- Unless you know how to drive a standard, book your rental car in advance.
When you’re travelling to places with unpredictable weather, it’s always nice to have some flexibility in your itinerary. It can be stressful to book a rental car in advance and lock yourself into a commitment, never knowing whether that two-day road trip you have planned might be derailed by a snowstorm. Or, you know, a rogue volcano.
However, if you’re as useless at driving a standard as I am, consider booking in advance. It can be hard to locate a last-minute automatic transmission; it took calls to five rental car companies before I found one with an available car, and even then I had to wait two days for it. Automatic vehicles aren’t as common in Europe, so be prepared, and be sure to double check the vehicle in question before booking.
- Bring your own cold medication.
I was sick with an awful head cold before flying to Iceland, and I happened to run low on my over-the-counter medication the night I was packing. Instead of making a late-night trek to the drug store, I took stock of what was left, decided that it was enough to get me through the red-eye flight, and planned to purchase more when I arrived in the morning.
The day we arrived, however, was a holiday – despite the fact that it was April, this was actually the first day of summer, as Iceland in its no-nonsense fashion only recognizes two seasons – which meant that the drug store was closed. I suffered through the day and stumbled into the pharmacy the following morning as soon as the doors were unlocked, only to discover that Iceland doesn’t allow purchases of non-prescription cold medication.
Be prepared. If you feel a cold or flu coming on, don’t let it put a halt to your road trip plans; pack the medications you need.
- If you intend to go to Landmannalaugar in the off-season, plan ahead.
We hadn’t initially planned on a visit to the Landmannalaugar Nature Reserve, but, seduced by photographs of its lava fields, rhyolite mountains, and natural geothermal hot springs, my partner and I decided to make it a detour destination on our drive back from the south coast. However, when stopping to ask for directions at a tourist bureau, we were quickly informed that the access roads are closed in winter. It’s actually forbidden to drive to Landmannalaugar in anything other than a 4×4 vehicle and, aside from a small window in the summer months, a 4×4 won’t cut it. (Our rental car actually came with a cardboard map over the steering wheel, specifying the areas of the island where we weren’t permitted to drive. Most of the interior is off-limits.)
There are professional tours year-round in super jeeps, but be sure to plan ahead, especially if you’re driving from Reykjavik; tours leave between 8:00 and 8:30 in the morning.
- Download an offline map.
You can experience many of the tourist points of Iceland without booking a car at all. Tours are great if you have your sights set solely on the prize; if time constraints force you to experience Iceland on a get-in-get-out kind of deadline, there are numerous comfortable, informative tours to choose from.
If you have the luxury of time, however, and are an independent traveller at heart, I highly recommend driving; you’ll have the ability to explore the landscape at your own pace, not to mention the freedom to stop whenever you come across a field of particularly photogenic Icelandic horses.
With maps.me, there’s no need to pay an added fee to have a GPS included in your car rental; this free, comprehensive service functions like Google maps by utilizing your cell phone’s built-in GPS chip, even when you’re out of a service area or your carrier functions are set to airplane mode. (Which, for many of us, is a necessity when travelling abroad; I don’t have an international plan, but I still carry my iPhone to function as an alarm clock and camera.) With maps.me, simply download a map of Iceland onto your phone while connected to Wifi and access it at any time, no matter how remote your destination.
- Pack for all (both?) seasons.
When my partner and I were planning our visit to Iceland this past April, we started keeping a close eye on the weather in the weeks before we left. However, Iceland is huge. Despite the fact that it was hovering around the eight degree (Celsius) mark in Reykjavik, the north coast was crippled by snowstorms the entire time we were there. Even when driving just to Snaefellsnes National Park, which is roughly a three hour journey northwest from Reykjavik, we felt a sharp drop in temperature and encountered snow flurries several times along the way. The following day, however, when we ventured to Vík í Mýrdal, which was about as far south as the seasonal sand/volcanic ash storms would allow, we were able to shed our heavy coats and explore the ruins of old farmhouses wearing just sweaters.
Dress in layers. Bring a hat and a scarf. It’ll be hard to enjoy the stunning scenery if all you can fantasize about is returning to the warmth of your hotel room.
- Think twice before paying for rental car insurance.
Rental car companies in Iceland offer something called “Sand and Ash Protection” (SAAP), which supposedly covers you in the event that your car gets damaged by Iceland’s unpredictable weather conditions. This is mainly a concern when driving on the south coast, and it can do a serious number on your car; while we were in the rental office, a man came in to report that he’d driven through a sandstorm and that he would need to take advantage of the insurance he’d purchased upon renting it. Sure enough, the car’s surface was weatherbeaten, chipped, and stripped of its shine. Good thing he’d purchased that insurance ….
…But wait: be sure to read the fine print. Even when purchasing this expensive safety net, you aren’t fully covered in the event of damage. The representative processing our own return told us privately, when driving us back to our hotel, that the man was about to be hit with a huge bill despite the fact that he’d purchased coverage. The insurance only covers a portion of the repair cost, and the complete re-finishing of a car is a pricey job.
Plan your journey, pay attention to the weather forecast, and travel accordingly; if you’re wise about your routes and destinations, you may be safe to opt out of the insurance entirely.