28 July 2020

Your Guide to Traveling Around Iceland with a Rental Car

Aleksandrs Buraks
Head of Growth at DiscoverCars.com

Why should you rent a car in Iceland?

The land of hot springs, the midnight sun, sagas, and hákarl, Iceland has always captured the imagination of foreign travelers. The fact that this large, sparsely populated island is remotely located in the North Atlantic ocean nearly halfway between Europe and North America has only added to its appeal. While it remains as mysterious as ever, getting to Iceland has actually become a lot easier — plenty of airlines, including low-cost companies, fly there from both continents. Whether you're coming for the artsy coziness of Reykjavik, northern lights in winter, or spectacular drives through the remote wilderness in summer, everything that Iceland offers is now available to any curious traveler, especially with the freedom that comes from having your own ride.

Your Guide to Traveling Around Iceland with a Rental Car

By Aleksandrs Buraks | Published July 28, 2020

Why should you rent a car in Iceland?

The land of hot springs, the midnight sun, sagas, and hákarl, Iceland has always captured the imagination of foreign travelers. The fact that this large, sparsely populated island is remotely located in the North Atlantic ocean nearly halfway between Europe and North America has only added to its appeal. While it remains as mysterious as ever, getting to Iceland has actually become a lot easier — plenty of airlines, including low-cost companies, fly there from both continents. Whether you're coming for the artsy coziness of Reykjavik, northern lights in winter, or spectacular drives through the remote wilderness in summer, everything that Iceland offers is now available to any curious traveler, especially with the freedom that comes from having your own ride.

When should you go to Iceland?

For most travelers, Iceland is best visited during the warmer part of the year — roughly between April and September. Although it never gets really hot in the country, summer months like July and August are especially pleasant, both for exploring Reykjavik and seeing the magnificent Icelandic nature up close. On top of that, the season for whale watching lasts roughly from April to September. Do keep in mind, though, that Icelandic summers also mean that nights are very bright and the sun doesn't really set at all around the solstice — most travelers love this experience, but it can be a bit dizzying at first.

Icelandic winters are cold, but not as arctic as some people would imagine them to be — the average low temperature in Reykjavik is -3 °C (26 °F) in January, the coldest month, which is comparable to, and even warmer than, some capitals in continental Northern Europe. If you don't mind the cold and are more interested in local culture and atmosphere, Reykjavik is perfectly nice to visit during the colder months of the year. January and February are also great months for seeing the northern lights (another good period for this is September and October).

Now that you've decided when to travel to Iceland, check out our prices for the dates you have chosen!

Where should you pick up a car in Iceland?

Most visitors to Iceland prefer to pick up a rental car at Keflavik Airport right after arriving in the country. Located about 50km (31 miles) southwest of the capital, Reykjavik, Keflavik Airport handled 7.2 million passengers in 2019 making it by far the largest airport in the country (and the fifth-busiest in the Nordic region). The airport hosts many flights to destinations in both Europe and North America. A number of low-cost airlines like easyJet, Wizz Air, and Transavia fly to Reykjavik. It takes about three hours to fly from Reykjavik to Copenhagen or London and about six hours to fly to Toronto or New York City.

It is also possible to pick up and drop off a rental car at the much smaller Reykjavik Airport, Akureyri Airport in the north-central part of the country, Egilsstadir Airport in the northeast of the country, and Isafjordur Airport in the far northwest. Other locations for picking up or dropping off a vehicle in the country include Reykjavik Harbour and Reykjavik bus station.

One-way rentals are also permitted by many car rental providers, usually for an additional fee. Many travelers choose to pick up a rental car at the Keflavik Airport and later drop it off in downtown Reykjavik.

How easy is it to travel around Iceland independently?

In many ways, Iceland is a very easy country to explore on your own — its main roads are in great shape, the country is technologically advanced, and most things and experiences can be booked online.

