Driving in Iceland: You vs. All of the Things

For our first trip to Iceland, we wanted to get outside Reykjavík and explore the countryside, so we rented a car from Cars Iceland for six days for $563 USD. While this seems expensive, it was considerably cheaper than taking tour bus excursions for two or three people per outing.

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A mountain road along the southern coast of Iceland

Driving in Iceland is fairly straightforward for Americans. The driver sits on the left side of the car and drives on the right side of the road, just as you do in the States. The prevalence of roundabout intersections may throw some Americans for a curve; simply remember that the person who is already in the roundabout has the right of way. Enter the circle as you would an interstate on ramp, merging with the flow of traffic and noting that many are two lanes with the outer right lane exiting onto the spur streets. The Icelandic Road Traffic Directorate offers more rules of the road, such as always driving with your headlights on, in their digital brochure.

A bit trickier than the many roundabouts are the one-lane bridges. By one lane, I mean one single car. In both directions. They are designated by yellow signs reading, “Einbreið Brú.” Whichever car approaches the bridge first crosses it first, with oncoming traffic waiting until the coast is clear.

Some of them are long enough that you can’t see traffic entering from the opposite direction. In that case, there are pull-offs to use as traffic meets head-on.

If you’re visiting Iceland in winter or spring, you’ll want to upgrade to a four-wheel-drive vehicle to navigate the snow, ice, and mud that you’ll encounter both on and off the road. Off-road driving is illegal in Iceland, but pulling off onto gravel roads and muddy parking lots at the many waterfalls, beaches, and other scenic spots can be just as dicey for a small or medium-sized rental car.

During our March visit, we encountered lots of clear, sunny stretches as well as gale-force winds, snow, sleet, and rain, sometimes within minutes of each other. As the tourist gift magnets say, “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, give it five minutes!” This was our drive near Laufskálavarða, where we hit a sudden burst of snow blowing across the frozen road at 90 kilometers per hour:

You’ll also be blown across the road by tractor trailer trucks and large tour buses barreling down the middle of the highway at top speed. Not to mention the “Super Jeeps” with their giant tires that don’t quite fit in a single lane (not all of them are Jeeps, but they are all on steroids). Just slow down a bit, brace yourself, and allow them to pass without running you off the road.

Fuel stations are self-service, and the pumps operate year-round even when the station itself is closed. There is typically a kiosk at the pump where you’ll insert your credit card and designate the amount of diesel or gas you want to purchase in $1 to $100 amounts. Debit cards often do not work in the self-service pumps, and you’ll need a card with a PIN, whether you use a strip or a chip (most retailers only take credit cards with chips at this point, which can be an issue with American banks that are slow on the draw with this technology).

Above all else, when renting a car during the spring or winter in Iceland, splurge for heated seats. The temperature bottoms out around 5 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, and your bottom wants to be warm while you’re tooling around this beautiful land.