Things you need to know before you rent a car in Iceland
There are three things you need to consider when choosing a rent a car for your travel in Iceland. The roads to the places you intend to visit, the time of year when visiting and the weather. Renting a car and driving around the country is by far the best way to travel in Iceland. By hiring a car people taking a trip to Iceland can choose a road trip that fits their budget and schedule. This way they have the flexibility and independence required in a country with many natural wonders to explore and admire. With a car and a driving plan, you can always take your time, and you can easily modify and change your route. BUT - there are many things to consider when renting a car in Iceland. It is entirely different to hiring a car in other countries. So we encourage you to read this article carefully before you rent a car in Iceland.
To find a rent a car or car for hire in Iceland is not as simple as finding a car for hire in most other countries. The main reason is the fact that some of the roads you travel to visit natural wonders and places of interest are often gravel roads, mountain roads or even dirt roads. Keep in mind; there are three kinds of roads in Iceland: Asphalt roads, gravel roads and Highland roads (F roads).
A small rent a car is fine for most roads, during summer
For most of the main roads, a small 2WD car is a good option. It is the cheapest way to drive around Iceland in a car. A small car like VW Polo or VW Golf, Toyota Yaris, Kia Rio or Suzuki Swift that fits four people conveniently (don't forget the space for the luggage you plan to bring). During summer a small car will take you to most of the interesting places, natural wonders and accommodation of your choice. A small car is also fine on the gravel roads during summer, especially if you have a front wheel drive, which most Icelanders prefer. But keep in mind that gravel roads are more demanding to drive and take caution and drive slower than on asphalt roads. In winter you can also travel the main roads in a small car on roads like the Reykjanes Peninsula drive, the Ring Road, The Snæfellsnes Peninsula drive, The Westfjord drive, and the Golden Circle. But from October until April it is necessary to follow the weather forecast and road conditions before you start your trip, especially if yo are in a small car. If you want to increase your comfort, a midsize car is a better choice during winter, much better and highly recommended for most places and most drives.
Time of year
Driving in Iceland during winter and driving in summer is totally different. For most people living in warmer countries, it is difficult to comprehend that Icelanders change tires on their cars in autumn and spring. Icelanders have “winter tires” and “summer tires.” The reason is the difference in driving conditions. If you have no experience driving in winter, you should consider a private tour with an experienced guide.
A larger vehicle is better outside the main roads and during winter
If you decide to travel to places outside the main roads, you are much better off to hire a midsize car, preferably a SUV or a 4WD car like VW Tiguan, Toyota Raf, Dacia Duster, and Suzuki Vitara. This applies to people that are interested in taking loops and exploring places outside the main road. People that want to visit places like Mjóifjörður, Látrabjarg in the West Fjords, Rauðisandur in the West Fjords, the Vatnsnes Peninsula or some of the waterfalls natural wonders that are not near the main road. The roads outside the main roads are most often gravel roads, go over steep mountain passes and conditions change in rain and snow. For those roads, a vehicle with more space and larger tires is much better for your comfort and security. This is especially important during winter.
The weather in Iceland is unpredictable. Even though we have a great Met Office in Iceland weather can change rapidly in a short period at your location, often contradicting the Met Office forecast. You can also plan to visit a specific area when planning a trip to Iceland, but when you are on your way or arrive the conditions are not particularly inviting. This applies to all seasons but most definitely in winter.
A 4WD is mandatory for the Highland roads in Iceland
A small car will not get you to the Highland if you choose to travel to the exotic part of the country. The Highland requires a 4WD vehicle, but keep in mind that the Highland is only open from the beginning of July until the middle of September. Most of the roads in the Icelandic Highland are challenging and rough gravel roads often with many rivers to cross. No one should enter a Highland Road in a small car or a midsize car or a car that doesn't have a 4WD. It is simply dangerous, irresponsible and can severely damage the vehicle and even ruin it if stuck in a river that can lead to a cost far exceeding the total cost of a trip to Iceland for the whole family. If a water is sucked into the air intake of a car the engine is ruined. Not to mention the panic and consequences of being stuck in a small car in the middle of a strong stream or a river. In Iceland to many tourists have lost their lives in such circumstances, the last incident was in September 2018 when a young woman drowned in a river in Þórsmörk. Keep that in mind when you select a car for the Highland. No insurance company in Iceland covers a drive crossing a river. It can also be dangerous as a 2WD and a small 4WD, or even a midsize 4WD car can easily become stuck on a difficult road in the Highland. Few Icelanders would ever take such a risk based on their knowledge about the Highland. Not to mention the danger to the passengers. But for the Highland roads a 4WD only is not always enough. For many rugged roads and tracks in the Highland a large and well-equipped 4WD / 4X4 vehicle is required. For these roads, a Toyota Land Cruiser, Jeep Wrangler, Toyota Hilux, Land Rover, or a similar vehicle is highly recommended for your convenience and security.
Keep this list in mind when traveling in a rent a car in Iceland
- There are three kinds of roads: Asphalt, gravel and mountain roads (F)
- Iceland is a small island and distance between places usually short
- Almost all of the roads are narrow two-way roads - THERE ARE NO FREEWAYS IN ICELAND
- Reduce speed considerably when driving over a one lane bridge (there are many such bridges everywhere).
- Don't stop on a road shoulder or the middle of the road to take photos
- The speed limit is 90 KM/hr on main asphalt roads
- The speed limit in Reykjavík and towns is 50KM/hrs
- The speed limit in residential areas in Reykjavík and all towns and villages is 30KM/hrs
- The restrictions on alcohol consumption for drivers are at 0.5 promille, like in most other European countries
- 4X4 cars are both safer and easier to drive during winter
- There are plenty of gas stations around the country in all towns and villages
- A larger 4X4 is required on highland roads the F roads
- Always check road conditions here, especially during winter
- Cellular phone connections are good on most roads and around the country
- Never try to cross rivers on a small 4X4 car
- There are towns and villages almost everywhere around the coastline on the RIng Road
- Watch for sheeps on the roads (specially in spring and early summer)
- Pick the rent a car up at the International Airport in Keflavík
- Fuel prices are more or less the same around the country
- Emergency help is available almost everywhere in Iceland
- When conditions are unsecure (snow, snowdrift, slippery, bad visibility) don't hesitate to drive slower at a comfort level where you feel in control. In a situation like that remember to slow down, give a right indicator light (blinker) when it is secure for the cars behind you to pass. Avoid holding down the traffic as other drivers might understand the conditions differently.
Iceland is a small island that has only one International Airport. Keflavík Airport (KEF) in the city of Keflavik is the place where almost all visitors arrive. It is the best place to pick up your car and most of the rent a car companies deliver their cars at Keflavík airport. There are many rent a car companies in Iceland and the airport is a good place to find a car that fits for your tour. If you want to have everything ready when you arrive you should rent a car online. This site lets you quickly compare prices from a number of rent a car firms, find an excellent price for a rent a car that fits your tour and season you plan to visit Iceland, both international firms and local firms, and save you a lot of time on internet search. In the process you can add things you need in addition like a child seat, navigation and additional driver.