Iceland //

Getting around

Iceland’s small scale makes getting around fairly straightforward – at least during the warmer months. From Reykjavík, it’s possible to fly or catch a bus to all major centres, and in summer there are even scheduled buses through the Interior. In winter, however, reduced bus services and difficult road conditions might make flying the only practical way to travel. It’s also easy enough to hire cars or four-wheel-drives, though those on a budget will find cycling a cheaper alternative.

On the ground, you’ll probably spend a good deal of time on Route 1, or Hringbraut (known in English as the Ringroad), which largely follows the coast in a 1500km circuit of the country via Reykjavík, Akureyri and Egilsstaðir. The entire Ringroad is sealed, and in winter snowploughs do their best to keep the route accessible to conventional vehicles, though you’ll still need to take care and use snow tyres.

Elsewhere, while stretches around towns might be surfaced, the majority of Icelandic roads are gravel. Some of these are perfectly decent (if bumpy) to travel over, while many others – such as most roads through the Interior – are only navigable in high-clearance four-wheel-drives. Note that Interior roads are only open between June and August; exactly when each opens and closes each year – or whether some open at all – depends on the weather, and the going can be difficult even then.

By air

Flying in Iceland is good value: a discounted single airfare from Reykjavík to Egilsstaðir, for instance, is 9500kr, far less than the cheapest bus fare for the same journey – and takes just one hour instead of two days. As an added bonus, you’ll get a different take on Iceland’s unique landscape from above – flying over Vatnajökull’s vast expanse of ice is about the only way to get a grasp of its scale.

The main domestic airline is Flugfélag Íslands (wairiceland.is), which flies all year from Reykjavík to Akureyri, Egilsstaðir, Ísafjörður, Westman Islands and Höfn (Hornafjörður) almost daily. From Akureyri, they have less frequent connections between April and October to Grímsey, Vopnafjörður and Þórshöfn. Their various ticket types are Priority, which are the most expensive and valid for a year; Value, which offer less flexibility, but are twenty percent cheaper; Bonus, valid for a month and some forty percent cheaper than Priority; and various Net fares, which are cheaper again but can’t be altered. Note that bad weather can cause cancellations at short notice and that it’s best to book well ahead for summer weekends and holidays. Luggage allowance is 20kg, and you need to check in thirty minutes before departure.

Sample Value fares for one-way tickets from Reykjavík are: Akureyri 13,500kr; Egilsstaðir 15,600kr; Ísafjörður 13,500kr; and Westman Islands 13,500kr.

By bus

There are currently four long-distance bus companies in Iceland: Kynnisferðir, aka Reykjavík Excursions (wre.is) and Sterna (wsterna.is), both operating out of Reykjavík’s BSÍ bus terminal (wbsi.is); SBA-Norðurleið (wsba.is) based in Akureyri; and Trex (wtrex.is). Between them, they cover the entire Ringroad, the West Fjords, and summer-only routes across the Interior, including many places you could otherwise only reach in your own four-wheel-drive. Unfortunately, however, the companies act independently of each other, meaning that some Ringroad towns have four different bus stops.

Bus travel is convenient but expensive: one-way fares from Reykjavík are 11,800kr to Akureyri; 13,700kr to Höfn; and around 20,500kr to Egilsstaðir. In purely point-to-point terms it costs less to fly, and if you can get a group together, car rental might work out cheaper, depending on how far you’re going and for how long. Between October and June, the range of buses is also greatly reduced: Interior roads close, local services dry up, and even along the Ringroad there is no bus service between Egilsstaðir and Höfn.

Bookings for main-road services can be made online, at the BSÍ terminal in Reykjavík or the SBA terminal in Akureyri, though they’re not really necessary as you can always pay on board, and extra buses are laid on if more than one busload of passengers turns up. Buses into the Interior, or local tours, will require advance booking, however.

Bus tours and buses through the Interior

SBA and Reykjavík Express also run tours, from year-round excursions along the Golden Circle to explorations of the Interior in summer. Though most tours only last a single day, you can get off along the way to camp or make use of mountain huts, and pick up a later bus – let the company know your plans in advance so a space can be reserved for you. Make sure, too, that you know when the next bus is due, as only the Kjölur route is covered daily.

