Heading North of Reykjavík: Borgarnes and General Driving in Iceland Tips

My last post left off all the way down in the southeast, because to date, that’s sadly as far as I’ve been in that direction. So we are returning to the capital and heading north. Thinking about my experiences in this area, and the several times I’ve rented a car to drive in Iceland, I think this deserves its own post.

Akranes: see an engineering marvel and take a super budget trip

In my next post, I’ll discuss the Snæfellsnes region. In between there and Reykjavík, there’s not a ton to see. On my very first trip to Iceland, in early March, my CouchSurfing host suggested that I see what I could outside the city. Having gotten a Reykjavík City Card (mentioned in a few of my posts before, you can search the site for it or head to the official website for full details) I could actually take the bus all the way to Akranes for free… so I did! This is a great diversion if you’re on a tight budget and already invested in the City Card for pools, city bus, and museums. Take bus 57 from the Hlemmur bus station, and you’ll be there in about 1h15m-1h30m.

On the way, you’ll get a close-up view of the mountains, including Esja, which is almost constantly visible looking north across the bay from Reykjavík (in all but the densest weather). See that very straight line across the fjord on the map? That’s not a bridge. It’s an amazing feat of engineering, the Hvalfjörður tunnel. At nearly 19,000 feet/5,770 meters, vehicles pass UNDER the water, saving 60-90 minutes of travel (depending on weather and vehicle type). As of September 28, 2018, there is no longer a toll to pass through the tunnel, applying to all vehicles but not passengers of mass transit/tour companies. If you are a confident driver, in search of stunning views, it’s recommended that you DO take the long route around the fjord at least once (do not do so in risky conditions, however).

Once in Akranes, a small industrial settlement, there’s not much to do. Again, it’s a worthy destination for strict budget travelers looking to see more than the capital (an incredibly worthy cause). Last I checked, the 57 heads back to Reykjavík after about 20 minutes, but also runs more than once a day. (Check out Stræto for more information.) 20 minutes is enough to take a stroll to the edge, gaze at the water. On a clear day, you can see Reykjavík to the south and possibly the peak of Snæfelljoküll to the northwest.

Borgarnes: a worthy stop

If you’re driving yourself, the next point north is Borgarnes. Along Route 1, there are a few gas stations, a bank, post office, some food right along the road. However, there are decent places to stay the night where you’ll have more/cheaper food choices than remote hotels, if you’re like me and aren’t into being corralled into buying a $30+ dinner, no matter how good it is, because you’re tired and the hotel kitchen is the only option nearby. (Note: yes, I’ve stayed at some hotels, one I’ll mention next time, that have great food. I’m just not into food.) I’ve stayed at the Borgarnes HI Hostel and found it fairly quiet and very clean with excellent showers. So if you just hang a left into the long, skinny town, you have this plus many other options in a charming peninsular town that has great views and easy walks to get your legs loosened up after a day of driving.

The main attraction for me in this town is the Settlement Center‘s restaurant. The exhibits themselves look ok, I’ve never fully been through. Their gift shop is nice, and has some unique, worthwhile things. But the restaurant’s bread – gluten eaters rejoice, for your answer is here! Head upstairs and order the soup (there’s usually two kinds, one being vegetable) and you’ll get plenty for a decent price. Slice your own oven-fresh bread and slather on some out-of-this-world Icelandic butter (smjör) and savor. I’ve eaten here twice, and hope to return. Like I just said, I’m not into food, but this is a great stop (I’m also told the mussels are great.)

The Settlement Center is on your left as you drive toward down the peninsula and like many buildings, somehow is built into the rock (you get a great view of this in the Center and Restaurant). Park before the bridge to the island and you can check out a big sculpture and enjoy the sea. There’s a playground if you turn right from the parking area and take a short walk, as well as some paths. All in all, it’s an overlooked, quiet place to spend an hour or a night!

General Driving Advice for Iceland

Pick the right vehicle, shop around.

I have personally rented from Hertz and Route1. I’ve been repeat business for Route1, because they’re a smaller, local company and I’ve always gotten a good deal there. When I rented from Hertz, I got a newer car – I was the FIRST person to drive it, which was both cool and intimidating, as the owner of a 10 year old car at the time (still going strong two years later). I also managed to find a coupon code I could use on the Iceland site, and I was able to pick up the car in Reykjavik and drop it off in Akureyri for a fairly reasonable fee. Other companies didn’t offer this (a limitation of Route1, being based south of the capital in Hafnarfjörður) or charged the equivalent of an extra day to drop it off in the north. There are many other companies operating in Iceland, as it’s a huge tourist business, but these are the ones I have personal experience with. There’s also SADcars, which many come across, renting older used vehicles. I’ve heard a range of reviews first-hand. Your mileage may vary.

First off, make sure you note the transmission type. Many of the cheapest cards to rent are manual transmission. If you, or your alternate driver, and not confident at driving stick, just pay the extra few bucks for an automatic.

Both companies named above, and most of the rest, offer transportation for pick-up (possibly drop off, I just haven’t needed it). The actual process of reserving and renting is just like renting a car in the US, with a few small differences.

Planning to go into the highlands? Get 4WD/AWD.

If you’re planning to drive into the highlands, you must have a vehicle that’s suited to F roads (SUVs with AWD or 4WD) that can deal with grades and unpaved roads. Don’t get me wrong – if you explore thoroughly outside the F roads, you’ll still be driving on gravel. That’s just one reason Google Maps driving times are often VERY optimistic in Iceland. And, if you don’t plan on doing this type of exploring (I haven’t, yet, as those vehicles and gas are expensive) DO NOT go on the F roads.

