If you’re planning a road trip in Iceland during the winter, there’s a right way to do it: upgrade your rental car and downgrade your hotels.
I’m going to share with you the do’s and don’ts that I’ve learned through two separate experiences of driving through Iceland.
I used Sixt Iceland both times because they offered the lowest prices that I could find, both online and offline. After my second trip, I’m convinced that they also provide the best customer service and the best vehicles.
First Things First – Get There.
Travel to Iceland has never been more accessible. Many airlines are now offering “Iceland Stopovers” for travelers from the continental US on their way to Europe.
This involves stopping for a period ranging from a few hours to a week in Reykjavik before heading on to your final European destinations.
New airlines like WOW Air also offer affordable tickets to Reykjavik from select cities in the US.
Alternatively, if you’re already in Europe, low-cost airlines like Norwegian Air have airfare as low as $50 one-way to Reykjavik (KEF) from within Europe..
I booked my ticket from Oslo to Reykjavik for under $50 on Norwegian.
Sadly, if your carryon luggage doesn’t meet the requirements or you didn’t pay in advance, you might be asked to pay $50 for your carryon luggage at the gate.
As always, it pays to pay all airline fees in advance. Chances are the lady at the desk will not like you, no matter how handsome you are 🙂
Be a “Do-er” and Ditch the Organized Tours.
Reykjavik is a really cool city, without a doubt. But I would imagine you can “do” Reykjavik properly in a single day or night.
Much of it is residential, and much of it (sorry Reykjavik) is a money-pit. Spending too much time in restaurants, bars, stores, will add up extremely fast.
Icelanders figured out long ago, much to the peril of the locals, that they can charge just about whatever they want to tourists, for just about anything.
The real beauty of Iceland lies out in nature – in the wild.
While most Reykjavik-based tour operators will offer many attractions as “day trips”, they fail to mention the extreme call-times and that you’ll spend most of your day packed into a bus or van and driving for many hours back and forth to places of interest.
Looking out a small window in a crowded van sandwiched between some people you may or may not know is not the most ideal way to spend your limited days in Iceland.
Especially not if the terrain you are traversing each way is the same each time.
That’s the main reason it pays to be autonomous in Iceland.
This Sounds Crazy But – Don’t Book Rooms In Advance
Iceland in the Winter has two major pros and cons.
Winter PRO: Way less people!
Winter CON: Way more unpredictable weather!
While you might be able to save a few bucks by renting a room in advance, it won’t be much. Most towns will have vacancy.
It always pays to have “loose plan”, especially when a lot of driving is involved, but don’t lock yourself into too many commitments.
Recently I really wanted to chase the northern lights for a decent photo opportunity.
There was a large solar storm that was forecasted one night, and the only place on the weather map that didn’t have thick cloud cover was exactly where I was leaving.
I decided to stay an extra night instead of leaving to drive across the island.
This forced me to miss out on two hotel room bookings that I had made previously (before I knew the weather) – both with no cancellation policies. Ouch!
Seeing the northern lights was more important to me than rushing across the island through bad weather just to sit under a dark and wet sky.
If I hadn’t booked those hotel rooms in advance, I would have paid for one hotel room instead of three.
If you’re going to be “winging it” – I would suggest using the official Icelandic weather service websites. You can also see precipitation maps, cloud cover maps as well as northern lights forecasts. Check the weather often and follow the northern lights!
Don’t Pay For An Expensive Bed You’ll Barely Sleep In.
Things to consider when planning a winter trip in Iceland is that there is a severe lack of daylight.
In November, when the sun rises at 9:30AM and sets at 4:30PM, there’s really no time to waste “sleeping in” in a luxurious hotel room.
Be sure to check the sunrise & sunset times online before you arrive. This will assist in planning your days.
If you are a photographer or simply don’t like crowds, always plan on arriving at your favorite landmarks during sunrise or sunset.
Things are more beautiful at sunrise and sunset due to the variety of colors and cloud formations during the golden hour.
This means that you should plan on hitting the road before first light in order to arrive at your first destination at sunrise.
Most hotels and guesthouses in Iceland are extremely simple, many of them are simply the Icelanders’ actual homes, where they cook you breakfast in the morning.
You simply aren’t going to care what your hotel room looks like that early. Any guesthouse that serves breakfast is sufficient. Iceland is a test of endurance, and sleeping in is not what we come to Iceland to do.
