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Renting a Car in Iceland

Renting a Car in Iceland: What you need to know about road safety, insurance, and how to avoid unexpected charges.

 

Excerpt from original post Iceland 2015: Reykjavik & the South Coast

Things to know about renting a car in Iceland:

There are tons of threads on Tripadvisor about renting a car in Iceland, many of them filled with horror stories of being charged hundreds or even over a thousand dollars for dings, dents, etc. After reading through many of them, I determined that the big name car rental companies had the most horror stories, and Blue Car Rental had the least horror stories, so we went with them. In general, here is what you need to know:

1. The insurance barely covers anything.

If you damage the car in any way, there is a high deductible that you have to pay. This includes small dents. Blue Car Rental’s deductible was $1,100.00. If the windshield is cracked and needs to be replaced, you pay $100.00. If the chassis/underside of the car is damaged due to off-roading or driving too fast on rough bumpy roads, you are responsible for the whole amount of the damage. If the strong winds blow the doors off the car (it happens), you will be responsible for the damage as well.

2. You must pre-pay with most companies.

Reserving a car online was very easy, and I asked a couple questions via email to Blue Car before reserving, and they were very responsive and helpful. However–you have to pre-pay, and if you cancel your trip last minute, you might not get all your money back. (Your might consider travel insurance for emergency cancellations on your trip).

3. Rental rates double in the summer.

Renting a car in Iceland is going to be expensive regardless, but consider going in the spring, or after September 15th to get the best rates. Like hotel rates, everything is double the price in the peak summer season.

4. Get the sand and ash protection.

Winds in Iceland can be insanely strong. Right before we went we read news stories of cars being blown off the road by the wind and rocks being blown off cliffs into people’s car windows. These are extreme examples, but the winds are strong at times and will blow sand and volcanic ash at your car, causing damage to the paint. The sand and ash protection doesn’t cost that much extra, and could save you some money in the event that you run into these conditions.

5. In the winter, pay close attention to the road conditions and weather reports.

The most invaluable website during our trip was http://www.vegagerdin.is/english/road-conditions-and-weather/, which we were checking several times a day. They keep the road conditions up to date and you must check to make sure your route is clear before venturing out, especially in the winter. You don’t want to end up a search-and-rescue tourist trapped in a snow storm. For an up to date weather report for the day, http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/areas/ is the Icelandic weather site. If a storm is predicted in the area you are planning on driving to, check with locals to see if they think going there is a good idea. If not, you may need to change your plans.

6. American credit cards and debit cards without chips don’t work on Icelandic gas pumps.

As of the end of 2015 American cards are supposed to now have “chip and PIN” card model that has been used in Europe for years. My credit card has it now, but my debit card still doesn’t. I’m hoping this will change soon. Most bars, restaurants, and shops have card machines that can process the old-style magnetic strip that American credit cards have, but gas pumps don’t. We didn’t have cards with the chip yet when we were in Iceland. We were able to get around this by pre-paying the gas station attendant, either by having them open the pump or put a pre-paid amount on the pump, or the N1 stations could provide a pre-paid gas card that could be used at the pump. If you are going out into no-man’s land, make sure you fill up your tank first. You may also want to buy a pre-paid gas card at the N1 to use at any N1 stations that might not have an attendant. Worst case scenario, have some cash on hand for emergencies–you might have to wait for someone with a card to come along that you could ask to buy the gas for you in exchange for cash. If you don’t have a card with a chip in it yet, talk to your bank and find out when they will be getting one for you.

 

Here is a video about driving in Iceland that I found on Icelandair’s video selection on the plane. It was corny, but pretty helpful.

Overall, everything worked out with renting a car, the wind didn’t blow our car doors off, no rocks or hail flew through the air and dented the body or nicked the paint. We received no additional unexpected charges. We would Recommend Blue Car Rental, and from what we read, would also recommend avoiding the big name car companies. Just be cautious, don’t drive when there’s a storm, and stay on top of the weather report. Renting a car in Iceland is the best way to see the country.

Winter Driving in Iceland

 Winter Driving in Iceland: Tips on how to navigate the roads without ending up being a search and rescue statistic, or ending up with an expensive rental car repair bill

 

Driving in Iceland in the winter can be scary for even the most seasoned winter driver. The main reason is Iceland’s furious and ferocious winds, which have been reported to blow rocks off of glaciers and cars right off of the roads. Rental cars come equipped with snow tires but very little insurance, and there are places in Iceland on the ring road with absolutely nothing around for miles.

