self-drives can be organised by a third party like a travel company or can be done completely independently. The main idea behind a self-drive is that you are literally and metaphorically behind the wheel, so you can take everything in at your own pace.
Driving yourself can also be a great way to get more mileage out of your money. Iceland doesn’t have a reputation for being terribly cheap, so renting a car can actually cut out a great deal of the cost of getting around. Driving in Iceland is definitely an option for tourists who want to see as much of the country as possible, but can you do it in winter? What are the road conditions like? What kind of car should you rent? What are the rules foreign drivers should be aware of? Read on to find out all this and more.
Should I drive in Iceland during the Winter?
It is definitely possible to drive in Iceland during winter, but the decision should be based more on how comfortable the driver is in winter road conditions. There are a lot of things that can factor into this, like how long someone has been driving and how much experience they have driving in snow and ice.
For example, a very experienced driver might be perfectly fine driving in Iceland in the summer months, but if they have never experienced driving on icy roads or in snowy conditions, this may turn out to be more trouble than it’s worth.
The decision is ultimately up to the driver, but hopefully, the rest of this blog should help you make up your mind.
What are the Road Conditions like in Iceland in Winter?
Throughout winter in Iceland, it’s relatively easy to access a lot of the places around the coastline. Most of the main roads are paved, and the department of roads does a reasonable job of maintaining them. It is important to know that there are many roads in the Icelandic countryside that are made out of just gravel, or in some cases, dirt. These kinds of roads aren’t maintained and are usually completely closed during winter.
One of the most important things to remember is that the weather in Iceland is notoriously inconsistent. This means that the actual conditions of the roads can change from one day to the next. It’s entirely possible to drive in Iceland in winter and only experience clear, ice-free roads; it’s equally possible to be battling thick blankets of snow and also black ice, which can cause severe accidents.
If you are travelling in mainly urban areas and larger towns, the city does a pretty good job of clearing the streets after a big snowstorm, but it can take longer for this to happen in more rural areas. This means that it’s very common for some roads to be closed during winter.
Wind can also be a bit of a problem. In some storms, the wind in Iceland can gust up to 255km/h, which isn’t ideal for driving in.
The main idea when driving in Iceland during winter is to plan ahead, check weather forecasts and road conditions and take your time.
Which Months have Winter Road Conditions in Iceland?
In the Northern Hemisphere, winter typically starts in early December and lasts until March, but in Iceland, the winter season can begin in early October and continue all the way through to late April. In some parts of the country, winter can last up till May.
The country is mostly inhabited around the coastline, and the vast rural expanse in the centre of the island is known as the highlands. The Icelandic Highlands are a popular tourist destination for those who want to experience a more wild and untamed view of the country and is very popular with keen hikers. The Highland areas can also be covered with snow and ice quite late in the year, even up till July.
Each year, the Road and Coastal Administration of Iceland releases a map that shows the expected road conditions and potential closures. It’s normally available in the first weeks of summer and can be found here.
What kind of Car should I Rent for Driving in Iceland in Winter?
This is one of the most commonly asked questions that springs to mind when planning to visit a country with such a variety of road conditions. The answer to this question really depends on what you are planning to do. Take into account things like the particular places you want to see, how long you will have to get to each place and your overall driving experience. Hopefully, after considering these factors, the information below should help you do decide on the ideal vehicle.
Renting a 4WD Car
It’s not necessary to rent a massive beast of a monster truck when coming to Iceland in winter, but it’s a very good idea to at least rent a car with 4X4 capability. The extra control that comes from a 4-wheel-drive car will provide an extra layer of safety in winter road conditions.
It is possible to get around in Iceland in winter without a 4 wheel drive car (as long as you stay in the capital or towns/cities). If a 4 WD is out of your budget, at least make sure, the car you are renting has decent winter tyres and you do not drive over mountain passes or away from the mainroad.
Renting a Campervan in Winter
For many people, renting an RV or campervan can be a great way to save money when it comes to accommodation. It’s not quite roughing it, but it’s also not the Ritz Carlton, so it can be a great happy medium that allows travellers a bit more freedom.
There are a few things to note before setting off in a campervan. One of the most important things to remember when travelling around Iceland is that it’s illegal to just stop wherever you like and camp for the night. The only place you are allowed to camp is in a designated campsite. Police and rangers regularly patrol large parts of the country, and if you are caught breaking this rule, you will face the consequences.
It can be incredibly beneficial to book campsites in advance because some of them actually shut down during the winter months. One final tip in regards to campervans is to make sure any drain hoses need to be drained before travelling. Basically, any source of water has the potential to freeze while driving around Iceland.
