Where can you pick up a rental car in Iceland? How do you navigate the Ring Road? Does Iceland have any specific road signs? How do you drive on mountain roads in the Highlands? Read on for all you need to know about renting a car and driving in Iceland.
Despite Iceland becoming an immensely popular tourist destination over the last decade, the public transportation system is, still, incredibly lacking. The reason might be that nearly every local possesses one or more cars, which is by far the best way to travel around the island to visit its spectacular natural attractions.
Renting a car in Iceland is by far the most economical way to freely travel between the towns and villages that dot the Ring Road―a 1,332 km (828 m) paved artery which reaches around the island, fully navigatable with a normal car during the summer months.
During the winter season, a 4x4 vehicle is favourable, as well as necessary if you want to go off the Ring Road to visit the wild and desolate central Highlands. Be aware, however, that the Icelandic interior is largely inaccessible during the winter months. Luckily, there are people who work around the clock clearing the roads and information on road availability is easily accessible, as well as essential for your safety.
Read on for all you need to know about renting a car in Iceland, as well as additional information on navigation, road signs, road availability and F-road driving.
When travelling to Iceland, it is recommended to book your rental car beforehand. How you pick up your car will depend on which rental company you are booked with which you can check on your voucher.
A person may be waiting in the arrival terminal holding a sign with your name and the name of the rental company. If you do not see a person holding a sign with your name, you may need to take the airport shuttle to the rental offices near the airport.
You can also arrange to go directly to your accommodation in Reykjavík via the FlyBus, and have your rental car delivered to you there, but you must make such arrangements with your car rental company prior to your arrival.
If you are unsure what to do, contact the car rental company for help. The phone number will be printed on your voucher. You can also visit the car rental desk at the airport to begin the process.
Th FlyBus leaves 45 minutes after all arrivals and you will have an open-voucher so you can take whichever bus best suits you on the day. You do not need to worry about flight delays since the FlyBus is scheduled around these circumstances. If you need any assistance with the bus, simply visit the service desk located inside the airport.
The car rental desk at Keflavik International Airport can be seen on the map below.
Make sure you have enough time before your flight departure to return your car. Car return can take up to 30 minutes, depending on how busy the rental office is. Most car rental offices are located in a big silver building about 500 meters before you get to the airport. As you approach the airport, instead of heading straight to Departures, bay right, following the sign that says 'Car Rental Returns'. This is a square block, so if you do not find your company, just go round again.
Picture from Private Airport Transfer | Reykjavik & Keflavik
If you have trouble returning your car, contact the phone number that is on your car rental agreement that you received upon your arrival. Most of the local car rental companies are quite flexible when it comes to pick-ups and returns, so, by all means, give them a ring.
Your rental car may be equipped with GPS. Ask your rental provider for help using the GPS if you have any questions. Now is also a good time to check what location you will return your car to at the end of your trip.
The most important thing about using your GPS system is to choose “Point of Interest” instead of “Address” when trying to input a location. Not every location in Iceland has a proper postal address.
It is also vital to punch in the name of the location with precision, as to not get lost like in a now-infamous incident where a traveller followed his GPS blindly, only to end up at Laugarvegur in Siglufjörður as opposed to Laugavegur in Reykjavík City.
With the exception of the major cities of Reykjavík and Akureyri, Iceland is still a very rural place. Infrastructure is simple and there may only be one or two roads which take you to any given location.
For that reason, some country hotels and businesses have no postal address. They may only use the name of the farm and the name of the county in which the farm is located. It is simply the only business in that area, and the locals know where to go and where to make deliveries, so there is no need for an address.
For this reason, Guide to Iceland has provided you with GPS points for each location. When you book with us, your itinerary contains links to google maps for each location, so that you can easily find it on a map. Paper maps are also available at the Reykjavík City Hall and gas stations if you do not have internet access.
The Ring Road of Iceland, also known as Route 1, makes a full circle around the island. This easily navigatable road is 98% paved and will take you directly to a myriad of the most popular towns (e.g. Vík) and locations (e.g. Lake Mývatn) in the country.
