Like so often when I write one of these Quick Q&A posts, today’s topic is inspired by a question that pops up in my e-mail inbox quite regularly. The e-mail usually starts with the person telling me how many days they have to spend to Iceland and ends with the question: Should I do tours from Reykjavík or rent a car and drive it myself?
Before we go any further, please know this: Everyone (and their uncle) has a different opinion on this. Many will tell you that the only way to travel in Iceland is renting a car, a view I shared before I started writing this blog and before I understood fully why this is not the best option for everyone, while for others it’s never even an option. There’s no right or wrong answer here (even though your well-meaning Icelandophile friends or relatives will make you feel like you’re failing at life if you choose one option over the other) because you are the only one who knows what’s best for you!
Question: Should I do day tours from Reykjavík or rent a car and drive it myself?
Because Iceland is quite expensive for most, the cost of things often becomes the deciding factor when people plan their Iceland adventure. Renting a car is usually the most cost-effective way to see and travel around the island, especially if you can pair your rental car with affordable accommodation, but you’ll have to think ahead to find the best deals. For solo travelers or those who plan to travel to places where specialized vehicles are needed, however, day tours are often the better option.
There are two things you need to consider, though, when renting a car: 1) The cost of fuel is quite high so you need to remember to factor that into your budget and 2) the probability of getting into some sort of mishap with your rental vehicle is probably higher in Iceland than in many other countries so if you are not properly insured the costs incurred can easily far exceed what you’d pay for any tour.
I’m not mentioning this to dissuade you from considering a rental car but this risk is something you need to be aware of when budgeting for your trip.
There are a lot of affordable options available when it comes to day tours that also offer good value and we always try to help our guests find the best fit for them. Combo tours often offer excellent value and help you make the most of your time and money. Tours like the Golden Circle and the Secret Lagoon (or snowmobiling for example) pop to mind and the Black and Blue tour that combines snorkeling and caving.
One of the main reason I see for renting a vehicle rather than doing tours, whether you rent a car and stay in hotels/hostels or a camper, is the flexibility it gives you. You are in control of your time and your schedule and you can make all the unscheduled photo stops your heart desires – when it desires them.
A car also allows you to change your plan around if the weather is giving you a hard time. Sometimes there’s a storm in one area and 20°C in another (OK – it’s not very likely but a girl can dream) with the next day the polar opposite and then it’s good to be able to play things by ear. Of course, if your tour gets’s canceled you can usually reschedule but the weather forecast changes so rapidly that you often don’t know about the cancellation until the last minute. With a car, you avoid spending precious vacation time on the phone trying to change things around when you could be out drinking a beer! No drinking and driving though!
During the months where we have more daylight (May to September), a car also allows you to fill your days to the brim with activities. You could do a snorkeling tour in Silfra in the morning, drive the Golden Circle and then do a snowmobile tour in the afternoon. Or an evening horse riding tour!
Having said that, sometimes we’re too fixated on quantity when we should be thinking about quality so it all depends on what you’re looking to get out of your trip to Iceland whether stuffing your days with activities is the right move.
If you work hard and need a bit of R&R then maybe it would be better to take things more slowly and allow others to take care of the heavy lifting. As the designated driver on too many road trips to count (like on the 10 days around Iceland trip where I was ready to murder my sister who doesn’t have a driver’s license and napped next to me while I did all the driving) I can tell you that you should not underestimate how tired you get from driving all day.
Local insights and culture
If there’s one area where day tours win over renting a car it’s the knowledge you gain from exploring a new place with a local that can tell you something about what the area you are visiting. I know you can get a GPS audio guide with your rental car but it’s not the same as asking questions, debating and sharing moments with someone.
Not all day tours are created equal though and the bigger the tour gets the less time the guide will have to give to their guests. Because of that, we tend to recommend smaller tours where you’ll get more access to the guide and where it’s more likely that you’ll interact with other guests too.
When I travel myself I try to do at least one tour in every new place (often walking tours because, well you know) and I never regret doing them. I’ve done tours where the guide was pretty bad or the set up strange but I’ve always walked away with more knowledge than I had before which makes it worth it to me. Also, I am usually more interested in personal stories of the people who live in the places and the challenges they face rather than historical facts and small tours are great at helping me quench this thirst of mine.
So I’m a fan of tours and audio guides in museums and everything that helps me to really dive into the place I’m visiting. I sometimes even put a complaint in suggestion boxes at attractions if I feel the information that is giving is lacking. I’m sure I’m not alone in this! Right? Please tell me I’m not alone…
The weather factor
Truth be told, the weather in Iceland can be challenging. Although it tends to be worse in winter we sometimes have storms during the summer too and you can never really count on the weather.
The harsh conditions and the rapid changes to the weather often make Iceland a difficult country to travel around in. The wind can blow you off the road, the car can take an unexpected tumble when you hit a patch of ice on the road and during the coldest, windiest months it’s also dark a lot which doesn’t exactly help.
If you are not very confident as a driver and you have no experience with driving in winter conditions you should not rent a car in Iceland in winter – simple as that. Especially if you’re doing one of those whirlwind visits where you arrive sleepy on the first morning and don’t sleep for the rest of the trip due to all the fun you’re having. Tired drivers are dangerous drivers. Not just to themselves but also to others.
If you do feel confident about driving and snow and ice and gale force winds don’t scare you – then you just need to make sure you rent a good car with good tires.
Whatever you decide, as long as you make a decision that you are comfortable with, I’m sure you’ll be fine and you’ll have a wonderful time!