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Nov 30 2016

Getting Around Iceland: A Practical Guide

Getting Around Iceland: A Practical GuideIn preparation for my holiday, I searched for ways of getting around Iceland because, apart from hiring a car or camper van, I had no idea what the options were.  I discovered that I could also take an internal flight, travel around by bus, hitchhike, and cycle.  There are no trains.  When I left for Iceland, I knew that I would be travelling around by bus, although I had the option of taking an internal flight.

Car/camper van

While searching, it became clear that most people hire vehicles in Iceland.  At first, I naively thought I’d hire a car or a small camper van because I would have my accommodation and transport in one.  However, when I started to seriously think about it, I wasn’t so keen.  Why?  Well, I would be driving around on my own – one person in a car or small camper van.  It got me thinking about the environment, the cost, and I was concerned about being on my own in case I broke down, or got into difficulties because of the terrain (gravel roads etc.), or got lost (as I tend to) navigating my way around the country.  If I knew I would stick to the ring road, the main road that circles the country, a bit like the M25 but with no traffic – bliss, I hear you say – I  would have been fine.  However, I knew I would spend a lot of time off it.  I also read some reviews on TripAdvisor about the experiences some people had had with car hire companies.  There seemed to be some issues when returning vehicles.  I think that was when I decided to forget about renting a vehicle.  I just didn’t want any hassle at the end of my trip.  It would be worth having a look at some of those before you decide on a car hire company, as well as carefully considering the insurance cover you might need. In addition, think about the type of vehicle.  Depending on the time of year and if you are likely to go off the main roads and up steep inclines, it would be worth considering a 4-wheel drive vehicle.

Driving in Iceland is definitely a great option because you get to see so much in a short space of time, and you can get to the hard to reach places.  However, people seem to leave their common sense behind when they get behind a steering wheel in Iceland.  Let me give you a couple of examples.  I saw cars that were just left abandoned on the ring road, not in off the road, while the occupants were off taking pictures of the scenery.  The scenery is amazing, so I can understand why, but you wouldn’t stop on the main road in your own country, so don’t do it there.  Neither should you drive off-road.  Just continue on until you can stop safely, legally, and out of the way of passing traffic.  That isn’t much too ask, is it?

The most dangerous incident I witnessed was when I saw three big camper vans, each with a family in it, trying to drive up a steep, gravel road.  I wouldn’t recommend it.  The men driving these camper vans were intent on getting to the stopping place at the top.  None of them made it in one attempt.  It took a minimum of two attempts for each camper van to get up the hill.  I was on foot.  I was getting increasingly concerned for the families in the back of the camper vans when the engines cut out and the vehicles started rolling backwards, down the road, swaying from side to side.  Revved up, with dust flying, each camper van, made another attempt, eventually crawling up the hill.  Once they had all reached the top, there was the requisite manly bonding as all the drivers celebrated their success at getting to the top in one piece.  Really, they should have left the camper vans at the bottom and walked up, but they chose not to.

If you are thinking about driving around Iceland, be sensible.  There are a couple of websites on safe travel and driving safely in Iceland.  SafeTravel is a good place to begin.

The alternative to renting is to bring your own vehicle.  If you drive to Denmark, you can get a ferry across to East Iceland.  That wasn’t something I had considered until I met a couple who did just that.  That will be the cheapest way to travel around Iceland, but it’s a longer journey.

Plane

Once I had ruled out driving in Iceland, I had to look at other options.  Before I went to Iceland, while looking at how to get around, I realised that flying was actually a viable option.  With cheap net offers, this mode of transport was appealing in terms of price and time.  I wasn’t sure if I would fly while I was in Iceland, but I did.  The evening I arrived in Reykjavik, I had no idea where to go or what to do, as is typical with me when I travel.  I was searching the web for ideas on my phone, looking at ways of getting around.  In the end, I booked an internal flight from Reykjavik to Akureryri for the following day because it was so reasonably priced.  What would have taken the whole day or night by bus, took less than an hour by plane.  Having taken an internal flight, I would highly recommend it.  The view was amazing.  It was a sightseeing trip as well as getting me from A to B.

If you decide to take an internal flight, like me, you have a few options: Air Iceland, Eagle Air, Norlandair.  I only used Air Iceland, and the journey was great.  It was all local people on the flight, apart from me and one other traveller.

Bus

As I mentioned before, I knew I would be using buses to get around the country most of the time, but I couldn’t decide on which would be the best option for me.

There are 3 main bus companies in Iceland: Straeto (the national bus company) and two tourist bus services: Reykjavik Excursions and Sterna.   Most of the travellers I met travelling around Iceland by bus used one of the tourist bus companies.  You have the option of buying individual tickets or bus passports for the two tourist buses.  These buses focus on the routes which will take you to all the major sights.

