Seven practical things to keep in mind when driving around Iceland

For the last 10 days my sister Helga and I drove around 2000 kilometers all over Iceland. That doesn’t include the kilometers we spent as passengers with the very welcoming locals that took the time to show us around their area.  So many words could describe what we went through and how we feel about it but yet words are not enough somehow. It seems like the walk to Seljavallalaug and the hike to Hjörleifshöfði on our first day happened years ago and coming back to busy bustling Reykjavík after being alone on the road for so long was very strange. Except it wasn’t that long, it was only 10 days.



As I mentioned in some of my posts from the road, throughout the summer I’ll be sharing with you more detailed information about the places we slept at, where we ate and what we saw and experienced. It might take a while since I will have to start work soon and then I’m going to Israel in less than three weeks (which I will tell you more about later this week). However, since I know a lot of you who were following us will be going on a similar trip soon I thought that today I’d give to some practical advice about traveling around Iceland that we picked up on our way.

Fuel prices

We were driving a Skoda Oktavia Combi (group N) and we filled up the tank 2 and 1/4 times. I haven’t done exact calculations but I think we spent somewhere around 22.000 to 24.000 ISK on fuel. On GSMBensín.is you can find up to date petrol prices by areas listed by the type of fuel and the station that sells it. Orkan, ÓB and Atlantsolía are generally cheaper than the rest but the difference is not great. You will also notice that there’s no difference in price when it comes to gasoline versus diesel.

Road conditions

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I’ve always been told that the ring road is paved the whole way and that’s what I’ve been telling people also. This is not exactly right because once you reach Berufjörður in the east a portion of the road is a gravel road. Normally when people are driving to Egilsstaðir they drive a road called Öxi which I don’t think is paved (please correct me if I’m wrong) but the road through the fjords (Stöðvarfjörður, Fáskrúðsfjörður, Reyðarfjörður) is paved the whole way. There are also some gravel roads between Bakkafjörður and Þórshöfn in the north east, although they’re pretty good,  and the road from Siglufjörður to Hofsós is gravel in parts and not very good. Finally, the road over Þverárfjall, from Sauðárkrókur to Skagaströnd, is very bumpy and no fun to drive but if you go slowly and according to instructions you should be fine. For more information about road conditions in Iceland visit The Icelandic Road Administration online. If you are on the move and you are not sure about the road ahead of you, you can always call their service number 1777 for information.

The weather

As you know if you were following our journey we pretty much experienced a little bit of everything weather wise. We sat outside in T-shirts and shorts in Siglufjörður, didn’t see a thing due to snow and wind on our way from Egilsstaðir to Vopnafjörður and almost rained down in Stöðvarfjörður. We never felt we were in any danger, not even in the middle of the snow mess, but of course we had checked both the weather forecast and  the road conditions so we knew exactly what to expect. The people who stopped and were too afraid to carry on hadn’t. We also knew we had good tires and had faith in our car.  So if you don’t feel comfortable figuring out whether something is safe yourself, just ask at the reception at your hotel or hostel and they will check it for you. The Met office and the Icelandic Road administration give out regular updates about all areas in Iceland and if they say something is impassible it really is impassible.

What to pack

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My first advice to travelers trying to figure out what to pack (and one I never seem to be able to follow myself) is that less is more. You always end up wearing the same stuff anyway and if it needs cleaning you can arrange to stay in a hostel or somewhere with laundry service to wash your clothes. Helga and I brought our whole world with us and it ended up being in the way most of the time. What you will need is good waterproof hiking shoes, street shoes for when you are in the towns and villages, a waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, some base layers and then some warm layers that you can mix and match. I mostly lived in a pair of leggings, a skirt, my woolen socks, my Cintamani Merino wool underwear,  some t-shirts, my lopapeysa and either my parka or my rain coat. I had the luxury of bringing both but if I hadn’t I probably would have brought my Cintamani Björg jacket that with the right layers can both keep me warm and shield me from the rain. On top of that I of course had a hat and mittens with me too. Although we may have moaned a bit about the rain in the east it was never THAT cold or miserable.

Opening hours

I was somewhat surprised, because I’m so used to everything being open all the time in Reykjavík, to see the limited opening hours in some of the places we visited. This wasn’t a problem per se but something I wished I thought about before we started our trip. So make sure you go to the supermarket if you need to on a Saturday because it might be closed on Sunday and pack basic stuff to battle a flu or headache because you will not find a pharmacy in every town and they too have limited opening hours. Even restaurants in some places were closed by 6 or only served food between certain hours. It’s important to keep in mind though we were traveling just before the season starts so this may be better in summer.

Mobile coverage

Mobile internet

As I mentioned before, Síminn gave us 3G mobile internet to use on the trip and I was interested in seeing whether their claims that you can be online pretty much everywhere in Iceland with them was accurate. Helga and I both have mobile services from a rival company so it was interesting to see the difference. As it turns out Síminn kept us online more or less everywhere except in the Langanes peninsula and in spots around the south (mostly beneath the glaciers). To be fair our phone company didn’t have 3G in those areas either. The only place where we were without a phone (where we couldn’t even call anyone) was at the edge of the Langanes peninsula.

Traveling in the off-season

The one thing I would change if I was doing this trip again it would be not to plan so much as we constantly felt we were late for something and loosing out on something else. Of course because we wanted to meet people and check out certain places we had to have a plan but for the normal traveler I would recommend having a rough plan and modify it according to weather and what your heart tells you along the way. Once we got past Höfn most of the places we stayed at had vacancies so finding accommodation on the fly didn’t seem to be a problem. Please note though that traveling in the high season is a whole different ballgame.

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23 thoughts on “Seven practical things to keep in mind when driving around Iceland”

  1. Kelly says:

    Thank you so so so much for your website and this article. I can’t wait to travel to Iceland! If you ever need tips on Maine, let me know.

    Kelly

  2. I think it’s great that you did this trip and can only help you as a writer to understand more when people ask you these questions. Although it is great fun to do a road trip you also get fed up with living out of your bag, sometimes not being able to figure something out or even not being able to find somewhere to eat as happened to me once. You forget about these things afterwards but I think 10 days would be my limit on the road!

    1. David Leung says:

      After considerable planning and costing exercises, I decided that staying in hostels and guesthouses is better than camping in a camper. Staying in a camper for 10 days takes up too much of my time. Rather, I decided to rent a basic mini economical car from Alamo at KEF for $262 for 10 days, and sleeping and eating my own food in hostels and sometimes in guesthouses. I will have more time to visit with other people and to see the spectacular landmarks. Having a good night sleep and getting cleaned are the basic necessities for a good trip.

      1. mm Auður says:

        I think that’s probably wise.

  3. Laura McWilliams says:

    Thanks so much for all the wonderful insights. I am super psyched for our trip this summer- our itinerary will be slightly different but we are also planning to do the ring road in about 10 days. Of course, we will also visit Reykjavik so we will have a bit less time on the rest of the voyage. I am hoping we can cover a lot of ground between sites each day since the days will be long in July. We are camping probably most days and my understanding is that reservations are not needed for camping- do you know if this is correct? I would like to stay one night in a farm hostel but I may already have missed the ball on that… Was making good progress with the planning then got really bogged down with a lot of other things… I look forward to reading more details as you continue to update.

    Thanks again!

    Laura

  4. james says:

    just a couple of comments:
    öxi is not a part of the ring road and is a pretty rough road that is closed for most of the winter. it´s gravel right through and quite narrow and steep as well. actually, in the east i encourage people to stick to roads 92 and 96 as they are both fully sealed whereas there are still long sections of the ring road that are unsealed in that area although they are finally working on it. even then, there is still one small gravel section the is unavoidable which they don´t seem to be doing anything about any time soon.

    as for weather conditions, especially snow, i´ve had a rather big problem with getting phonecalls from freaked out people who have been told by some local “you´re a foreigner driving an old volvo/vw etc… and it´s snowy, you´ll never make it and it´s too dangerous.” while i used to take their advice seriously now i check with the authorities if there is any merit to what they said and frequently there isn´t an i advise the people to travel slowly and carefully and well within their capabilities and almost every time the people have come back and said the roads were no problem. i´ve had at least a couple of people turn around though between egilsstaðir and mývatn as they said the conditions were quite bad and it´s easier just to wait a day when the roads are cleared. my point: check with the authorities – they give solid, impartial advice.

    lastly, according to your map you drove over the hellisheiði in the north east which i can see is currently closed as i´m writing this and i haven´t seen it open yet. were you able to get through there this early on? when i did it the last time in august there was snow at the top and the road is disconcertingly steep on both sides…

    really lastly, i do strongly agree with the rough planning method as most people haven´t traveled here before and either give themselves to much and/or too little time between places. it´s nice to be able to slow down if there´s more than anticipated or speed up if things take less time than initially thought but then there is the counter of finding accommodation in the high season which may unfortunately stick people to fairly rigid schedules whether they like it or not.

  5. mm Auður says:

    James, I didn’t pick up on that it used Hellisheiði Eystri (I was just trying to give people an idea where we had driven and did this quickly) but you are right – it’s completely impassable at the moment (and not for the faint-hearted even in the best conditions). I’ve driven it and it was beautiful but I was pretty scared the whole time.

