Driving in any unfamiliar place is intimidating—remember that. And while Iceland's unpredictable weather and rough terrain could easily persuade you to go the tour bus route instead of renting your own car, keep an open mind for a little bit, at least as long as it takes you to read this article.
Renting a car in Iceland gives you so much freedom to explore. Reykjavik is a fantastic destination for a long weekend and should be a part of any visitor's itinerary, but getting the full Icelandic experience means you've got to venture outside of the city limits. You'll be rewarded with sweeping views of lava rock fields, more waterfalls than you can count, and black sand beaches. The best part? The only real traffic you'll find is when you find yourself in a town or village and even then it's minimal. It's completely possible to drive for hours without seeing another car.
Ahead, discover everything you need to know about driving in Iceland.
To rent a car in Iceland, you will need to be at least 21 years old. If you're looking to rent an off-road Jeep, you'll need to be 25 years old. Make sure to have your driver's license, vehicle registration, passport, and proof of insurance on hand in case anything comes up.
Rules of the Road
Driving in Iceland is much like driving in a small town in the United States, technically, at least. The scenery is quite different, but the rules are relatively similar. Speeds are tracked in kilometers per hour, which can be disorienting at first if you're from the United States. There are far fewer road signs—you'll find them when you're approaching and in a city—but locals often share location by mile marker.
Roundabouts are common in cities, as well. In Reykjavik, the roundabouts can be quite large, so pay attention to the lanes. Out of the cities, you'll small bridges crossing bodies of water ranging from streams to rushing rivers. Most bridges only allow one car at a time to pass. The rule is, whoever gets to the mouth of the bridge first gets to go, with the driver at the other end of the bridge pulled off slightly so the crossing car can get by. It's a very patient process. The longer bridges will have various points along the way where cars can pull off since it's impossible to see if there are other vehicle attempting to cross at the opposite end. People are friendly in Iceland; don't forget to give a wave as you pass.
Speed limits are easy: in a town like Reykjavik it's 31mph/50kph in towns, 49mph/80kph on gravel country roads, and 55mpg/90kph on hard-surfaced roads.
Weather and Road Conditions
Iceland's weather is known around the world for being incredibly unpredictable. Given the island's location in the Atlantic Ocean right on the edge of the Arctic Circle, storms come through quickly and frequently. If you plan on visiting and driving, make sure and bookmark the local weather website, Vedur. This is the website locals use to track weather as it's incredibly accurate and provides to-the-minute updates. During the winter, it can be more common for roads to be closed than open. And don't count on driving around the Central Highlands during the winter months (October through March). To access this region, you'll need to book a tour with an operator equipped with Superjeeps.
During the summer, snow isn't as much of an issue (though, it does make an appearance here and there). Wind can be intense and it's often better to pull over and wait it out instead of hammering through it.
Watch out for potholes; the intense winter weather can leave behind quite a mark once the snow melts. The Ring Road — the main route that will take you around the coast of the entire country — is paved and easy to drive. There are plenty of side roads that will lead you into national parks and into the highlands and they're classified as F roads, or mountain roads. These are not paved and aren't monitored as often, meaning the road quality can be poor.
Should You Rent a Car?
If you plan on staying in Iceland for more than a long weekend, yes, renting a car is a great idea. There are tour buses that offer routes all over the country, but you're going to be packed in with lots of other people. One of the best ways to enjoy Iceland's natural beauty is silently, pulled off from the road when you find a particularly inspiring landscape.
There are a number of things to know about renting a car in Iceland. In other destinations, you may be inclined to skip out on insurance, but you should consider it for Iceland. The unpredictable weather brings with it some tricky driving situations. During the summer, high winds can whip around sand and rocks, causing damage to the body of the car. During the winter, road conditions can be incredibly rough and the ice and snow can do a number on the rental car.
There is plenty of street parking in the larger cities, both paid and free. Don't expect to come across a parking garage while in Iceland. When you're out driving in the countryside, you'll likely see a lot of cars pulled off the road to take in the view. That's totally fine and acceptable, but make sure your vehicle is fully off the road and not harming any of the natural plantlife Also be aware of private property. You wouldn't want strangers parking their cars in your lawn, so have the same respect for the locals.
Road and Travel Safety
As mentioned above, the weather can get iffy in Iceland. Never be afraid to pull off on the side of the road if you get nervous. It's much better to do that than put yourself in danger.
Seat belts are required in Iceland, as are driving with your headlights on. It's also illegal to use your cell phone while driving, so power down or hand it to a buddy. Off-roading is not only against the law, but highly dangerous to the country's fauna.
Driving drunk is a serious offense in Iceland and there is an alcohol-free driving expectation. If you're caught driving under the influence of alcohol, the first offense is a big fine and loss of your license for two months.
There are two phone numbers you'll want to bookmark if you plan on driving. Dialing 112 anywhere in the country will contact the Iceland Police, ambulances, and the fire department. If you're in Reykjavik, you can also dial 1770 to call a doctor to the scene.
Stick to marked roads, ditch the cell phone, follow the speed limit, wear your seat belt, toss on those headlights, and you're good to go.