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Our decision to travel Iceland was somewhat of a spur of the moment decision a little more than 3 months prior to our departure date (Aug 28th). Though we would recommend to start your trip planning/booking much sooner, especially if not camping and/or travelling in summer (July, August). Indeed, we noticed during our research that many suggested to start planning up to a year in advance. Because we were travelling during the shoulder season (early September) and were camping, we were able to pull the trip off without booking issues. The planning itself was primarily made by reading travel blogs not unlike this one and with the help of the Lonely Planet’s Ring Road. We used google Mymaps to map out the itinerary, and to customize a map of Iceland that contained all the locations of the sites we wanted to visit, Bonus grocery stores, target campsites, and gas stations. This came in very useful given that we had unlimited wifi in our campervan.
As stated above, we are not traditionally campers, but camping seemed like the best choice for visiting Iceland given the layout the main sights along the ring road and the expensiveness of Iceland. Since 1-night stops were the way to go, sleeping in a campervan was: 1) less expensive than other accommodation options, 2) was less hassle than checking-in/checking-out of hotels (with the associated packing/unpacking), 3) provided more comfort/warmth than traditional camping. Being north-americans with limited experience driving with a manual transmission, we had slightly more limited options. We ended up settling on a VW Caddy Camper rented from GO Iceland (located a 2 minute walk from the Keflavik airport). We were very satisfied both with the vehicle and the service.
We landed rather early (5AM) and then headed straight to the duty free shop and purchased the majority of all alcoholic beverages we would consume during our trip (alcohol is significantly cheaper at the airport duty free than elsewhere in the country). We then headed to GO Iceland to pick up our rental. We were able to hit the road in our campervan around 7am.
Driving is easy in Iceland. The ring road is a great 2-lane tar road. It’s difficult to get lost anywhere in Iceland outside of the capital Reykjavik. You might need to travel on some gravel roads when leaving the ring road, but for the most part they were easy to navigate and properly grated–though if you are in a small sedan you may find some of these to be rough. High-ground clearance (such as provided by SUVs or campervans) is preferable when travelling on these gravel roads. On our trip, gravel roads were primarily found in the northeast when travelling to Borgarfjörður eystri and when travelling to and in Snaefellsnes. Note that our rental car agreement forbade us from driving on F-roads (clearly marked mountain roads that require 4×4 vehicles).
This maps delineates the tar roads from the gravel roads: http://vegasja.vegagerdin.is/eng/
Parking in Reykjavik can be slightly challenging. Our research suggested that there would be some availability near the Cathedral, and this turned out to be correct. Even though we were travelling during the shoulder season, we found that several parking lots at the main tourist attractions to fill up quickly: we often found ourselves parking beyond the designated parking lot along the road (e.g. canyon, kirkjufell) or searching for that last spot available (e.g. Pingvellir, black sand beach ).
Don’t plan to spend too much time in Reykjavik. Although it’s a lovely city, it’s extremely small compared to European capital standards, and the main sights can be easily visited within half a day.
Plan to arrive to main sights early in the morning (e.g. waterfalls, national parks). This allows you to avoid the larger crowds, while providing a more enjoyable experience and easier parking. This is particularly true of South Iceland and sites located in and around the Golden Circle itinerary.
Petrol is expensive in Iceland, like most other things. You can pay everywhere using your credit cards. Several more remote stations are actually completely unmanned.
Prepare for anything and everything. We experienced nighttime lows around 0 degrees Celsius and day-time highs ranging from windy/rainy and +10 degrees Celsius to sunny and +20 degrees Celsius.
Iceland is expensive. Very expensive. Typically during our holidays we like to eat out in a restaurant at least once a day for a good meal. In Iceland, we chose to self-cater most of the time because everything is so expensive. Just be prepared to pay much more than you are usually used to, for everything. Best way to save money: camp (real camping, not campervaning) and shop at Bonus, Iceland’s budget chain of grocery stores.
Areas not covered in this road trip
We didn’t visit many cities/towns during our travels. However, aside from Reykjavik and Akeyuri, few merit spending more than a day in, mostly because of their size. The main omission from this trip was spending time in the Westfjords, which would have required an additional 3-4 days (i.e. the perfect excuse to return for another visit!). Similarly, we didn’t get a chance to visit the Westman islands along the southern coast between Vik and Selfoss. Obviously, there are other corners of the country we didn’t get to visit, but those would be the main ones. If we were to go back, we’d love to spend more time exploring around Skaftafell NP. We also zoomed through the Eastern fjords, so being able to spend more time to appreciate the coastal scenery would definitely be a plus. We would have also love to attempt the hike to see the Glymur waterfalls, which are apparently lovely; but we ran out of time.
Getting away from the beaten track
As a general rule, the further away you get from Reykjavik, the smaller the number of tourists you will cross. Stick to the golden circle and south Iceland, and you will find that accommodations and site parking lots will fill up more quickly. Significantly fewer tourists wander beyond the glacier lagoons to the east and beyond Snaefellsnes to the North.
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