    I don’t know if I agree with you on the whole “don’t ask a local” thing. In Egilsstaðir the people in the reception at our hotel went to great lengths to check the conditions for us (without us asking) and told us to be careful and so forth. As it turned out we had to stop because the weather was that bad (not bad per se, just no visibility) and the next day (or later the same day) the road closed for a few hours.

    Laura, reservations are not needed (or possible) at most campsites so just show up and pick your spot. Bare in mind though that some campsites are more popular than others but normally you don’t have to go far to find the next one.

  6. Karl says:

    Great article, I’m planning to go in early July, everything booked and if no one’s steal my bike and it wont let me down until then, I’m there!

  7. alberto says:

    Great! I love this blog.

    Any good advices about autostop in Iceland?

    1. mm Auður says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by autostop… 🙂

      1. Alberto says:

        Ahahaha, i am sorry, i mean hitchhike!

  8. chloe says:

    LOVING your blog! coming from NC in September and can. not. wait!

    you mentioned that 22.000 ISK was spent on fuel. When converting this i am getting an outrageous amount of money in USD. Could you tell me what you come up with in USD?

    1. mm Auður says:

      In todays rate 22.000 ISK is about 190 USD

  9. Sanjiv says:

    While you did the trip in 2013, we are in Iceland on the same dates in 2014 and for the same amount of time. Is it possible to visit any of the glaciers from 10 – 20 may typically or is it still closed ? What about stuff like whale watching, visiting isafordjur etc ? Can this be squeezed in as well ?

    1. mm Auður says:

      Sorry, I somehow missed this comment.

      You can visit the glaciers all year but for example if you want to see the glacier caves those are only accessible in winter. Whale watching also is available all year in Reykjavík and they’ve already started the season in the north. We went Whale Watching in Dalvík which was great (apart from the fact we didn’t actually see any whales that day but that can happen everywhere).
      I wouldn’t recommend squeezing Ísafjörður into a 10 day road trip around the island. However, I definitely recommend Ísafjörður and the Westfjords and maybe you might consider skipping something else and going there instead.

      1. sanjiv sawla says:

        We land on 8th afternoon and would like to spend the evening as well as 9th in Reykjavik. We fly out on 17th early morning so we now have 7 days to drive around. Can you please help plan with best places to visit in this period. we surely want to go scuba diving in silfra so that would be a day.

        Also understand that “tomtom” does not work here so wanted to know if the roads are really complicated to need a gps or can one manage with road signs etc ?

        1. mm Auður says:

          Hi Sanjiv,

          It seems to me like you might benefit from working with a travel agency to plan your trip. You might want to try HI Iceland’s booking office or Nordic Visitor for example.

  10. Shane says:

    Hi James and Auour!

    Thanks for the wonderful and useful tips in getting around Iceland.

    Would to seek your advice in driving in the east as we are a group of inexperienced drivers.

    I’ve read that there are unpaved sections between Breiddalsvik and Eglisstadir on a steep mountain with a couple of switchbacks. so to avoid that we will have to take route 92&96 which are not part of the ring road?

    Thanks for your help in advance!! =)

    1. mm Auður says:

      I’m not really an expert in that area but you can either go over Öxl which apparently is not a nice road and only open in summer (I’ve driven it and didn’t think it was THAT bad) or you can go from Djúpivogur to Stöðvarfjörður which again is not paved completely not a terrible road.

  11. Katja says:

    We’ll be visiting Iceland next summer (2015) with the kids (6 and 8 y.o.) Any do’s and don’t’s we need to know if we decide to drive around the island?

    Thank you!

  12. Eric says:

    Hi Auður,
    I’m planning to visit Iceland late Feb, early March. The car rental company only offer diesel fuel as oppose to gasoline on many models.
    I’m wondering if you can share some insight as to the availability of diesel fuel? Especially in the South and South-East region?

    Thanks in advance!

    1. David Leung says:

      I completed the Ring Road in early November. I found Diesel fuel available everywhere. I was pleasantly surprised how economical my Toyota Yaris Live (diesel) was, and the amount of low end torque it has over similar gasoline cars, which made going over the mountain passes a breeze. I would not hesitate renting a diesel car for the trip.

      1. Eric says:

        Hello David,
        Thank you so much for the info’s. That give me peace of mind knowing diesel is widely available. Especially at the southeast region where the stations is so far apart.
        Actually the fuel economy and the power it provides is the reason I’m considering diesel. After reading many blog on thw web, I’m a bit concern regarding winter road conditions in Iceland. And wanted a car with better performance and handling.

        Thanks again,

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