Planning a trip to Iceland is both exciting and overwhelming. And while many travelers spend the bulk of their time in Reykjavík, Iceland has so much more to offer beyond the country’s capital and largest city.
So how can adventurous travelers see more of Iceland? Rent a car and drive the Ring Road.
Route 1, or the Ring Road, is Iceland’s main highway that covers 1,330 kilometers (or 826 miles) circling the country. This was the option my boyfriend and I chose when we drove the Ring Road in 11 days, stopping along the way to get close to countless waterfalls, to hike in Vatnajökull National Park and later on a glacier in Snæfellsjökull National Park, to see seals swimming around Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and so much more.
RELATED CONTENT: 11-DAY ICELAND RING ROAD ITINERARY
Like most travelers to foreign countries, I learned along the way what I planned well and what I wished I had known before getting on the airplane. Based on my experiences, here are nine things to know before driving the Ring Road in Iceland:
1. Don’t attempt the Ring Road unless you have at least 10 days.
While 826 miles doesn’t sound like a road trip that requires at least 10 days, you’ll need it for the Ring Road. Many of the big attractions require a little extra mileage off the highway, and you won’t want to rush through adventures in order to make it to your next overnight destination.
And of course, you don’t want to spend your entire trip driving or being tired from driving. Ten or more days will allow you to find a balance between being in the car and loving your Iceland experiences.
2. Buy prepaid gas cards before you need gas.
By the time my boyfriend and I picked up our rental car after touching down at the Keflavík International Airport, we were so excited to hit the road and explore that we didn’t ask about filling up the car with gas. It wasn’t until we were leaving the Geysir Geothermal Area, the second stop in the Golden Circle on our second day, that we realized we should have purchased gas cards.
Iceland is virtually paperless when it comes to money, and the easiest and most common way to fill your car up with gas is with a prepaid gas card. Unfortunately, not all gas stations have gas cards in stock, including the one where we stopped in need of gas. The only alternative we had was to use a credit card, but Iceland gas stations take only credit cards with a pin number. The only credit card we had with a pin charged international fees, something we were hoping to avoid.
So swing into a gas station like N1 and buy at least one prepaid gas card as soon as you see one on the Ring Road. And speaking of gas stops, there are some stretches of the Ring Road that offer few gas station options, particularly in the Eastfjords, so it’s best to top off your tank whenever you can.
3. Have (and use) a road map.
We traveled with two Iceland guide books, both of which included detailed road maps. I didn’t anticipate using them, but when our car’s GPS didn’t accept the addresses we tried to plug in and when the Icelandic signs confused us, we fell back on those road maps.
One map was the reason we took the longer route to Snæfellsnes peninsula on day eight so we could see the stunning Kirkjufell on a sunny day instead of taking a shorter route and either missing it altogether or backtracking the next day and risking cloudy views.
4. Pack waterproof outerwear.
Even if there’s no rain in the forecast, even if it’s summer and you don’t think you’ll be cold, chances are good you’ll get wet at some point thanks to the mist from the waterfalls you’ll be stopping to admire all along the Ring Road.
I had a waterproof jacket, but I didn’t have any waterproof pants, a purchase I regretted not making before the trip as I walked the path behind the beautiful Seljalandsfoss waterfall in southern Iceland. Thankfully, our wet visit was at the end of the day and we were only a short drive to our next hotel so I didn’t have to sit in drenched jeans for too long.
Generally speaking, pack warm clothes, even in the summer. You may think you don’t need a jacket when the weather report predicts 55 degrees, but the wind chill will leave you wishing you had warm gloves, hats and thick socks.
The best thing I packed to deal with the cold? Eight-hour hand warmers I stuck in my gloves. If not for those hand warmers, some of my favorite adventures, such as hiking a glacier in Snæfellsjökull National Park in western Iceland, would have been more memorable for how cold I was instead of how much fun I had amidst a breathtaking landscape.
