Having just spent 9 days in Iceland I thought I would share a few tips I picked-up – and some I wish I had known before I arrived! If you are looking for resources for planning a trip to Iceland, you can check out my Iceland planning post.
Budget Enough Time
7-14 days is usually the recommend time for the Ring Road. While 7 days is certainly doable it is on the fast side. Rushed? Not exactly. But brisk. If you have the time and money, you will want at least 8-10 days for the Ring Road. This way you can make some side trips, and spend some time outdoors hiking without worry about your timeline.
...and then Budget Extra Time!
The Ring Road, which is Highway 1 in Iceland, is the main road that circles the country. In most sections it is 2 lanes, though over many bridges it condenses down to one. While the highway is the main road in Iceland, it is not paved everywhere. There are many sections where the road is gravel and you will need to slow down. Many of the side roads that lead off to other towns or attractions are gravel, as well. These are not to be confused with F-Roads, which are roads only for off-road vehicles. Because some of the roads you will drive are gravel you will want to always budget some extra time to get between point A and B. Google Maps is generally accurate in Iceland, though in many places it is inaccurate. Budget your time accordingly.
You will also want to stop regularly for photos. There are SO many beautiful vistas in Iceland you could get away with stopping ever kilometre and not be disappointed with the view. Budget some extra time for photo ops. Your Instagram will thank you.
Pick Up Hitchhikers
Not only is picking up hitchhikers a nice thing to do, it's a great way to pick up some tips. Chances are they have been talking to locals as they thumb their way around which means they have likely picked up some tidbits of travel info. Chat them up and see what you can discover!
Hitchhiking? go solo!
If you plan on hitch hiking the Ring Road you will have the best luck going solo, or with a friend. Groups of 3 will wait MUCH longer to get picked up, and anything larger than 4 is risking not getting picked up at all. It's quite common for locals to pick up hitchhikers, though chances are they wont have room for an entire group. Having chatted to a few solo hitchhikers, most never waited more than an hour before they snagged a ride.
The Golden Circle: It's Overrated
The Golden Circle is the popular tourist route just outside the capital of Reykjavik which includes Gullfoss, Geysir, and Þingvellir National Park. These sites are definitely worth visiting, but I would go so far as to say they are the least cool part of the Ring Road. This is the most crowded, most “touristy” section of the country and so, while you should still visit, you need not overdo it here. There are much more intimate sights to see elsewhere that are equally as stunning!
Hike The Fimmvörðuháls Trail
If you are driving the Ring Road you really need to get out of the car to experience Iceland. You can't truly get a sense of the place until you start trudging over its martian landscape. There are tons of short hikes in every town and village, but if you have the time (and are up for some adventure) then I suggest a larger hike: the Fimmvörðuháls trail.
The trail is 30km of stunning vistas and challenging terrain, taking you from Skogar all the way to Thormorks National Park. If you're an intrepid adventurer you can camp halfway and make it a two-day journey, basking in the solitude of the volcanoes that engulf the trail.
We did the hike in one day, which is feasible with an early start and a stalwart pace. In truth, this hike was the highlight of my entire trip. It wasn't easy, but the scenery was unrivalled. Do it!
For accommodation in the area, you can check out Volcano Huts.
Find Secluded Hot Pots
Searching for secret hot pots (natural hot springs) was a priority for our group. We used hotpoticeland.com to discover the hidden gems, fitting them into our schedule as often as we could. There really is nothing like a midnight dip in a secluded hot pot, so be sure to bookmark the website. You can also ask your hostel staff or Airbnb host for local sites, too.
Stay at a Farm Guesthouse
If you want to add a unique, cozy stay to your trip than be sure to keep your eyes out for farm guesthouses. There are virtually everywhere in Iceland so you wont have a hard time finding one, though they are often found on Airbnb as well. They offer a very personal perspective to your trip, and the hosts are always full of great info and travel tips. Definitely break out of your standard hostel/Airbnb scene to try one of the wonderful guesthouses. We stayed at Solvanes, which we found on Airbnb. The hosts were lovely and the location serene and off-the-beaten-path.
The Freezer Hostel
When it comes to hostels, they can often be hit or miss. The Freezer, on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, is a definite hit. Spacious, warm, inclusive, and owned by an amazingly friendly guy, The Freezer is a must. They host regular live music AND live theatre in the summer, have a spacious kitchen, and are located right next to a national park. A converted fish factory, this is a must if you are in the area and appreciate a chill atmosphere.
Purchase Extra Insurance
Many car rental companies in Iceland will either include insurance OR offer it as an extra fee. This insurance will cover your windshield, and will protect you should your car get scratched up by gravel (which it inevitably will). They wont cover any off-roading, so don't take your 2-door mini off into the wild! Most rental companies will also not cover your tires. This can be a big issue in Iceland, as many gravel roads are ripe for popping tires. Because of this, I suggest you have extra insurance that will cover your tires. World Nomads, who I am not super fond of, offers rental coverage in their travel insurance package. Many other companies will, as well, so make sure you don't head off around the country without proper coverage!
Drive the Road to Seyðisfjörður
The town is a quaint, charming little speck on the east coast. It has quite the artistic community, and is known to be something of a bohemian village. What I found most stunning, however, was the drive into the town. The road to Seyðisfjörður was a winding, gravelly incline that provided some incredible views. Coasting down the mountain into town was one of those little memorable moments that I'll always enjoy, so give it a try! There are also some nice hikes in the area if you want to stretch your legs!
Double Check Your Roads
Unless you have rented an off-road vehicle, “F-Roads” in Iceland will be off limits. However, just because a road isn't labelled an F-Road doesn't mean it will be smooth. We encountered a handful of bumpy roads, including one INSANELY bumpy road enroute to Dettifoss. These roads can really chew up your car so make sure you have insurance. Be aware that most car rental agencies that offer coverage still wont cover your tires – so be aware!
Hike the Snæfellsnes National Park
On my last day driving Iceland I had the opportunity to park my car by the ocean and spend the day hiking up the mountains and volcanoes near Snæfellsjökull. The wind was sharp and unrelenting, the sheep trails we followed challenging and rewarding. The highlight, however, was when we reached the glacier. Trudging around a glacier, all alone on a volcano, is truly a unique experience. Words really can't do it justice, but it was the perfect way to end my adventure. Don't miss the national park if you're in the area!
With these tips, hand in hand with some planning resources, you'll have no trouble diving into your own Ring Road adventure. Just be sure to keep an eye out for elves!
P.S I've recently completed Nomadic Matt's Travel Writing course, so if you've noticed an improvement in my writing let me know!