The F.A.Q. About Driving Iceland’s Ring Road

Posted By Jeremy in Europe | 4 comments


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One thing we always see a lot of after visiting an up-and-coming destination is a lot of questions from our friends, family, and readers. Ignoring the negative, “why on Earth would you want to go there?” type questions, more often than not we end up having a lot of great conversations about why a specific destination will be a must see destination in the very near future (if it isn’t already).

This was definitely true of our recent Iceland road trip, and after having many questions come up time and time again, this F.A.Q. guide to Iceland was born!

How Much Does it Cost to Drive the Ring Road?

The gorgeous fjord town of Siglufjordur, Iceland

This is perhaps the most important question about any featured in this F.A.Q. as driving Iceland’s ring road can get real expensive, real fast.

The two biggest things to consider are the cost of the rental car and the price of gasoline. Generally speaking, base level cars in low / shoulder season may be under $50/day while rentals in high season may double to upwards of $100/day thanks to the sheer number of requests and limited cars that are available in the country.

Gas is also quite expensive at around 200 krona per liter (or $6.15/gallon) as of May 2016 and historically has been higher at times too. Throw in the fact that the Iceland ring road takes a minimum of 5 days to drive around, and is about 900 miles without detours, and you’re looking at around $500 in rental costs alone in the lower seasons, and that is just to start.

Add in a few extra days, more detours, and maybe even visiting in high season and your costs are more than likely going to be around $1,000-$1,500 at a base estimate before any rooms, traditional Iceland food, or activities are concerned (we managed to get by on a 10-day rental for just under $1,000 in shoulder season- car costs only).

Do I Need a GPS or Any Special Car Insurance?

Once we arrived to Iceland and tried to pick up our car, we learned a lesson in patience as we were asked about every possible add-on or insurance that was available to buy.

No, we do not want a GPS.  No, we do not want road side assistance. No, we do not want a personal mifi device to connect up to 10 devices.  No, we do not want sand storm insurance.

Wait, really?

Yes, Iceland is full of some incredible weather that your car rental company will likely try and get you to buy insurance for. Unfortunately, they might be a good idea. It is really hard to say.

We say no to everything by default, mostly because we buy 3rd party travel insurance with premium car protection added into it, but if you don’t have one you may want to consider it.

After returning our car we found that virtually everyone at the drop-off place got hit for damages (except us, woo!). This had us scared because we forgot to take photos of our car after picking it up due to it raining outside (don’t skip this step!). We drive pretty carefully and took the risk, but others may find comfort in the insurance options. While I’d argue against this anywhere else, here I can see the concern.

As for the GPS, I really do not think you need one as the rental prices are obscene. The maps in our Lonely Planet featured, and I’m not kidding about this, literally every road in the country across about eight to ten pages. I’d recommend spending a day’s worth of the GPS rental to pickup the guidebook instead, and save all that extra money for the expensive meals you are invariably going to have to buy.

I've always wanted to visit this church in Iceland

Any Special Tips for Getting Gas?

Odds are good you know a bit about the nuances of buying gas in Iceland. But for those who don’t, I’ll give a more detailed recap.

In many cases getting gas in Iceland means pulling up to a lone pump at a small shop in the middle of nowhere. It may or may not be manned, and in many cases (as we found out), the pump may not be activated at all which could pose an issue if you’re running low.

When you do find a working pump, it will likely be prepay with card only, and also will only accept cards that have a pin. So if you are coming from North America and do not have a pin for your credit card, which many do not, you’ll be relying on your debit card for the entire trip around Iceland (so have plenty of money available)!

To buy gas you typically have to go to a computer screen near your car (sometimes one central one for all pumps, sometimes one per pump).  You put your debit card in, and your pin, and select how much gas you want to pump based on how much krona you want to pay. It took us a few tries, but you’ll learn real quick how much a partial tank of gas is worth in order to make it work.

