Real Talk: Why you should not drive long distances after an overnight flight to Iceland

If you have been reading my blog for a while you know I’m all about keeping my guests and readers save. Sometimes I feel like the nagging mom that sucks the joy out of everything fun but like your mom, I do this out of love. Call me crazy but I firmly believe that you can come to Iceland and have the bestest of times without jeopardizing your life. I also understand that in order to achieve this you need to be informed and that’s where people like me, your virtual nagging mom with a blog, come in.

Side note: Why do we talk about nagging moms while dads give fatherly advice?

Today I want to put on my health-and-safety hat on and talk to you about an important issue that too many ignore: the hazard of driving when you’re really tired.

Without wanting to go too much into it (because it would take me too long and it’s kind of boring anyway) we’ve noticed that people are traveling around Iceland in a different way than they used to and are trying to cram more into their trips than before. This is particularly noticeable with our American guests and when I asked around why this could be I was reminded that most Americans get shamefully few days off work each year, at least if you compare it to us spoilt Europeans with our generous labor laws, so people are eager to make the most of them. I’m sure it also has something to do with the cost of things in Iceland but from bitter experience I’m going to avoid that hot potato.

So a lot of people want to hit the ground running by driving straight to the Golden Circle from the airport or even all the way to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon (and do an ice cave tour too), which is totally understandable, but they completely forget to factor in a few things. Like the fact how tired you actually are after an overnight flight from the US.

We get a lot of people on our walking tours that join the tour straight from the airport. It’s a great way to do it because in most cases people can’t check into their hotels until around 14:00 anyway and they need to find ways to kill time before that. What we see almost every day is that people are pretty perky when the tour starts but by the end of it, you can really see the drowsiness take over. We’ve had people fall asleep on the tour. Standing up. Outside. In minus 10 degrees Celcius.

It’s not that our tour is boring, you only have to take a look at our Tripadvisor comments to abandon that idea, but it’s just that it takes more of a toll on your body than most people anticipate to fly east over the Atlantic.

Why driving long distances after an overnight flights is not a great idea

First of all, those transatlantic flights almost always leave the US/Canada in the afternoon/early evening and people often go straight from work to the airport or they’ve had to drive for hours to get there. Not to mention that you always start packing last minute and you perfect plan of an early night the night before never works out.

Traveling is taxing and even if you manage to sleep on the plane the flight from New York to Keflavík Airport, for example, is only five hours so it’s safe to say you probably don’t get more than four hours of less than stellar sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average adult aged 18-64 needs seven to nine hours of sleep every night, although some will manage fine with only six, under six hours is not recommended for any age group. You know how it feels to wake up after too little sleep and in many cases, for me at least, it feels almost like you are waking up with a hangover. Which is why you run to Starbucks at 10:00 even though you had an espresso at 08:00. We’ve all been there.

When you finally land in Keflavík it’s already morning in Iceland and your circadian rhythm is already royally screwed. When I returned to Iceland on a flight from Denver (7 hours) a couple of weeks ago I was fine when I landed but a couple of hours later I fell asleep on a chair. Which was maybe a step up from that time I woke up with one leg in my trousers and in my top inside out three hours after I had gone to the bedroom to get dressed. I don’t particularly recommend sleeping on chairs either though.

If someone would ask you whether you’d ever drive drunk the answer would probably (hopefully) be no but what many people don’t realize is that studies show that drowsy driving is actually just as bad as drunk driving. In fact, in some countries, drowsy driving represents up to 30 percent of all crashes. That’s a sobering number!


A study by researchers in Australia showed that being awake for 18 hours produced an impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .05, and .10 after 24 hours; .08 is considered legally drunk.

Icelandic traffic laws state that drivers must be physically and mentally fit to control the vehicle he or she is driving. You cannot drive a car if you are too ill, physically impaired, exhausted, sleep deprived or intoxicated to control a vehicle in a safe manner. It’s not that you can’t drive when you’re tired, it’s a question of how safe it is!t.

