Planning a road trip through Iceland
Planning a road trip through Iceland is not an easy task. There are just too many things to see and do that you can fill your time with! And still, you need to manage to drive your full route in a certain amount of days. So for this road trip, we really wanted to have a general idea upfront about where to go, where to sleep, and which stops to take. This gets even more important when you plan to book overnight stays in specific areas. Iceland is quite expensive, so you absolutely need to select and book your stays upfront, but you might just end up skipping a lot of stops on the way.
All stops in one travel map
In order to get an idea of what to do, I went through loads of blog posts, travel guides, and other resources about Iceland, and here is the result. We even got feedback from Icelanders that our research was thorough! Having said that, also just be aware that this country holds stunning sights almost everywhere, so find a good balance between planning and freedom!
You can expand the map by clicking the four arrows pointing outwards. Zoom in and click on each icon in the travel map to get more info on the place. For most stops we visited, I also added a picture so you know what to expect!
Trip planning: overview
To get an idea of some of the things we saw on our road trip, you can watch our first travel video here:
Our trip basically consisted of two main parts, the Ring Road drive and the Reykjavik area, Golden Circle and Highlands. You can find the stops of both parts in the travel map above.
Driving through Iceland: Where will the roads take you next?
Driving the Ring Road
The Ring Road is the main road around the whole country, which we drove in 6 days with our lovely campervan from Happy Campers.
In this first part of our road trip, we visited more waterfalls than we can count, drove through breathtaking landscapes, hiked on a glacier, woke up near an iceberg lagoon, hiked through fjords, met lots of horses, saw whales and seals swim by, and experienced incredible volcanic activity.
One stop on the Golden Circle: Stokkur geysir
Reykjavik, Golden Circle, Highlands and surroundings
In the second part, we enjoyed the city of Reykjavik with its buzzing art scene, architecture, bars and bakeries and tasted some wonderful homemade food; we saw more waterfalls, geysirs and volcanoes, hiked through wonderful mountain sceneries, made friends with some sheep, and swam in hot pots and lagoons.
Even though there is still so much more to see and explore, I hope this overview will help you in planning your trip!
Modes of transportation and overnight stays around Iceland
There are various options to get around Iceland, and I want to give you some insights on most of those.
If you have enough time, going around by bus can be a good and cheap travel option. Bus schedules are punctual, and especially from Reykjavik you can visit many places. As always however, buses take time – even more so if you want to get to remote places. Buses are for you if you limit yourself to few destinations, have a lot of time or really need to watch your budget.
Enjoy the freedom of a campervan: this was our lucky companion for 6 days!
Campervan or rental car with tent
Going by car is definitely the best option to do a road trip around the country. You can set your own speed and explore destinations on the go. The added advantage of a tent/ campervan is that you are also flexible with overnight stays. Want to stay at the beautiful waterfall until the sun comes up? Chase the northern lights in the middle of the night? No problem here. This makes trip planning a lot easier. We chose this way of travelling for both Ring Road and Golden Circle and highlands. A few more things to consider:
The right type of car for the road you want to take
If you want to go into the highlands, you need a 4×4 car to drive any infamous F road. There are a few exceptions of F roads that are paved and easy to drive, but most of them are not. And unless you discuss this well with your rental car agency, it is not advised to drive on these roads with a normal car. The gravel roads you can drive with a normal car are often already quite bumpy, and some real F roads are more turning into an offroad experience. The middle of the country and essentially everything east of the Golden Circle is F road area.
Make the right choice for every road and path you want to take!
Hitchhiking seems to be a big thing in Iceland, based on the number of hitchhikers we saw in some areas next to the road. If you enjoy this slow way of travel, it can be a great experience. What I found a bit problematic is that most people driving in Iceland are tourists themselves, and are quite reluctant or not able to take in extra travelers with big bags. Add in changing weather conditions, and you have a combination that doesn’t make for the most comfortable trip experience.
The right type of accommodation
Both tents and campervans give you the flexibility to go at your own pace without fixed stops. With a campervan, you are required to go to designated camp sites overnight, while the rule is more flexible for tents. Many camp sites are closed between 10/11PM and early morning hours, and you are not allowed to drive in and out, but you sometimes can stay in the parking in front of it. This is important to consider if you plan on chasing some northern lights overnight. For this reason we sometimes slept a few hours in parking lots, and never had any problem even in a campervan.
Price and comfort
The most practical and a highly comfortable camping combination is a 4×4 car turned into a campervan, but that is also the most expensive choice.
The price for a regular campervan is still quite high, but in my opinion beats the rental car + hotel combination anytime for both price and flexibility. We chose this option for the Ring Road part of our road trip.
Both campervan options have a high comfort factor – you usually have heating, a comfortable bed, and all basic equipment included.
Campsite in Landmannalaugar: harsh weather, breathtaking landscapes, and a hot pot to relax.
Rental car and tent
A tent is most definitely the unbeatable winner in terms of price. If you don’t want to bring your own, you can rent a tent and other utensils in Iceland as well, and it is super cheap compared to all other accommodation prices. Be aware though that it gets really cold in winter, and quite cold in summer nights as well, depending on where you are. So a good sleeping bag is mandatory, and an option to cook warm food is desirable. You also want to have tent pegs that work with solid/ rocky grounds in case you are going to the highlands. We chose this option for the Golden Circle/ Highland part of our road trip and rented our equipment at Iceland Camping Equipment Rental.
An incredible homemade Icelandic breakfast in my favorite B&B accomodation.
Rental car and hotel/ hut
If you prefer the comfort of a real bed, this is the option for you. I would really advise to book in advance in Iceland, so this option takes away some of your flexibility. If you book early enough and don’t go in the middle of high season, you will find moderately expensive options. Be sure to compare well, as I saw dorm room beds go for the same price as a nice room in various bed & breakfasts of the same area. An opportunity to prepare meals will save you a great deal of expenses. Airbnb can be an option as well!
We chose this option for our stay in Reykjavik and near the airport on the last night.
I am personally not a big fan of organized tours and usually find that the prices are much higher than organizing things for yourself. If you go with a big group, you also need to consider that this whole group will spread out over all the sights you are visiting, so having a place for yourself is an illusion.
However if you are not comfortable with driving yourself and want to see more remote places, booking a dedicated tour might be a good option for you. Providers of local experiences (e.g. a glacier hike or cave tour) usually also offer transport to and from Reykjavik at a higher price.
Tours we booked (with self-drive option): Glacier walk and ice climbing at Vatnajökull glacier, whale watching in Husavik, and a lava cave tour of Raufarhólshellir cave.
Stay tuned for more details on our trip!