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  • Writer's pictureEinar Páll Svavarsson

What type of rental car on a road trip in Iceland and what to know before you rent a car

Updated: May 7


Hit Iceland Rental Car Refference Chart
Hit Iceland Rental Car Refference Chart - what kind of car is fit for a vacantion in Iceland

You need to consider three things when renting a car or choosing the best car type to rent for your road trip and vacation in Iceland. The quality of the roads leading to your chosen destinations, the time of year, and the weather. Renting a car for a road trip around Iceland is by far the most convenient and interesting way to travel in Iceland. By hiring a car, visitors taking a road trip to Iceland can choose an itinerary that fits their budget and schedule. This way, they have the flexibility and freedom required in a country with so many natural wonders to explore, photograph, experience, and admire. With a car and a driving plan, you can always take your time and easily adjust or change your route. But - there are many aspects to consider when renting a car in Iceland. It is in many ways different from hiring a car in any other country. So, I encourage you to read this article carefully before you rent a car here so that you don’t end up with the wrong car.


The type of roads in Iceland

Some of the roads are very difficult and not fit for a small car or a small 4WD car
Some of the roads are very difficult and not fit for a small car or a small 4WD car

When it comes to finding a rental car in Iceland, the process can be more complicated than in most other countries. This is primarily due to the fact that many of the roads you will travel on while visiting Iceland's natural wonders and other places of interest are gravel, mountain or dirt roads. It's important to note that Iceland has three types of roads: asphalt, gravel, and Highland roads (F roads). At times, the places you plan to visit will require you to drive on all these types of roads, so it's essential to be prepared.


In summary, the type of car you choose will depend on the places you intend to visit.


Car rentals: To find a car suitable for your trip to Iceland, compare prices and types of cars on Discover Cars. 

It is one of the highest customer-rated comparison sites on the market!


A small rental car type is ideal for most roads during the summer

A 2WD car is fine on asphalt roads and in summer
A 2WD car is fine on asphalt roads and in summer for most popular places

A small 2WD car is a good option for driving around Iceland's main asphalt roads. It is also the cheapest way to do so. Small cars like the VW Polo, VW Golf, Toyota Yaris, Kia Rio, or Suzuki Swift can comfortably fit four people (consider the luggage you plan to carry as well). During the summer, a small car can take you to the most popular and interesting places, including natural wonders and accommodations. A small car is also suitable for driving on gravel roads during summer, especially if it has front-wheel drive, which is preferred by most Icelanders. However, it's important to remember that gravel roads are more demanding and difficult to drive on, so one should be cautious and drive slower than on asphalt roads. During winter, you can also travel on the main roads in a small car on drives, such as the Reykjanes Peninsula, the Ring Road, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and the Golden Circle. However, it's crucial to follow the weather forecast and road conditions from October until April, especially if you're in a small car. A mid-sized car is a better choice for comfort, especially during winter, and it's highly recommended for most places and drives.


Time of year is important when choosing a rent a car

Crossing a river is a serious thing, so the right 4X4 car is required
Crossing a river is a serious thing, so the right 4X4 car is required

Driving in Iceland during winter and summer is vastly different. For people living in warmer countries, it can be challenging to understand why Icelanders change their car tires in autumn and spring. Icelanders have two types of tires - "winter tires" and "summer tires" - because of the difference in driving conditions. Having personally experienced both, I know the difference, having lived in Southern California for six years. If you have no experience driving in winter conditions, it's best to consider a private tour with an experienced guide. Driving in winter and late autumn can be very difficult, especially if you're only used to driving on clean, dry roads in sunny weather. It's highly recommended to use a 4WD car or a front-wheel drive car if you plan to drive across Iceland during winter or autumn conditions.


A larger vehicle type is better outside the main roads and during winter

The asphalt roads in Iceland are well maintained - photo from Ring Road
The asphalt roads in Iceland are well maintained - photo from Ring Road

If you decide to travel to places away from the main roads, you are much better off hiring a midsize car, preferably an SUV or a 4WD car like VW Tiguan, Toyota Raf, Dacia Duster, or Suzuki Vitara. This applies to people interested in taking loops and exploring places off the main highways, such as Mjóifjörður, Látrabjarg in the West Fjords, Rauðisandur in the West Fjords, the Vatnsnes Peninsula, or some of the waterfalls that are not near the main road, like Aldeyjarfoss. The roads outside the main roads are most often gravel roads, going over steep mountain passes, and conditions change in rain and snow. For those roads, a vehicle with more space and larger tires is much better for your comfort and security. This is very important during winter.


The weather

Driving in winter in Iceland is often a very difficult task
Driving in winter in Iceland is often a very difficult task

The weather in Iceland is unpredictable. Even though we have a very efficient Met Office in Iceland, the weather can change rapidly in a short period at your location, often contrary to the original forecast by the Met Office. Despite this small issue of inaccuracy, when you are traveling in Iceland, the best option for weather is the website of the Icelandic Met Office. It is not uncommon that visitors plan to visit a specific place or area when planning a trip to Iceland, but when you are on your way or arrive, the conditions are not particularly inviting. This applies to all seasons, but most definitely in winter. This means that sometimes you need to spend more time inside your car than you planned when you set out. In summer, most of the time, the wind limits your options rather than the rain.