Another thing to consider is the conditions in Iceland that are probably quite different from what you know from home. For most of the winter, the weather is completely unpredictable and the daylight is limited (4 hours in December, for example). Because of the shortness of the day, even when the weather is great the sun is so low on the horizon that it can easily blind you. On top of that, you have poorly maintained roads (some of them, not all of course), mountain passes and sporadic road service in many places. Not to mention sheep and tourists parked by the side of the road in summer.

During our recent trip to the US we drove almost 3000 miles through seven states and I can tell you that it’s not the same as driving in Iceland. We mostly drove on cozy three-lane interstates where the speed limit was 70-80 miles per hour but even the scenic bypasses were wide and well maintained. There were plenty of rest areas everywhere and in the Rockies huge text signs warned us about snow drift and other things to consider miles before we even got there. I’m not saying that the conditions can’t be challenging there too, what I am saying though that there’s a noticeable difference.

When you drive in new and challenging conditions it’s imperative to be alert and pay attention to your surroundings and you just do a worse job of that when you’re tired. Our responses are slower and our mind doesn’t process things the same way.

A better way to tackle your first day

If you plan to rent a car in Keflavík and do your own driving I would recommend you book your first night in Reykjavík and spend the day there. There’s a big difference in driving on a new road (that is relatively wide and straight) for an hour to get to the city than driving the whole day. Try to stay awake until at least 8 pm which will help you get your body adjusted to the time change and jet lag. I know you’re probably coming to Iceland for the nature but Reykjavík has a lot of charm, and nature for that matter, that you can explore at your own pace. If you get a good night’s sleep after that first day you can be up and ready to go at the crack of dawn.

If you absolutely can’t wait and you can’t stand the thought of staying even one day in Reykjavík you could always start your adventure by doing a tour. If you fall asleep between the stops on the tour (which I’m told happens all the time with people coming straight from the airport) the worst that can happen is that you’ll embarrass yourself snoring or by drooling on the shoulder of the person sitting next to you. Which is so much better than causing yourself, or heaven forbid others, harm.

It’s definitely possible to pick up a car in Keflavík Airport and drive to Jökulsárlón on no sleep without getting into an accident and I’m sure people do it all the time. You can also drive drunk home from the bar without killing someone but we generally agree that it’s not a good idea.

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10 thoughts on “Real Talk: Why you should not drive long distances after an overnight flight to Iceland”

  1. Rob Jones says:

    Thank you for posting this – the temptation to cram as much as possible into a trip is understandable but we got so much more out of our travels in Iceland when we just took our time.

  2. Christa says:

    You can see them on the road in every destination – confused tourists trying to navigate new roads with new signs and new driving practices. Been there, done that! Doing that exhausted is not the way to go. Once someone damaged a car we had rented while it was parked and they left the scene. Although we weren’t at fault and had insurance (not through the car company) it was a lot of paperwork and time to get the money back. I can’t imagine what a pain it would have been if we were driving and at fault.

    We travelled twice to Iceland in the winter and noticed that Icelandic road warnings were something to take seriously.

    We did not do the I Heart Reykjavik tour on day 1 in the city, only because we booked the tour too late, so ended up taking the tour a few days into the trip. Wish we had booked earlier, as Augur shared tips that would have shaped some of our time there.

    If, you can’t do the tour day 1 due to flight arrival time here’s some other ideas:

