Now that we've traveled the entire Ring Road (Hringvegur), here's a compilation of everything I've learned for those of you looking to plan a trip!!
GO. If you have been thinking about going, book it. If it is on your bucket list somewhere, move it to the top. I had wanted to visit Iceland for about 5 years or maybe even longer. It exceeded all my expectations and far and away surpasses the images. Iceland is big right now and I have a feeling it will continue to grow in travel appeal.
Duty Free. Everyone mentioned how expensive drinking or purchasing alcohol in Iceland is. It is definitely smart to take advantage of duty free at the airport. Yes, it is expensive to drink in Iceland but even more so I appreciated not having to think about it once we reached a remote destination. This way you can have a beer at the top of Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, a glass of wine with your hearty gas station lamb stew lunch, or a vodka-soda night cap in the hotel room. Despite how I just made it sound, we did not drink a lot on this trip. Compared to other vacations it was the least amount of drinking. (Obviously, since most of it was spent on the road!)
Car or Campervan?!?! We went back and fourth. The campervan is such a unique-to-Iceland deal since you have the freedom to pull over anywhere and spend the night! Our ideal length of time for camping tapped out at a three day road trip. For five days on the road, creature comforts and hospitality won out. I love hotels and Airbnbs as a part of the travel experience and the planner in me enjoyed having a set destination at the end of every day. It all comes down to personal preference on this one!
Gas Stations + NU Car Rentals - If you do rent a car, I highly recommend NU. They are not located at the airport, but we easily spotted the friendly man wearing an NU shirt at arrivals who was there to shuttle us to downtown Keflavik.
- Free coffee (kaffi)
- 10% discount at their restaurants
- 3 ISK Discount off every liter of gas
- Free Wifi
I also recommend renting a 4 wheel drive vehicle and opting in for gravel insurance. Besides the gravel section of Ring Road in East Iceland, we encountered plenty of other gravel roads hitting destinations off route 1. The majority of Ring Road is beautifully paved and we saw a lot of smaller cars make it just fine. (If you're not driving the entire country or planning a lot of detours, you don't necessarily need to spend extra on one.) We didn't encounter any snow or harsh road conditions due to weather but that was another consideration in favor of 4WD.
My final driving and gas station related tips: 1) If you're under 1/2 a tank and see a gas station, it is a good time to fill up. 2) Prepare for spending - gas is super expensive ($7/gallon). 3) Make sure your credit card has a 4 digit pin to pay at the pump. If there isn't an option to pay inside, you'll need it. 4) Download the Iceland 112 app, which can use your location to track in case of emergency.
Planning Your Route. In my research it seemed more typical for first time travelers to settle in, spend a day or two in Reykjavik, drive the Golden Circle first, and then drive at least parts if not all of Ring Road. I also talked to a number of travelers who drove the southern coast first, turning around at Jökulsárlón. If you have vacation time to spare and are debating, I'd go for the full drive. Thinking back to the moments leaving the glacier lagoon, I would have been so sad to turn around!
I also read a lot about how you need at least x number of days to drive Ring Road - x was anywhere between 7-10. We decided to drive Ring Road first, in five days, traveling east / counterclockwise. (And spent 3 days in / around Reykjavik after.) We debated a lot on this point. Sure it has been done, but is 5 days enough time? Will we feel rushed? Will we be driving too much? Less important but still a decision - what's the best direction?
The heavier driving days (2, 3 + 4) averaged five hours a day, while days 1 + 5 were both under three hours. We did not book any planned excursions or tours, it was all about the drive and taking in the majestic and dynamic landscapes, while obviously stopping for hours at a time to explore. If you have more time and want to stay longer in locations where there is more to do (South Iceland or Mývatn for sure) that makes sense!! But if you don't - it can still be done in five days at relative leisure. I did not feel rushed, was content with our pace, and I loved all the driving we did! As far as the direction - for whatever reason instinct told me to go east first so that was that!
We did not drive the Golden Circle even though we left enough time on the back end to decide on a whim. We "missed" a couple big attractions (Gullfoss, Thingvellir, Geyser) - but I don't feel like I missed out. We saw SO much! As with any new place, you will miss some stuff. You can't see it all. It is important to do the research to pick and choose what interests you the most even if for a rough idea.
One of my favorite things, unexpectedly, was staying in and / or driving the through all the remote small towns. To be immersed and soak in the neighborhoods and the houses, the churches, the waterfront views, to imagine the lifestyle, the quietness of it all, I was enthralled. Everyone we met on our journey was really friendly.
Weather. As far as time of year, I am biased towards September - it is dark at night for potential Northern Lights viewing with a chance of lovely fall weather. I believe any shoulder season month would have similar chances for decent weather + lights.
I was prepared for clouds and rain but if you've seen all my other posts we had anything but. It was incredible at the beginning of our trip, which is why in retrospect I'm an advocate for being flexible and driving when the weather is forecast to be the nicest, if at all possible. Exploring outdoors, chasing waterfalls, hiking to hot springs, black sand beaching, aurora sightings, not to mention pleasant driving and road conditions felt like a dream with blue skies to lead the way. I might never stop thanking the universe for it.
I had read about this howling wind (car doors almost blowing off) and was certainly prepared for but not able to comprehend it until we did get a round of the craziest wind I've ever experienced once we were in Reykjavik.
I think that should cover all my Hringvegur trip recommendations! If you've driven it or been to Iceland, did I miss anything important?!