Car rentals: To find a car suitable for your trip to Iceland, compare prices and types of cars on Discover Cars. 

It is one of the highest customer-rated comparison sites on the market!


A 4WD or 4X4 type is mandatory for the Highland roads in Iceland


All Highland road requires a good 4X4 car like our 2023 model modified Toyota Land Cruiser
All Highland Road requires a good 4X4 car like our 2023 model modified Toyota Land Cruiser that we use for our private tours.

A small car type will not get you to the Highland if you choose to travel to this exotic part of the country. The Highland requires a 4X4 vehicle, but keep in mind that the Highland is only open from the beginning of July until the middle of September. Most of the roads in the Icelandic Highland are challenging and rough gravel roads, often with many rivers to cross. No one should enter Highland Road in a small car, a midsize car, or a car that doesn't have four-wheel drive and low gear. It is simply too dangerous and irresponsible and can severely damage the vehicle and even ruin it if stuck in a river; this can lead to a cost far exceeding the total expenditure on a trip to Iceland for the whole family. If water is sucked into the air intake of a car, the engine is ruined, not to mention the panic and the consequences of being stuck in a small car in the middle of a strong stream or a river. Tourists visiting Iceland have lost their lives in such circumstances, with the last incident being in September 2018 when a young woman drowned in a river in Þórsmörk. Keep that in mind when you select a car for the Highland.

Stuck in a river in Iceland - nor insurance company covers this kind of situation
Stuck in a river in Iceland - no insurance company covers this kind of situation

No rental car company or insurance company in Iceland covers a drive crossing a river. It can also be dangerous as a 2WD and a small 4WD, or even a midsize 4WD car with no low gear, can easily become stuck on a difficult road in the Highland. Few Icelanders would ever take such a risk, given their knowledge of the Highland. They are only too conscious of the danger to the passengers, who are often children and family members. But for the Highland roads, even a 4X4 is not always enough. A large, well-equipped, and even modified 4X4 vehicle is required for many rugged roads and tracks in the Highland. For these roads, a Toyota Land Cruiser, Jeep Wrangler, Toyota Hilux, Land Rover, or a similar vehicle is highly recommended for your convenience and security. Please don’t underestimate this premise.



Keep this list in mind when traveling in a rented car in Iceland


  • There are three kinds of roads: asphalt, gravel, and mountain roads (F)

  • Iceland is a small island, and the distance between places is usually short

  • Almost all of the roads are narrow, two-way roads. THERE ARE NO FREEWAYS IN ICELAND

  • Reduce speed considerably when driving over a one-lane bridge (there are many such bridges everywhere)

  • Don't stop on a road shoulder or in the middle of the road to take photos!

  • The speed limit is 90 KM/hr on main asphalt roads around the island

  • The speed limit in Reykjavík and the towns is 50KM/hr

  • The speed limit in residential areas in Reykjavík and in all towns and villages is 30KM/hr

  • The restrictions on alcohol consumption for drivers are at 0.5 promille, like in most other European countries

  • 4X4 cars are both safer and easier to drive in the Highland and during winter

  • There are plenty of gas and charging stations around the country in all towns and villages

  • A large 4X4 is required on Highland roads, the F roads

  • Always check road conditions on The Road and Coastal Administration webpage, especially during winter

  • Cellular phone connections are good on most roads and around the country

  • Never try to cross rivers in a small 4X4 car or without understanding the river

  • There are towns and villages almost everywhere around the coastline on the Ring Road, and you are never far away from help if needed

  • Watch out for sheep on the roads (especially in spring and early summer)

  • Pick up your rented car at the international airport in Keflavík

  • Fuel prices are more or less the same around the country, and fuel is always expensive

  • Emergency help is available almost everywhere in Iceland


Watch out for sheep on the roads (especially in spring and early summer)
Watch out for sheep on the roads (especially in spring and early summer)

Check Safetravel all the time and every day for anything unusual during your tour to remain updated regarding the conditions in Iceland.


Driving in Iceland is a joy
Driving in Iceland is a joy

When conditions are adverse (snow, snowdrift, slippery, bad visibility), don't hesitate to drive slower at a comfort level where you feel in control. In a situation like that, remember to slow down and give the right indicator light (blinker) when it is secure for the cars behind you to pass. Avoid holding up the traffic, as other drivers, especially local folks, might understand the conditions differently and better.


Car rentals: To find a car suitable for your trip to Iceland, compare prices and types of cars on Discover Cars. 

It is one of the highest customer-rated comparison sites on the market!


Iceland is a small country and a small island


Natural wonders are often close to the road in Iceland
Natural wonders are often close to the road in Iceland

Iceland is a small island with one International Airport. Keflavik Airport (KEF) in the city of Keflavik is the place where almost all visitors arrive. It is the best place to pick up your rental car, and most rent-a-car companies deliver their cars at Keflavik airport. There are many rental car companies in Iceland, and the airport is a good place to find the type of car ideal for your tour. If you want to have everything ready when you arrive, you should rent a car online.


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