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For this summer I am thinking about going to Iceland. I would like to fly to Reykjavik, spend some days there, then rent a car, travel around the island and then fly back home. Now I have a few questions about that:

  • How many days should I spend in Reykjavik if I will stay in Iceland 3 weeks? Is it worth to stay there more than 2 days?
  • How long does it take to travel around the whole island by car? Not super fast, but if I want to stop at the major attractions.
  • Can I reach the major sights with a normal rental car?
  • I heard that the main roads are easily accesible with a normal rental car. But if I want to go into the inner regions of the island, I need an all-terrain vehicle. Can I rent such a vehicle? And is it a good idea to just drive by myself if I don't have any previous experience with such kind of vehicles? For example I never used a car to cross a small river.
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4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Driving the road is 830 miles and not that hard except for the narrow roads, blind curves, etc. There are villages all around the coast of Iceland. Nytimes has a good article.

Now driving in the unpopulated highlands (the desert part in the middle) means driving in areas where there are no gas stations, no farms, no towing and you may have to drive across rivers.

Here is a good visualization map of driving in Iceland.

As you can see, at the time I'm writing, most all interior roads are impassable. The roads do open up in the summer. Travel guides advise taking spare parts and gasoline.

One of the highland roads, Sprengisandur, has an interesting name-- it means Bursting-sand, as in the trail that was long and dangerous enough that you'd ride your horse as fast as possible (until they burst), or else you'd run out of food or run into dangerous weather along the way.

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I accepted this as an answer, although the other answers were also really useful. But the visualization map is just really useful! Thanks. –  RoflcoptrException Jan 12 '12 at 9:12
If you're counting 830 miles then you probably refer to road number 1, but technically that leaves out large parts of the country, like some peninsulas or the fjords in the north-west. –  0xC0000022L May 18 at 7:51

Below are the answers to your questions, respectively:

1) Reykjavík is a pretty nice and relaxing city. How much time you want to spend there, depends on what you like and what you want to do there. If you like going to the pubs and just relax for sometime, then I would recommend to stay for a couple of days in Reykjavík.

2) If you want to take the Route 1 (Ring Road), 3 or 4 days would be good enough to drive around and look at some attractions like (Snæfellsnes - mentioned in 'Journey to the center of Earth' novel/movie, Westfjords, Akureyri - Northern Iceland, Lake Myvatn, Vatnajökull, Skogarfoss, etc). You can also do it in shorter time. If it was me, I would take more time and explore all the places, stay overnight at a couple of places where I can relax and visit some attractions around, etc. Apart from this Route 1 (Ring Road), you can drive around the Golden circle, which has some of the main attractions of Iceland (Geysir, Þingvellir, Gulfoss waterfall, Central Iceland, etc). Central Iceland is really exotic and it feels like you are on a different planet or moon. Some of the US astronauts (including Neil Armstrong) are said to have been in this part of Iceland, as part of a training program, before the Moon expedition.

3 & 4) With a normal car, you can reach many important locations, but not all. Driving in Iceland is relatively easy, apart from a few gravel roads and some parts of Central Iceland. Anyways, you can still get to do these trips, as there are many offers (not that cheap), where they use those huge All-Terrain vehicles.

I've been to many parts of Iceland and have seen much, but not everything...As for me, the best parts of Iceland are Westfjords, Exotic Central Iceland, Snæfellsnes & surroundings, Akureyri, Lake Myvatn, Vatnajökull, Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Icelands - Volcanic Island on the South of Iceland), Grímsey (Island on the North of Iceland), Rejkyavik.

EDIT: If you would like to take your car to Iceland, check Smyril Line.

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Great responses bchetty! Only a couple of questions that I believe you can answer: 1) You say in question number 2 that "If it was me, I would take more time and explore all the places" How much time did it takes to "explore all the places" in a relaxed way? 2) Which interesting locations cannot be visited without an all terrain vehicle? I think this will help a lot future visitors (like me) to decide if worths it to rent a 4x4 car or not –  Ivan Jan 10 '12 at 22:50
Ivan, I said so because when I was there, I saw some exotic and calm places, where I thought I would just stay around for a couple of days, relax and hike around. For example, When I was at a lake in Pingvellir National Park (which is on North American tectonic plate), I saw some houses around the lake and thought I would just relax and hike/camp around. Also, there are lot of isolated & far-flung houses in Iceland (you can rent some of 'em). As for visiting interesting locations with a normal car, you can cover most of 'em, apart from some parts of central Iceland and Glacier/Volcano trips. –  bchetty Jan 12 '12 at 8:45
NOTE: I'm not that sure of driving conditions in winter (specially the less-used roads). –  bchetty Jan 12 '12 at 8:51

