Going to Iceland? Here’s how to plan an Iceland road trip in winter, including tips on car rental, budget, and itineraries.
After my Iceland road trip this winter, I just had to share how I did it and how you can, too. To be totally honest, I worried about going in the winter.
Mainly because I was 5 months pregnant at the time and didn’t like the risk of icy roads and getting stuck in a snow blizzard with no help in sight.
But then I thought about the upside, like all the tourists I wouldn’t run into or the chance of seeing the Northern Lights dance across the night sky.
Now that I’ve been to Iceland in winter, I can say for sure: It’s totally worth going. In fact, I recommend it!
Here’s everything you should know to plan your own Iceland road trip in winter.
Is Iceland worth visiting in winter?
Most people visit Iceland in the summer, spring, or autumn – which is good news for you because you’ll have much of it (almost) to yourself in the winter months.
The truth is that winter doesn’t prevent you from much – it even throws in a few winter-only attractions and activities. If you plan well, you’ll have your hands full trying to decide what to see and do next.
Benefits of making an Iceland road trip in winter:
- You can visit blue ice caves, hike glaciers, do snowmobile tours, and much more (only in winter)
- The light is beautiful, and the colors are more intense
- It’s less crowded
- Prices are lower
- It’s not that cold
- It’s a snow wonderland – No wonder that some scenes of Interstellar, Prometheus, James Bond or Batman begins were filmed here.
- Northern Lights (from October – mid-April)
What to pack for Iceland in winter
Like we say in the North: There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.
So when exploring the outdoors in winter you obviously have to be prepared for any kind of weather.
Here’s my packing list for Iceland.
How to plan your Iceland winter road trip
In winter, the weather changes quickly.
One minute it can be sunny, and 5 minutes later you’re stuck in an ice storm or what feels like a hurricane.
As a Scandinavian, I’m used to changeable weather, but Iceland is crazily unpredictable. When planning a road trip in winter, this means two things:
- Check the weather and road conditions
- Always have a backup plan.
Book accommodation and tours in advance
Although winter is not the high season in Iceland, you should still book accommodation and tours in advance.
The weather might not be hot, but as a destination, Iceland is – all year round. You can read my post about the best Iceland adventure tours here.
Weather and road conditions
Since the weather changes all the time, do yourself a favor and check the road conditions regularly through the Vegagerdin website.
They also have an app.
Have a detailed plan
With only 6 hours of sunlight (or less), you need to schedule your day to get the most out of it.
What we did was leave in the morning while it was still dark so we arrived at the destination around the break of dawn.
The good news is that sunrise in the winter is at 11 am so you can sleep in.
Have a back-up plan
A site could be closed, a tire could blow or a snowstorm could ruin your plans.
Be prepared for anything and be sure to have a solid backup plan. For instance, one day on our road trip I wanted to hike to Svartifoss waterfall, but the trail was closed due to heavy snowfall.
Instead as a plan B, we went to the nearby Svínafellsjökull glacier; a site we wouldn’t otherwise have time for.
Did you know that the Northern Lights are in the sky every night?
It’s just that most winter nights are cloudy so you don’t see them.
Check the Vedur Aurora website for the latest cloud cover forecast and go look for them after 10:30 pm.
How to get around Iceland
Doing an Iceland road trip in winter rather than joining an organized tour allows you to stop for photos anytime you want or head off to explore off the road.
Trust me, this is the way you’ll want to see Iceland.
You can rent a car in Reykjavik and other major cities in Iceland.
Experience with icy roads
Road conditions change quickly in Iceland and a sudden snowstorm can really put a dent in your plans.
Also, the roads can be icy, and winds powerful! If you’re an experienced driver, great. If not, maybe bring someone who is.
Renting a car is really the best and only way to see the country so be sure to factor it into your budget.
We did our Iceland road trip with a Toyota RAV 4 automatic that had 280,000 km on it, and it was a good, reliable car.
And do get that car insurance! You might not need the theft insurance, but if you visit in the winter you need the gravel road insurance (consider ash and ice if you are going to areas with much volcanic ash).
Rent a car with studded tires
Now, you need winter tires for your Iceland road trip in winter. These winter tires look like normal tires but have metal studs in them which really keep the car steady on the road.
They sure came in handy a few times on our trip.
Gas stations are scattered around Iceland, but as a rule of thumb, you should fill up when you see a station. The price of gas is $2.5 USD per liter (in October 2023).
We almost didn’t bring a GPS and what a mess if we hadn’t! It gave us access to maps, gas stations, emergency services, and local weather.
A GPS is a must if you ask me.
Download the 112 Iceland app
No one wants to get stuck in a snowstorm in the middle of nowhere so download the 112 Iceland app just in case.
By pressing the red emergency button, your location will be sent by text message to the 112 response center.
Budget tips for an Iceland winter trip
Costs in Iceland
It’s no secret that Iceland is pricey. But a piece of good news is that the vast majority of attractions in Iceland are free.
We actually ended up spending less than I had budgeted – a major surprise. In total, we spent US $271 per day for 2 persons:
- Accommodation (per night): $74
- Food (2 meals per day): $61
- Car rental (per day): $66
- Car insurance (per day): $21
- Gas (we drove approx. 375 km per day): $49
Don’t pay for water
The tap water in Iceland is some of the purest in the world so there’s no reason to buy bottled water.
We just filled up large 1,5 l. bottles every morning and brought them with us.
