Iceland is a relatively small country — about the size of Kentucky — but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to get around. On the one hand, the buses are clean and comfortable, you can fly from one side of the country to the other in a snap, and the Ring Road provides a fabulously scenic gateway to the most popular attractions. On the other hand, bus service can be limited outside the summer high season, car rentals are pricey, and the combination of changeable weather and unpaved roads can make driving a challenge.
To help ensure yourself a smooth journey, read on for what you need to know about getting around Iceland.
Flying to and Around Iceland
Icelandair is the country’s main international carrier, offering direct flights to Reykjavik‘s Keflavik International Airport from several U.S. cities. Flight time from Boston is only about five hours; from Seattle, it’s a little more than seven hours. The airline makes it easy to add an Icelandic side trip to any other European vacation; you can stop over in Iceland for up to seven days without paying an additional fare.
Keflavik International is a 45-minute drive from downtown Reykjavik. Most travelers take the Flybus, a comfortable and reasonably priced shuttle that runs throughout the day and will drop you off either at the main bus station south of downtown or directly at your hotel (for an additional fee). The airport is located just a few minutes from the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s most famous attraction, so many travelers choose to take a soak immediately after they arrive in Iceland or right before they leave. The Flybus also does transfers to the lagoon.
Not to be confused with Icelandair, Air Iceland is the country’s primary domestic carrier. It serves towns and small cities such as Akureyri in the north, Egilsstadir in the east and Isafjordur in the Westfjords. Though Iceland is a small country, these quick flights are a handy way to get around if you’re short on time. (A flight from Reykjavik to Egilsstadir takes just an hour.) Air Iceland also flies to Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Note that Air Iceland flights depart from Reykjavik International Airport, not Keflavik; this airport is located near downtown.
Eagle Air also offers flights within Iceland to destinations such as Huvasik, Hofn and the Westman Islands.
Iceland is linked to other European nations by various carriers such as easyJet, Norwegian and SAS. Baggage limitations may vary, particularly if you’re traveling on a discount airline; check ahead to avoid extra fees.
Iceland by Bus
Iceland’s main cities and towns are served by several bus companies. Reykjavik Excursions, operator of the aforementioned Flybus, offers scheduled bus service to destinations including Vik, Myvatn, Akureyri, Hofn and the highlands. Buses are comfortable and offer free Wi-Fi. You can buy tickets online, at the main BSI bus terminal in Reykjavik or at most tourist offices.
In addition to individual tickets, Reykjavik Excursions offers bus passports that grant you access to your choice of routes over a specified length of time. These can be a good bet if you want to use the buses often while keeping a flexible schedule.
Sterna is another company that serves most of the country. Like Reykjavik Excursions, it offers online booking as well as passports for select regions and routes. SBA-Nordurleid, based in Akureyri, serves northern Iceland with both scheduled routes and tours.
Note that most bus schedules are significantly reduced outside the summer high season, with some services not running at all. If you’re coming any time other than summer, a car rental will usually give you more flexibility and more options.
Renting a Car in Iceland
If you want the freedom to explore at your own pace and pull over any time to snap that gotta-have picture of an Icelandic horse, you’ll want to rent a car. Iceland’s 827-mile Route 1, or Ring Road, circles the island and is paved all the way around. Many secondary roads are gravel, though, and some are not navigable with a 2WD car. If you want to venture much off the Ring Road, you will likely need to upgrade to a 4WD vehicle.
Note: Many rental vehicles may not be driven on F-roads, which are the highlands’ most rugged tracks (dangerous river crossings may be involved). Driving on restricted roads will void your rental car insurance, so double-check your intended route with your agency before setting off. No matter what kind of car you have, off-roading is not permitted; it does significant damage to the local ecosystem.
Most of the major international rental car agencies can be found in Iceland, including Budget, Hertz, Europcar and Sixt. But don’t forget to check local agencies such as SADCars, Geysir and Cheap Jeep as well; you may find more affordable rates. For the most options, rent a car at Keflavik International Airport or in downtown Reykjavik.
Refilling your car’s gas tank can be tricky for Americans. Most filling stations are automated and can’t be operated by credit cards without a chip and PIN. Since the majority of American credit cards don’t have chips, you’ll need to find a station with a staff member on hand who can sell you a prepaid card that you can use at multiple locations.
Icelanders drive on the right, and seatbelts are mandatory. Speed limits are generally 50 kph (31 mph) in built-up areas, 80 kph (50 mph) on gravel roads in the country and 90 kph (56 mph) on paved highways. Take care to reduce your speed on mountain curves, single-lane bridges or patches of road that change from asphalt to gravel.
Iceland’s notoriously fickle weather can lead to occasional driving challenges. We recommend checkingbefore heading out. On this site, run by the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue, you’ll find notifications about floods, heavy wind, snow and other driving hazards. It’s also got an app called 112 Iceland that you can download to your smartphone, with a couple of useful safety features worth having if you’re traveling in remote places.
Ferries in Iceland
Smyril Line operates a ferry service between Iceland and Demark from late March through late October, with stopovers in the Faroe Islands. The ship, Norrona, carries up to 1,482 passengers and 800 cars on the 47-hour journey. Passengers can choose from a variety of sleeping options including two-person cabins, connecting cabins for families, single berths in a shared four-person cabin and couchettes in a dorm-style space with shared bathroom.
Within Iceland, numerous ferry services connect the mainland with nearby islands, such as Videy (near Reykjavik) and Heimaey in the Westman Islands (in the southwest). Check with the local tourist office for help finding these ferries.