Interior routes covered by bus tours from Reykjavík include the Fjallabak route, which takes you past Landmannalaugar’s thermal springs and a wild gorge system; and trips across the country to Mývatn either via the impressively barren Sprengisandur route or the easier and slightly more scenic Kjölur route. Local tours tackle the trip to the mighty Askja caldera south of Mývatn; and Lakagígar, site of a massive eighteenth-century eruption in the south of the country.

By car

Driving around Iceland allows far greater flexibility than taking the bus. Car rental is expensive for solo travellers but might work out a reasonable deal if you’re in a group, and it’s also possible to bring your own vehicle into the country by ferry. UK, US, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand driving licences are all valid for short-term visits.

In summer you don’t necessarily need a four-wheel-drive to experience the heart of the country, when both the Kjölur (Route 35) and the Kaldidalur (Route 550) open up to carefully driven conventional vehicles; these roads, however, are still very rough, and rental agencies do not allow their cars to be driven along them. Four-wheel-drive is essential for other Interior routes, most often because of sticky sand and numerous rivers (again, note that rental agencies – and their insurance companies – will not cover you for accidents at river crossings). Whatever you’re driving, and wherever you are, note that you must not drive or pull off the road or track, apart from at designated passing places or car parks – aside from the often unstable verges, you can cause serious erosion damage to the landscape.

Except in the larger towns, fuel pumps are increasingly automated and sometimes completely unstaffed: you pay at the pump using your credit/debit card with PIN. If you don’t have a credit/debit card, buy a dedicated card for a particular brand of station (N1 is probably the most widespread). Annoyingly, some automatic pumps are designed so that you have to select the amount you want in litres and pay before filling up, which means you risk buying too much. Fuel currently costs 245kr per litre for standard unleaded petrol (95 Octane, or blýlaust).

Car rental

Car-rental agencies, offering everything from small economical runarounds to motor homes and gas-guzzling four-wheel-drives, are found in settlements across Iceland, though in smaller places the selection will be limited. Hiring in Iceland is expensive and you might save money by organizing things in advance online: once here, the Reykjavík tourist information offices also have each rental agent’s brochures for directly comparing prices.

Rental-rate options boil down to two types: a daily rate, which covers the first 100km, after which you pay per additional kilometre; or an all-inclusive rate, which fixes a flat daily fee. Check how much of the CDW (Collision Damage Waiver) you’ll be liable for – it’s often very steep and only brought down by paying an extra daily premium. One-way rental (hiring the car in Reykjavík and leaving it in Akureyri, for instance) attracts an additional relocation fee. Rentals of over a week attract discounts, as does renting outside the tourist season (mid-June to late August).

Including CDW and unlimited kilometres, prices for a small sedan such as a Toyota Yaris start around 15,000kr per day, or 92,000kr per week. For a four-wheel-drive, however, you’re looking at 30,000kr per day, 180,000kr per week, plus heavy fuel consumption. Campervans – while upwards of 58,000kr per day, or 300,000kr per week – begin to look better given that you save money on accommodation and eating out.

Bringing your own vehicle

The Norröna vehicle ferry from Denmark to Seyðisfjörður in the East Fjords makes bringing your own vehicle into Iceland fairly straightforward, though obviously you have to get it to Denmark first. Assuming you have been living outside Iceland for the previous twelve months, you’re allowed to import the vehicle and 200 litres of fuel duty free for up to one year starting from the date of entry. You’ll need to produce proof that the vehicle is registered or rented by you, and has third-party insurance. Overstay and you’ll be liable to full import duties on the vehicle.

Driving regulations and road conditions

Icelanders have a cavalier attitude to driving in conditions that most other people would balk at – they have to, or would probably never get behind the wheel – and take dirt tracks and frozen twisting mountain roads very much in their stride. There’s a national tendency not to use indicators, and to gravitate towards the road’s centre. Aside from the weather and potential road conditions, however, low-volume traffic makes for few problems.