5. Book nights at Airbnbs whenever possible.
Out of ten nights in Iceland, we stayed in two Airbnbs and six hotels. As much as we enjoyed the convenience of hotel restaurants and bars, as well as the one hotel that gave us a wake-up call in the middle of the night for our first Northern Lights viewing, hotels in Iceland are very expensive.
Each Airbnb we booked hosted us for two consecutive nights. We cooked our own meals, we washed our dirty clothes in the hosts’ washing machines (with detergent they supplied), and slept in bigger rooms with bigger beds than most of the hotels offered. Staying in Airbnbs saved us a ton of money, but it also gave us an insider’s look at how people in Iceland live.
6. Pack old towels and plastic bags.
The first attraction we visited in Iceland was the famed Blue Lagoon. Part of the package we bought included towels, but most geothermal pools do not. When we stopped at the popular geothermal pool in Hofsós on day seven, we were surprised to be charged for towels.
It would have been nice to have our own towels at pools, but also to keep handy in the car for drying off after hiking in the rain or visiting waterfalls. Bringing old towels allows you to simply toss them instead of putting wet ones in your suitcase on the way home. And plastic bags keep those bathing suits and other wet gear from getting mixed up with your dry, clean clothes.
7. Speaking of the Blue Lagoon, book it in advance, go early in the day or skip it altogether.
The Blue Lagoon is probably the most well-known tourist attraction in Iceland. So that was the first thing we booked after plane tickets. We went straight from our rental car pick-up to the Blue Lagoon, thankful to be able to do some relaxing after the overnight plane ride.
When we arrived at 8:00 AM local time, the handful of people were well spread out throughout the lagoon. By the time we left at 10:00 AM, it felt like every inch of the man-made blue water was occupied. People pushed in front of each other to get a few seconds under the massage-like waterfall, and there were lines for showers and bathrooms.
While I’m glad to have visited the Blue Lagoon, many people skip it and opt instead for the Myvtan Nature Baths in northern Iceland for a cheaper and less crowded experience.
8. Bonus, Kronan, Netto and Vínbúdin are your friends.
Iceland is expensive. Eating (and drinking) out for every meal isn’t just a budget buster, but sometimes it’s not even available because of long stretches of remote areas with no dining options on the Ring Road.
That’s why buying groceries at stores like Bonus, Kronan and Netto are essential to stock up on snacks for the car, ingredients for meals you want to cook at your Airbnb and pre-made sandwiches and salads to eat while hiking. You can also pick up any toiletries you forgot or assumed you didn’t need. For instance, some of our hotels did not provide shampoo or conditioner, but we found a limited selection at Kronan.
After exploring and driving so much during the day, we looked forward to having a glass of wine or a beer in our room thanks to Vínbúdin, Iceland’s only chain of liquor stores. And we were pleasantly surprised to find a Vínbúdin in almost every town we stopped in.
9. Be flexible and adjust expectations.
Even though I created an itinerary and we had to reach a certain destination by the end of every day because of lodging reservations, we tried to stay flexible with just about every other aspect of our time in Iceland. I didn’t pack warm enough clothes so I layered. The food looked and tasted different, but we tried various menu items. Most must-see locations, especially in Reykjavík and the Golden Circle, were crowded, which means lines and people in the background of your photos. If we saw something on the side of the road that looked interesting or a look-out for photos, we pulled over to check it out.
I also adjusted my expectations. The weather in Iceland is unpredictable and sometimes we lucked out and saw rainbows on sunny days, but other days it was cloudy and rainy. I hoped to see more puffins than the handful we saw flying at the Reynisfjara black sand beach on the southern coast and more whales than the single one we saw on a tour in Húsavík in the north, but we visited too late in the season for both. On the other hand, I didn’t expect to see the Northern Lights because of the time of year, but ended up being thrilled to see them not once, but twice.
Finally, have I mentioned Iceland is expensive? You’re going to spend more money than you think. But Iceland is worth it.
Looking for a Ring Road itinerary? Here’s the 11-day itinerary we did: 11-DAY ICELAND RING ROAD ITINERARY