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Driving in Iceland in winter can be unpredictable at best. From crazy wind gusts to insane, spur-of-the moment snow storms, driving in Iceland during the winter months can catch you off guard if you’re not prepared to tackle the ever-changing elements.
Doing research to ensure you know what to expect is vital, as is hiring the correct vehicle and erring on the side of caution. That being said, while driving in Iceland in the winter can be problematic at times, it’s not impossible and definitely not totally unsafe.
If you’re prepared to go with the flow and act in a safe and responsible manner, you’ll get along just fine and will enjoy the best of what Iceland has to offer. Just bear these Iceland winter driving tips in mind first.
Everything you need to know about driving in Iceland in winter
Should I self drive or book Iceland bus tours?
The answer to this question depends entirely on how confident a driver you are, how much experience you’ve had with winter driving and what sort of experience you want to have in Iceland. The decision, ultimately, is yours. No one can decide for you.
Many people use bus tours to see the sights and this type of travel works for a lot of people. But for me, having the freedom to go where I like, be spontaneous and go with the flow is much more appealing.
That being said, I was nervous about driving in Iceland, so we did consider booking a few tours and using Reykjavik as our base. With this being our first time in Iceland, and having heard so many mixed reviews concerning weather conditions, I was hesitant to embark on a self-guided tour of Iceland, particularly in the North where weather conditions are much harsher.
But after adding up the sums and speaking to some friends about their own experiences of driving in Iceland in winter, we decided that hiring a car would not only give us the freedom we wanted, but also save us a heck of a lot of money.
Depending on the activity and experience you choose, you can expect to pay anything from £45-£100 for a standard Iceland day tour. Of course, the smaller the group, the more you’ll pay. So, if you don’t want to be stuck on a coach with 50 other people all day, expect to pay a higher premium. For this reason alone, we knew it would be much more cost effective to hire a 4×4. If you do decide to book tours, I’d recommend booking through Get Your Guide. They have a huge selection of tours from Reykjavik each day.
What car should I hire for Iceland winter driving?
If you’re travelling to Iceland in wintertime, your choice of hire car is one of the most important elements of your trip. It can be tempting to go for the cheapest option – perhaps a Fiat 500, Toyota Aygo or similar – but hiring a car that can cope with icy roads and heavy snowfall is a must. For me, I knew that meant we’d need to rent a four-wheel drive with good winter tyres, even though this was far from the cheapest option.
As a budget traveller, it pains me to have to pay more than I need to. But you can’t put a price on safety. So, we opted for a Suzuki Jimny 4×4, from Nordic Car Rental at Reykjavik Airport. Many of the four-wheel drives on other websites were coming in at around £350-400 for a week, which was way over our budget, but we managed to find our trusty Suzuki Jimny for a reasonable €245 (approx. £220 by today’s exchange rate).
Although the Suzuki Jimny is one of the smallest 4x4s, we found it coped extremely well with the varying weather conditions. The winter tyres meant we could plow through snow-covered, icy roads with no real problems and we felt pretty safe for the most part. The only real issue we had with the Suzuki Jimny was that, being a lighter vehicle, we felt a little vulnerable when hit with strong gusts of wind.
For cheap car hire in Iceland, I’d recommend using Kayak.
Do I need expensive excess waiver insurance?
Yes, you do need excess waiver insurance. No, it does not need to be expensive. When you hire a car, you’ll usually have standard collision damage waiver (CDW) insurance included in the package. However, this insurance only provides a basic level of protection, which means the hire company will try to sell expensive excess waiver insurance on top to ensure you’re fully covered for any eventuality. This can really ramp up the price. The £20 a day insurance quickly turns a cheap deal into a ridiculously expensive one. And while it’s good to have the peace of mind that if you total a car, you won’t end up with an almighty bill, there is another way!
When hiring a car, I always purchase excess waiver insurance from a third party such as Reduce my Excess, in advance. With Reduce my Excess, you can purchase excess waiver insurance for as little as £2.42 a day and be content in the peace of mind that if the worst happens, you won’t have to fork out thousands to repair damage to your hire car.