This is where we learned a few important tips worth keeping in mind:

  1. Do not select the option to fill your tank completely. Where other countries around the world may only authorize a $1 charge onto your account, Icelandic gas stations authorize the max amount the pump dispenses when you select the full option. In our case at one station this was around $250 on a $40 fill-up. Our funds were never officially “removed” from our account, and the pending charge was cleared several days later, but I can imagine if you do this every single day the hold rate would go up incredibly fast (meaning you have to have a decent balance to make a purchase). Do your best at estimating what volume you need and order the krona amount accordingly as they only authorize the exact amount.
  2. If you do not have a debit card readily available, you can buy prepaid cards on credit.  But this only works if the store is manned and open, which in remote Iceland means they are few and far between.
  3. In the bigger cities, try to find an Olis gas station (green) to use credit cards.  This is the only gas station brand in all of Iceland we found that does not operate pre-pay, and lets you fill up your car at the pump and then go inside to pay by credit card afterwards. A win for people like us who do not use debit and get better international rates on credit!
  4. Finally, always try and fill up when you have a half tank of gas.  It may be a while before you see the next pump, although they are much more frequent than we anticipated.

What Are The Roads Like?

Driving Iceland's Ring Road is a Whole Lot of This

The Ring Road itself is pretty much paved the whole way; however, there are minor stretches here or there that are gravel. There is signage, of course, but it does come up fast and sometimes you will miss it only to find the gravel road right at you.

The problem here is not so much the Ring Road itself, but instead focuses around the detours you may take to check out some other attractions (which in our opinion, are worth every bit of effort).

We are not talking about the infamous F-roads, which are illegal to enter unless you have a four wheel drive monster vehicle. No, these are just regular roads found all throughout Iceland that are 1) not paved and 2) often contain pretty nasty potholes.  If you want to visit some of the more obscure and gorgeous destinations in the country, as you should, you need to be prepared for a bumpy ride at times.

I do not want to say that those who are afraid of breaking down or getting a flat tire should avoid Iceland altogether, but in our opinion the odds that this may happen are quite good and are a valid concern for those who are risk averse (although we don’t know the statistics and we had no issues, we did meet a few people who had issues during their travels around the country and they did not sound fun).

Can I Drive the Ring Road Alone?

Europe's Most Powerful Waterfall - Dettifoss

I’m sure there are people who will disagree with me, but I’m going to give this one an emphatic no.

The reason for this is because the vast majority of Iceland is barren. It is just you, in a car, driving for hundreds of miles alone in nature- possibly only seeing one or two cars in any given hour.

This isolation makes things a bit tricky if issues were to arise, especially if you’re alone, but we also have a more practical reason for saying this: driving in Iceland gets very boring, very fast.

It may sound counter-intuitive to think that driving in one of the most beautiful countries in the world is a boring task, but we can say from experience that pulling 3-6 hour driving shifts day after day in scenery that doesn’t change too drastically can make it a bit hard to stay focused.

Yes, it is gorgeous. Yes, the scenery does change daily.  But unless you are used to driving long distances over such a short period of time, it can be a struggle to do on your own to drive 3 hours across a mountain plateau, in an open field, or down a fjord (and yes, I probably would’ve called this one out as a stupid tip myself until we experienced it first hand).

I Can’t Drive the Entire Ring Road, What Day Trips from Reykjavik Should I Do?

Iceland's Waterfalls are the best

Now this is a fun question, because once you get outside of Reykjavik you cannot go very far without committing to going the whole way around.

For those who must return to Reykjavik, and are renting a car, your best bet after the Golden Circle is checking out the waterfalls that are visible along the Ring Road on the way to Vik (this was a favorite of ours and is a must see if you can only choose one). You could do both of these in the same day and return to Reykjavik, but it would be a lot of driving and would be best split into two days.

For those who can do one overnight in a city outside of Reykjavik, we’d also recommend checking out Snaeflessness Peninsula to the north of the city. This one takes a bit longer and would allow you to spend a night in Stykkisholmur or Borgarnes (we recommend Stykkisholmur) before making your way back to Reykjavik the following morning.

I Do Not See a Street Address for My Hotel, What Do I Do?

We were confused by this at first, too.

If you are staying outside of a major city, odds are good you may be booking a room at a guest house that is found along the side of the Ring Road. Where most destinations around the world would have a house number and street name, Iceland does things a bit differently outside of the few “major” cities.

Here, every homestead along the Ring Road simply goes by their property name.

