How to Plan Your Own Ring Road Self Drive Tour in Iceland (Part 1)

Iceland is the perfect country for a road trip. The landscape is untamed and wild, but the Ring Road lies mostly flat. There are a few hilly/mountainous areas – particularly up north – and a few unpaved areas out east, but for the most part, the road is very easy to drive.  For the more adventurous road trippers, the Westfjords is more rugged terrain with steep cliffs and might be intimidating to urban drivers. Attractions are often just off the road; if not, you don’t usually need to drive more than a few kilometers to reach them.

This series is meant for someone who wants to travel Iceland using the Ring Road to get around the island  and does not know roughly how much time to spend at each attraction. The truth is, you could easily spend a couple weeks on the road if you want to venture off the Ring Road and explore some of the towns and off the beaten path attractions. That’s a lot of time, though, and most people have limited, precious vacation time.

TL;DR

  • Plan for at least 7 days on the road, preferably 9-10
  • Bookmark and check road.is and en.vedur.is every day
  • Booking a self-drive tour will save you planning time but be a little more expensive and give you less flexibility
  • Drive about 150-200 km per day – 100 km for a slower pace, 250+ for a speedier run (dependent on attractions within the route)
  • My suggested beginner’s route (will be reproduced later in this post):

How many days should I spend?

The Ring Road, or Route 1 (Icelandic: Þjóðvegur 1 or Hringvegur), is 1332 km or 828 miles total. Ambitious drivers will try to do this drive in 5 days, but I recommend at least 7 and preferably 9-10 to allow flexibility for going off the beaten track, resting, and unexpected weather conditions.  Iceland’s weather changes suddenly and without warning. You might be driving through bright sunshine for a while and then suddenly plunge into fog with 50 feet of visibility. In the winter, a storm could completely wipe out any chance of driving for several hours or even a day, leaving you stranded at your current location. Note the short daylight hours in the wintertime too – you need to be very comfortable with driving in the dark if you’re driving the entire road with 4 hours of daylight per day.

Foggy night visibility can be pretty scary. Most of the Ring Road has no lighting, so you’re relying on reflectors to see where you’re going.

What resources do I need to be aware of while on the road?

First, download the 112 app. 112 is Iceland’s 911.

Second, either rent a Trawire or some other portable hotspot through your rental car company so you have 3G or 4G signal at all times. That app can send your GPS location to the emergency authorities at the press of a button so they can initiate a search-and-rescue if you run into trouble.

Third, every morning before you do get out on the road, always check www.road.is and en.vedur.is for the day’s road conditions and weather conditions. It’s futile to check any more than 24 hours in advance because of the unpredictable nature of Iceland’s weather. You could also leave your itinerary with safetravel.is and follow their Twitter account for live announcements. All their websites have English versions and virtually everyone I’ve met there speaks English (though trying a little Icelandic is polite).

Screen capture from safetravel.is

Should I book a self-drive tour?

There are lots of tour companies offering self-drive tours. They will take care of the car rental, tour booking, and accommodation for a set number of days. You don’t have to worry about how to space out your trip as it’s done for you. You don’t have to stress about the prices of guesthouses and hotels, let alone the rental car. The itinerary is all planned out for you; all you have to do is follow it.  Prices aren’t off the charts expensive either – they’re generally in the $1,000 range for 6 days (for 2 people) and $1,500 range for 10 days. These prices don’t include eating or fuel and are for the bare minimum of every option (2w drive, shared bathroom guesthouses, and so on).

My last 7-day trip, including airfare (flying from Newark on WOWair), was about $1,700 per person. The cost also included accommodation at 3 star hotels or guesthouses, two tours (glacier hiking and ice cave), a 4×4 Suzuki Vitara, and all the food and gas for the trip. If I had been more skimpy on eating out and brought more companions, it would’ve likely been less than that. Booking everything yourself will give you more freedom to choose your accommodations and what kinds of side trips to take. If I had done the exact same trip using a self-drive service, I probably would’ve spent another few hundred dollars. For you, it may or may not be a huge difference. For me, even $100 in savings is totally worth it. After my first trip last year in April, I know I want to be able to choose how to spend my time. I like being able to choose between a guesthouse, hotel, and AirBnB. I like being able to design my own itinerary because maybe I want to spend more time in a specific region. Sure, it requires more upfront research, but you’ll know better how to navigate the country once you’re out there, and get the satisfaction of doing it on your own. I am sure you can figure it out, and I hope that what I write in this series will help you.

How far should I drive each day and where should I stay?

Along the way, there aren’t too many major towns. The limited accommodation in Iceland is a blessing in disguise – they’re spaced out just enough to allow you some flexibility in deciding where to sleep, but there aren’t so many that you get decision paralysis.

I’ve created this little map below to help you get a sense of which cities usually have accommodation available. Search these areas on Booking.com and AirBnB to find accommodation options. This is my suggested route for an average trip (excludes Golden Circle and Snæfellsnes) around the island:

Using a free template of the map, I drew the road, outlined the glaciers, and labeled everything myself, so use this map for approximation purposes only. Also, the east portion around the fjords is NOT Route 1, but is a very worthwhile scenic drive recommended by locals.

I included Skaftafell and Mývatn (light blue dots) because those are two areas with a cluster of attractions within its vicinity that you can spend a lot of time exploring. Otherwise, I’d recommend driving about 150 km (about 93 miles) a day for a relatively relaxed pace. You could drive 100 km per day for an even more relaxed pace and 200+ for a more rapid pace; again, this all varies based on what attractions you’d like to spend more time at, and I will provide some suggestions in a later part of this series. As an example, you could write an itinerary with the following places to stay overnight:

  • Day 1: Reykjavík/Golden Circle
  • Day 2: Skógar
  • Day 3: Kirkjubæjarklaustur
  • Day 4: Höfn
  • Day 5: Egilsstaðir
  • Day 6: Mývatn
  • Day 7: Akureyri
  • Day 8: Hvammstangi
  • Day 9: Reykjavík (city)/Reykjanes (southwest peninsula between Keflavík Airport and Reykjavík)

Note: I did go to Snæfellsnes in my first trip around the Ring Road, but failed to thoroughly explore West Iceland. The drive between Hvammstangi and  Reykjavík is a long 190 km and I think there are attractions along the way that I missed. #reasonstogoback

Again, scour Booking.com and AirBnB for guesthouses and hotels as soon as you have a rough sense of places to stay overnight, taking note of cancellation policies. Expect to pay at least $50 per person per night, though more bare bones places can be less and accommodations in smaller towns cost more in my experience. Rising tourism is driving prices up too and you’ll definitely want to book at least a month or two in advance, and maybe even earlier if you’re traveling during the summer.

That’s it for Part 1! Hope that can at least help spark some ideas on how to start planning your trip. Feel free to leave comments on anything I missed.

Stay tuned for Part 2 and possibly a Part 3, where we will cover:

  • Attractions and estimations of how long to spend at each
  • Tour companies I’ve had experience with
  • How to be a respectful tourist
  • Hotels vs guesthouses
  • Flying with WOWAir

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