We drove around the southern part of Iceland in March with very little snow driving experience, and made it out alive. Here is our advice:

1. Pay close attention to the road conditions and weather reports

The most invaluable website during our trip was http://www.vegagerdin.is/english/road-conditions-and-weather/, which we were checking several times a day. They keep the road conditions up to date and you must check to make sure your route is clear before venturing out, especially in the winter. You don’t want to end up a search-and-rescue tourist trapped in a snow storm. For an up to date weather report for the day, http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/areas/ is the Icelandic weather site. If a storm is predicted in the area you are planning on driving to, check with locals to see if they think going there is a good idea. If not, you may need to change your plans. On the day we wanted to go up to see Gullfoss the snow and wind wouldn’t let up, so we played it safe and stayed in. After we got back to the US, we read a news story about 50 tourists that had to be search and rescued up there the very next day. We were glad we stayed at our cabin and had a lazy snow day instead.

winter driving in Iceland
Winter driving in Iceland: Wind can cause snow to blow into the road causing very low visibility

2. The insurance is pretty much useless, but get the sand and ash protection just in case

Winds in Iceland can be insanely strong. Right before we went we read news stories of cars being blown off the road by the wind and rocks being blown off cliffs into people’s car windows. These are extreme examples, but the winds are strong at times and will blow sand and volcanic ash at your car, causing damage to the paint. The sand and ash protection doesn’t cost that much extra, and could save you some money in the event that you run into these conditions.

3. Park on a flat surface overnight, and don’t set your parking brake

Our car rental company told us not to set the parking brake overnight, or it would freeze and break off, and we would have to pay for it.

4. Go slow and let cars pass you if you are not used to driving in the snow

It’s okay to be the slow asshole on the highway if you aren’t comfortable or sure about the road conditions. I’m sure we pissed a lot of locals off on our first day out on snow-covered roads, but they drove around us and we made it in one piece. It’s better to take it easy than to risk an accident due to overconfidence.

Winter driving in Iceland
Winter driving in Iceland

5. Never slam on the brakes for any reason

Slamming on your brakes on an icy road is the best way to have your car spin out of control. If you need to slow down, take your foot off of the gas and downshift (this is where a manual shift car is a plus), and gently tap the brake.

We were driving along a snowy road in the southern part of the ring road, and I stopped the car to get out and take a picture of the white, desolate landscape. When I stepped out of the car and my foot hit the road I almost fell right on my ass. I didn’t fully realize that we were driving on a solid sheet of ice. Take caution and make slow stops.

winter driving in Iceland
Southern ring road winter wonderland: winter driving in Iceland

6. If you start to slide, don’t jerk the steering wheel

Aside from slamming on the brakes, the worst thing you can do if you start to slide is over-correct and jerk the wheel. Slow down by down-shifting and taking your foot off the gas, and keep a tight grip on the wheel to keep it as steady as you can.

7. Hold onto the car doors when getting in and out of the car

Again, the winds are the most dangerous part of driving in Iceland. They are STRONG. Strong enough to blow the door right off of your car. When getting in and out of the car, hold the door TIGHT to keep it from blowing back open. If the door comes off, you have to pay for it. Even the insurance with a $1000 deductible won’t cover it. And everything is more expensive in Iceland.

8. Never attempt driving on the F Roads in winter

Iceland blocks the F Roads (in the highlands in the middle of the country) off in the winter time, but every now and then some idiot will think his four wheel drive SUV can make it. Locals report seeing tire tracks around the blockades all the time. These people end up putting the lives of volunteer search and rescue workers at stake when they get lost or stuck. Don’t be a dumbass, just stick to the ring road. There are plenty of amazing sights to see there.

9. Bring a credit card with a chip in it for the gas pumps

Bring a credit card or debit card with a chip in it, and know your PIN number. Gas pumps won’t take American credit cards without a chip. We traveled just before the chip came out in the US, and we had to only use gas stations where we could pay inside. Some wouldn’t let us and we had to find one that did. Fortunately, in 2015 banks in the US started to put out chip cards, so hopefully this won’t be a hassle for you like it was for us.

Also, remember to fill up the tank before you attempt long stretches of road in between towns.

 

Iceland is a beautiful country. Summer is the peak visiting time, and the hotel, airfare, and lodging prices double June through September. We went in March, which is still winter in Iceland, and it was amazing. We didn’t get to see some of the things we wanted to because of the weather, but we had a great time in winter wonderland. Driving in Iceland in the winter was intimidating, but the snow tires made a big difference and we were cautious and everything went fine. If you plan on driving in Iceland in the winter, make sure you keep up to date daily on the weather report (it can change on a dime) and stay put if there is a big storm. Wind is the most dangerous factor in winter driving in Iceland, especially on the south coast. Stay safe and have a great trip!

Glacier on the southern ring road, Iceland
Glacier on the southern ring road, Iceland

Driving in Ireland

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Tips for driving in Ireland: Driving on the left, negotiating narrow roads, toll booths, and rental car companies.