It’ll only take a few minutes after getting on the Ring Road to understand, but rest assured it is easy as literally every single home has an arrow pointing to it at its respective driveway or turnoff. Simply look for the name that is listed as the address, turn where the arrow is pointing, and there you are. But if you are still concerned, just try to have a good idea on where the hotel is relative to nearby landmarks (such as say, 10 kilometers before the next town) before heading out for the day.

Is There Anywhere Cheap to Eat in Iceland?

Not really.

The problem with eating in Iceland is not that it is expensive, a meal out at a restaurant costs roughly the same as it does in the USA at a decent establishment (remember, tax and tip are included so everything is 30% higher by default). The problem is that Iceland does not have very many low-price restaurants for those going on a budget.

If you are being especially thrifty such that $15-$25 per plate is too high, your best bets are either shopping at the grocery store and cooking yourself, buying ready made sandwiches from cafes (around $6-$8 each), or grabbing a hot dog from a gas station or occasional food cart (about $3-4 each).  We also brought a large box of Clif Bars into the country to help out during long rides which we found to be a great purchase that was much cheaper at home than in the country.

None of these are really great options outside of a random meal here or there, but in Iceland this is the best you’re going to get.

What Cities Did You Stop In, and Where Did You Stay?

Turf Houses in Iceland at Borgafjordur Eystri

We are planning a larger post about our itinerary at large, but we spent 10-days in Iceland and drove around the Ring Road in a counter-clockwise route.  We had the following schedule that we quite enjoyed:

Overall, this was a great route for us that got a good cross-section of the country.  However, if you do not have enough time to make as many detours as we did, we recommend making the drive to Borgafjordur Eystri if you can only pick one. Click the previous link for a full explanation why!

What Wildlife Did You See in Iceland?

Atlantic Puffins in Iceland

During our travels around Iceland in May we saw a dozen seals, an Arctic fox, hundreds of puffins, five humpback whales, countless sheep and lambs, as well as many Icelandic horses and more birds than we care to think about. All of these were found while driving (or near a village we stopped at for the night) with the exception of the humpback whales which we saw in an excursion from Husavik.

One of the perks of driving around the country in May was that it was lambing season, so we got to see many young lambs running around the various farms in the country. They are incredibly adorable and were one of the highlights of our trip.

For those who have their hearts set on seeing puffins, we highly recommend driving to Borgafjordur Eystri as was mentioned in the previous question as one of Iceland’s largest colonies can be found there during the summer months, and visiting them is free!  Elsewhere in the country you may have to take a ferry or pay for an expensive day tour in order to possibly see them, but in Borgafjordur Eystri all you have to do is drive a mile or two out of town and you will be at a path-lined colony with literally thousands.

How can you say no to that?

Icelandic Horses are Total 80s Rockers

Do you have a question about Iceland or need advice for your upcoming visit? Comment below and we’ll update this page with more great questions!

For those who are visiting Iceland on an upcoming trip, if you found this post helpful we would like to ask you to book your hotel stays using our affiliate link at Booking.com. By using our link we’ll receive a small commission that will help us continue running this site!

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Jeremy

Jeremy founded Living the Dream in 2008 to chronicle his long-term trip around Asia. Since then he has been on two long-term trips, visited 68 countries, and is just getting started. He is now on a Lifestyle Design quest to build businesses to pursue a life of travel.

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4 Comments

  1. Thank you very much for this article. I think this is the best one I ve ever read,even if I am looking for tips and tricks about Iceland all the time.

    So, you dont recommend driving a car if we dont know what to do with a flat tire?:(

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks for the kind words on this one, I appreciate it!

      Honestly, we didn’t get a flat tire, but we saw many who did. You should read up on exactly what to do because it is very remote at times and cell service is spotty at best. If you aren’t comfortable with the possibility, I’d at least get a local SIM card or buy the wifi option from the car rental agency to try and get access to emergency assistance easier.

      I’m not saying you’ll get a flat, but its pretty desolate in places and if you did it could be bad.

      Post a Reply
      • Thank you for answer. If I decide to rent a car and go on Ring Road, your articles are gonna help me a lot!

        I wish you all the best in your following journey.

        Post a Reply
  2. Thanks for the detailed post. We’re headed to Northern Europe next summer and will spend about 8 days on the ring road. Lots of helpful tips!

    Post a Reply

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