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When you rent a car in Iceland, you give yourself the freedom of exploring this breathtaking country in your own time, and at your own pace. Self-drive tours are becoming increasingly popular, as adventurous travellers devise their itineraries and set out to see the incredible nature by themselves. What many would-be self-drivers don't realise, however, is that the driving conditions in Iceland are fairly challenging and that the rugged landscape and unpredictable weather pose difficulties that many haven't faced before. If you're planning to drive around Iceland during your stay, it is important to be aware of the following information.
Most car rentals in Iceland are based in the capital city, Reykjavík, or by the international airport in Keflavík (a 40-minute drive away from Reykjavík). For travellers that plan on driving the whole time they are in Iceland, it's mostly convenient to hire a car from the international airport and then return it at the airport before the return flight. It does not matter what time of day or night your flight arrives, you can pick up your car 24 hours a day at the airport. If you only want to rent a car for a part of your stay, then it's also possible to rent cars from Reykjavík, which most people tend to use as a base. It is possible to pick your car up in Keflavík and drop it off in Reykjavík, or vice versa, sometimes for an additional fee but some companies don't add any extra fee.
There are also car rentals available around the country, such as in Akureyri and Siglufjörður in the north, Egilsstaðir and Höfn in the east, Selfoss and the Westman Islands in the south, Patreksfjörður and Ísafjörður in the Westfjords and in Ólafsvík on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Car rentals are available in most larger towns in Iceland's countryside. Note that in those locations there may however only be one or perhaps two car rental agencies, so you will have limited choices of cars. Please contact Guide to Iceland's office if you're looking to rent a car outside of Reykjavík or Keflavík. It is also possible to rent your car in one location in Iceland and drop it off at another, for an additional fee, which needs to be done through contacting Guide to Iceland's booking team at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note, that even though you pay for the rental car using a debit card, most companies do require you to provide a valid credit card on the day of pick up.
The most used road is Iceland is its Highway 1, which encircles the country and is your best bet for travelling around quickly and safely. Being Iceland's most important road, it is well-maintained and open throughout the year, although extreme weather conditions can sometimes lead to temporary and partial closures, especially during the winter months. Highway 1 is just two lanes wide, but you will seldom see any traffic in rural Iceland. It is, however, dotted with many one-lane bridges. The rule when crossing these is that the right of way goes to the driver who is closest, so always approach slowly to make the correct judgement, even if you don't see anyone ahead.
Most other roads, such as those leading to popular destinations such as the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon, are tarmac. If you stray into the wilderness, however, you are increasingly likely to encounter gravel tracks. These can be narrow and very bumpy, thus should be traversed with caution, especially by those who are not used to such conditions. They can, however, be driven on by all vehicles. F-Roads in Iceland are only accessible if you rent a jeep or four-wheel drive, however, and can be quite daunting, crossing rivers and winding along narrow mountain passes. Only confident drivers should take these routes.
Although they come with a unique set of risks, the roads in Iceland are perfectly safe to drive if you act with care and good judgement, and know your limits.
It is imperative that travellers who rent a car in Iceland are aware of laws here that are different to those of their home country, so be sure to take the following notes.
To rent a car, you must have had a valid driver's license for one year, and be at least 20 years old. To rent a minibus or a four-wheel-drive, you must be 23. Your license must be in characters of the modern Latin alphabet, or accompanied by an official translation.
The speed limits are generally lower than in other European countries due to the hazards associated with driving in Iceland. The maximum speed limit on paved highways in the countryside is 90 km/h; on gravel roads, the limit is 80 km/h, and in towns and cities, generally 50 km/h. If you are unsure or if the area is not signposted, it is best to assume the limit is 50 km/h. In some areas, there are signs encouraging you to reduce speed, but it is generally expected that drivers will use common sense and choose a safe speed according to the conditions. More common are signs indicating specific hazards ahead, such as sharp bends or exposure to high winds.
For safety reasons, motorists are obliged by law to keep headlights at all times, even during summer when the sun does not set. Blind corners are common, and, of course, the deep winters are notoriously dark; even at midday, it is barely brighter than during the twilight hours. As in most countries, all passengers are required by law to wear a seatbelt. Driving under the influence of alcohol, or using a mobile phone while driving, is strictly forbidden. Speeding fines are high, and there are many traffic cameras throughout the country.
It is only legal to travel F-roads if you rent a jeep or a four-wheel-drive; and only if they have been opened for summer season. It is against the law, and foolish, to travel on any roads that are cordoned off for safety reasons.
The fragile, delicate nature of Iceland's wildlife means that driving off-road, outside of official tracks, is strictly forbidden and punishable by fines of over 350,000 ISK and even a jail sentence of up to four years. Much of the country's volcanic landscape has been formed over millions of years, and the haunting moss that creeps across it takes centuries to grow. Driving carelessly through vegetation will cause catastrophic damages. Please, respect our nature during your stay.
If you have an accident or need urgent help, call 112 for emergency services.
The majority of roads within Iceland's interior have a loose gravel surface, many are narrow, and some are raised from ground level to prevent weather-related closures. Although they are safe to drive, they present a unique set of hazards you should beware of if you plan to rent a car in Iceland.
Many accidents that visitors to Iceland have are when leaving a tarmac road for a gravel one; they approach too fast and lose control of their vehicle. Drivers should always slow down and stay focused when the surface of the road is changing, and if the car does begin to slide on the gravel, to release the gas and steer gently in the direction it is pulling. Slow down when you see oncoming traffic, and move as close to the right-hand side as is safe; beware that the loose road surface means it's easy to kick up rocks and stones, so practice this even if the roads are wide.
Should you decide to rent a jeep in Iceland, you will be able to access the country's most remote reaches; the best time to do this is in summer, as before June, snow blocks and muddy conditions make many mountain and interior roads completely impassable. These roads can be very challenging to traverse, so it is always recommended that two or more four-wheel-drive vehicles travel together. It is also advised that you leave your travel plan at Safetravel.is.
You should always know what the road conditions will be before you set out, and you can check this on the website of the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration.
The unpredictable, extreme weather in Iceland can make driving even Highway 1 a challenging experience. In winter, snowstorms, high winds, dense fog, icy roads, and perpetual darkness can complicate the simplest of journeys and such conditions need to be prepared for. Before setting out anywhere, check the weather in Iceland on the website of the Icelandic Meteorological Office. Heed bad weather warnings, and always err on the side of caution, especially if you do not have experience driving in these conditions. Throughout summer, the weather in the west and south is usually a lot less rough, but it is always wise to check out the prediction before starting your day.
Overall, drivers who are aware of the weather, the road conditions and their own driving skills, and who rent the right vehicle for what they plan to do, will have a safe and enjoyable time driving through the incredible beauty of Iceland. Make sure you know the rules and take all necessary precautions, and the whole of the country will be at your fingertips.
If you seek more information, please check out this ultimate guide of driving in Iceland.