Oh Iceland, you crazy, crazy place. Mountains, oceans, black sand beaches, basalt columns, staggering cliffs, waterfalls, mossy lava rock fields, sulphur springs, canyons, glaciers…come on. Just stop.
As most everyone is well aware of by now (due to my epic spamming on Instagram like every other person who has ever been there), my husband and I eloped to Iceland two weeks ago. We didn’t have real reason for picking it other than we wanted to go somewhere we’d never been, and Iceland looked pretty awesome. To say that it exceeded expectations wouldn’t even do it justice. I’m convinced it was created by ten million unicorns that shat rainbows and glitter onto an island in the middle of the sea. It’s just too magical. A place like this shouldn’t exist in real life.
If you’re obsessed with road trips and nature like I am, Iceland is probably the most ideal location you could find for both. The main main highway, Ring Road (Road 1), spans the entire island and many of the famous attractions are accessible directly from it. At 871 miles long, it would only take about 16 hours to drive around the entire country without stopping. While you could theoretically just do that and still see the most stunning scenery of your life from the car, I can pretty much guarantee you won’t be able to drive more than 30 seconds without shoving the door open to take photos of everything you see. Another absolutely incredible fact is that the ENTIRE country is run on 100% renewable energy (hydropower and geothermal). Iceland is the only country in the world with that claim to fame and it gave us a whole new appreciation for everything we saw!
We spent 11 days on the most mind-blowingly beautiful road trip ever for our “weddingmoon”, and I’m stoked to share this massive guide to help you plan the best Ring Road trip ever. In this post I’ll be covering the logistics – a detailed itinerary will be coming soon in part 2 as well as another post detailing cost & budget.
A quick note on tourism in Iceland:
When we chose to go to Iceland, we had no idea that the massive influx of tourists was such a major issue. We don’t watch Game of Thrones (which is apparently a huge draw for people?) and all I had really seen were cool Instagram photos, but even then I didn’t think it was such a wildly popular destination. Our Airbnb hosts told us that 2 million tourists are expected to visit this year, when about 8 years ago that number was only 464,000. The entire population of Iceland is only 330,823 – so yea, let that sink in.
The tourism board is overwhelmed with infrastructure problems like building enough bathrooms (we paid $4 just to use bathrooms at a gift shop), while locals have constant issues with people jumping fences and trespassing onto their property. Many of the popular attractions now have roped paths due to the amount of traffic impacting the natural surroundings and everything is insanely expensive. Summer is high season so May was a good time to go; I never felt that anywhere was too crowded, but once the warmer weather hits in a few weeks I can only imagine it will be chaos.
None of this should deter you from visiting, but it’s important to remember tourism is drastically impacting the daily lives of the locals. Many of their personal lives now revolve around the industry; people run guesthouses, maintain their land so that people can visit, work in the restaurants and run the popular tours (northern lights, whale watching etc.). You are a guest in their home, so treat it well! Respect the wildlife and nature, don’t trespass on private property and avoid using the side of the road as a bathroom – this was the number one complaint we heard from our Airbnb hosts.
But let’s dive in – here’s everything you need to know to prepare you for the wild ride that is Ring Road!
We flew nonstop on Icelandair from Denver to Reykjavik and back. Both flights were smooth and comfortable. The airline offers a free stopover option for up to 7 days if you are to flying anywhere that passes over Iceland, which is pretty neat. They do NOT provide food unless you pay extra, so we bought our meals at the airport and took them onto the plane.
I have heard that Icelandair can be strict about their baggage policy but they never once weighed or measured our bags, though maybe we just got lucky. Our checked and carry-on suitcases fit within the guidelines, but I also brought a heavy backpack that was loaded with my laptop and camera gear as a “personal item” and no one batted an eye. I’m not sure if they are more lenient now or if I just got lucky.
KEF is small but gorgeously designed, like most things in Iceland. The airport features an abundance of natural light from huge glass windows, a wide variety of food options and gift shops, floor to ceiling murals and a large duty-free store.
The entrance is full of car rental desks, so if you’re renting through a bigger brand they’ll likely have their own check-in desk at the airport. Otherwise you can wait to take a shuttle or just walk to the other car rental offices that are located in a strip of buildings just behind the main terminal. It took the same amount of time to walk or take the shuttle (5 minutes), so it’s your call. The wind was so bad when we arrived that we opted to take the shuttle, but on the day we departed we just walked.
