Getting around Iceland: Transportation Tips
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
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 rent cars, camper vans 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, the Ringroad (known in Icelandic as the Hringbraut), which largely follows the coast in a 1500km circuit of the country via Reykjavík, Akureyri, Egilsstaðir and Höfn. The entire Ringroad is sealed, and in winter snowploughs do their best to keep the route open to all vehicles.
Elsewhere, while stretches around towns might be surfaced, the majority of Icelandic roads are gravel. While many of these are accessible to all vehicles, some – such as most roads through the Interior – are only negotiable in high-clearance four-wheel-drives.
Flying in Iceland is good value: the cheapest single airfare from Reykjavík to Egilsstaðir, for instance, is 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 Air Iceland Connect, which flies all year from Reykjavík to Akureyri, Egilsstaðir, the Westman Islands and Ísafjörður, with connections between April and October to Grímsey, Vopnafjörður and Þórshöfn. Their various ticket types are Full Flex, which are the most expensive; Semi Flex; and various Net fares, which are the cheapest but can’t be altered.
Their competition is Eagle Air, flying from Reykjavík to the Westman Islands, Höfn/Hornafjörður and Húsavík; again, there’s a three-tier pricing system depending on how much flexibility you need.
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.
Four bus companies provide regular long-distance services around Iceland. Three are based in Reykjavík: Reykjavík Excursions, at the BSÍ terminal; Sterna, at the Harpa Concert Hall; and the long-distance arm of Reykjavík’s city bus operator, Strætó, whose terminal is 5km south of the city centre at Mjódd. SBA-Norðurleið, which shares some routes with Sterna, is based in Akureyri. Between them, these companies cover the entire Ringroad, the West Fjords, local routes in the northeast and summer-only tracks across the Interior – including many places you could otherwise only reach in your own four-wheel-drive. A fifth operator, Trex, runs summer-only transfers between Reykjavík and Þórsmörk.
Bus travel is convenient but expensive. 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 single bus service between Egilsstaðir and Höfn.
Bookings for main-road services can be made online, or at the various terminals, 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.
Many of the bus companies 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.
Interior routes covered by bus tours from Reykjavík include the Fjallabak route, from Landmannalaugar to Skafatafell via Eldgjá’s 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.
Driving around Iceland allows far greater flexibility than taking the bus. Car rental is expensive for solo travellers but can work out a reasonable deal in a group, and it’s also possible to bring your own vehicle into the country by ferry from Denmark. 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 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.
Fuel pumps are almost always automated: 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).
Car-rental agencies, offering everything from small economical runarounds to camper vans, motor homes and gas-guzzling four-wheel-drives, are found in settlements across Iceland, though in smaller places the selection will be limited. Rental rates are highest June–August; book ahead and online for the best deals.
Rental 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 with unlimited mileage. Add-on fees insure against windscreen damage, gravel damage, and how much of the CDW (Collision Damage Waiver) you’ll be liable for; altogether, these can sometimes double the daily rental cost. One-way rental (picking up the car in Reykjavík and leaving it in Akureyri, for instance) attracts an additional relocation fee. Also note that many agencies will lean on you to take out cover for windscreen damage (worth considering) and ash protection (which you really shouldn’t need). Beware of washing a dirty car down before returning it, as grit and gravel can scratch the paintwork as you scrub away – better let the agency handle things.
Including CDW and unlimited kilometres, peak season (June–August) prices for a small sedan such as a Toyota Yaris are usually the cheapest option. For a four-wheel-drive, you’re looking at a higher rate per day, plus heavy fuel consumption. Camper vans – while more expensive per day – do at least help you save money on accommodation. Expect discounts if renting outside the peak season (Sept–May).
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 (in fuel tanks, not jerry cans) 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.
Icelanders have a cavalier attitude to driving in conditions that most other people would baulk 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. Low-volume traffic makes for few problems, though an increasing number of visitors have been involved in accidents caused by poor weather and road conditions – know your own abilities and the limits of your vehicle.
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.
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 (knowing 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, in case the crossing conditions have changed – 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.
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. 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), which organizes club weekends and has heaps of advice for cyclists. You can download most of the latter and contact members through the website, which has English text.
Hitching around Iceland is possible if you have plenty of time. Expect less traffic the further you go from Reykjavík, though you’re unlikely to have to wait too long for the next vehicle if you stick to the Ringroad. In the past, hitchers were rare and often the first car would stop; nowadays, Icelanders have become hardened to the sight of foreigners thumbing lifts, and you certainly shouldn’t take rides for granted.
Though Iceland is probably a safer place to hitch than elsewhere in Europe, Australia or the US, it still carries inherent risks. 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 at campsites or hostels; many hostels advertise available car space on their noticeboards. It’s also worth checking out the national car-sharing website, samferda.net, to see if anyone in the town you’re in is going your way.
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 October to May – many operators close completely, and those that remain open concentrate on Northern Lights, 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.