Shop at grocery stores
If you want to save money and don’t mind fast food, you can buy cheap hotdogs, ‘today’s dish’, or similar fast food at most gas stations at a decent price.
Another option is buying your food at grocery stores. Iceland has a famous budget supermarket called Bonus that’s perfect for this and groceries are really cheap.
Prices vary greatly between towns, and Reykjavik is the cheapest place to shop.
Bring snacks on your road trip. We always had fruits, crackers, and some bread or buns.
Avoid speeding tickets
Iceland has a number of fixed speed traps and police cars patrolling Reykjavik and the Ring Road.
Speed cameras are always signaled a few hundred meters before you encounter them, but fines are hefty so for your own sake: stay within the speed limit which is 90 km/h.
Oh, and if you’re speeding and think you got away with it, think again.
If you get a ticket, your rental company will charge your credit card with an unpleasant surprise a few weeks after your trip.
Don’t take out cash
You can pay with a credit card anywhere in Iceland so there’s no reason to withdraw cash and pay those heavy bank fees.
6 great Iceland road trip itineraries
How many days do you need?
It depends. 8-10 days is ideal if you don’t want to rush it, but Iceland is also a great stop-over destination if you only have a few days.
I had 4 days and saw many of the best sites. You don’t need several weeks to experience the real Iceland, although you would be able to see everything in two weeks’ time.
The Golden Circle (1 day)
The Golden Circle is a perfect example of a 1-day Iceland road trip. Covering about 300 kilometers, the Golden Circle loops from Reykjavík into the southern uplands of Iceland and back.
It takes 3 hours and 21 minutes to drive, but you can also visit on a day tour with one of the many companies from Reykjavik or straight from Keflavik airport. The route takes you to:
- Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Geysers, including the Great Geysir and Strokkur
- The mighty Gullfoss waterfall
- Bruarfoss waterfall
- Kerið volcanic crater lake
- And those cute Icelandic horses
South Iceland (2-3 days)
If you have 2 days or more for your Iceland road trip, you should go to South Iceland. This area, guys. It’s ah-mazing!
Think volcanic beaches, thundering waterfalls, ice-blue glaciers, canyons, icebergs, and a diamond beach → these are just some of the attractions that South Iceland has to offer and the best part?
They’re all free.
Things to see in South Iceland:
- Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi Waterfalls
- Skógafoss Waterfall
- Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach and Dyrhólaey Lighthouse
- Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon
- Hike a glacier (Sólheimajökull or Svínafellsjökull) with a guide
- Sólheimasandur airplane wreckage
- Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
- Crystal ice caves under Vatnajökull glacier (only in winter)
North Iceland (3 days)
While I didn’t have time to visit North Iceland, you might.
Aside from the roaring Dettifoss waterfall, which is the largest waterfall in Europe by water volume, North Iceland has boiling mud pits, hot springs, and whale watching (only from June to October).
Things to see in North Iceland:
- Myvatn Geothermal Area
- Dettifoss Waterfall
- Godafoss Waterfall
- Aldeyjarfoss Waterfall
- Námafjall Hverir geothermal area
- Dimmuborgir lava formations
Snæfellsnes Peninsula (1-2 days)
If we’d had a few more days, we would have gone to Snæfellsness.
The drive takes 3 hours from Reykjavik and possibly longer in the winter months because of the shifting weather and road conditions.
One major draw in Snæfellsness, besides the rugged coastline, stunning nature, and glaciers, is Kirkjufellsfoss, the most photographed waterfall in Iceland.
Things to see in Snæfellsness:
- Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall
- Arnarstapi cliffs and arch
- Stykkishólmur (capital of Snæfellsnes)
- Snæfellsjökull glacier
The Blue Lagoon (half-day trip)
If you’re short on time or want to be extra practical, visit the Blue Lagoon on your way to or from the airport.
The lagoon is located halfway between Keflavik airport and Reykjavik with signs leading you all the way there.
Super important tip:
Book the tickets well in advance (at least 1 month in the winter) or risk not getting in. The Blue Lagoon Iceland is very popular all year round.
The Ring Road (8-9 days)
If you have time, you’ll want to do the ultimate Iceland road trip along the Ring Road. It’s 1,432 kilometers in total and goes all the way around Iceland.
You can do it in 7 days, but 9 days is more realistic so you don’t have to rush it.
Plus, in the winter there will be days with bad weather, icy roads, or other things that might delay your trip.
FAQ – Iceland road trip in winter
What is the best car to drive in Iceland in winter?
For winter driving in Iceland, a 4×4 vehicle is your best bet.
Models like the Toyota Land Cruiser or Subaru Forester are solid choices for icy and snowy conditions. They offer better traction and stability.
Don’t forget to check if the car is equipped with winter tires. Safety should always be a priority!
How long does it take to drive around Iceland in winter?
The time to drive around Iceland in winter depends on your itinerary.
It’s technically possible to drive the Ring Road in a few days, but you’d miss most sights. A 5-day trip covers highlights at a quick pace.
A 10-day journey allows for a more relaxed exploration. Adjust based on what you want to see and do.
Can you do a road trip in Iceland in the winter?
Yes, you can road trip Iceland in the winter, but it comes with challenges.
A 4×4 vehicle with winter tires is essential for icy conditions. Daylight is limited, and weather can be unpredictable.
Make sure to check road conditions and forecasts frequently. It’s adventurous, but proper planning and caution are key.
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