What Kind of Rental Car Insurance Should I get in Iceland?
As far as the law goes in Iceland, every vehicle must have basic third-party liability insurance. In the majority of cases, this kind of insurance is usually covered by a standard Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) that comes with most rental agreements.
The most basic level of insurance usually covers accidents, but it might also cover things like vehicle theft (which is unusual in Iceland but not unheard of).
Keep in mind that generally, the deductible or premium on rental cars is considerably higher than with privately owned vehicles. In the case of an accident, even with insurance, the driver might face a premium of anywhere between 1200€ – 2700€. Always remember that basic insurance will rarely cover things like sand or gravel damage, windshield cracks or dents. Often some rental companies offer an insurance upgrade that will cover these things, and that can come along with a significant reduction in premium.
Always read the fine print, ask questions and use your own judgement when it comes to picking an insurance policy. Just be realistic about the fact that even on the paved highways, it’s possible to come across volcanic ash and rocks.
When it comes to licences, you are allowed to drive with a valid licence in Iceland from the age of 17 and up. Most rental companies won’t allow drivers younger than 20 but might even have an age limit of 25 and over. Your licence also needs to be in a Latin alphabet or be accompanied by an English translation.
Can I Drive the Ring Road in Winter?
Iceland’s Ring Road is the most famous and arguably most important highway in the country. Also called Route 1, this highway makes a loop around the island and has a total length of 1,332 kilometres (around 830 miles).
Because it is paved and maintained, the Ring Road makes driving to most parts of the country incredibly easy, but it’s much better to do this in the summer months. Although it is maintained, there are sections of the Ring Road that become closed during winter.
As mentioned earlier, any winter road trip in Iceland is much safer in a car with 4WD capabilities, but even in this kind of vehicle, there are some mountain passes and narrow stretches of road that should be avoided in a snow storm.
The best advice for this is to take your time and perhaps don’t count on being able to use the Ring Road for your entire trip when travelling in winter. Generally, the southern part of the Ring Road stays pretty accessible. Many parts of the Westfjords and Eastfjords regularly get cut off due to inclement weather.
Where Can I Stop For Fuel?
There are fuel stations all over Iceland, but it’s wise to make sure you top up your rental car whenever you are heading into a larger town. Most rental companies need you to return the vehicle with a full tank, so by doing this, you will basically save yourself time in the end. The most common fuel stations are N1, Olís and Orkan.
Not every gas station in Iceland is manned. There are many self-service fuel stations, and in order to use them, you will need a card that has a pin because they don’t normally accept contactless payments.
Typically, at a self-service pump, you ‘pre-pay’ by entering your card, and once it is approved, you will be able to pump fuel into your car. Iceland is used to travellers and tourists, so it’s rare that you will find a fuel station where instructions aren’t available in English.
Some towns like Vík on Iceland’s south coast have popular tourist hubs where you can fuel up, grab something to eat and even book tours. It’s not uncommon for larger gas stations to also have groceries as they are normally a useful resource for people who live in the area.
Can I Drive the Highland Roads in Winter?
You should never under any circumstances attempt to drive in the Icelandic Highlands during winter. The roads that run through this remote part of Iceland are difficult to navigate, even without snow and ice.
There are two main kinds of roads in Iceland, regular roads and mountain roads or ‘F’ roads. ‘F’ Roads are only open to heavy-duty vehicles (think super jeeps). Most rental companies will actually void your insurance if you enter an ‘F’ road, so it’s best to stay on the regular highways for your safety and the safety of your bank account.
What Are the Best Spots to Visit in Iceland in Winter?
Even though there are a number of roads and paths that can be closed in Iceland during winter, there are still a number of incredible places worth visiting that are easy to drive to.
If you were to focus on a particular region of the country to visit during winter, it should probably be Reykjavík and the south coast. The reason this part of the country is ideal for a winter road trip is that thanks to the Gulf Stream, the temperatures are generally warmer than the rest of the country.
This part of Iceland is also home to some of the most sought after attractions the country has to offer. This area of Iceland is home to The Golden Circle, The Blue Lagoon, Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, waterfalls like Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss and the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.
On a road trip, it’s also possible to visit some parts of Western Iceland in winter. Places like the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and Borgarnes are normally accessible throughout the season.
If you have your heart set on visiting the North, East or Westfjords of Iceland in winter, it’s much easier and safer to take a flight from Reykjavík.
What Alternatives Are There to Driving in Winter?
A self-drive trip is a great way to see Iceland, but if you’re not a confident driver, can’t drive or don’t have a lot of time to spare, there are a number of alternatives available.
