First and foremost, there’s no right or wrong way to explore Iceland. It all comes down to personal preference and travel style. When traveling solo in Iceland I prefer bus tours because they are easy to book and more affordable than renting a car. Booking a day tour in Iceland is so easy that for many tours, you can book the day before departure, no questions asked.
There are also all sorts of tours to choose from including glacier tours, whale watching & puffin tours, Golden Circle tours and even helicopter tours. Join a large group tour or a small group tour for a more personal experience. So far, I’ve joined bus tours to the South Coast of Iceland, Snæfellsnes Peninsula and a half-day horseback riding tour in Reykjavik.
However for my upcoming trip to Iceland with my best friend, we’ve decided to rent a car. With a car rental, not only can we split the bill and save money on the rental and fuel costs (which varies) but we can also explore more of the countryside on our own terms.
Although I’ve visited the South Coast several times now, I’m hoping that we’ll get to visit attractions that the bus tours skip like Dyrhólaey and Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. Also since the days are getting longer, renting a car means that we can take advantage of more sunlight.
Although there are are many things that can influence your decision to either rent a car in Iceland or join a bus tour in Iceland, if you need help figuring out which option is right for you, here are some important factors to consider like affordability, convenience and flexibility.
Bus tours are a cost effective way to explore Iceland especially if you’re traveling solo. Not only do you avoid having to pay for costs like car rentals, the cost of petrol, collision insurance, gravel protection, ash and ice insurance, navigation and metered parking, but many bus tours also include admission to paid attractions.
For example, my Snaefellsnes Peninsula day trip included hotel pick-up and drop-off service, round-trip transportation, a professional tour guide and a guided lava caving tour of the impressive 8,000-year old Vatnshellir Cave (valued at 3750 ISK or $38 USD). From Reykjavik, this 11-hour bus tour took us through small fishing villages in West Iceland, coastal shorelines, black-pebbled beaches, iconic landmarks like Kirkjufell mountain and mossy lava fields.
Secondly, I’ve found that bus tours can offer an incredible value at a competitive price. Although there are many Iceland travel agencies that offer guided day tours, some travel companies may sweeten the deal by offering special discounts during off-peak season. Others may combine multiple attractions and offer discounted combo tours like the Golden Circle and Kerid Crater tour or the Skaftafell Ice Climbing and Glacier Hike Tour.
Furthermore, besides bringing money for souvenirs, snacks and lunch (optional), on bus tours, everything is usually taken care of. All you have to do is have fun and be mindful of departure times.
For travelers looking for a less involved, hassle-free travel experience, a bus tour may be the better option when sightseeing in Iceland. You don’t have to do your homework ahead of time. No figuring out which types of cars to rent or worrying about running out of gas.
You also don’t have to worry about horses and sheep in the middle of the road which seems to be a frequent occurrence in Iceland when it is warm out!
On a bus tour, you can fall asleep in the comfort of your seat, strike up a conversation with a seatmate or access the web via the complimentary Wi-Fi onboard while your driver navigates the roads safely. On a bus tour, you also avoid speed fines from speed traps.
Last but not least, it’s important to consider the weather in Iceland and how comfortable you feel driving in Iceland’s notoriously unpredictable weather conditions. During my recent trip to Iceland, my tour group got caught in a Icelandic winter storm. The wind gusts were so high that the waterfalls in the South Coast of Iceland were flowing in the opposite direction, an amazing natural phenomenon to see in person!
There were times that I thought that the wind would blow our minivan off the road so in this case, I knew that I would not have felt comfortable driving on my own.
If you intend to rent a car during winter, ask yourself, am I experienced enough to deal with Iceland’s winter driving conditions?
As a rule of thumb, if you’re not comfortable with driving in strong winds, ice and snow, keep calm and join a bus tour.
Nevertheless, when it comes to flexibility, renting a car is the best option in Iceland because you can drive at your own pace, create the perfect itinerary that matches your interests and visit as many attractions as you like.
With a car, you can take detours (safety first though) and make frequent photo stops without reservation or time constraints. Spend more time at the attractions that resonate with you and skip the rest, no one is judging.
This is not possible with bus tours.
Bus tours have a set itinerary, specific driving route, set bathroom breaks and pit stops.
In a nutshell, bus tours are on a strict schedule and they operate outside of your control. This means that there’s little to no flexibility.
Although some bus tours offer optional activities during a stop like free walking tours but at the end of the day, a stop is a stop. And worse case scenario, if you miss a departure, your bus can potentially leave you behind which I bet is extremely stressful!
If you’re looking for flexibility, renting a car may be the better option in Iceland.
Both renting a car and joining a bus tour in Iceland has its pros and cons.
Many people prefer day tours because you have access to an expert guide at all times and you ditch the responsibilities of renting a car. On the other hand, many travelers who rent cars value the freedom that comes with venturing off the beaten path and appreciate not having time constraints even if this means that they won’t have a local guide showing them around.
Regardless of which route you choose, I’m confident that Iceland will blow you away.