Insurance options

Insurance options and add-ons are the only other difference to a typical US rental. Even if you aren’t heading to the highlands, unless you are only driving around the capital area (in which case, use the Stræto buses and save a ton of money) and maybe just to Selfoss, get the gravel insurance. Theft protection? Not worth it in a place with such low crime. I once borrowed an older car whose locks didn’t work, it sat in a few places in Reykjavík all day and was never touched. If you’re planning to take the vehicle camping on the beach, sand is probably a good insurance add-on. If there are serious volcano warnings happening, ash damage insurance wouldn’t be unwise. Otherwise, you pick your level of coverage, and often pay a little for an extra driver. When you pick up the car, all drivers must show ID in person, usually driver’s license and passport.

Speed cameras

While you won’t see police waiting to trap speeders as they do in the US, there are speed cameras up and functioning. Most are on Route 1 (the ring road), and there are PLENTY on the stretch between Reykjavík and Akureyri, more in the first half than the second. Every camera is marked with a sign with a strangely old-fashioned camera icon:

On most of Route 1, when paved, the speed limit is 90 kmph. Gravel? 80 kmph, but sometimes that’s not reasonable depending on the condition of the gravel road. Tunnels are limited to 70 kmph. Even as a car renter, the plates will be snapped and the ticket sent to the rental agency, and processing can take longer than you have the car. You’ll still be sent the ticket, as the rental agency has your information. Just follow the speed limits, and you don’t have to worry about it. It’s for your safety. You’ll also get a pamphlet about these things when you get your rental car. READ IT.

Icelandic driving etiquette

Generally, US defensive driving will be just fine. When you get into remote areas, locals who know all the cameras and are used to the scenery may be speeding along and pass you. Don’t let it make you feel like you aren’t keeping up or doing your duty to stay under the speed limit. If there’s a lot of traffic, or you see a few people behind you waiting to pass, put your right blinker/signal light on and slow down. If it’s safe, you can partially pull off the road to allow safer passing. A lot of Route 1 is just two lanes with a dotted line, passing is common but DO NOT do it without a clear view of oncoming traffic.

Wear your seatbelt and make sure there are daytime running lights/headlights on at all times.

There are several one lane bridges in Iceland, even on Route 1. Treat it like a stop sign, first come, first across, take turns.

NEVER PULL OFF THE ROAD ONTO ANYTHING OTHER THAN PAVED OR GROOMED GRAVEL. The ground is unpredictable in this volcanic land, what may look like solid rock may crack easily or shift. That moss may seem abundant but takes thousands of years to take root and flourish.

NEVER STOP TO TAKE A PHOTO IF THERE ARE OTHERS ON THE ROAD. I’ve taken tons of photos from my car, after checking carefully that there’s nobody else around. Common sense. The same goes for if you’re in awe of scenery or the Northern Lights. Your FIRST PRIORITY is the safety of you, your passengers, your fellow motorists, your vehicle, and the environment. It won’t be long until there’s a driveway or pull-off that you can use to stare or get your camera. Use them!

North Iceland

Filling up your tank in Iceland

If you don’t need that more capable vehicle for F roads, don’t get it. Gas is expensive in Iceland, ranging (depending mostly on the conversion rate) between $7-9/gallon. You’ll probably be given a little round token with the logo of one of the gas station chains when you’re given your keys. Holding it to the pump before you fill up will save you a few kroner per liter. It’s worth using, but if you’re running low in a remote area, just fill up at the next station of any type! Gas stations often only take cards with PIN numbers. For us behind-the-times Americans, that means you need to use a debit card or buy preloaded gas cards inside the station. The limitation of those preloaded cards are that they’re only good at that brand of gas station (not a good bet if you’ll be in remote areas) and twice I’ve used drive up pumps with no station to buy those cards in.

Summing up

Driving in Iceland, in good weather, is easy and safe. Please, please use common sense. Weekends in summer are VERY busy, especially in July and August, as Icelanders themselves are on the move to camp and visit summer cottages that spot many hillsides.

Use COMMON SENSE. Make sure you know the rules on speed limits (and roundabouts, if you aren’t used to them at home). Don’t go on F roads. Slow down on rough gravel roads. Always assume your Google Maps/navigation directions are being very optimistic on time estimates. If you have cellular data service, Google Maps does a decent job of navigating. However, it may be distracting to have the voice butchering all the place names, or it might not even try, just giving you a cheerful “boop!” when there is a turn or roundabout coming up, meaning the screen needs to be in view. You can opt to rent a GPS device with your car, but cellular coverage in populated Iceland (the edges) is good.

Safety first. Driving before staring. Don’t pull off unless it’s clearly a pull-off, parking lot, or empty driveway. Budget gas money and extra time. If you can afford it, and the conditions are good, renting a car in Iceland is a fantastic way to get to out-of-the way gems.

Bonus Fun Fact!

Ok, that was a lot of info. Have you noticed the similar word endings of Akranes, Borgarnes, and Snæfellsnes? Well done! Iceland uses compound words A LOT, especially for places. The suffix “nes” means point, and usually means the place is on the very end of a peninsula. Another one to check out, a bit south of Reykjavík, is Alftanes. The president’s official residence is there (not much to see, I rode a bike there and took a picture without even knowing it), on a clear day you get a great view of the capital skyline from the south, there’s a fantastic pool, several horse farms, and awesome places to pull over and have a walk or picnic right on the beach.