If you downgrade your hotel rooms to normal guesthouse or even private room in a hostel, you will instantly save hundreds of dollars.
And you know what that’s good for?
Upgrading your vehicle – the place that you’re gonna spend all day in anyways. 🙂
Renting a nice car in Iceland is a must.
The same rules apply for any road trip – Your car is either going to be your best friend or your worst enemy.
No matter how small Iceland looks on a map, once you get out onto the open road – the landscape goes on forever.
When your map says that a drive is 5 hours, be prepared for 8. It’s a big country, but every inch is worth seeing.
The terrain is vast and beautiful. Diverse landscapes twist and turn around every corner, and you can’t predict what’s coming next.
Being able to drive a car through this type of demanding scenery is a luxury that has not been known to many over the course of time, and shouldn’t be taken for granted, either!
You’re going to encounter sunshine & rainbows (literally) – mixed with inevitable stints of horizontal rain and snow, with visibility sometimes bordering on nothing.
All of this is almost guaranteed to happen within a day’s drive. Sometimes it’ll happen within a half an hour.
So you should sit back and enjoy if as much as possible. Rain or shine.
I recommend reading a little bit about the history of the original Viking settlers in Iceland to really grasp the origins of this desolate and unforgiving place.
It will make your time driving through the landscape in a car all the more enjoyable.
Pay for the upgrade.
In my 5 day journey through South Icleand, I upgraded to a BMW X1 through Sixt Iceland, and I cannot imagine a better decision.
Inevitably, your car becomes your lifeline through this cold, windy, and expansive terrain.
It’s your most prized possession. Your warm place. Your space ship on a foreign planet. Your vessel through which you translate your entire experience with the country.
This is a country where an average meal for two can rarely be found for less than $40, and easily as much as $100 or more.
When you put things into context, upgrading your car for a fraction of the price of what you’ll spend on meals every day is a no-brainer.
In the past I’ve upgrade to an SUV with Sixt Iceland for the general comfort and possibilities that the high clearance extra space can provide.
Since the ring road is fully paved and most of the off road trails are closed in the winter, the “high clearance” of the SUV is not really necessary.
The luxury aspects of experiencing Iceland in a BMW, however, are incredible.
The X1 is a four door hatchback style vehicle with ample space in the back for a few bags.
The back seats can also fold forward allowing space for two adults and a ton of gear, depending on what you’re traveling with.
I’ll go into some of the things I really liked about the X1 upgrade:
Amazing Scenery Deserves Amazing Sound
The ambiance of every road trip is defined through its soundtrack. As per usual – the radio sucks!
I recommend putting all of your favorite Spotify playlists to “Offline” mode for storage on your device before hopping in the car. Even if you’ve got Wi-Fi, it might be spotty and interrupt your soundtrack.
The X1 will hook up to your device via USB and allow you to use the built in BMW computer interface, located in the center of the dash, to browse through the music on your device.
It’s much easier to control than a normal car stereo and less dangerous than fiddling around with your phone in your hand.
If you’ve ever ridden in a BMW, you’ll know that BMW comes equipped with an excellent stereo.
Be sure to dial in your settings before you leave the parking lot. I recommend (if you are two persons) to fade the Front/Rear fader all the way to the front. Don’t go maximum with treble or bass or the songs will sound blown out.
The X1 will increase the volume as you accelerate, which is totally boss!
Seat warmers, seat warmers, seat warmers!
It’s hard to describe how insanely cold your soul (and tush) can become after 5 minutes outside of the car, taking photos or walking around.
Getting out of the car in Iceland to photograph the scenery can be windy, rainy, or worse!
Nothing can quite compare to selecting Low, Medium, or High levels of cozy, specifically for your bum, depending on how gnarly your previous photoshoot was.
Sport Mode, Comfort Mode, or Eco Mode
The X1 comes with 3 different driving modes, depending on how you like it.
Sport mode offers tighter steering and acceleration, and is an extremely fun setting. This is great for mountain roads or situations where there might be ice on the road.
Be careful with your speed in Iceland, as there are many traffic cameras that will nail you when you never saw it coming.
The lack of traffic police does not equal a lack of police presence! It’s also very dangerous to drive fast in Iceland.
The speed limit is 90KM at most. Luckily there’s a “Limit” button on the steering wheel of the X1 which will limit your top speed, as well as cruise control settings.
There are many one way bridges, which can sneak up on you in a moment’s notice.