Day Trips From Reykjavík
One very popular option for many visitors is to base yourself in the nation’s capital city, Reykjavík, and take day trips from there. There aren’t many places in Iceland that cannot be reached from Reykjavík. The city is not far from Keflavík International Airport, and Iceland’s largest domestic airport is located in the heart of the city. Lots of tour operators offer day trips to most of the popular locations and will pick guests up directly from their hotel.
One major benefit of basing yourself in Reykjavík is that you have the lively city at your disposal if bad weather happens to cancel your plans.
Private Tour or Guided Tour Options
Taking a guided tour can be a fantastic alternative to driving yourself. The main benefit of taking a guided tour is that the travel arrangements are usually taken care of, which gives you more time and energy to enjoy the magic and wonder that the land of fire and ice has to offer.
Depending on where you are staying in Iceland and the specific tour you are going on, most companies offer hotel pick up and drop off, so you don’t need to worry about any of the planning. The Icelandic government is also quite strict on who is allowed to call themselves a ‘Tour Guide’ so you can be sure that the person guiding you is going to be a knowledgeable person with your comfort and safety as their top priority.
There are plenty of guided day tours available all around Iceland, but there are also multi-day ones to have a look at if you would like a bit of extra adventure.
Public Transport Options
Iceland does a lot of things really well; unfortunately, public transport isn’t one of them. There is a public transport system in the country, it just doesn’t really have a reach that goes further than city centres.
The only form of public transport in Iceland is the bus service called Strætó. It’s a handy form of transport for getting from one part of town to another, but it’s not really great for sightseeing.
There are long-distance buses that take tourists around the country, but they only operate during the summer months.
What to Stay Aware of
At a glance, there are a few things to take into account whenever you are preparing for a self-drive road trip in Iceland.
How to Monitor Road and Weather Conditions
Checking the weather forecast and road conditions ahead of time are essential if you want to make sure your road trip is safe and hassle-free. It’s also incredibly easy to do both. The first place to check out is Iceland’s SafeTravel website. SafeTavel was designed with tourists in mind, so, at a glance, you can see any urgent weather warnings or road closures on their home page. It’s also available in five languages.
For a more in-depth look at weather forecasts, you can check out the website of the Icelandic Meteorological Office. This is the most reliable weather information source in the country, and it’s the one the locals use. It’s also available in English and also lists the likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights each day.
For a comprehensive look at the road system and any potential problems, the Icelandic Department of Roads has a website with live updates in English. The site also has travel information and live webcams.
What Are the Main Rules of Driving in Iceland?
In Iceland, they drive on the right-hand side of the road. The country uses the metric system, so all speed signs and distances are displayed in kilometres. The maximum speed limit in the entire country is 90 km/h. In suburban areas, the speed limit is 50km/h unless otherwise signed.
Be careful not to speed because there are many permanent speed cameras around the country, and if you manage to receive a speeding fine in a rental car, you may end up paying additional administration fees for it.
It is illegal to use a mobile phone while driving, so it’s always better to hand over navigation responsibilities to a passenger.
This might be a surprise, but all cars must have their headlights on at all times during operation in Iceland. This means that it doesn’t matter the time of day; headlights must be on. You might notice that for some cars, ‘headlights on’ is a default setting.
The blood alcohol limit in Iceland is 0.05, and the police will prosecute tourists if they are caught breaking the law.
As stated earlier, there isn’t really free camping in Iceland. Always stick to designated campsites and never pull over to the side of the highway for an extended period of time unless it is absolutely necessary and safe.
When Should I Not Drive in Iceland?
In a nutshell, you should never drive in Iceland if you feel unsafe or are in weather conditions you’re not used to. It might be exciting to be in a new, otherworldly environment, but it’s much safer to stay at your hotel than it is to venture out onto icy roads in extreme winds just to get your money’s worth out of your vacation.
Always check the official websites provided earlier for guidance and give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination.
If you decide to take the trip of a lifetime and do a self-drive tour of Iceland, it’s worth mentioning that the Panorama Glass Lodge can be an incredible place to base yourself.
Panorama Glass Lodges are available on Iceland’s idyllic south coast, overlooking pristine Icelandic nature at the foot of a volcano. These immaculate cabins combine comfort and luxury while bringing the magnificent outdoors inside.
Staying at the Panorama Glass Lodge in winter also gives you the perfect vantage point for gazing out at the skies in search of the Northern Lights. Imagine after a day of winter exploring, coming back to a warm bed where you can just watch the Aurora Borealis dance above your head as you drift off to an incredible slumber.
If you have your travel dates, check out the Panorama Glass Lodge’s options today, so you don’t miss out on this popular accommodation option.