When it comes to planning a trip to Iceland, most of the questions, advice, and suggested itineraries center around Iceland’s Ring Road. This road – also called Þjóðvegur 1 or simply Route 1 – circles the entire country of Iceland in 821.5 miles (about 1322 kilometers).
Driving the Ring Road (often in a campervan) has become the accepted, quintessential way to see Iceland. It’s what most people assume you “have” to do in the Land of Fire and Ice.
But do you really HAVE to drive the Ring Road in Iceland to fully experience or appreciate the country? No, absolutely not!
In fact, it wasn’t until my FOURTH trip to Iceland that I did a Ring Road trip of my own. On my first 3 trips to Iceland, I mostly based myself in Reykjavik, taking day trips and short (guided) overnight trips to places like the Golden Circle, inland glaciers, South Coast, Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and Blue Lagoon.
And while I did indeed LOVE my Iceland road trip, I loved those other trips, too. I firmly believe you can see some of the best things in Iceland without ever needing to get behind the wheel of a car yourself.
Reasons to NOT Drive the Ring Road
Here are a few reasons why driving the Ring Road might NOT be a good fit for you in Iceland!
1. You don’t have a driver’s license
The most obvious reason not to drive the Ring Road is if you don’t have a driver’s license in your home country!
Iceland does not require an international driver’s license to rent a car or drive there, but you do need to have a valid driver’s license from your home country will full driving privileges (meaning permits won’t work).
You also need to be at least 21 to rent a car in Iceland, which is important to know!
2. You don’t believe in rental car insurance
Listen, I get it. I (knock on wood) have never been in a serious car accident at home, and generally consider myself to be a safe driver. I have definitely skipped expensive rental car insurance in the past (especially after I got a travel credit card that offers me rental car protection abroad).
But in Iceland, basic minimum car insurance is required to rent a car. You can’t NOT pay for it (and no, it’s not cheap).
Iceland is also unlike anywhere else you’ve driven. The elements are not simply *weather* in Iceland. The wind can gust so fiercely that it can literally rip off a car door or blow out a windshield. You also have to worry about damage from whipping sand, tires popping on rough roads, sheep traffic jams, and more. Many of these things are not covered under basic minimum car insurance in Iceland (tires and windshields notoriously cost extra), and some rental companies will either require or very firmly suggest additional coverage.
If you’re not willing to pay for the extra coverage, it might also be best if you don’t drive in Iceland.
3. You’re not comfortable driving in remote areas
In the west and south of Iceland, you’re likely to see plenty of other tourists on the road and at natural sites and attractions. But when you head up north and into East Iceland, you may drive for miles without seeing a building or another car.
Iceland isn’t a huge country, but it’s sparsely populated outside of Reykjavik. Iceland is an incredibly SAFE country, so you don’t have to worry about things like violent crime in secluded areas. But things like flat tires, bad weather, and errant sheep can crop up at any time.
If being on your own in remote areas makes you anxious, then you might want to think twice about driving the entire Ring Road.
4. You only want to see the famous spots
If you’re mainly going to Iceland to see things like geysers, glaciers, the Blue Lagoon, waterfalls you’ve seen on Instagram, and maybe the Northern Lights, you don’t need to venture around the entire Ring Road at all.
The majority of “famous” sights in Iceland are concentrated in the west of Iceland (around Reykjavik), and along the South Coast. You don’t have to drive around the entire country to see them. In fact, you don’t even have to drive at all if you don’t want to!
From Reykjavik, you can easily book day trips to see the Golden Circle, enjoy the Blue Lagoon, or chase Northern Lights. And you can book long day trips or quick overnight trips that will take you to all the major sights around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and South Coast.
Or you can plan a self-drive trip that focuses just on the west and south of Iceland.
5. You’re visiting Iceland in winter
I’m going to be really honest with you here: driving in Iceland in winter can be scary. Even if you come from a place where snow and ice are the norm in winter, you will likely be taken aback by just how intense winter weather in Iceland can be.
