Back in December, we headed off for our planned Iceland road trip around the island between Christmas and the start of the new year. Our main aim was to get away from it all and seek out the hallowed Northern Lights. If Joanna Lumley can do it, then so can we! Remember that we had only really done road trips in warm countries, so we really had to think ahead this time and make some preparations that we may have usually left until we were on the road.
How Did We Get to Iceland?
First up was the travel arrangements. You can take a ferry from Denmark to the East of Iceland if you’re feeling intrepid, but due to the fact that we were travelling on the 27th December and UK transport shuts up shop around that time, we only had time to fly. We booked return flights from London Gatwick to Keflavik International Airport with WOW Air for £280 each, flying out on the 27th December, returning on the 5th January. Nine nights in total and plenty of time to drive round the ring road without having to rush.
It’s worth noting that WOW Air is a budget airline and as such, you can’t check in online, as such it may take a while to do it in person and the gate is likely to be the last one resulting in a long walk. With this in mind, make sure you give yourself lots of time!
What Did We Drive?
As noted in our planning post, we had to get a car that could survive the icy roads and snow. If we had the budget, we would have booked from SAD Cars but had to book the week before, so ended up booking a Toyota Rav4 Automatic through Hertz Autos, picking it up at the Airport so as to save on cab or bus fees to Reykjavik. The capital city is actually 50km away from Keflavik so if you don’t plan to hire a car, you could probably organise for your hotel to come and pick you up or buy a bus ticket. Getting a taxi would cost around £70, so planning in advance is vital!
Planning in advance is what we did, kind of. In fact, Vicki planned so well that our booking actually started a day after we arrived and so we touched down at the airport hoping that Hertz would be able to start our reservation early. This meant that our bargain online booking of £408 actually ended up costing £520. Check your paperwork before you leave people!
How to Pick a Car to Drive in an Iceland Winter
Some of the questions below could help you decide in how to pick your car for your own winter Iceland road trip. The consensus is that if you can help it, don’t drive in winter, but we are firm believers in that with enough planning you can try anything:
- How long will you need to drive each day? If you are planning long trips then you may need a car that can cope with driving on the roads in the dark. Iceland only has around 3-5 hours of daylight in the winter.
- Are you sticking to Reykjavik and the surrounding area? If so, you may only need a 2WD. If you’re planning to go in-between regions, such as we did, then you will need to consider a 4WD as the roads can get pretty basic – even the main roads and especially through mountain passes.
- Will your route take you through mountainous regions? If so, ask for studded tires. They’ll make the journey so much easier. Also, get a GPS and a snow shovel.
We saw quite a few people in the south driving a 2WD, but can’t recommend enough to get a 4WD if you want to drive the ring road, as we did. It will save you so much hassle and worry to be in a car that can handle the roads a little better.
Where to Stay in Iceland Over Christmas
We’re quite pleased to have done a little research on this as it turns out that a lot of hotels and guest houses outside of Reykavik shut up between Christmas the new year. We’re fans of finding places as we go, driving up to ask if they have room, giving us a sense of spontaneity. Not so in Iceland. Booking a few nights ahead was vital to guarantee somewhere to stay on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
Booking as we went was done on the hotels.com iPhone app, which allowed us to see the hotels and guest houses available on certain dates nearby our current location. This meant that sometimes we paid higher than if we had booked in advance but then we could also find little gems. One of these was the Tærgesen Guest House in Reyðarfjörður, built in 1870 with it’s own tavern. We slept in the cutest room above and all for £60 per night for the both of us. This is pretty cheap for Iceland, which is an expensive country. There’s just no competition to keep price low in a country with less than half a million citizens. Anything with more than on star will cost you much more per night so it’s worth shopping around if you can. You’ll also need to make sure you have budgeted for the whole trip.
Another great place that we found using the hotels.com app was Hotel Lambafell which was £83 for the night. Just off the ring road, it looked like the little house on the prairie as we approached it. If you do pass this way after visiting Skálafell or Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. It looks out onto the sea and the setting sun, which we enjoyed after a long day’s drive with a couple of beers. Inside, it looks just like a treehouse and there’s even a ho tub out the back!
What to Do in Iceland
Apart from driving and taking in the majestic scenery, you should try and plan some stops on your road trip. Our first few days were pretty much drive-a-thons, covering around 4-6 hours a day depending on the weather conditions. By the time we arrived at Tærgesen Guest House in Reyðarfjörður, we had done a 6 hour trip because of getting stuck in the snow, having to be pulled out and driving at 40km/ph up the mountain pass to the town on the final leg. There was no stopping that day and at one point, we could only see about 10 metres in front of us.
Not every day was pure driving though, and on the days with lighter or no snow, we were able to see some of the most breathtaking snowscapes and mountains that either of us had ever laid eyes on. It felt at points that we were driving across an alien planet (we’re from London, so excuse the drama!)
By the time we made it to the east of the island, we were able to bring the drive times down from 4-6 hours a day to 1-2 and as such were able to make stops at the Jökulsárlón iceberg glacier lagoon (which you can see in the top picture as well as below), marvel at the glaciers surrounding Skálafell and then back towards the west and round Iceland’s famous Golden Circle. Of all the sites we stopped at on our Iceland road trip, the Jökulsárlón iceberg glacier lagoon was possibly the best. We arrived as the light was fading, so it felt very quiet and calm. The site is just off the ring road, so you can’t miss it and in the summer apparently, then icebergs float right past, although on the very cold winter day that we visited, they seem to be frozen in place, with just a few sheets of ice creaking around.
The Golden Circle consists of the Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir hot spring area and Thingvellir national park, all of which can be visited within a day, especially if you have your own car. We can’t possibly recommend getting a coach tour around this area, especially if you are only in Iceland for a few days. Reykjavik is only a 45 minutes drive away and there are plenty of hire car options available as we’ve already discussed earlier in the post. This way, you can take your time and not be herded in and out of each site.
Above picture: Gulfoss Waterfall which appears on the cover of the Echo and the Bunnymen album, Porcupine. Top fact there for you! It’s also the place that early environmentalist Sigríður Tómasdóttir alleged to protect with her life. If you want to read more about this extraordinary woman, then highly recommend this article on wonderwomenglobal.com
Below is the view from the north of the lake at Þingvellir National Park. It was probably our favourite place of the day purely because of the lack of tourists (who are zoomed from site to site in the Golden Circle via coaches) and the fact that it’s a valley in between tectonic plates. It’s also a significant site of the birth of democracy, and so you really have to use your imagination as you walk around the site, visualising what meet-up would have looked like and where the speakers would have stood and get a sense of the importance that the annual meet-up here has meant for modern times.
We also managed to make it to the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa down in the south-west of the island on our way back to Reykavik which is highly recommend if you have spent the week driving around the island. For a rather hefty €35 you can mooch around the heated waters of this man-made tourist spot, nestled next to a geothermal power station and while the hours away getting wrinkly and enjoying the benefits of the water’s minerals.
We’ll be following this post up with a couple more in-depth pieces about How to Find the Northern Lights in Iceland, plus our usual video round-up, so please bookmark us or follow our Facebook page to keep up to date!