I love to be independent when traveling but frankly sometimes renting a car in a new location is more trouble than it worth. I am directionally impaired and tend to spend a lot of time doing U-turns. I get nervous about tolls and check points. And frankly most cities are walkable and there are trains and public buses to see areas outside the capital. But Iceland was definitely one of those places where I am glad I rented a car and I will do it again on my next trip.
1. The sights are in the scenery. Reykjavik is great and I could have spent more time there. But the best of Iceland is really the varied scenery and the outdoor adventure opportunities. And while you could see one or two specific spots on a tour, to see as much as possible you really need your own set of wheels. Most experts recommend 7-10 days to drive route 1, the ring road, and have time for stops and activities. But even if you have less time, I think it is still worth it to drive straight with limited stops. Not only is the scenery spectacular, but the changes are abrupt and the landscape changes by the mile (not by the hundreds of miles like the US Midwest).
2. Feel like you are at the edge of the world. Iceland only has a population of about 330,000 and over two-thirds live in the larger capital region. This means if you rent a car you can often be the only person in the middle of the stunning wilderness. Iceland remained unpopulated until only 1200 years ago, and remains on the short list of the world’s most sparsely populated countries. There aren’t many places where you can feel like an explorer any more — but Iceland is one of them.
3. Navigation is easy. I mentioned I am directionally challenged. I need a map to visit my dentist of over 20 years. In Iceland I did not use a GPS and I only got turned around once the entire trip, for less than 5 minutes. Signage is outstanding and the ring road is easy to follow.
4. Go at your own pace. Tours have their place but they commit you to someone else’s schedule. The law of numbers means everything takes extra time, someone will always be late, you will often have too much time or not enough time at a stop, you lose all flexibility, and you will never see a sight without the crowds. In a car, you can stop when you want to and where you want to. You can be spontaneous or hard core.
5. Double your time – take advantage of long days to do and see more. If you visit Iceland between April and September you will have at least 12 1/2 hours of daylight. This increases the closer you get to June, maxing out in Reykjavik at over 20 hours, with a full 24 hours further north. In addition to a unique experience, this means that if short on time you can almost double what you see if you do it on your own.
6. Get off the beaten path. The best reason to rent a car in any location is too get off the beaten path. Stop in a random town, at a local cafe or a hidden waterfall.