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How to Survive Iceland’s Ring Road Trip: Broke Student Edition

In late March of 2016, I set off to Reykjavík with five other people from my study abroad program. After a month of haphazard planning, we managed to scrape together the most unforgettable experience of my life so far.

I will post many more articles focusing on the various places we visited but here is an overview on how to plan the perfect itinerary based on our mistakes and successes. Read on for a sample itinerary, money-saving tips, and warnings.


Iceland is an utterly unique country. As you drive, the scenery completely changes every couple of hours and you have a strange feeling of being in outer space. The isolation, natural wonders, and wonderful people combined should place this destination high on your bucket list.

I sincerely feel self-driving is the best way to see Iceland. You can decide where you go, how long you stay, and what you eat. This ensures the best bang for your buck and you truly see the country in-depth.

So what exactly is the Ring Road?

Iceland has a main, national highway called Route 1. It connects most major cities in Iceland and it looks like this:

When is the best time to visit Iceland?

There are conflicting opinions on when to visit Iceland. It really boils down to what you want to see- but if you are hoping to “catch” the Northern Lights (and you really need to hunt them down, I will make an entire post about this), the best time to go is from September to mid-April when the nights are long.

However, I really feel that you shouldn’t go to Iceland just to see this phenomenon, beautiful as it is, as the weather in Iceland is notoriously fickle and you have to be very lucky in order to see the Northern Lights at its maximum effect. Besides, Iceland is stunning enough even if the light display didn’t occur there.

Since you’re reading a Ring Road trip article, though, it is probably best to go from late March onwards as you are driving yourselves. We saw Iceland in all of its icy glory, but many lakes were frozen and some sites were inaccessible (like the gorgeous West Fjords).

I will definitely try to return to see Iceland in the summer someday, when I imagine it will be a different kind of breath-taking beauty and driving should be easier. Don’t count on seeing any Northern Lights, however!


Sample Ring Road Trip Itinerary

We decided to drive the Ring Road anti-clockwise, starting with the bleakest sights first and eventually easing ourselves back into crowded civilization (or as crowded as Iceland gets).

Our days were quite busy, so I suggest waking up around 7 or 8 a.m. or even earlier as the sites get further and further apart (coming from Texas, 3 hours of driving is nothing but you want to make the most of your time there). If you can’t fit in some sights one day (sun sets quite early), you can easily see them the next. Also, you don’t need to stay overnight in my suggested areas, you can easily work your schedule around it (especially if you rent a camper van).

One important thing about driving in Iceland is that you will often einbreid_bruencounter one-lane bridges (we crossed a total of 39). It’s not that big a deal- just wait until the person who gets there first to cross. Visibility was never a problem for us, though, and we were often the only ones on the road.

Here is a general itinerary for an 8-day sojourn in the Land of Fire and Ice. Feel free to pick and choose what you do each day, but my must-visits will be bolded. There are many wonderful, smaller sights I chose not to put in here, as this is meant to be a starting template for your trip.

  1. Day One- Total driving time: 1 hr
    • Pick your car up at Keflavik airport
    • Explore Reykjavík at your leisure (there will be time to see it when you get back)
    • OVERNIGHT: Reykjavík

  2. Day Two- Total driving time: 3 hr
    • Depart Reykjavík
    • 45-min drive to Selfoss
    • Seljalandsfoss waterfall
    • Skógafoss waterfall (largest on the south coast, 3rd largest entire country)
    • Sólheimajökull glacier
    • Sólheimasandur plane crash site
    • Dyrhólaey natural reserve
    • Reynisfjara beach (black sand beach)
    • OVERNIGHT: Vík

  3. Day Three- Total driving time: 3 hr 45 min
    • Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon
    • Skaftafell National Park
      • Hike to Svartifoss Waterfall
    • Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon (my favorite place in Iceland)
    • OVERNIGHT: Höfn

  4. Day Four- Total driving time: 7 hr (yes, seven hours- less if you skip the forest)
    • Hallormsstaðaskógur Forest
    • Dettifoss Waterfall (aka the Prometheus waterfall)
    • Lake Mývatn
      • Mývatn Nature Baths (we opted out of this since we were going to Blue Lagoon at the end)
    • Crater Viti (you pass by the Krafla Power Plant which is very surreal and stinky. The road takes you right up to the rim of the crater. The water was frozen over when we went, but if you visit in summer, it looks beautiful in images we Googled)
    • Drive through the Dimmuborgir lava fields
    • OVERNIGHT: Mývatn/Husavík

  5. Day Five- Total driving time: 1 hr 30 min
    • Husavík (you can take a boat trip from here to spot whales)
    • Goðafoss waterfall
    • Drive to Akureyri, walk around (the second biggest city besides Reykjavík)
    • OVERNIGHT: Akureyri

  6. Day Six- Total driving time: 6 hr 30 min (you’re almost back to Reykjavík!)
    • Hvítserkur Cliff
    • Hraunfossar and Barnafoss waterfalls
    • Þingvellir National Park (any Game of Thrones fans??)
      • Silfra (you can snorkel and scuba dive here between two tectonic plates, high visibility and very cool but no wildlife)
    • OVERNIGHT: Laugarvatn

  7. Day Seven- Total driving time: 2 hr 30 min
    • Explore the Golden Circle
      • Geysir/Strokkur (where the word geyser comes from)
      • Gullfoss Waterfall
      • Faxi Waterfall
      • Kerið Crater Lake (may also be frozen when it’s not summer)
    • Return to Reykjavík and grab a drink in one of the bars near Laugavegur Street (pat yourselves on the back for a successful Ring Road trip!!!)
    • OVERNIGHT: Reykjavík

  8. Day Eight- Total driving time: 1 hr 30 min

    • Explore Reykjavík
      • Hallgrímskirkja church (get tickets to the top)
      • Get a hot dog at the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (lines will be long)
    • Blue Lagoon (on your way to the airport as your last stop- MAKE SURE you book tickets in advance)
    • Return your rental car at the airport

Congratulations!! You’ve successfully driven around an entire country, now walk away with a lifetime’s worth of memories and a huge sense of accomplishment.