I want to point out safetravel.is which is a co-operated government site and should answer all your questions regarding driving safe in Iceland.
I would say that an optimum time limit to observe the island would be two weeks give or take. I would definitely recommend 4x4 for your trip, just so you don't need to take any risks if you feel unsure about the road.

Rental companies tend to be a bit overpriced during the high season so do your research thoroughly before booking. There is also a peer-to-peer car rental site, Carrenters.is, they tend to offer cheaper prices, especially during the high season.

Good luck with your trip!

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I disagree about having to take 4x4. There are plenty of places where it makes sense, but unless you intend a roundtrip as such (i.e. won't be able to go back to a "base camp") you always can rent the bigger car for only a day or two. They are usually considerably more expensive to rent, but only add marginal added value (i.e. in edge cases during a trip). Sometimes - I know Icelanders don't like hiking that much - getting out of the car and hiking up that mountain can be a lot more satisfying than renting a car and forcing it up there. And yeah, even 4x4 has limits ... –  0xC0000022L May 18 at 7:59

I've gone to iceland by ferry a few years ago, It was an amazing journey and I'm still planning to go back!
Here is my experience:

We got on the ferry in Denmark.
It would take a week to get there.
You get a two day stop at the Faroe Islands.
There the roads were still made of asphalt (we later discovered that aspahlt isn't that well known in iceland) The landscape was allready amazing.

From there the ferry went trough the shetland islands.
And we got of at Iceland...
We were amazed, we had taken our own car (lancia thesis) and that's as you can see just a normal front-wheel-drive roadcar...
We went all the way round (following road1) and slept at hotels.

I can definitively recommend doing it, just make sure you have atleast a good SUV and preferably a good 4x4 pickup/truck. (rental companies seemed to have just that.)
Not knowing anything about iceland and having found a map at the boat we just went for it.
Getting of the boat it was still looking like faroe and shetland.
The aspahlt soon ended, the whole way round it was gravel and small pebbles.
We encountered numerous landscapes from vulcanic red stone to huge forests and green valleys.
And often didn't encounter anything or anyone for hours and hundreds of kilometers.

We only made one mistake...
After staying in Reykjavik
We went to the Blue Lagoon.
From there we decided to use a shortcut back to road 1.
Road 47 if I'm correct. By now we we're used to the lack of smooth roads and sweet asphalt.
As we allready found this road very rough, there was a redirection.
The road changed to ROCKS the only thing making it a road was that it was a bit more flat and all the big rocks and boulders were pushed to the side.
And after 2 hard slams we stopped and discovered that we had a flat tyre...
We changed to a full spare (luckily) and went to find a small fishing village hoping for a tyre dealer...
We were lucky to find one and our tyre was fixed (as replacing it was impossible...)

Iceland left a great impression and I'm still wanting to go back or even move there.
Just rent a good car...

Our car: Our car

The thing we usually encountered: Artic Truck

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Is there still a ferry from Denmark to Iceland? –  nibot Jan 11 '12 at 9:34
Eyup smyrilline.com/frontpage.aspx smyrilline seems like they still have the same ship in service (M/S Norröna) –  HTDutchy Jan 11 '12 at 9:46
I suppose you went in summer, buy which month and year? We are planning a trip to Iceland with our own car and I will appreciate a lot if you could give us an estimation about the price of a trip like yours. Thanks –  Ivan Jan 11 '12 at 11:14
We went in summer (august 2003) I went with my dad and I can't remember what we paid. Phone service is rare (and expensive), and food is also more expensive then normal countries. –  HTDutchy Jan 11 '12 at 11:44
@HTDutchy: I lived in Iceland several years. When I had trips to the US (VA) it turned out that food there was surprisingly expensive, too. But in general everything is more expensive, with the possible exception of admittance to swimming pools :) –  0xC0000022L May 18 at 8:14

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