Cars are left-hand drives and you drive on the right. The speed limit is 50km an hour in built-up areas, 90km an hour on surfaced roads, and 80km an hour on gravel. Seat belts are compulsory for all passengers, and headlights must be on at least half-beam all the time.

Roadsigns you’ll soon become familiar with – even if you stick to the Ringroad – are “Einbreið bru”, indicating a single-lane bridge sometimes also marked by flashing yellow beacons; and “Malbik endar”, marking the end of a surfaced road. Bright orange signs marked “Varuð” or “Hætta” (warning or hazard) alert you to temporary local problems, such as roadworks, ground-nesting birds on the road (“fuglar á vegi”) or sandstorms.

Other common problems include having other vehicles spray you with windscreen-cracking gravel as they pass – slow down and pull over as far as possible to minimize this, especially on unsurfaced roads. Most fields are unfenced so always beware of livestock wandering about. When there’s snow – though you’d be unlucky to come across much around the Ringroad during the summer – you’ll find that the road’s edges are marked by evenly spaced yellow poles; stay within their boundaries. Avoid skidding on gravel or snow by applying the brakes slowly and as little as possible; use gears instead. In winter, everyone fits studded snow tyres to their cars to increase traction, so make sure any vehicle you rent has them too. Pack a good blanket or sleeping bag in case your car gets stuck in snow, and always carry food and water.

Rough roads and four-wheel-driving

Iceland’s interior routes, plus some shorter gravel tracks off the Ringroad, can be really rough, even if not requiring four-wheel-drive. Four-wheel-drive-only roads – on which you may encounter stretches of sand, boulders, ice or river crossings – are designated with an “F” on road maps (for instance, the Sprengisandur route is F26), and it’s illegal to drive conventional vehicles along them.

Precautions for four-wheel-drivers include never tackling roads alone; being properly equipped with all rescue gear and tools (and know in advance how to use them); and always carrying more than enough fuel, food and water. Tell someone reliable where you’re going and when you’ll be back, so that a rescue can be mounted if you don’t show – but don’t forget to contact them when you do get back safely. You’ll also need advance information on road and weather conditions; see box below for websites.

Vehicles easily bog down in snow, mud or soft sand, and if that happens it is vital to maintain forward momentum: while you’re still moving forward, resist the temptation to change gear, as you’ll lose your impetus by doing so. If you do stop moving forward, spinning wheels will quickly dig the vehicle in, so take your foot off the accelerator immediately. Hopefully you’ll be able to reverse out – otherwise, start digging. Reducing tyre pressure to around 10psi increases traction on soft surfaces, but you’ll need to pump tyres up again once you’re back on harder surfaces.

Rivers are potentially very dangerous – many people have drowned in their cars in the Interior. They come in two types: spring-fed rivers have a constant flow; while glacial rivers can fluctuate considerably depending on the time of day and prevailing weather conditions. These are at their lowest during the early morning and after a dry spell of weather; conversely, they can be much deeper in the afternoon once the sun has melted the glacial ice that feeds them, or when it’s raining. Some rivers are bridged but many are not; fords are marked with a “V” on maps. You need to assess the depth and speed of the river first to find the best crossing point – never blindly follow other vehicle tracks – and to wear a lifejacket and tie yourself to a lifeline when entering the river to check its depth. If the water is going to come more than halfway up the wheels, slacken off the fan belt, block the engine’s air intake, and waterproof electrics before crossing. Be sure to engage a low gear and four-wheel-drive before entering the water at a slow, steady pace; once in, don’t stop (you’ll either start sinking into the riverbed or get swept away), or change gear (which lets water into the clutch). If you stall mid-stream in deep water, turn off the ignition immediately and disconnect the battery, use a winch to pull the vehicle out, and don’t restart until you’ve ensured that water hasn’t entered the engine through the air filter – which will destroy the engine.

Cycling

Bad roads, steep gradients and unpredictable weather don’t make Iceland an obvious choice for a cycling holiday, but there are plenty of people who come here each summer just to pedal around. If you’re properly equipped, it’s a great way to see the country close-up – you’ll also save plenty of money over other forms of transport.