MONEY AND TIME-SAVING TIPS/WARNINGS: 

  • DO rent a 4×4 in the winter. I cannot stress this enough. The Ring Road is certainly do-able with a normal car but I felt extra safe with a sturdier vehicle when the weather was a bit rocky and the hills were a bit slippery (we rented a Dodge Durango)
    • We also made the huge mistake of taking the wrong road that was closed for the winter and ended up in the middle of nowhere. We got out in the snow and pushed, but for about twenty minutes I thought we were going to freeze to death out there. Thankfully, a very angry Icelandic man came by and towed us out of the snow and berated us tourists for not being more careful which leads us to…
  • DO your research when it comes to roads. You MUST check conditions every morning before you set out on this website.
  • DON’T get sand/ash or theft insurance. Get the other insurances, but there’s a very small chance another volcano will erupt and vehicle theft rarely occurs in Iceland. Just make sure to lock your car!
  • DO opt for WiFi and GPS in the car. This way everyone in the car can use Skype to call businesses (or an emergency tow) or use Google maps if the GPS is acting up.
  • DO make sure you pay attention when filling up on gas. You put in the MAXIMUM AMOUNT you want to pay, and they will refund you the difference. If you do not specify how much gas you want, Icelandic self-serve gas stations put a maximum hold on your card. This gave us quite a scare the first time we filled up. Make sure your card is chip-and-pin and that the code is no longer than 4 digits. Also, the prices are listed in liters, not gallons (like most European countries).
  • DO book accommodation well in advance, especially during summer months. There is a limited amount of rooms available in Iceland. Also, getting this taken care of early will cure a lot of headaches especially since you’re staying in a different place every night
    • If you’re traveling with a smaller group of people, a camper van is an excellent choice. You don’t have to worry about checking-in or finding a stove and there are several camping sites across Iceland
    • If you’re traveling with a larger group of people like I did, book an Airbnb. I highly suggest this for multiple reasons: your local hosts are there to give you advice/information, it will be cheaper, you will see things off the beaten path, and you can cook meals there which leads to my next tip…
  • DON’T eat out as much. Food in Iceland is insanely expensive. A normal meal at a restaurant will set you back about 20 USD (about 2500 Icelandic Krona/ISK) at least. This is very unsustainable for students, obviously, so we made a lot of pasta every night at our Airbnbs and stocked up at supermarkets to make sandwiches for lunch
  • DO eat hot dogs and ice cream. There are hot dogs EVERYWHERE in Iceland. You can find them at gas stations, visitor centers, etc. They’re cheap, delicious, and part of the local culture so get them when you can! Order it with all the works or “ein með öllu” (comes with fried onions, pylsusinnep- a brown Icelandic mustard sauce, remoulade-mayo sauce, and everything else you would expect). Also, locals seem to love ice cream even when (especially when?) its super cold outside. I recommend going to Isbud Vesturbaejar in Reykjavík (honestly one of the best ice creams I’ve ever had, and they’re HUGE)
  • DO stock up on lots of snacks. You will be driving for long lengths at a time and often you will not pass by a store for hours at a time. I think we went through about 3 boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios.
  • DO bring paper towels/napkins if you’re eating in the car (also comes in handy if nature calls while you’re in nature), and plastic bag as a trash can.
  • DON’T bring cash. They accepted cards everywhere we went.
  • DO drink the tap water. The hot water comes from their geothermic pools and the smell of sulfur is a bit jarring at first, but the cold water is perfectly fine to drink and tastes great. Just let it run a while, and fill up your water bottles to save money.
  • DON’T be scared to try traditional Icelandic foods. They look scary, but I think trying local cuisine is part of the experience. Some places may try to rip tourists off, but this doesn’t mean you have to be one of them. You can get an entire sheep’s head (or Svið) at the BSÍ bus station in Reykjavík. You can also pick up free samples of fermented shark at the food markets near the harbor (right across the street from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur)

Sheep's head, a traditional Icelandic dish #Svið 🍴

A post shared by 🌜Tiffany🌛 (@tiffdelrey) on

  • DO pack thermal underwear. This saved my life. If you need suggestions, Uniqlo’s HeatTech line works wonders, and you will be outdoors for most of your trip, so layer up. Also wear sensible boots to walk through shallow water and slippery snow
  • DO strike up a conversation with locals. Icelandic people are some of the kindest and most helpful people I’ve ever met. They’re all eager to help and have a strong sense of pride for their country. If our car was slowly cruising along a road at night, someone would pull over and ask us if we needed help or directions and get us where we needed to go.

Phew! That’s most of the general advice I have for planning a trip in Iceland, but if you have any questions, please feel free to ask! Also, look out for more Iceland articles I will be posting soon about my very own Ring Road trip.

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