Iceland uses króna (ISK), in the form of bills and coins.
100 ISK = $1
1000 ISK = $10
10.000 ISK = $100
And so forth. It can get a little confusing if you aren’t paying attention – once I thought a 29.000ISK bottle of wine was $29 when it was actually $290 (noped right out of that one). You cannot exchange króna once you leave the country, so make sure to change it at the airport before you hop on the plane. We kept an emergency stash of about 30.000 ISK ($300) on us, which came in handy when we booked a last minute cabin and needed to pay the host in cash. However Iceland does accept all major credit cards and we paid for the other 90% of our in-country expenses solely with credit.
Having internet connection of some kind is pretty much essential on Ring Road. It will allow you to check the road conditions (you’ll need to do that often), keep an eye on the weather or even find last minute accommodation. Perhaps most importantly it will get you around, despite Google Maps being a bit misinformed at times. It’s a good idea to have a physical map as a backup.
You can rent a WiFi hotspot (about $100 for 11 days) but since my phone is unlocked we opted to grab a SIM card instead, which was $20 for 1GB (data only). We ended up needing two, so 2GB total for 11 days. If you book accommodation primarily at hotels you might want to get a card with calling in case you need to contact them immediately for whatever reason, but since we used Airbnb we were able to use the in-app messaging system to get in touch with our hosts without a problem.
After a lot of research on different providers, I chose to get a Síminn card because it had the best coverage. There were only a very few brief times when we lost service but for the most part I was super impressed with how well it worked in locations that were pretty remote. You can easily grab a SIM card at most gas stations and convenience stores, just ask the clerks as they are behind the counter. I grabbed my first one at the 10-11 in Keflavik airport.
Iceland’s emergency number: 112
I did an insane amount of research on car rental places because I’m a paranoid wreck. After spending days (yes, days) scouring reviews and comparing prices, we settled on renting an automatic, diesel Kia Soul from Cars Iceland. I think they must be either owned by or affiliated with Blue Car Rental, because the desks are next to each other and BCR is who we officially wound up receiving our vehicle from. They were very nice people and our car was clean and practically brand new with only 2500 kilometers. I’d recommend getting a diesel vehicle because the fuel is cheaper and will get you better gas mileage.
We opted for 2WD because we were planning to use the car primarily on the highway. After driving it around the island, I can definitely say you don’t need a 4WD car to safely travel Ring Road (except in the winter or when there is a lot of snow and ice). We drove on many steep gravel roads and through light snow without any problems. I will say that the Kia Soul had much higher clearance than most of the tiny sedans we saw and I do think it made our lives much easier whenever we weren’t on pavement. If you plan to travel F-Roads you will need a 4WD car.
N1 was our favorite gas station because it was all around the island and easily searchable on Google Maps. You need a debit or credit card with a pin number to fuel up at the pump, otherwise you can go inside and purchase a prepaid gas card.
In Iceland you drive on the right side of the road, just like the U.S.
I’m a nervous driver to begin with, but in Iceland you absolutely MUST use extra caution when driving. The roads are very narrow and mostly all elevated, meaning there is a steep drop on either side. Get too close to the edge and you’ll be stuck in a ditch. On the east coast Ring Road turns to gravel for a decent amount of the drive and most of the attractions require turning off onto gravel roads in order to access them, so be prepared for a bumpy ride. Due to the lack of police officers, Iceland has automatic cameras that will take a photo of your car if you’re speeding and bill your ticket to your rental car agency, who will then charge it to your credit card.
There are many blind hills but they are usually well marked with signs, and animals roam pretty freely in Iceland so it’s not uncommon to see sheep, cows or even reindeer in the middle of the street. You’ll also run into one-car bridges frequently where traffic goes both ways, so stop at the designated line and look carefully to avoid colliding with another vehicle. Don’t ignore the traffic signs!
For real-time road and weather conditions: www.roads.is
Because it was our honeymoon, we had saved up some money and opted for the extra comfort of hotels, guesthouses and cabins during our stay. We primarily used Airbnb and scored some seriously awesome places to catch some Z’s. The cabins were the most expensive but by far the most secluded and beautiful, and every Airbnb host we met was incredibly helpful and kind.
