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Iceland is as rugged and stunning as they come; a hotbed of geothermal activity and natural wonders. The volcanic and glaciated landscape is beautiful and best seen by car, while the capital, Reykjavik, is cultured and charming. By car visitors can explore the entire country via the Route 1 ring road, taking in the Blue Lagoon, Skaftafell National Park and traditional towns.
The main Route 1 and city roads are in good condition though many country roads are gravel only. Winter driving is harsh as many roads become impassable. Signage is clear and has kilometre markings.
Driving licences: the new style UK licence is valid in Iceland, but an International Driving Permit should accompany any old (non-photo) style licence.
Which side does Iceland drive on: the right.
National roads: 56mph (90kph)
Rural areas: 50mph (80kph)
Built-up areas: 31mph (50kph)
Alcohol limits: 0.05 per cent, which is stricter than the UK’s 0.08 per cent limit. Checkpoints are frequent and harsh fines/suspensions are the norm for offenders.
Driving age: 17 years, but from 21 years to hire a car, usually rising to 25 for a jeep.
Seatbelts: all passengers should wear seatbelts and children under six years must be strapped into a child safety seat (provided by rental companies) in the rear.
Mobile phones and GPS: police regularly fine drivers who use mobile phones while behind the wheel unless they use a hands-free kit. GPS can be used and is useful for negotiating country roads, but iPhones/iPads with GPS apps should be in a docking station while driving.
Cost of fuel in Iceland: cheaper than in the UK.
Car hire and fuel payment: major credit cards can be used at most pumps, but having cash to hand while deep in the country is recommended. You must show your credit card when picking up a hire car.
Insurance: fully comprehensive insurance is obligatory. Minor damage caused by gravel is common, so having excess insurance is recommended.
Traffic and parking: traffic is rarely an issue, even in Reykjavík, though roads into the city can become busy in the evening. It is relatively easy to park in the capital, on the street with meters and in car parks. Make a note of parking times as traffic wardens are efficient.
Taxis are expensive but the best way to get about Reykjavík and other main towns. A light on the roof signifies the taxi is available for hire and can be hailed on the street. Otherwise, they are located at taxi ranks near main tourist areas, bus stations and at airports—all towns with airports have taxi service. Be prepared to pay handsomely from Keflavik Airport to Reykjavík, about £50. Standard fares in Reykjavík are £3 to £3.50 flag fall and £1 to £2 per kilometre thereafter. BSR and Borgarbill are two of the main taxi companies. There is no need to tip.
Bus travel in Iceland is not that great. Services are comfy although expensive - often more so than flying to a given city. Journey times are typically long (sometimes more than a day) and services are infrequent, with often just one bus per day. Getting to Seyðisfjörður from Reykjavik outside summer can be a headache, so it’s much better to fly this route. The cost from Reykjavík to Egilsstaðir on the east coast by bus is about £75. The hop-on, hop-off BSI bus is useful, however, as it offers passes to complete Route 1 over four weeks for £190. The Westfjords region is an optional extra. The public bus in Reykjavik, Strætó bs, is disorganised. Single fares are about £1.70.
Services run to Seyðisfjörður in the east from Norway with Smyril Line in the summer months (May to September). To get aboard this service from the UK, visitors need to depart from Lerwick, Shetland Isles, to the Faroe Islands where Smyril makes a stop. Within Iceland, you can get to the beautiful Westfjords region at Brjánslækur from the port town of Stykkishólmur, which is north of Reykjavik. The Tþorlákshöfn-Westman Islands trip in the south also takes cars. Both of these services are pricey.
Keflavik International Airport is the gateway, located to the west of Reykjavik, on the tip of the Reykjanes Peninsula. There are direct flights from London with a number of carriers, including EasyJet (London-Luton), Icelandair (London-Heathrow), Iceland Express (London-Gatwick) as well as WOW Air (London-Gatwick). There are also direct flights from other European centres as well as from the US. Getting about Iceland by flying is common as the terrain is rugged and travel overland in winter is tough. Air Iceland is the main local carrier. Flights are quite reasonable in price and passes are offered. A one-way flight from Reykjavík to Akureyri is about £40, with a Reykjavík to Egilsstaðir flight around £45.
Reykjavík is the capital, the main city and the arrival point for most visitors. Its old town is the main tourist highlight, with old wood and tin houses, and there is a buzzing nightlife. The most striking landmark in town is the huge Hallgrímskirkja church, built to look like a volcano. City Hall, Tjörnin pond and the National Gallery are other highlights.
