Iceland is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited. It offers everything from glaciers to volcanoes to geysers and hot springs. You’ll probably see more waterfalls in one day than you ever have in your life. Every 20 minutes, the landscape changes and it’s completely different. We spent 11.5 days in Iceland and there are a few things to note. We visited at the end of June/early July 2019 because we wanted to experience midnight sun. Most of the tips are about Iceland in general but some are more specific to Ring Road.
Important things to know before starting Ring Road circuit
- You don’t need a 4 wheel drive in summer. We did the entire Ring Road and it’s all paved. Unless you plan on going off the main road, a 2 WD will be just fine. We had no problems getting to all the major tourist spots/destinations in our little Suzuki Swift. There are small sections that are gravel but we had no problems in our 2 WD car.
- Purchase a sim card at the airport. They are available either at the duty free store or a small cafe after you pass through customs. We purchased NOVA sim cards but I’ve heard Siminn is also a good option. We got 10 GB data + unlimited talk for about $36 USD. They also have cheaper options starting at 1 GB for $7 USD and you can add balance as needed. There’s 4G coverage everywhere except the moon-like desert in the northeast.
- All the grocery stores, gas stations and liquor stores close at 6 pm. Restaurants kitchen close at around 9 or 10 pm. If you are going during summer, like we did, keep this in mind and plan dinners accordingly every night. This is especially important if you are travelling with kids. Because of midnight sun, you won’t know how late it really is since it never gets dark. It’ll be midnight before you know it and all the restaurants will be closed. Consider packing snacks in case you miss dinner. Reykjavik might be an exception but we didn’t spend any time in the city.
- Gas stations are evenly paced and the automated pumps are available 24 hours. However, they only accept cards with a pin. You either have to call your credit card company to set up a pin or use debit card. These machines did not accept chip and sign cards.
- Most bridges (and there are a lot) are one lane bridges only. You have to see if an oncoming car is already on the bridge before you pass. There’s a pull off just before the bridge to wait until the oncoming car passes. There was one tunnel between Akureyri to Siglufjordur where the entire tunnel is one lane only. There are pull off points for the cars going south. If you are travelling north, you have the right of way. That tunnel was probably the most stressful drive so just be aware and pull off when you see an oncoming car. North Iceland was the only exception. I think the paved roads are relatively new so all the bridges were normal 2 lane bridges.
- Food is expensive, mainly because there are no cheap options. A ham and cheese sandwich at a gas station will cost around $8-$10 and a burger will be around $15. Nice restaurants cost about the same as a nice restaurant in NYC. For a few meals, we purchased some fresh fish, bread, and mayo from a grocery store to make sandwiches.
- Golden Circle, south, and southwest Iceland are the most expensive because they are the most visited parts. The rest of Iceland, especially east and north, are just as beautiful and AirBnB cost about half as much as the south and southwest. You might want to consider visiting these parts of Iceland if traveling on a budget.
- For most of our stay, we had a private room but we shared the bathroom with up to 4 other rooms especially in the south and south west Iceland. This helped keep our lodging cost down and the bathrooms were always clean. In the rest of the country, we usually only shared the bathroom with hosts.
- When you pick up your rental car, be VERY thorough inspecting it. Although Ring Road is mostly paved, there are parts that are gravel and sometimes the car can get damaged. You are responsible for the windshield so the rental company specifically asked us to look at it very carefully. The country has a lot of lava fields and the car can get scratched or dinged. If any damage is discovered after you take possession of the car, you are responsible so take LOTS of pictures and even videos.
- DO NOT SPEED! There are cameras everywhere and fines are very steep. Use your car’s cruise control function because it’ll be very easy to speed. If you get pulled over for speeding, you’ll have to pay the ticket right then and there. I guess they’ve had too many tourists who never paid the fine. I repeat, DO NOT SPEED!!
- Buy alcohol at the airport duty free store. Reykjavik is the only airport where duty free alcohol is significantly cheaper. A bottle of Brennivin Aquavit at the duty free store will cost around $18-$20. The same bottle in Reykjavik will cost around $80-$90 and about $50-$60 in east and north Iceland. Also, liquor stores (Vinbudin) are only open for 2 hours on weekdays, from 4 pm to 6 pm.
- There’s absolutely no need to waste money on buying water. Tap water is perfectly safe to drink everywhere. You can even fill water bottles from one of the millions of glacier streams you’ll come across. As long as the water is clear and flowing, it’s safe to drink. In fact, that was our preferred source of water, a running stream on the side of the road.
- Pack layers and a few winter clothes. North and Northwest Iceland were really cold and windy when we visited. I wished I had my winter jacket for a few days. Definitely take a beanie and gloves even if you are going in summer.
Food in Iceland
- You must try their ice cream. It’s the creamiest ice cream I’ve ever tasted. The only unique flavor I came across was dandelion but even the simple vanilla or chocolate ice creams are delicious. Probably because they use the freshest ingredients, especially milk. In fact, any dairy product was deliciously creamy. I waited too long before trying their hot chocolate with whipped cream.
- Don’t be afraid to walk out of a restaurant if you don’t like the menu. We actually ate at 1 in every 4 or 5 restaurants we walked into. If the catch of the day was a fish we’d never heard of, we would stay and try it. If the catch of the day was cod or if they didn’t have a catch of the day, we’d usually walk out. TripAdvisor and Google reviews of the restaurants really helped in narrowing our restaurant options.
- Seafood is the freshest I’ve ever had. Usually the catch of the day is caught a few hours earlier. Langoustine is a must try in Hofn.
- Icelandic food uses spice like paprika and turmeric. It’s not bland like food in western Europe. It’s definitely more flavorful and delicious than I expected. Every AirBnB kitchen was stocked with different spices.
- Fish stew is not exactly what Americans call stew. It’s more like a casserole with fish, potatoes, and onions. Based on the recipe it can be delicious.