Accommodation can fill up very quickly, so booking early and trying to find places that offer flexible cancellation is a good idea in case your plans change. This saved us $150 when we needed to find a new place to stay because of a windstorm. Even in May places were filling up insanely fast, so if you visit in high season (June-August) I would imagine that booking early is a must. More information on where we stayed and how much we spent will be coming shortly in upcoming posts.
The weather is going to be your biggest contender on the trip without a doubt, but luckily it changes so quickly that it’s likely it won’t hinder you for long. Each day was dramatically different, from rain to sunshine and even a bit of snow. A storm rolled through the south part of the island on the night we were supposed to stay in Vik, and the wind was so bad (70mph gusts!) that they closed the roads and we wound up staying in Hella. The wind in Iceland is freezing, incredibly powerful and can potentially cause major damage to cars. Be extra careful when opening your car doors in high winds!
When we visited Gulfoss, we could barely walk to the falls because the wind was pushing us backwards. It even blew my hat right off my head but thankfully I have a husband with fast reflexes. It was good for a laugh at the time, but wind can be very dangerous if you aren’t paying attention. Cliffs and steep dropoffs are everywhere. It made my stomach flip when I saw people leaning halfway off the edge with selfie sticks.
Luckily we only had to deal with high winds for maybe the first 4 days of trip, and beyond that we hardly had any at all. Of course one of those was my wedding day, but it made for some epic shots of my dress blowing in the wind so I can’t complain! While the weather is incredibly unpredictable, trust me when I say it won’t impact your enjoyment of the scenery. Some of my absolute favorite photos were taken on cloudy or rainy days because they made the landscape look so moody and dramatic. We also learned that it was useless to check the weather forecast until either the night before or the morning of due to the frequency at which it changed.
The local language is Icelandic, but nearly everything is translated to English and the majority of locals speak it as well. A language barrier was pretty much nonexistent and we had no issues. Good luck trying to pronounce any of the Icelandic words though – we purposely avoided saying the names of the attractions in front of our Airbnb hosts so we wouldn’t look like idiots.
Food & Groceries
If you’re looking to save money, food will make or break your bank. As I mentioned, Iceland is incredibly expensive and a meal at a regular restaurant typically ranges from $25-$75 per person depending on what you order, though you are not expected to tip. We booked one fine dining restaurant the night before our wedding in Reykjavik and it cost a whopping $220 total without drinks. The best way to save money on food by far is to shop at the many grocery chains, Bonus being the cheapest. Groceries will still be more expensive than you’re probably used to, but while we were on the road we could have easily spent only $20-30 a day and cooked at our Airbnbs (nearly all of them had kitchens). Quite a few grocery stores in the larger cities and towns are open for 24 hours as well.
Netto: Our favorite because it had a huge selection, was decently priced and was located all over Iceland.
Kronan: We only stopped in once, but it is another chain grocery store with decent pricing.
Bonus: This is the cheapest of the grocery stores but it definitely lacked the selection of the others.
Hagkaup: Basically an Icelandic Target, this was by far the nicest of the bunch. It had a full grocery section in addition to clothing, entertainment and home goods.
Iceland is also famous for it’s $5 gas station hot dogs, which are absolutely delicious! We will never be able to eat a hot dog without crispy onions again. Other foods unique to Iceland and worth trying are whale, langoustine (shrimp), puffin, reindeer and hákarl (“rotten” shark). In addition, they are well-known for their lamb and beef since nearly all farm animals in Iceland are free-range. And finally, Iceland is surrounded by an ocean so you guessed it – seafood is plentiful. If you’re a fan of fish you’ll be in heaven!
Iceland is truly a wonderland and I promise you’ll be just as smitten as I was.
Photos and words just can’t capture how beautiful this country is. You need to see it with your own eyes! Hopefully I didn’t frighten you with all of my preaching about safety, but it really is important to be aware of. I read and heard about so many accidents that could have been easily prevented, and it blew my mind to see how many people would risk their lives for a photo or because they thought they could win against the weather. Just use common sense and you won’t have any issues whatsoever!
Part 2 of this guide will contain the details of our itinerary, including every place we stayed and attractions we visited to further assist you with planning your own epic journey around Ring Road. I cannot WAIT to share it with you – stay tuned!