Sometimes you do something on the spur of the moment. Sometimes the initial decision is on the spur of the moment but the planning takes over and it becomes an exercise in logistics. One dark October night with a bottle of something alcoholic the idea to road trip Iceland was seeded. Just a week, see what we think and take it from there for a return visit. However, being lovers of detail this plan grew into a four week, 4500km monster of an adventure.
This road trip was done as cheaply as possible, working out at £600 per person per week with two adults and two teenagers travelling from the UK. Whatever anyone tells you, Iceland isn’t that expensive if you plan well. We didn’t miss out on anything because of cost, time yes, but cost no! Camping for some of the time with our own tents and sleeping bags and AirBnB planned in advance at strategic points to cook ahead, catch up on laundry and have a night out of a tent and the associated efforts, helped with our budget. We ate out when we needed to and had some amazing meals in tiny little places, but this was a treat rather than the norm. Some nights we were just too wet and tired to think about cooking but it always worked out well with where we ended up.
So, what do you need to think about when planning a massive trip like this….
Iceland is huge and the roads are not great. On the map it looks like you can travel easily from one place to the next but this isn’t always the case. The drive from Ring Road 1 to Dreki is about 100km on the map, but roads F905 and F910, the only ones in take over four hours of 4WD each way. Add to that the need to stop in lay-by’s for photographs and breaks and the time slips away before you realise. We found that 200km in a day with stops was about our limit. This worked out to be about 3 hours of driving maximum but filled a whole day with stops.
I can’t emphasise this enough! The roads are rough and take much longer to drive than you think. There may not be any traffic jams or other cars for that matter, but everything takes much longer than on motorways and good roads. It is also worth having a plan B for each day. The weather may be against you reaching a destination or a road may be closed. Always check the conditions at the beginning of the day on road.is. The road conditions vary and unless you are in a 4WD then any F roads should be avoided. Some roads swap from gravel to tarmac and everything in between within a short distance. In the north near Dettifoss the road is being upgraded which will be great, but right now it makes the roads even rougher than normal.
Vehicle specifications and Insurance
Your hire company will give you advice on where you can and can’t take the vehicle. Listen carefully! If you ford a river and get stuck they are not going to help you out and your insurance is not going to pay. If you are planning to venture beyond the Golden Circle or Snæfellsnes Peninsula then opting for 4WD will be your best option. Even the main roads in the north are rough and while you can do it in 2WD it is slow and uncomfortable.
The hire companies all have a range of insurance options. Only you will know what you want to take out and what is within your budget. We took everything offered, knowing that we had no excess and every disaster was covered other than getting stuck in a river. Read the small print and ensure you know what you are buying.
Also think about how much stuff you have with you. We ended up with a roof box for all the camping kit. This meant we had more space inside the car and all the wet tents as well as sleeping bags were on the roof. If we weren’t camping for a night we didn’t need to touch it. All of the hire companies give details of bag space in the boot and some will hire roof boxes. Have a careful think when planning as to how much space you really need to make the journey a comfortable experience.
Around Reykjavík fuel is easy, but as you head further east and north fuel becomes more of an issue. You really need to plan where you are going to fuel up. This is especially the case if you are going to the Highlands or Westfjords where there are large distances between fuel stations. Get into the habit of topping up and keeping an eye on your mileage. Our hire car had an unreliable fuel gauge so we knew that we had to refuel at about 500 miles. In the planning stage we had fuel stations marked and ensured there was one at least every other day on our route.
When you refuel some pumps are automated. This may mean that money is taken from your credit card twice - once when you start the transaction for the amount you request and then with the final amount. The first payment will be refunded but it may take up to 30 days. The amount is usually 10000ISK or £60, which soon adds up. Make sure you have space on your credit card or enough funds on a debit card to accommodate this charge for a month.
In a similar way to fuel, food in Iceland needs to be planned. In the north east and north west shops are limited and it may be a day or two before you reach a town with a shop. Planning ahead is essential. There are a number of supermarket chains in Iceland. Bonus with the pink pig is best known, however we found that Netto actually had more choice and better prices. Our biggest money saving discovery was the meat beeper! Most supermarkets have a scanner where you can check the exact price of the meat you are buying - no nasty surprises at the check out and a chance to save a few Krona here and there. We ended up bulking out meals with carrots, bacon and cabbage - all really cheap and easily incorporated into meals.