There’s pavement that switches from paved to gravel, black ice on the roads, and even wildlife to look out for.
We saw an Arctic Fox run across the road directly in front of us! Imagine if you were driving too fast and ran that thing over!
No amount of good karma can wipe that off of your record.
The name of this driving mode describes exactly what it is. Ultra comfortable.
Driving the X1 feels incredible already, but with the comfort mode “ON” – the entire car feels almost like an extension of your body.
Seriously. Don’t fall asleep. Don’t enjoy it too much.
This mode is less responsive to slight touches of the accelerator. Its main purpose is to save fuel and produce less emissions.
I ended up driving almost the entire route with Eco Mode, just because.
The X1 runs on Diesel which is slightly more expensive than normal gasoline (which only comes in 95 grade in Iceland) – however the Diesel fuel lasts much longer than normal gasoline.
There are plenty of places to gas up in Iceland, however make sure top up before any long drives.
Running out of gas is an amateur move!
Gravel Insurance Rocks!
Last year I drove from LA to Vegas in a rental car and heard a horriffic *crack* when pulling onto the freeway behind a big truck.
The sound was horrific mostly because I didn’t have gravel insurance.
In an unforeseen instant – what starts off as a good deal on a rental car can turn into the purchase of a brand new windshield for an automobile you’re never going to see or use again.
It’s not fun to drive without it because it can happen at any second. To forego gravel insurance is something you will kick yourself in the butt for later.
$9 is about the price of the cheapest beer in Iceland. It’s worth it, just do it.
GPS? OMG. Why Not Wi-Fi!?
While GPS units are available for rent, and seem pretty logical – what are we living in the 90’s?
Six Iceland offers Wi-Fi hot spots for the same price as the GPS rental. Around 9 Euro per day. I think the Wi-Fi hotspot is much more versatile.
This allows you to use Google Maps on your smart phone, and whatever else we do on the internet all day. I guess you’d probably freak out without Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook for 5 days.
The WiFi hotspot has 3 gigabytes of data per activation and allows multiple people to connect and use the internet while on the road.
Even if you are going outside of cell service, load up your directions beforehand and your cell phone’s built-in GPS will take over when the signal is lost.
Not to mention, you’ll be able to scout for hotel rooms, restaurants and more.
If your hotel or guesthouse has bad wifi (which they often do) – it won’t matter as you’ve got your own.
Book Your Hotels On The Same Day – If You Can!
If the spirit of adventure is what you’re after, this will guarantee it.
You’ll be one of the few, and you should be one of the proud, if you land in Reykjavik with no concrete plans.
Since there are less tourists in the winter vs the summertime, it’s possible to find lodging at the last minute.
You might pay a few more bucks than you need to, but total freedom comes at a price!
I would imagine that this might not work well for big families or groups, but if you’re a couple or just a few friends, it might pay to hold off on the commitments.
The weather can change quickly, and it often pays to chase the “good weather” and hang out where the environment is most tolerant. Booking hotel rooms in advance can limit your mobility and force you to make decisions you’d rather have made naturally.
I recommend finding a room on booking.com when you know for sure what city or town you will be near at the end of the day. booking.com works perfectly in Iceland and you can surely find something on there.
Even though it does its absolute best to scare you into thinking every single hotel is almost sold out, it’s just a scarcity tactic and rarely true.
Most hotels allow a certain amount of rooms to be sold online, and have many more for sale.
Since it’s dark around 4PM and you’re probably tired from driving all day anyways, almost any bed will do. I plan on being up before sunrise every day, and so should you!
What I really loved about Sixt
The people at Sixt seemed to really love what they were doing. Everyone who spoke to us was extremely happy and helpful.
There’s really no lines. I never saw more than 3 people checking in or returning a car.
The check-in process took about 10 minutes. The dropoff process took about the same.
The car was in excellent condition and extremely clean.
I brought the car back on a full tank rather than pre-paying. There’s a gas pump right around the corner from the Sixt office.
Upon landing at Keflavik airport, simply walk outside and wait for the big Yellow Bus. Sixt is the very first stop after being scooped up at the airport. It’s only about a 2 minute drive, and easily walkable from the terminal (if you know where it is). The big yellow bus arrives every 10-15 minutes.
Check and see what upgrades are available. Like I said, it’s much more valuable to drive around the Island in style and supreme comfort than sleeping through the daylight in an expensive bed.
That’s what a pirate would do, anyways! It’s all about the ship!