But is excess waiver insurance really necessary at all? When it comes to writing off your hire car, it’s easy to get into the ‘it won’t happen to me’ mindset. But in Iceland of all places, the unexpected can happen. You can’t guarantee you won’t have a collision, and for the sake of an extra £20, excess waiver insurance is a no brainer.
Is the Icelandic weather really that changeable?
There’s a popular saying in Iceland that goes something like this: ‘If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.’
During our visit to Iceland in January, we experienced four seasons in one week. We walked out of the airport into pouring rain, enjoyed a day of glorious blue skies and sunshine, battled sleet and rain on day two, fought against heavy rain on day three which turned into heavy snow blizzards and strong wings by days four and five, followed by two more days of sunshine on days six and seven.
To say the weather is temperamental is an understatement.
In fact, the weather was so changeable that, on day five, we left Reykjavik to stunning sunshine and clear roads only to hit a blizzard 30 minutes down the road. Within 5 minutes, the clear roads were not only covered in snow but were almost completely unrecognisable and undriveable.
Day four saw us venturing out despite the crazy blizzard conditions, in an effort not to miss out on exploring Iceland, but after driving for an hour, we decided to turn back. The snow was coming in thick and fast, covering roads and making it difficult to tell where the road ended and the field began. Not only that, but the strong wind gusts were almost sweeping the car off the road. Definitely a hair-raising experience!
Can I drive the ring road during winter?
Of course, it’s entirely up to you how you plan your trip. And it’s true that, at times, the ring road will be entirely accessible. However, due to the changeable nature of the weather, it’s likely that sections of the ring road will be closed for extended periods of time during winter months, particularly in the North.
For the most part, the ring road in the south is flat, wide and easy to drive. However, in the north it can be a bit more perilous, with much harsher weather conditions than in the south.
For our trip to Iceland, we used Reykjavik as our base to explore the ring road in the south of Iceland, rather than book accommodation in different locations each night. We were able to spend a day on the Golden Circle and explore the southern part of the ring road which takes you to Skogafoss, Vik and Seljalandsfoss. The Snæfellsnes Peninsula and Borgarnes area is also easily accessible from Reykjavik.
Having a base in Reykjavik meant that we could vary the day trips we took around the weather conditions. If a snow storm hit, we could stay in Reykjavik and explore the city. It also meant that we weren’t under any pressure to travel to our next digs for the night.
My recommendation would be to stick to travelling the entire ring road during summer months, when you’ll have a lot more daylight to enjoy the scenery anyway and won’t have to worry about stressful, dangerous weather conditions.
As a side note, you should be wary of driving on gravel roads, particularly during the winter as this can invalidate your car insurance. F roads (gravelly mountain tracks into the highlands) are closed during the winter months and can be extremely dangerous (and illegal), even if you have a 4WD.
Practical tips for driving in Iceland in winter
- It is a legal requirement to have the lights of your vehicle on at all times, even during the day.
- You can check up to date weather forecasts here.
- You can check up to date information on road conditions here.
- Speed limits are heavily enforced, with speed cameras aplenty! Fines can be fairly hefty, so stick to the speed limit to stay safe and avoid paying out. It’s worth noting that speed limits are posted in km/h rather mph.
- It is illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol. Even one drink will put you over the limit, so avoid alcohol completely if you’re the designated driver.
- It is illegal to use your phone while driving.
- Be wary of strong winds. This can often catch unsuspecting tourists off guard, so take care when opening car doors and driving over bridges. It’s not uncommon for the doors of a vehicle to be torn off by strong winds!
So, that’s our guide for driving in Iceland in winter. Iceland really is a wonderful place and you’ll definitely have an amazing time exploring the great outdoors, whether you choose to drive or take guided tours. Just make sure you’re happy to be flexible, prepared to go with the flow and enjoy Iceland in all its rugged, unpredictable glory!