It's important to keep in mind that despite its small population, Iceland is not a very small country — its territory is larger than that of Portugal and Austria. It also has one of the lowest population densities in the world, and that density drops considerably once you leave the Reykjavik Area. If you only wish to stick to Reykjavik and southwestern Iceland, this is not something that you should worry about — this part of the country, where most of its tourist attractions are located, is easy to explore on your own as everything is relatively close and destinations are well-connected to each other. Exploring the rest of Iceland is also perfectly doable and can be a wonderful experience — but if you're a more adventurous traveler, there are a number of things to keep in mind!

The size of the country means that driving can take a lot of time. It takes about five hours to get from Reykjavik to the Westfjords peninsula, five hours to Akureyri, six hours to Husavik, and eight hours to Egilsstadir. The low population density means that there are not that many gas stations outside the capital area and very few that are not on the national main road. It's important to find their locations in advance in relation to the route you plan to take in order not to get stranded. Also, keep in mind that there are some gas stations with no employees in Iceland — you pay with a credit card and fill up the car yourself!

Route 1 (the Ring Road) is the main road in Iceland and makes a circle around most of the island. While it is fully paved, many rural and mountain roads are not. Many of these turn to mud during the warmer months of the year and can get potentially dangerous. Having a 4x4 car is generally a very good idea for traveling in Iceland's interior. Even if you have a 4x4, plan out your route in advance — many areas, especially near glaciers, can be dangerous to drive in.

Because of the low population in many parts of the country, getting lost on secondary roads is also a very real possibility. Make sure to get an up-to-date GPS for your rental car!

Although Iceland is not as cold as some people expect — temperatures in the coastal areas especially are moderated by the Gulf Stream — Icelandic winters are nonetheless something to take seriously. Many secondary roads, and even parts of Route 1, may be closed due to cold or bad weather in wintertime. Make sure you take the necessary precautions and plan your trip carefully not to get stranded.

How safe is it to travel around Iceland in a rental car?

In most ways, Iceland is a very safe travel destination. Violent crime is practically unheard of and even petty crime is rare. The police are trusted by the locals. With a population of just over 300,000, the country has a very communal feeling — people are used to looking out for each other. The nationwide emergency number is 112, just in case.

The biggest danger in the country is undoubtedly also its main draw — the magnificent Icelandic nature. While your odds of being caught in a volcanic eruption are extremely low (despite the number of active volcanoes the country has), crossing a glacier without a guide, getting lost in a vast nature area, swimming in the open sea or injuring yourself while hiking in the mountains are much more serious potential perils. To minimize the risks as much as possible, research your travel destinations in advance, inform someone else about your travel or hiking plans, keep to designated tracks, and always keep some means of communication with you ( keep in mind that mobile coverage can be weak in parts of the island).

Iceland is also home to an impressive amount of sheep, and sometimes they may wander on the roads — so watch out for them in rural areas!

What languages are spoken in Iceland?

The official and main language of Iceland is, of course, Icelandic. While quite similar to Swedish and Danish, it's not exactly mutually intelligible with them. Even if you know one of these languages, you shouldn't expect more than an approximate idea of what is said or written in Icelandic.

That being said about Danish, many people in Iceland do learn this language in school (Iceland became fully independent from Denmark in 1944). While not everyone speaks Danish in Iceland, this language can be very useful in Iceland. Since Danish is (mostly) mutually intelligible with Swedish and Norwegian, this also goes for these two languages.

The really good news is that most Icelanders speak very good English, on par with places like Sweden and the Netherlands. In and around Reykjavik, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't, and even in rural regions far from the capital, you probably won't have an issue getting your point across.

Aleksandrs Buraks

Head of Growth at DiscoverCars.com
Aleksandrs has over 10 years of experience in marketing with a focus on creating stellar content that provides topical insights using data. Having taken five road trips across Europe and one in the U.S., he is passionate about traveling by car. His favorite countries to visit are Denmark and Thailand. You can find him on Linkedin, Facebook, and Twitter.

Related Posts