In Reykjavík there is a Costco which can be used by any costco card holder. A stock up of dry foods in Costco saw us around Iceland for a good proportion of the trip. The price of food in Iceland is more than anywhere else in Europe, but that is because of the import logistics. It is however not extortionate and with planning and a simple meal plan it is not prohibitive.
So this is up to you and your budget! We camped for most of the trip and it was easy. We planned the campsites and made sure we got there at a sensible time. Google reviews and tripadvisor were our friends in this process as things change, owners change and one season to the next campsites can change. We had a number of sites marked each day and depending on road and weather conditions we decided in the morning where we were headed. We also did a quick review check, some had great reviews up until a few weeks before so we decided to find alternatives in these cases.
The check in system was similar for most sites. Arrive and pick your spot and someone appears to take payment at some point in the evening or early morning. Other sites have a reception and some just have an honesty box (make sure you have some cash!).
Some campsites get busy in the summer so it is worth arriving in the early afternoon and getting set up before heading out for the evening. This is a good option as attractions are quieter but the short nights give you lots of time to explore.
Campervans are everywhere in Iceland and are a good halfway house between camping and a solid building. Research the company you are hiring from and read reviews. In the summer it is not as important, but in winter months check for insulation and heaters as well as the conditions that it will tolerate.
AirBnB and hotels are the final options. We did not use hotels but they are the same as the world over. AirBnB’s in Iceland vary greatly. Some are good, some are amazing and others are just plain awful. We experienced all three options. Look at what they provide and what you need. At the end of the day it is just one night before you move on and my thought is always so long as it is clean and welcoming everything else is a bonus.
When you are planning a trip to Iceland the options of things to see are overwhelming. Even after travelling around for a month there is still too much to see and do. Write a list, write a second list and keep going until you have what will fill each day. In our planning we had everything on the days route marked. Some places were essentials, others were just if we were passing with time to spare and others were binned before we even set off for the day. Flexibility is the key to travelling and exploring Iceland. The weather and road conditions change so rapidly that it is impossible to stick to a plan 100% of the time. You may also find somewhere unexpected and not want to go anywhere else.
This is the final part of the planning process. Have a look at the routes of tour companies, what they offer and the timings and use this to plan. However, this is not planning as you would imagine. In the south where it is busy explore the Golden Circle in reverse or start your day ahead of the buses. Lots of the tours visit Geysir first, make sure you are there before they can possibly reach it from Reykjavík or make it the final stop of the day when the buses have all left. If the tours in the area all go clockwise then plan your route in an anti-clockwise direction. As you head away from the popular areas this becomes less of a consideration and planning is determined more by fuel, food and accommodation.
It is also worth having a plan B for breakdowns. We had a two day break 60km north of Akureyri as the alternator went on our car. It took three hours before the rental company was able to get us picked up (once they had worked out where we actually were from the GPS co-ordinates) and another day before the spare part arrived from Reykjavík on a plane and had been fitted. Plan B came into play and we had to bin a day of exploring and cut a corner to get back on track with our fixed AirBnB bookings. Not ideal but not a total disaster.
It is also worth putting in some short days. It is an intense experience and sometimes you just need to stop. This is especially the case, if you are travelling with kids like we were. Get to accommodation early and take time to have a swim or just catch up on a book. You cannot travel continually without burning out eventually. Far better to plan a break than have it forced upon you.
Taking your route on the Road
After all the planning it is essential that you stick to your plan. Make sure the routes are saved somewhere that you can access. Google maps is fine, but in some areas there is no internet access even with mobile data. Make sure you have a paper back-up of the entire route. More than once when the internet dropped out and we were at a junction with no online map it was time to find the ‘white book’ with all the trip information and route cards and travel the old fashioned way with paper plans.
After months of planning it almost feels like you have walked the entire route from your living room, but once you are on the road, the planning will come into its own and hopefully reduce the stress. Being flexible is key. The weather and roads may mean changes are needed but this is a stress free change as it is hopefully all planned.
Iceland is a stunning country and the longer you can explore the better. However, even with a short time in the country, planning can make it an enjoyable adventure. Don’t try to fit too much in, pick a small area and explore it rather than try and see everything.
There is so much to see in Iceland so have a look at some of the places shared and start your planning.