Not only can you expect rain and snow and icy roads, but the WIND in Iceland is what can be the most terrifying. Wind that will throw that rain and snow sideways across roads, and wind that is strong enough to blast through windows and rip car doors clean off. (This is why you’re always urged to take out extra insurance for your rental car!)
And while the Ring Road is paved all the way around Iceland, it’s not always cleared of snow and ice during big storms. Also, it’s very common for parts of the Ring Road to close completely during very high winds, when it’s too dangerous to drive.
If driving in these unpredictable conditions would make you anxious (it sure would make ME anxious, and I’m from Ohio!), then you’re much better off basing yourself in Reykjavik and taking tours from there during the winter months. Let someone with more Iceland experience do the winter driving!
6. You’re not allowing any flexibility in your plans
Along this same vein, if you’re planning a trip to Iceland (any time of year, really) and have packed your itinerary so full that you’re not allowing for any flexibility in your plans, you might not want to try to drive the entire Ring Road.
It’s impossible to predict bad weather, road closures, or other natural phenomena that might force you to alter your plans at the last minute. (For example, a volcano started erupting a week before my own trip to Iceland, but we were able to shift our plans to make sure we could safely go see it.)
7. Your Iceland trip is less than a week
You need AT LEAST a week to drive the complete Ring Road with stops. Any trip shorter than that will have you driving long distances and not being able to stop to see/do much along the way. (But I personally recommend at least 10 days for the Ring Road.)
If your trip to Iceland is less than a week, then I would recommend sticking to just one half of Iceland instead. (Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, as most of the famous sights are in the west and south anyway.)
You can still see a lot with 5 days in Iceland – but it’s not long enough to drive the entire Ring Road.
8. You’re traveling with a big family
If you’re traveling with more than 4 people, it’s going to be tough to make a Ring Road road trip work comfortably. You *can* rent a larger vehicle, but it’s going to be pricey. And finding hotels or guesthouses in Iceland with rooms that can accommodate more than 2 people can also be tricky, especially in high season.
So you’ll be looking at a high rental car cost, AND possibly having to book two separate hotel rooms everywhere you stay. In most cases, you’d be better off renting a larger apartment in Reykjavik, and booking small group tours (or even private tours) from there.
(And if you’re a family with 2 parents and 2 kids, be careful when it comes to campervans! These may seem like an excellent way to save some money in Iceland, but I can tell you from experience that these vans are often smaller in reality than they appear online. I can’t imagine actually sleeping 4 people in most of them.)
9. You’re expecting luxury accommodations
Iceland is a Nordic country, and that means clean and efficient architecture, and a high standard (and cost) of living. But if you’re going to Iceland expecting 5 star hotels throughout the whole country, you are going to be sorely disappointed.
There are some luxury hotels in the Reykjavik area (and at the Blue Lagoon), and a few luxurious rentals along the South Coast. But throughout most of the country, the most common form of accommodation is actually the independently-owned guesthouse. Guesthouses in Iceland are clean and cozy, but they are basically budget accommodation where all guests share bathrooms and common areas.
I’ve stayed at some lovely guesthouses across Iceland – but they definitely aren’t fancy!
In some of the more remote parts of Iceland (in the north and east especially), there aren’t even a ton of guesthouses to choose from. And if you’re traveling during high season (which is summer), these basic accommodation options will be pricey and book up far in advance.
10. You’re not excited about driving
If driving the Ring Road doesn’t sound exciting or appealing to you… then don’t do it! Don’t let the peer pressure of social media persuade you to take trip that isn’t really your style.
You don’t HAVE to drive the Ring Road in order to enjoy a trip to Iceland. Focusing on a smaller area in Iceland will still make for a fantastic trip without any of the stress that comes along with driving all the way around the country.
What do you think? Is driving the Ring Road on your bucket list? Or not really for you?
Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she’s actually traveled!