Bear in mind that the Ring Road is not an autobahn―its speed limit never exceeds 90 km/h (55 m/h) and the lanes are only two and sometimes single when it comes to bridges. Also, beware of free-roaming sheep as they often abruptly run over the road and damage to the vehicle caused by animals is not covered in insurance packages.
If you have an issue with your GPS, you may stop at a gas station and ask for directions or purchase a paper map if needed. Icelanders are friendly people, so don't be shy. Road signs should also be easy to spot, with large bold texting and a bright yellow colour.
In addition to road signs, most of the main locations today have tourist boards with a full description in English and a map to help you find your way. If you are in the possession of a mobile phone, we also recommend the handy Iceland Road Guide app.
In addition to navigational signs to get you to your next location, there are other signs which indicate terrain and other road issues. See them in the picture below with explanations of their meaning in English.
Additionally, you might notice a looped square symbol with a blue background pictured below. This sign indicates a location of cultural interest or national heritage and it's been around in the Nordic countries since the late 1960s.
The word for mountain in Iceland is fjall. Mountain roads, therefore, are marked with an F before their number on the far left of the road sign in question. Because of this, when you read about many Highland destinations in Iceland, these roads are referred to as F-roads.
Picture by CGP Grey - Wikimedia Creative Commons
Mountain roads are only accessible with a 4x4/4WD car, and only during the summer. Rental cars that are not 4x4/4WD are not allowed on the F-roads by law, and rental four-wheelers are only allowed at the driver's own risk.
If you are found driving an F-road in an inappropriate vehicle, you will face a very hefty fine on top of any fees you may be charged for towing or assistance. This means that if any damage occurs, the driver is responsible for any necessary repairs, regardless of insurance coverage.
Picture from Myvatn Off-Road Super Jeep Tour
For your own safety, always check the road conditions before driving using this website and don't feel shy to ask locals their opinions of the road conditions. You can also keep up-to-date on the ever-changing weather on the homepage of the Icelandic Met Office or with the Veður app.
If you are not comfortable driving these roads yourself, there are many tours which take you all over the country in modified Super Jeeps or other tough vehicles designed to handle the rough terrain, driven by experienced local drivers.
Off-road driving is always illegal in Iceland and may result in a 350,000 ISK fine or up to 4 years in jail, so stay on the designated roads and F-roads. Driving off-road leaves irreversible track marks in the delicate young terrain of this beautiful country, so no matter what, you should never be tempted to take short-cuts across any open plains.
Mountain roads, or F-roads, are generally located in the centre of the country, or in smaller, hard-to-access areas of the coast. See all the F-roads in Iceland marked in red on the map below.
You can also pick up a paper booklet called Mountain Roads at Tourist Information Centres and in offices of the Icelandic Tourist Board.
For up to the minute maps of Iceland's road conditions, try these interactive maps. Simply choose the area of Iceland in which you will be travelling and take a look at current road conditions, updated regularly throughout the day.
As an example, see this map of the South Coast below.
On this particular day, the roads were all easily passable since they are marked in green. Roads marked with a yellow 4x4 icon are mountain roads accessible only by Super Jeeps or other 4WD vehicles.
Information about landmarks in the area is relayed in the light green boxes. At the time this map was created, road construction was taking place in the Mosfellsheiði and Gjábakki areas, in the upper left corner of the map. Other icons which may appear on the map are defined in the map key in the lower left corner.
There are many webcams set up on roads all around the country so that you can see the road conditions for yourself here. Just click on a green icon and you can view the road in close to real time.
These services are part of the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration website. There, you can find information about road conditions in English, along with safety tips, weather warning and helpful videos about the weather in Iceland and more.
If you don't have access to the internet, you can also call (+354) 1777 for road information, available in English. To go directly to information about road conditions and weather, dial (+354) 1778.
If you have any further inquiries about renting a car or driving in Iceland, don't hesitate in leaving your questions in the comments box below. Drive safe!