    * Go to a public pool in the morning, have a hot shower and a soak in the hot pool while you wait for your hotel check in time
    * Take a walking tour of the Harpa, you won’t fall asleep walking
    * Grab a treat at Sandholt Bakery
    * If there are 2 or more of you hire a private driver to take you on a personalized tour. For 2 of us it was not much more expensive than the bus tour we took the first visit, and a lot more enjoyable. We arrived at sites with far fewer people (the bus tour travelled with 2 busses together), we picked how long we stayed at a site. We added stops we liked. We travelled smaller and picturesque routes. This is a also a great way to travel between destinations – the private driver picks up you and your bags at your accommodations, gives you a tour, and drops you off at your nest destination. Saves time. You could arrange the same thing from the airport – pick up, tour, drop off at your destination.
    * Check out the view from Perlman observation deck
    * If you’re trying Audur’s advice to stay awake until at least 8pm (which has always worked for us) there’s a 1 hour show at the Harpa called How To Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes that gets great reviews, and could keep you awake and laughing from 7-8pm. We’ve also used the following technique combined with staying up until at least 8pm (including on long trips from Canada to New Zealand, and from Australia to Germany) to adjust to time changes:

  3. Jim Davis says:

    My brain went into sleep mode for a fraction of a second while driving in Iceland. It was my first day there, didn’t sleep on the plane, and was still about 45 minutes away from my hotel in Hveragerði. As soon as it happened, I snapped out of it and my priority became getting to the hotel and getting a nap. I know, napping is not usually a good idea, but thanks to a bit of rum I had no trouble getting to sleep later that evening. 🙂

  4. Helen Chapman says:

    Thanks for this. I have traveled from the United States to Europe many times, in part because my daughter studied in Paris during college and then went to graduate school there. My daughter has many pictures of me sleeping on day one – over my coffee, in restaurants, on buses, etc. I’ve learned to be careful on my first day in town. It was my second trip to Iceland. The first time was in December and we stayed in Reykavik due to the 4 hours of sunlight. I took my son this September.

    After arriving at the airport, we had a yummy fruit drink there, then took a leisurely walk around until our I Heart Reykavik tour at 10:00am. My daughter took this tour when she came to Iceland. You can read about her wonderful experience here This was so helpful to learn the layout of town and get the scoop on coffee, bakery, hotdogs, culture, and lots more.

    We were able to stay awake until 4:00pm, when I took a brief nap before going to dinner. It was a wonderful 6 day visit. I was very thankful for the tour, as I was well prepared for the sheep herding on the road. We stayed in town on day one and walked around after the tour catching photos of the wonderful graffiti and little treasure on the street signs.

    I will take this tour again. Thank you for your blog and sharing your life, culture, and valuable tips about visiting your amazing city!

  5. Aileen says:

    I agree, it is very unsafe to drive a car when you have jet lag. I saw a show years ago that tested the driving ability of people who were drunk compared to people who were severely sleep deprived and the tired people actually drove worse than the drunk people.

    I visited Iceland in September 2016, and I’m one of the people who took your tour straight from the airport! I felt mostly OK during the tour, but later in the afternoon, I was so confused that I wandered around inside Reykjavik city hall, thinking it was the National Museum of Iceland! I finally approached the woman sitting at the desk and asked her where the exhibits were. She thought I was crazy! But she also told me how to find the real museum.

  6. Thanks for sharing that great information

  7. George M Landers says:

    My wife and I are from Boston, and we are visiting next week for the first time. We are looking for a nice easy to read road map, showing places to go and visit. We are renting a car and are staying for six days. Golden Circle seems to be a big attraction and the Blue Lagoon. Other than that, we are open to all suggestions.
    Any information would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you so much,


    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      You can get a paper map in any bookstore in Reykjavík but you might also want to check these posts out:

  8. Scott says:

    I wish I’d read this advice before my trip in August 2016. Thank goodness we had no incidents, but we drove straight from the airport to Thingvellir and we were in serious pain trying to stay awake. We did stop for coffee south of Reykjavik, but it probably would have been much more pleasant to spend a day relaxing.

    It was definitely a case of having 8 days to drive a rental around the ring road before needing to go back to work and kids. Thanks for your blog!

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      I’m glad you didn’t have any problems. People severely underestimate the effect on the body it has to travel between time zones overnight and who much this drowsiness impairs us. I don’t think they’re trying to do something that could potentially put them at risk – they just don’t understand it.

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