You’ll need a solid, 18- or 24-speed mountain bike with chunky tyres. You can rent these from various agents in Iceland for around 4000kr a day. If you’re bringing your own bike to Iceland by plane, or getting it from one end of the country to the other by air, you’ll need to have the handlebars and pedals turned in, the front wheel removed and strapped to the back, and the tyres deflated.

There are bike shops in Reykjavík, Akureyri and a couple of the larger towns, but otherwise you’ll have to provide all spares and carry out repairs yourself, or find a garage to help. Remember that there are plenty of areas, even on the Ringroad, where assistance may be several days’ walk away, and that dust, sand, mud and water will place abnormal strains on your bike. You’ll definitely suffer a few punctures, so bring a repair kit, spare tyre and tubes, along with the relevant tools, spare brake pads, spokes, chain links and cables.

Around the coast you shouldn’t need excessively warm clothing – a sweater and waterproof in addition to your normal gear should be fine – but make sure it’s all quick-drying. If travelling through the Interior, weatherproof jackets, leggings, gloves and headwear, plus ample warm clothing, are essential. Thick-soled neoprene surf boots will save cutting your feet on rocks during river crossings.

It’s not unfeasible to cover around 90km a day on paved stretches of the Ringroad, but elsewhere the same distance might take three days and conditions may be so bad that you walk more than you ride. Give yourself four weeks to circuit the Ringroad at an easy pace – this would average around 50km a day. Make sure you’ve worked out how far it is to the next store before passing up the chance to buy food, and don’t get caught out by supermarkets’ short weekend hours (see Money). Off-road cycling is prohibited in order to protect the landscape, so stick to the tracks.

If it all gets too much, put your bike on a bus for 3000kr. If there’s space, bikes go in the luggage compartment; otherwise they are tied to the roof or back. Either way, protect your bike by wrapping and padding it if possible.

For help in planning your trip – but not bike rental – contact the Icelandic Mountain Bike Club (Íslenski Fjallahjólaklúbburinn, or ÍFHK; wfjallahjolaklubburinn.is), which organizes club weekends and has heaps of advice for cyclists. You can download most of the latter and contact staff through the website, which has English text.

Hitching

Hitching around Iceland is possible if you have plenty of time. Expect less traffic the further you go from Reykjavík, and even on the Ringroad there are long stretches where you may go for hours without seeing a vehicle. Leave the Ringroad and you might even have to wait days for a lift, though in either case it’s likely that the first car past will stop for you.

Having said this, holidaying Icelanders will probably already have their cars packed to capacity, so make sure you have as little gear as possible – without, of course, leaving behind everything you’ll need to survive given the climate and long spaces between shops (see Alcohol). And though Iceland may be a safer place to hitch than elsewhere in Europe Australia, or the US, it still carries inherent risks, and the best advice is not to do it.

If you must hitch, never do so alone and remember that you don’t have to get in just because someone stops. Given the wide gaps between settlements it will probably be obvious where you are heading for, but always ask the driver where they are going rather than saying where it is you want to go.

The best places to line up lifts are either at campsites, hostels or the fuel stations which sit on the outskirts of every settlement; it’s possible, too, that staff in remoter places might know of someone heading your way.

Tours

Everywhere you go in Iceland you’ll find tours on offer, ranging from whale-watching cruises, hikes, pony treks and snowmobile trips across southern glaciers to bus safaris covering historic sites, Interior deserts, hot springs and volcanoes or even sightseeing flights over lakes and islands. Some routes – like the popular Golden Circle via Þingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss – you can also do independently easily enough, but in other cases you’ll find that tours are the only practical way to reach somewhere.

Tours can last anything from a couple of hours to several days, with the widest range offered between June and September. Booking in advance is always a good idea; details of tours and operators are given throughout the guide. In winter – which as far as tourism is concerned lasts from September to May – many operators close completely, and those that remain open concentrate on four-wheel-driving and glacier exploration along the fringes of the southern ice caps, as the Interior itself is definitely off-limits by then. While bigger agents in Reykjavík offer trips almost daily in winter, don’t expect to be able to just turn up at a small town off-season and get onto a tour – most will require a few days’ advance warning in order to arrange everything.

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