This is half the fun of being there.
Getting around Iceland is half the fun of being there. Fact is, so much of the country is simply beautiful landscapes that the journey can absolutely be as wonderful as the destination. When planning a trip to this scenic island, there are several options for how to get around.
The perhaps easiest thing to do would be to rent a car. I was lucky enough to have the funds to do this on my visit and I believe it made a big difference in my flexibility. We were able to make all the stops we wished, and had more choices on accommodations because we could access out-of-the-way places. This was big, as the tourist season was in full swing and finding somewhere to sleep was actually quite a challenge some nights.
Renting a car comes with some very real responsibilities! Icelanders take car safety seriously, and you should too if you drive on their roads. Seatbelts and hands free cell phones are a must. The terrain can be difficult. There are several main arteries for driving, including Route 1 that circumnavigates island, but you should know that the road will not always be paved. Drive with caution when changing from a paved road to gravel. Furthermore, weather in Iceland can be unpredictable. You should be prepared for roads to become impassable with heavy rainfall or geologic events. Watch out for heavy fog if you are driving in the mountains on rainy days! The clouds can be so thick you can hardly see past your hood. At some times of the year, the wind can blow so hard that the flying sand can blast the paint right off your car! Rental agencies even sell special insurance for this.
If you are ever in a pinch, call 112 for emergencies, 1777 for information, and 1778 for road conditions and weather. If you are planning on driving off-road at all, make sure you communicate this to your rental company so you can get the appropriate car for your travels. This could be a literal life saver. If you do travel off-road, make sure you follow only designated routes. The Icelandic ecosystem is delicate, and a huge source of pride for Icelanders. Driving off-road can seriously damage the landscape. It can take years to recover and trust me, ruining the ecosystem is not a great way to make a lot of new Icelandic friends.
Expect to share the road with large tour buses full of tourists. Negotiating the extremely common one-lane bridges can be tricky if you are not paying attention. I recommend that anyone looking to rent a car watch this video first. It was put together by Vegagerdin, the official Icelandic Road Administration. It’s a pretty funny video in which an Elf named Elfis, wearing a red beany hat and a Metallica shirt, goes through the fundamentals of driving in Iceland. Informative and chuckle-worthy if you ask me. Take a look.
There is no public transit around the island. If you are looking for a bus to take you around, sign on to a tourist bus, there are many options to choose from. Reykjavik does have a bus service, however, and it is fairly reliable and clean. The fare is about 350 Kroner (ISK) or approximately 2 Euro. The buses are bright yellow and run about every 15 minutes during the day, and every 30 minutes at night. Here is a link for the schedule. There are also several options for public transportation from the main airport in Keflavik to Reykjavik. Here are two bus lines you can utilize: Flybus and airport express.
I saw a lot of bikers during my time in Iceland. It is a really great way to get around! You get to exercise and be in nature at the same time. If you want to bike, however, there are absolutely a few things to keep in mind. First, not all roads in Iceland are paved. There is a very good chance you will be biking on a gravel road in difficult terrain so be prepared. Even on the ring road by the coast there are steep hills and plenty of blind curves. Also, there are not a lot of separate bike lanes so you will be largely sharing the road with traffic. There are many one-way bridges, foreign drivers, and large tour buses. Even if you are in the right with traffic laws, the battle of biker versus car normally favors the drivers so keep your eyes open and stay safe!
Also, weather conditions are unpredictable. Make sure you have are prepared to bike in the rain if need be. You cannot expect to find a town or city to take cover every time it starts raining. I saw many dedicated bikers huffing uphill through a downpour. Because of these difficulties, I would only recommend that you bike in Iceland if you feel very comfortable on a bike. It can be a very rewarding challenge, but safety first! Never bike alone and make sure someone knows you are biking, and maybe your destination and ETA so they know to alert the authorities if you need help.
I saw A LOT of hitchhikers on my travels. To be honest, I’ve never seen so many before. We picked up a lovely couple from Ukraine and their gigantic backpacks in the middle of nowhere and drove them about five miles to the next major road. Other than being a little bit smelly they were wonderful company, and very grateful. Iceland is absolutely blowing up as a travel destination. That means it is crowded and expensive. Hitchhiking can be a great, cheap way to get around, particularly because pitching a tent and camping is popular and easy. However, you should always hitchhike with caution! Do not get into a car if you do not feel safe! Be prepared for weather to change drastically and quickly. Make sure you have a phone to ask for help and communicate with others so someone can call for help if you do not get to where you are headed next.
Iceland has a number of local airports in addition to the main airport in Keflavik. If you are in a pinch for time, you can always fly from one side of the island to the other, rather than driving the circumference on Route 1 or taking a Super Jeep across the glaciers. Plan and book ahead. Here is the Iceland Air domestic flight website.
In general, getting from point A to point B is a big part of the fun in this country. Just make sure you travel safe and are prepared! Gravel roads, inexperienced drivers, severe and unexpected weather are just a few of the complications you may face. Always travel safe and watch your back and your travel buddy’s back. And, as always, have a blast!
Photos: David Kurland
How do you get around in Iceland? Share with us in the comments.