Automatic Car Rental in Iceland or Manual?
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
The best way to explore Iceland is to hire a car and forge your own adventure. Driving in Iceland, although it comes with its challenges due to unpredictable weather, allows you to see all the natural wonders of the country. Public transport is fantastic within Reykjavík, but once you leave, you’re better off with the freedom of renting a car. There are no trains in Iceland and the long-distance buses aren’t so frequent. You could fly internally, but it’s more fun to drive. That way, you can take detours, stop whenever you like, and travel with all the snacks and fresh clothing you can fit into your boot (trunk). Just keep in mind that a few things may be different here; the roads, the side you drive on, the cars themselves.
Are All Cars in Iceland Manual?
Not all, but most are. Why aren’t there more automatic cars in Iceland? It’s a European thing. Manual cars are generally cheaper and more fuel-efficient, and fuel is more expensive in Europe than in North America. For Iceland specifically, since manual cars give the driver greater control over the vehicle, they could be argued to be better suited to Icelandic weather and roads. With a manual gear shift, drivers can anticipate an oncoming condition, whereas an automatic car will shift only when the conditions are reached. This is particularly useful with winter driving in Iceland, as slippery roads are a regular occurrence for much of the year. However, the choice completely depends on your previous experience with cars.
If you are used to driving an automatic, ask your car rental company for one specifically. If you’re trained in manual cars, you could stick to what you know or try an automatic. Personally, I found the transition from manual to automatic fairly simple. But it’s worth knowing the difference between them before deciding. As I said, with a manual car you gain better fuel efficiency and greater control. With an automatic, you gain easier use through not having to change gears yourself. They’re also better for hilly areas, as the car will select the best gear with which to tackle each hill and you can focus on your driving.
Automatic Car Rental in Iceland
Regarding prices, automatic cars are slightly more expensive to rent than manual cars. For example, with Reykjavik Cars a manual Kia Ceed diesel can cost approximately €24 per day, whereas an automatic Kia Soul diesel costs €33 per day approximately. However, the more important decision is whether to hire a two-wheel drive or a 4x4. It depends on when you travel to Iceland and what your trip will involve. If you’re coming in the winter, it is strongly recommended that you hire a 4x4. The amount of snow and ice that you may encounter warrants being prepared for it. If you’re coming in the summer and intend to stick to the main roads, a two-wheel-drive vehicle will do fine. However, if you’re planning to drive on the highland roads, or F roads, you will need to hire a 4x4 as they are the only vehicles permitted on F roads. They are gravel roads that lead to the remote areas of Iceland’s interior, such as Landmannalaugar and Lakagígar. They should be driven with great care and at slow speeds, and only undertaken if you are confident in your driving ability. If you become stuck on an F road, you have to be rescued by Björgunarsveit (the emergency rescue service) and it could take hours for them to reach you.
F roads are only open from June to September and even this is dependent on weather conditions. You can find information about road closures on http://www.road.is/. Another thing to keep in mind is that on some parts of the ring road, there are single-lane bridges. Approach these slowly and drive carefully when crossing.
Regardless of the car you hire, you will need to have a credit card. An imprint of the card will be taken to cover any costs incurred if the car is damaged under your care or you receive any tickets for driving offenses.
General Driving Tips in Iceland
It’s necessary to have a knowledge of Iceland’s driving laws if you plan to rent a car here. First of all, in Iceland headlights must be on at all times, day and night. Icelanders drive on the right side of the road, so for my British or Australian readers, make sure your mindset is shifted before you head off on your journey. The speed limits are as follows: in populated areas, it is either 30km/hour or 50km/hour depending on the area. On gravel roads, the limit is 80km/h and on highways and Route 1 (the ring road) it is 90km/h. The ring road is a two-lane highway so be very careful when overtaking. Additionally, you should never stop on the side of the road unless in an emergency. To take photos, find a safe lay-by where you will not obstruct any other cars. There are dozens of lay-bys and rest areas along the ring road.
Gas stations outside Reykjavik
Once you leave Reykjavík, the towns and cities can be spaced far apart. So, don’t take any chances on petrol (gas). Fill up whenever you are getting below half a tank and there is a petrol station nearby. Many petrol stations, both in and out of the capital, are unattended with an automated service. Stay alert for animals on the road when you are driving in the rural areas of Iceland. Sheep will regularly dart onto roads so if you come across a passing flock, drive slowly and carefully. Iceland is very strict on drink driving; one pint of beer is enough to put you over the limit. So, play it safe and don’t drink at all when you are planning to drive. Driving off-road is illegal in Iceland, and if caught the fines are heavy. Icelanders want to protect their nature and minimize the human impact as much as possible.
Icelandic Winter Weather
In winter in Iceland, there is always the chance of a heavy snowstorm. Some last for several days and can cause a fair amount of disruption. Recently, a severe storm in the south-west led Reykjavík Council to insist that all businesses close early so that people could leave for home before the worst part of the storm arrived. Strong winds and heavy snowfall make walking or driving slightly dangerous, so it’s best to stay indoors in these conditions. If you are planning a winter holiday in Iceland, be aware of the possibility of getting snowed in. If you are embarking on a road trip around the country, check the forecast first. A ‘just get in the car and drive’ mindset is not always the best option. Of course, you want to make the most of your time here, but if you don’t feel comfortable driving in bad weather, there is always the option of day tours. These are conducted by experienced tour guides and drivers who will know how to navigate Icelandic roads and storms. However, if the weather is very severe these could also be canceled. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
If you are renting a car in Iceland in the winter, ensure that the car you rent is fitted with winter tires. Many Icelanders keep their winter tires on all year round for improved road handling, but it’s best to check with the rental company. You could also ask for studded tires to be fitted; tires with small metal studs for improved grip on icy roads. These are only permitted in Iceland from November 1st and April 14th, as they can damage road surfaces. Also, in spite of what you may have heard, pouring boiling water on your windscreen is not the best way to clear it of ice. The windscreen could actually crack in response to the quick temperature change. A good de-icer spray and a scraper will do the job.
Icelandic Summer Weather
There isn’t too much to worry about when driving in the summer here, but two points are worth making. Firstly, if you are driving on F roads that require river crossings, be aware that Icelandic summers can involve heavy rainfall. This may make these rivers uncrossable. Secondly, since in the summer months the sun barely sets, it’s a good idea to always have sunglasses handy when you drive. There are certain times when the sun is sitting so low on the horizon that your sun visor will make no difference, and you will struggle to see without a good pair of sunglasses.
On the subject of summer days; they seem never-ending. It’s useful to invest in a sleep mask, otherwise, you may struggle to get to sleep and may be woken up earlier than you like. A good idea for Icelandic summers is to maintain a consistent sleeping pattern so that you don’t stay up all night. If you wait for it to get dark until you go to sleep, you won’t sleep.
Samuel Hogarth, Reykjavik Cars.