Driving in Iceland

We returned our rental car today now that we’re done the rural part of our Iceland trip and are installed in our apartment in Reykjavik.

We rented a Toyota Auris from Hertz: it’s a hatchback like a Volkswagen Golf, and was a pleasant car to drive. Total cost for a four-day rental was $360 Canadian, or $90 per day. Because the Icelandic Hertz is an affiliate the rental, which I made on the Hertz website, was deducted from my credit card immediately on reservation and I was faxed a voucher to show to the rental desk in Iceland; this wasn’t an issue, but it may have made cancelling the reservation more difficult.

I compared pricing from Hertz with pricing from locals like Geysir and there didn’t seem to be a significant enough price difference to warrant going local.

Pick-up at Keflavik Airport was seamless: the rental counter is just outside the arrivals door and we were in and out in 5 minutes. They sell a very comprehensive road atlas at Hertz which I recommend: it’s got details of every road in the country along with commentary about sights to see, detailed town and city maps, and charts detailing everything from Icelandic sheep breeds to hospital locations. It’s only about $17. There’s also a nice coffee shop that makes a good cappuccino and croissant — it’s right up the hall from Hertz.

The car itself was outside in the parking lot a short walk from the terminal, and it’s easy to find your way on to the main highway (Keflavik is about 50km from Reykjavik). At the Hertz desk they gave me a card to stick in the machine at the exit to raise the gate.

Although it’s possible to see rural Iceland by bus — either public transit or organized tours — having a car allowed us to get, literally, off the beaten path, and we saw things that we couldn’t have seen, and stayed places we couldn’t have stayed otherwise. I’m glad we opted for it.

The main “ring road” around Iceland is paved, and is of the quality that you’d be used to in North America or Europe. In fact it’s probably much better quality than you’re used to. Off the ring road we found routes to major tourist destinations — Geysir, Gullfoss, etc. — paved and of similar quality; further into the hinterland we encountered a mixture of paved and gravel roads.

Some of the gravel roads were “washboarded” because it’s been raining all throughout September, but they were generally wide enough for two cars to pass each other, and while we did encounter some fairly massive potholes in the really rural areas, especially on the approaches to bridges, this was the exception rather than the rule, and there’s no reason to avoid gravel roads — just be sure to follow the speed limit and watch the transition from paved to gravel.

The only genuine adventure driving required was on a brief stretch along the south coast that was under construction: there was one patch that felt a lot like off-road driving, and I think if I’d let my foot off the accelerator we’d have sunk into a quagmire. But, again, exception not rule and easy to avoid.

Outside of Reykjavik traffic was non-existent. In fact saw only two other cars on the first half of the first day, and on our journey off the main roads into the valley yesterday we didn’t see a single car for most of the day. There were more cars nearer tourist areas and in Reykjavik we encountered a genuine traffic jam. Of course we’re here in the off season; I expect you’d fine more traffic in the rural areas in the summer.

With our simple 2-wheel drive car we had to keep off the roads marked with an “F” on the map and on road signs: you need a 4x4 for these. We caught a glimpse of one of these roads, and drove about 500m in to take a picture: it was obvious why you needed 4-wheel drive and a high clearance.

We drove a total of 710 km over four days, taking in sections of the south and west parts of Iceland. Gasoline was around $1.85 a litre, and the car averaged 35 miles/gallon (7.8 litres/100 km) over the trip; we spent about $100 on gasoline in total.

One thing to note if you’re from North America and don’t have a PIN number with your credit card: the automated gas stations won’t work for you. This wasn’t a big problem for us, as we found staffed stations when we needed gas, and no PIN was required there.

I returned our car to the Reykjavik City Airport Hertz location — there’s wasn’t a “one-way” charge for this and, in fact, I think I saved money doing this because I didn’t have to pay the Keflavik Airport fee on the return end. In any case, it was certainly a lot easier to return the car in the city than it would have been to make our way out to Keflavik and then back into the city. Although the Hertz location at the City Airport seems suburban when you arrive there, it was only 20 minutes walk into the heart of Reykjavik.