West of the city, on the Reykjanes Peninsula, is the Blue Lagoon, one of the top sights in the country. This geothermal pool is as blue as blue can be and is always open, though it is pricey and gets crowded.
Gullfoss waterfall is Iceland’s most famous waterfall. The side-on falls are east of Reykjavík and drop over 100 feet to produce spectacular rainbows. Nearby is the now sleeping Geysir, from which all others are named. If it is still out when you visit, nearby is the impressive Strokkur, which erupts every few minutes.
Skaftafell National Park is father east and noted for its amazing glaciers and climbable peaks. In the southern part of the park is Jokulsarlon; a fascinating seascape of ice and used as the setting in the James Bond film Die Another Day. Farther on is the cute town of Höfn and its lagoon.
In the south is the Hekla Volcano, which is quite close to the sublime Landmannalaugar and best seen by four-wheel drive. To explore the north, head to Akureyri as a base, or to Egilsstaðir to discover the east.
Golden Circle – at a little over 100 miles and doable as a daytrip from Reykjavík, this fabulous loop takes in some of Iceland’s star attractions. Chief among these draws include the Gullfoss waterfall, the Haukadalur geyser and Pingvellir National Park.
South Coast – black sand beaches of the volcanic type are strewn across the south’s shoreline and are easily reached from the capital. The Myrdalsjokull Glacier is also here along with eye-popping waterfalls.
Ring Road – taking in a loop of Iceland, Route 1 enables visitors to get to most of the country. The drive takes several days and should be done steadily. See geysers, beaches and an array of traditional villages.
East Fjords – this area is accessed by taking the highway east and is in the region of Vatnajokull National Park, which contains the Vatnajokull glacier for great hiking. Djupivogur traditional village is also here.
New Year's Day (1 January)
Independence Day (17 June)
Viking Festival (mid-June)
Reykjavik Jazz Festival (mid to late August)
Iceland Airwaves (third weekend in October)
Despite the extreme latitude, the effects of the Gulf Stream keep the weather surprisingly mild, with an average summer temperature of 12°C and 24 hours of light from June to August. Winters are long and frigid, and come with average temperatures of around 0°C. It rains most in the autumn, which becomes sleet and then snow as the year wears on, making driving tough.
Despite the frigid title, Iceland is easy to travel to and holiday in. Things work here, public services are excellent and the people are forthright. It is worth spending time brushing up on these need-to-know pointers to help things go smoothly.
Iceland contact numbers
Country code - (+354)
British Embassy - +354 550 5100
British Consular Services - +354 550 5100
Irish Embassy - +354 554 2355
US Embassy - +354 697 4448
Canadian Embassy - +354 575 6500
Traffic news/accidents - +354 522 6000
Emergency services - 112
The Icelandic krona (ISK) is the local currency, with the symbol kr. It can be bought anywhere in Europe or at the airport though banks give the best rates. Credit cards are widely accepted—even taxis accept payment by credit card—and ATMs tender to foreign debit cards.
Health and safety
Iceland is first-world, with clean, well-ordered streets, potable water, hygienic restaurants and low levels of crime. There are no undue health worries—except the odd erupting volcano—and main roads are in good condition. Having travel insurance is advised, however, and should include medical cover even for EU travellers who can get emergency medical care free of charge with a European Health Insurance Card. Special care should be taken when driving outside summer and when hiking glaciers.
Locals tend to be a bit gruff and may come across as abrupt and harsh. They are, however, generally helpful and very direct. Don’t be surprised to hear a lot of swearing and burping. Tipping is not necessary.
Visas for Iceland
Iceland is not part of the EU though it is part of the European Economic Area, and those from the UK can visit at will. Passports must be valid for at least three months beyond exit date. Visitors from the US, Australia and Canada can also get in visa-free for stays of up to 90 days.
The power supply in Iceland is 220V/50Hz. Plug sockets are of the round, two-pin type—standard European—and adaptors for UK plugs can be had in the airport. Electrical items from the UK (240V) will run fine here.
Businesses: 09:00 to 17:00, Monday to Friday
Government offices: 09:00 to 17:00, Monday to Friday
Shops: 09:00 to 18:00, Monday to Friday 10:00 to 18:00, Saturday
Banks: 09:15 to 16:00, Monday to Thursday
Hallo - Hello
Bless – Goodbye
Takk – Thank-you
Vinsamlegast - Please
Fyrirgefou – Excuse me
Ja/nei – Yes/no