Quick Q&A: Should I rent a car in Iceland or do day tours?

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?

Cost

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.

Flexibility

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!

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19 thoughts on “Quick Q&A: Should I rent a car in Iceland or do day tours?”

  1. Morella says:

    Clearly daytours!

    You have someone to help you any time, you’ll learn a lot and you can sleep in the vehicle which might be necessary when being out for a whole day.
    With daytours, you don’t need any knowledge how to drive on gravel roads or through rivers.
    Plus you don’t have any responsibility (car accidents, damage due to weather or road conditions).

    We did daytours in both our Iceland holidays and all of them were amazing!
    Always charming local guides and no stress at all. We drive daily at home and it was a relief.

    1. francia says:

      Hi, I’m traveling to Iceland in April, my first time in the country. Any recommendation on tours you’ve used?

      Thanks.

      1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

        Check out these tours: http://iheartreykjavik.net/the-tours/

  2. Rósa says:

    Great answer to this very common question, Auður 🙂

    Being a smaller day tour operator we try to combine the best of both and additionally try to include some kind of interaction with locals on our tours. Driving in Iceland is no joke, as our local guides will tell you!

  3. Mary says:

    Thank you! This is helpful as we are planning an Oct7-16 driving tour around Iceland. We’ve been concerned about all of the negative posts on car rental agencies on other sites and are still trying to decide which one to use. I wanted to ask you about whether you typically expect snow that early in October. Although I understand there’s usually nothing typical about weather there!

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      Typically you should be fine but as you said there’s nothing predictable about the weather. A few years ago we got dozen of inches in snowfall in August in the north so who knows 🙂

  4. jan says:

    there is always an alternative: bring your own car.

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      Yes, but that option is really only viable for Europeans who live close to the ports Norræna stops at 🙂

  5. Anya says:

    We just returned from a visit to the Westfjords, and we rented a car (through your website!) For our 10-day trip. It was definitely the right decision for us, especially given the region we visited.

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      I agree, a rental car is best for that area. Although there are some tour companies up there now that offer pretty good tours for those who don’t want to drive. You can fly with Eagle Air to Bildudalur or Air Iceland to Ísafjörður for example or take a bus.

  6. Cynthia says:

    I am strongly in the “rent a car” camp here, after trying each way on two separate Iceland trips. Although my day trips out of Reykjavik were nice, I didn’t feel like I strongly “got” Iceland (like something was missing but I couldn’t put my finger on it) as much as I did when I rented a car the next time. Iceland is so easy to drive and there is no way to take a day tour to some of the amazing places that you can easily zip to in a car.

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      I get why you feel that way. It really depends on the tour whether you see the “real” Iceland through them (whatever that means) and what time of year you visit.

  7. alex says:

    Nice Article!

  8. Hedwig says:

    Another vote for car rental here. We found a lot of places just stopping by the side of the road and exploring, which we would have missed on a tour. Couple of examples – Skalholt cathedral, Faxafoss waterfall, and Ljósafossstöð power station.

    We rented from SAD cars, which gets mixed reviews – sure the car was old and had 120,000km on the clock, but it was mechanically solid and clean, and the price was about 1/3 less than the big chains (hertz etc).

    For gasoline, I’d recommend just stopping wherever it’s cheapest – we found quite a wide variation in prices, so it’s best to just stop where you see cheap gas and fill up, rather than wait to get to a big town or a scheduled stop and end up paying more. The price in July 2017 ranged from 175 to 200ISK per liter, or about $6-7 a gallon (US$, US gallons). But most small rental cars get 45-50MPG so it’s not too expensive.

  9. Tami Brennan says:

    I would say do you want to leave the responsibility of driving to someone else versus be on your own schedule? We chose be on our own schedule and it was wonderful for us. Part of that decision was I was traveling with my husband who is an excellent driver and can fix anything. Luckily nothing needed fixing. If I was traveling with a girlfriend we probably would have not driven the entire Ring Road. Whatever you choose it will be one of the best trips you will ever take:)

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      That’s what I’m always trying to tell people, it’s YOUR choice that you need to base on your preferences (and practical matters like experience with driving in winter conditions and such).

      There’s no one right answer for everyone 🙂

  10. Anne says:

    Hello
    I am visiting Iceland with my son end sept – beginning oct this year. Still trying to decide whether to hire a car or take trips. My son is 33 and would be the driver . Concerns…. I am A nervous passenger! My son might miss the view as he is driving. We want to visit the glacier lagoon in the south and have a boat trip but it is fairly booked up so maybe we have to do a tour to get on it? The weather/ roads may be problematic at that time?
    Help!
    Anne

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      I feel like I’ve addressed all your concerns in this post and now you just have to make a decision. That I can’t for you, I’m afraid 🙂

  11. Sophie Carr says:

    Apart from the driving ability/confidence thing, I think the main factor here is whether you want the freedom to explore yourself, or if you’re happy for someone else to show you the main sights. Obviously you have far more time to see individual places if you’ve got your own transport, and you can stop wherever and whenever you like (but hey – pull over when it’s safe – I see a lot of people who literally stop in the road without even pulling over!). On a tour you will be limited to the places listed, have a set amount of time there, but you may well fit in more. I travel alone in Iceland and one of the things that appeals to me about the place is the vast, bleak scenery, and renting my own vehicle allows me to enjoy it truly (I’m also a photographer, so really need the space of my own vehicle for all my gear!). I always rent a 4WD in winter, and also did in late summer in the Westfjords – probably worth paying the extra for the piece of mind, never being quite sure of the quality of the roads. I buy an excess insurance cover, and always use a reputable car hire company that has a newish fleet.

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