Bus passports, as they refer to them, are passes for particular routes around the country with Sterna or Reykjavik Excursions.  You can only go in one direction – clockwise or anti (counter) clockwise.  You can’t go back on yourself unless you buy another ticket.  Ordinarily, you probably wouldn’t want to backtrack, but then I’m no ordinary traveller.  I’m a haphazard one, so it wouldn’t have worked for me.  These bus passports are valid for a certain length of time and on certain routes only.  The cost varies.  The more days and places included in the passport, the more expensive it becomes.  These bus passports aren’t cheap, but then transport isn’t cheap in Iceland.  If you make the most of these bus passports, they are cost-effective.

The bus companies’ offerings are similar with slight variations.  Sterna is cheaper than Reykjavik Excursions, from what I could see, but it has fewer buses, fewer routes, and you are supposed to book your seat at least 24 hours in advance.  Reykjavik Excursions seemed more flexible.  I was tempted to buy a bus passport, but it just wouldn’t have given me the flexibility I wanted, and I didn’t want to waste money on a pass that I wouldn’t make good use of.

The other option, which is the one I opted for, is Straeto.  It’s the national bus service rather than a tourist bus, so it goes off the main tourist route, which I liked.  I also got chatting to a local woman I met a couple of times in South Iceland on the local bus.  You can only buy individual tickets.  You can buy the tickets in the Tourist Information Offices and on the buses.  I tended to buy my tickets on the bus.  You can use cash or card.  I wouldn’t say it is the cheapest option, and the buses don’t stop at all the tourist spots that the tourist buses do, but you can hop on one of the tourist buses for that.  I found it a great way to get around.  Straeto buses tend to have WiFi and the long-distance buses have power sockets, so you can charge up my devices.  If you’re camping, that is a useful thing to be able to do.

If you are going by bus, you will have to decide what works for you, pricewise and for your style of travelling and schedule.  Buying individual bus tickets, as I did, gives you complete flexibility because you can use any of the bus companies.  That means you have access to more buses throughout the day.  I mainly used the national bus company with the occasional tourist bus to get to some places I couldn’t get to on the national buses.

Using the national bus service in Iceland didn’t save me money, although that wasn’t the idea.  The flexibility to travel in my own haphazard way, to get off the main route to West Iceland, the opportunity to take an internal flight, and using a mix of national and tourist buses as well as hitchhiking on the odd occasion was fantastic.

Hitchhiking

As you travel around Iceland, you are bound to see a number of people hitchhiking, particularly in the south.  It wasn’t something I had considered doing, but knew it was an option before I arrived.  When I got to the north, I met another solo, female traveller, and she had an interest in hitching lifts.  Well, as we were together, I thought, ‘why not?’  She was bold, going up to people, asking them for a lift when we were in a car park, on our way back from seeing something.  I tended to hold back because it was something I wasn’t used to and didn’t feel comfortable doing.  Other times, we would be walking on the roadside and try to flag down cars.  Often, we were turned down, but occasionally we were offered lifts.

These were great experiences for both parties, and it was something that had never occurred to me before.  The first lift we got was when we had gotten a little lost on the way back from scaling a volcano.  It was getting dark, and when we got to the road, we saw a car.  We waved and waved, hoping the car would stop.  It did.  There were two Canadian friends, a male and a female.  They were going our way, but they wanted to find Grjótagjá.  They were, in fact, right by it.  We told them where to go and what to see.  They were happy and so were we.

The following day, we hitched a lift with three lovely ladies from Pennsylvania.  We told them about Grjótagjá.  They didn’t even know about it.  They were so happy that we had shown them.  They said they would recommend picking up hitchhikers because it worked both ways.  The last was the following morning.  We had been to Krafla and rather than wait for the bus, we decided to try to hitch another lift.  We managed rather successfully.  We got to lift with a lovely French family in a camper van.  They were so nice, and we told them how they could get a cheaper ticket for the Myvtvn nature baths.

Bicycle

I didn’t cycle in Iceland at all, but I came across a few people who were getting around by bike.  One couple I met at the start of my trip in Reykjavik had technical problems with their bikes, so they ended up hiring a car.  Others used the public bus, Straeto, from time to time.  If you chose to cycle, you can take your bike on the bus for free, although you can’t guarantee there will be space.

My Thoughts

As you can see, there are a number of ways of getting around Iceland whether it is by air or one of the many land transport options.  I used a mix of internal flights, buses, and hitchhiking.  This gave me an interesting and varied experience as I travelled around the country.

Have your say

If you haven’t been, how would you travel around Iceland?

About the author

Teresa Keane

Teresa has been to almost 60 countries. She started travelling independently at the age of 38 when she gave up her job, rented out her house, put her possessions in storage and spent a year travelling the world. It changed her life. She now creates, publishes, & promotes online travel content and is an experienced freelance trainer & EFL teacher.

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