You should drive Ring Road (the big number 1 road that goes all around Iceland).
If you have a fear of driving in foreign countries, you should get over it. They do have a lot of public transportation in Reykjavik (Iceland’s capital, where most of the people are) so if driving in a foreign country spooks you out for whatever reason, you do have other options–they’re just narrow ones. I suggest you get over whatever fears you have of foreign steering wheels and give the country a go.
They drive on the right side of the road after all and have a lot fewer streets than America. It’s incredibly easy to drive there (when the roads are clear of snow and ice, that is–spring and summer time). Noah and I made it around the entire island using a wimpy Ford Fiesta (we rented a car from Budget, but there are a lot of rental car options at the airport. Do your research beforehand in order to reserve a car you need for the cheapest price). Not all of Ring Road is paved, and sometimes the winds are so strong that you actually have to use two hands on the wheel (also, when semi-trailers pass you, your car might move), but the sights you see when you get outside of Reykjavik are entirely worthwhile.
Rent a car. See the country.
Now that that argument is settled, let’s get to the serious stuff.
How to Navigate
Before I went to Iceland, I had no idea how we’d find our way around. For whatever reason, there was practically zero helpful information that I could find about driving in Iceland.
Noah made an itinerary of all the places we wanted to see and what day we’d see them, but neither of our phone carriers supports data usage outside of the States (without an extravagant fee), so we couldn’t actively use a GPS while we were there. From googling it, I’d read that Google Maps sucks in Iceland (because it’s missing half the roads; it turns out that Waze is much better), but Noah ended up downloading the roads of Iceland onto his phone from Google Maps so he could use a GPS offline, and we just hoped for the best.
Turns out that’s what we ended up using the entire time.
When we had wifi, I would double check some of our more confusing routes on Waze and screenshot the directions, but Google Maps was fairly reliable. It’s less helpful with smaller streets and specific addresses (like AirBnB hosts and tiny towns), but it can get you around the country pretty easily and we only had minor issues with it a couple of times.
In the end, I recommend downloading Google Maps on your phone, having Waze as a backup, and skipping the physical copy of a road map because it’ll just sit in your glove compartment (yes, I bought an actual roadmap and now we have a souvenir). (Also, you could just use Waze if you can figure out a way to download a map on it! Obviously, I didn’t do that.) (Another option is that you can pay to have wifi in your car and use whatever you want, but that’s a big expense and kinda ruins the fun.
Learn What the Road Signs Mean
They have all different ones. Not only are their road names a million letters long and in Icelandic, but some roads are randomly one-way and their yield, do-not-enter, warning, and no-parking signs are entirely different (but their stop signs are the same, for whatever reason). Sometimes you can pass other cars and sometimes you can’t. Sometimes roads are legit closed and other times they’re “closed” but you can proceed at your own risk. There are signs that show the difficulty of the road, tourist attractions, scenic places, city maps, and more. Check out this post for some helpful information!
Learn What the Lines on the Road Mean
There are no double yellow lines. There are no single yellow lines. There are only white lines on the road. The dashed white line that separates two lanes on the same-direction highway in America marks two different directions on the Icelandic highway, so be sure to keep to the right “lane.” Sometimes you can pass, sometimes you can’t (passing is so much more common in Iceland; you’ll see it practically always and you’ll become good at it), sometimes the bridge coming up is a one-lane bridge and you’ll have to wait for oncoming traffic.
Just get used to it being a little different. It’s not that bad.
Expect Some Crazy Tunes
The music you find on the radio is crazy. It goes from Coldplay to western to opera to Rhianna to classical to Icelandic covers, all on the same station. It makes no sense. But it’s fun to listen to!
Expect Some Insane Gasoline Bills
When we were there, it was about $50-$60 for a full tank–and we were driving a very small car (it works out to be around $10 per gallon. That’s what happens when everything is imported).
We sped a little maybe (we’re American, we can’t help it), but we tried not to. Especially in the towns (where more police are). Speed is measured in kilometers, so it’s more or less unclear exactly what’s “America-speeding” and what’s “Iceland speeding,” but they have speed detectors everywhere (they make a sad or angry face if you’re speeding and a happy one if you’re going the speed limit or below). The reason I say “don’t speed,” however, is because of something a friend told us before we left, which was…wait for it…don’t speed.
And here’s why… Because so much of the traffic in Iceland is from tourism (i.e., people leaving the country soon), Icelandic police ticket you for speeding and demand you pay the fine right away. They take your credit card and swipe it immediately because they don’t want you leaving the country without paying. Not only is there no opportunity to dispute it, but Iceland is two to three times more expensive than the States, so your $100 ticket just became $300. What a fun time!
(We didn’t get ticketed. Neither should you.)
Expect Bad (or at least annoying) Weather
Be it snow, sleet, rain, or wind. Iceland weather can be turbulent you’ve just gotta prepare for it. Sometimes the roads are closed and they mean it. Sometimes the roads are open and you snake up an ice-covered road that twines through two mountains. Sometimes the winds are so strong you can’t open your door. (Don’t freak out–sometimes it feels like spring and you won’t notice a difference from home! Just don’t expect that absolutely everywhere or you’ll be caught off-guard. Since Iceland is volcanic, the state of the roads can change seemingly without reason [or change in elevation] thanks to heat tunnels or whatever.)
Off-roading is Illegal
Okay, so, Iceland is cold, and the plant life is fragile. Much of it only has a little bit of a chance to survive thanks to the dramatically changing seasons and temperatures, so when you drive over it, you could kill it forever (don’t you care about nature? Iceland does, even if you don’t). Because of this, it is illegal to drive off-road in Iceland. They give out sky-high fines or even imprisonment for offenses, so you might want to take that one seriously and keep to the roads and marked trails.
You Might Get Stuck in the Snow
We almost did. And we helped a car full of Italians out of a snow drift that they’d been stuck in for who knows how long (they gave us beer as a thank-you; what great people). Basically, don’t drive in snow that’s deeper than your car can handle (or through the snow at all, if you’re in the wrong kind of car). If you’re inadequate at driving in snow in American, then you’ll be a joke driving in the Icelandic snow. If you’re okay with it, however, then feel free to go where the cool kids go–just be smart about it. Believe the signs that say something like, “if you go beyond this point, you might get stuck, and that’s your fault.” Just remember that not everyone will help you out of a ditch for a beer and towing prices (like everything else in Iceland) are pricey.
Other then that, it’s just like America.
Just go have an adventure.