 

Ireland was the first time we had ever rented a car in a foreign country. It was also our first experience driving on the left side of the road. We were pretty nervous about this, but we made it through our journey alive and have some tips for anyone driving in Ireland for the first time. (Read about our entire Ireland adventure here).

I didn’t do a whole lot of research on rental car companies, I just went with a big name that would let us pick up in Dublin city and drop off in Galway. We ended up going with Budget Rental Car on Drumcondra Road in Dublin. Our experience with them was fine, no complaints. After our experience, here are a few things you should know:

 

Automatic vs. manual shift:

I drive a manual shift Ford Ranger at home every day. Manuals are much more common in Europe and therefore much less expensive. We opted to pay extra for the automatic, however. The thought of negotiating foreign road signs, directions, driving on the left side of the road, AND shifting with your left hand instead of your right on the left side of the car would be a bit too much for our first time driving in Ireland. If you do decide to go for the cheaper and more readily available manual shift cars, the pedals are still the same (clutch left foot gas right)–so at least that is still the same.

When we went to pick up the car, the automatic that we had reserved had been returned damaged by the previous drivers, and they were not able to rent it out. They called around as we waited for two hours and finally found another automatic they could borrow from a different company for us to use. We could have switched to a manual, but we just weren’t comfortable. The choice is up to you, but be aware that automatics are more expensive and more difficult to find. Reserve one far in advance if possible.

driving on the left in Ireland
Paddy driving our rental car

It is very expensive.

Renting a car in Ireland is very expensive. We rented one for three days and it was around $500.00 with insurance (get the insurance). This included a full tank of gas, which we would be reimbursed for if we returned it full. A tank of gas (called petrol in Ireland) was $160.00. Fortunately we only had to fill it up once the whole time, with a little top off at the end. All that being said, however, renting a car is really the only great way to see Ireland, and we would highly recommend it. After driving in Ireland, I don’t plan on whining about American gas prices ever again.

 The smaller the car, the better.

The roads in the cities and many main roads around the country are very narrow. We had reserved a Toyota Yaris, the smallest car available but wound up with a large sedan. There was an obnoxious group of American tourists renting a large SUV in the line before us at the rental company, complaining about the lack of space for their copious amounts of luggage.

A large car for driving in Ireland is not the best idea. When driving around the Dingle Peninsula, there were roads so narrow they looked like a one-way. We would turn a corner to find a giant tour bus barreling straight at us at high speed, causing us to get as close to the edge of the road as possible, wincing and hoping we wouldn’t be hit. Go with the smallest car you can get.

Driving in Ireland narrow roads
This is a two-way road, watch out for big tour buses!

 

Driving in Ireland narrow streets in Dublin
Narrow streets in Dublin

Toll booths:

There is a toll on the M50 in and out of Dublin but it doesn’t have a toll booth–they scan your license plate from a surveillance camera. You can pay the toll at most gas stations at an electronic “Payzone” machine. It is about 3 Euros and must be paid by 8:00 PM the day after you use the toll. If you don’t pay, your car rental company will be charged and they will charge you the fine and some hefty administrative costs. You can ask your car rental company about the toll, some will include it in your cost and pay it for you, or they can tell you more about how to pay.

Other toll booths on the highways have a traditional pay-at-the-booth system, so keep some change handy.

 Driving on the left:

Paddy ended up doing all the driving in Ireland. We had arranged for both of us to be allowed to drive, but after he started, we figured he was more used to it than I was and that he might as well keep driving the rest of the trip.

The first couple days I kept yelping from the passenger seat as we nearly side-swiped parked cars on the passenger side on the narrow roads. Switching to the left alters your perception of how close the other side of the car is to things, and it took a couple days for Paddy to get used to it. He said he kept feeling like he was driving in the middle of the road, but he wasn’t. We didn’t sideswipe anyone, so all’s well that ends well.

Paddy said the rear view mirror on his left instead of right took a lot of getting used to as well.

Road rules:

The road rules for driving in Ireland aren’t that different from USA. One thing you will notice that is uncommon in America are the roundabouts. Roundabouts are common all over Europe, and in my opinion make way more sense than a four-way stop. When driving on the left, yield to cars in the roundabout coming from the left, and drive around the roundabout until you reach your exit. The sign for the roundabout will tell you which directions go to which locations before you enter the roundabout, and there will be signs in the roundabout as well. If you miss your exit, just drive around until you reach it again.

Here is a video I found on YouTube that explains the roundabouts:

Another rule to be aware of is that unlike the US, you can’t take a “free right” (or in Ireland–a “free left”) at a red light.

 

Overall, driving in Ireland wasn’t too difficult. (I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a little relieved when we returned the car in Galway, but I’m kind of relieved every time I turn in a rental car. ) Renting a car and exploring Ireland yourself really is the only way to see the country. Skip the tour buses and have your own unique adventure!