Despite its relatively small population of about 330,000, Iceland’s geography is comparatively vast—larger than Portugal and just slightly smaller than England. With breathtaking scenery and popular attractions scattered across every corner of the island, renting a car is almost a necessity for visitors hoping to see it all. However, driving in Iceland has its own quirks and peculiarities, so be sure to read the following tips before getting behind the wheel in the Land of Fire and Ice.
DO: Plan Ahead for the Type of Vehicle You Need
First, you’ll need to decide what type of vehicle best fits your needs. Most travelers will stick primarily to the Ring Road, the main highway that circles the island and connects many of its top destinations. This roadway is a paved two-lane road suitable for all vehicle types.
Iceland has a handful of car rental companies, and all are equipped with a range of vehicle types, from smaller economy cars to 4×4 sport utility vehicles and small trucks. While the economy models are perfectly suited for paved road and city travel, keep in mind that most don’t offer much in the way of luggage space. Also keep in mind that the majority of cars when driving in Iceland have manual transmissions, so if you only know how to drive an automatic, make that request with your rental company well in advance (or start learning to drive a stick shift now).
DON’T: Go Off-Roading
If you plan to visit the country’s central highlands, a vehicle with four-wheel-drive is essential. While the designated highland tracks are legal for motorists to use, driving off-road is illegal in Iceland, and violators are subject to high fines.
DO: Pay Attention to Parking Zones in the City
Throughout most of Iceland, parking spaces are available at no cost. However, in larger cities like Reykjavik and Akureyri, parking may not be free, so keep an eye out for meters. Reykjavik has four parking zones with different prices and hours:
- Red: 320 ISK per hour, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, free on Sundays
- Blue: 170 ISK per hour, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, free on Sundays
- Green: 170 ISK per hour for the first two hours, 50 ISK each additional hour, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, free on Sundays
- Orange: 170 ISK per hour, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, free on Saturdays and Sundays
DON’T: Park on the Side of the Road – Even Briefly
While it may be tempting to pull over to the side of the road to look at the scenery or take photos, doing so can be extremely dangerous not only to you, but also to other drivers. Most roads in Iceland are narrow, two-lane affairs with little to no room on the shoulder, so parking on the shoulder for any length of time poses a very real safety risk—especially considering that many other motorists are also visitors who may be distracted by the scenery and not notice your stopped vehicle until it’s too late.
If you absolutely must stop for some reason, make sure your car is visible from all directions and isn’t blocking traffic, and turn on your hazard lights (especially if it’s dark, foggy or rainy).
DON’T: Speed when Driving in Iceland
Speed limits in Iceland are probably slower than most visitors are used to, so be aware of speed limits and don’t exceed them, or you’ll risk a heavy fine. In the city, most roads have a speed limit of 50 km/h (31 mph). The standard limit on dirt roads is 80 km/h (49 mph), while the Ring Road and other paved roads have a maximum speed of 90 km/h (55 mph). Keep in mind that in many areas of the country, speed is monitored by cameras—sometimes hidden ones—so even if you don’t see police cars anywhere, the speed limits will still be enforced.
DO: Stay Alert and Watch for Hazards
Driving in Iceland comes with a variety of potential hazards that are somewhat unique to this largely rural nation. In addition to observing the speed limit, you should avoid distractions like mobile phones and keep an eye out for the following situations:
- Slippery roads due to ice or rain
- Sheep and other domestic animals in the roadway
- Loss of traction on gravel roads
- Poor visibility due to sudden heavy snowstorms
- Challenges to steering and damage to car doors from gusty winds
DO: Fill Up Your Fuel Tank Whenever Possible
Gas stations in Iceland can be few and far between in the more remote areas of the country, even on the main Ring Road, so try not to let your fuel tank get below about half a tank. That way, you won’t waste valuable hours of your trip stranded on the side of the road because you ran out of gas.
DO: Have a Plan for Emergencies When Driving in Iceland
In Iceland, the number to call in an emergency is 112. For non-emergencies, like mechanical troubles or flat tires, have the contact information for your rental car company on hand. The country does not operate a roadside assistance program, but information about area help centers and auto repair shops is available at https://safetravel.is. The site also provides up-to-date alerts about severe weather around the country.
In most populated areas, roads see enough traffic that you’ll probably receive offers of assistance from local drivers. The more rural highland roads are regularly patrolled by search and rescue teams who are ready to assist stranded travelers. If you are uncertain of your location and you experience vehicle problems, don’t leave your car and walk by the side of the road to find help. Weather can change quickly, threatening your health and safety and making you less visible to other drivers on the road.
DON’T: Forget to Buckle Up
Seat belt use is mandatory in all vehicles when driving in Iceland, including buses and rental cars. If you’re traveling with children, the law also requires them to be in an age-appropriate car seat or booster seat.
DO: Drive Safely and Enjoy Your Time in Iceland!
For additional articles about Icelandic driving and transportation, please visit the following posts: