Winter in Iceland is surreal – there are windstorms one minute and dancing Northern Lights the next. Biting cold one day and sunny skies the next. Treacherous hikes that take you to delicate waterfalls made up entirely of icicles. And gorgeous drives that end at frozen lakes. It is truly a land where Mother Nature rules supreme in all her glory – a land like no other. If you enjoy winter holidays and are planning a winter road trip in Iceland, here is everything you’ll need including tips, suggestions, and a day by day itinerary.
When to go on a winter road trip in Iceland : November – March
Getting there : WOW Air offers affordable and convenient connections from dozens of cities in Mainland Europe, UK, and USA to Reykjavik, Iceland. It is a low-cost airline, so tickets are affordable, and you can pay for additional services like bags and meals as you wish. We always enjoy flying with them – flights are punctual and service is efficient. Some quirky humour on-board keeps the mood light 🙂
What to expect on your winter road trip in Iceland : Northern Lights, frozen waterfalls, glacier hikes, unpredictable weather, fields of snow, ice caves, hot springs
What to pack for your winter road trip in Iceland : Full body thermals, insulated gloves, warm hats, waterproof and warm down jacket or parka, wool jumpers, ski trousers. Check out our articles on packing for an Icelandic summer and packing for the Arctic for some more tips and suggestions.
Budgeting for your winter road trip in Iceland : Iceland is an expensive country. Expect to spend at least £300 per day for a couple. This includes accommodation costs, car costs, fuel costs, 1-2 day tours, mid-range meals, and groceries.
A word of warning about driving in winters: The weather in Iceland can be erratic, even more so in winter months. Always check vedur.is and road.is before leaving for sight-seeing as roads could be closed and/or hazardous to drive on. Please do read our tips for driving in Iceland in winters.
There are many things I enjoy about blogging but my favourite part is that blogging is a dialogue, a two-way conversation that excites me to no end. You benefit from our suggestions but we learn ever so much from you too. Almost 3 years ago, when we first went on a summer road trip in Iceland, we rented a car with SixT and booked accommodation with Hey Iceland. Hundreds of you ended up going to the same exact cottages and B&Bs we wrote about. So many of you suggested choosing the self-drive tours designed by Hey Iceland because they offer car rental, accommodation, and wifi in the car.
So this time around, when we returned to Iceland for a winter road trip in the country, that’s exactly what we did. And it turns out, booking an all-inclusive self drive tour is truly a great option if you don’t want to spent too much time planning your road trip in Iceland. Before you whizz off on your road trip in Iceland, make sure you read our top tips for planning a winter road trip in this gorgeous island. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you shouldn’t strive to be too ambitious – days are short and roads can be inaccessible during snowy days. Be realistic and try to make sure you don’t put extremely long drives on your itinerary at all.
Keeping this in mind, we chose the 8 day Self Drive Tour offered by Hey Iceland and customised it according to our preferences – tour prices were roughly around EUR 2500 per couple and the package included the car, a portable wifi device, and accommodation. The prices can vary depending on the type of room and car you choose, and of course the time of the year you go in. We had rooms/cottages with private bathrooms and a 4X4 car for the price listed above. Here’s the itinerary we followed along with details of the guesthouses and cottages we chose. We’ve included lots of tips so you can plan you own winter road trip to Iceland seamlessly 🙂
Day 1 – Keflavik Airport
We flew into Iceland quite early and collected our car at the airport. Please book your rental car wisely while planning your winter road trip. Make sure you opt for a sturdy 4X4 which is equipped with snow tyres and heated seats. You should also ensure that your car comes with a mobile wifi device. This is handy in all countries but especially important in Iceland where the weather in unpredictable – you could need wifi to check road and weather conditions in real time or even contact someone for help in case you’re stranded!
Once you have your car, drive out of the airport area and stop at one of the large supermarkets in the outer Reykjavik region. Bonus, Kronan, and Netto are some of the most cost-effective supermarkets in Iceland, so try to choose one out of them. Pick lots of groceries and snacks as large supermarkets are hard to find once in the Icelandic countryside.
Once you’ve stocked up well, it’s time to kick start an exciting winter road-trip in Iceland. Our first destination is the southern part of the incredible corner of Iceland known as the Snaefellsness Peninsula.
Accommodation In Snaefellsness
Hey Iceland’s Langaholt Guesthouse, makes for a perfect base to explore this area. It’s also the perfect place to spot Northern Lights if the aurora forecast is good! The rustic farmhouse is owned by a charming couple, passionate about preserving Icelandic culture. Rooms are spacious and well-heated. Try to ask for one of their corner rooms, because those boast of large windows overlooking the the ocean or the mountains of Snaefellsness Peninsula. Breakfast is included. It is typically Icelandic with lots of pickled fish, rye bread, fresh fruit, and a variety of breakfast cereal. Wifi is available in common areas. We loved the personalised nature of service at Langaholt Farmhouse and would definitely recommend it to everyone. Do try the grilled fish at their restaurant – it’s their speciality!
Days 2-4 Snaefellsness Peninsula
The first stop on this winter road trip is the truly dramatic Snaefellsness Peninsula. It acts as a great introduction to Iceland’s majestic countryside. Expect handsome gorges, black lava beaches, and stunning natural rock formations.
There are dozens of things to do in the area but we would recommend trying to pencil in at least these 4 things on your road trip itinerary:
- The Black church of Budir might be small but it’s signature black colour and unique setting make for a perfect scene. It is a must visit if you are a keen photographer. Go for a hike in the surrounding fields or just admire the surreal scenery here.
- Langaholt is famous for its distinctively yellow beaches. You will see tons of black lava beaches in Iceland but a golden beach is hard to find. Spend some time there and make sure you admire Snæfellsjökull Glacier looming in the distance
- Mount Kirkjufell is one of our favourite places in all of Iceland. This distinctively shaped mountain, next to a cascading waterfall, can be spotted in many postcards of Iceland. Things can get quite windy around here during winter months, so we’d suggest covering up well. Mount Kirkjufell also makes for an incredible spot to catch the Northern Lights on a clear day. To get to Grundurfjordur and Mt. Kirkjufell from Langaholt, take road 56 – it’s truly gorgeous, especially in winters. That said, make sure you check the road conditions before departing.
- The dramatic Hellnar Arch is a must visit but only if the weather is good. Opt for a clear day to explore this gem. There is a short hiking trail here (2.5 kilometres) that offers a stunning views of the surrounding area.
- Drive road number 574 around Snæfellsjökull glacier – while we could not do it on our road trip due to adverse weather conditions, if you get the chance, definitely do it as it has some stunning scenery.
Days 5-7 The Golden Circle and South West Iceland
It is time to explore some of Iceland’s iconic attractions. This is the time to chase frozen waterfalls (some even flowing over lava), hike along volcanic craters, and enjoy the country’s wild outdoors with a side of some magnificent Northern Lights. Here are some sights you must see during these days of your winter road trip in Iceland
- Start early from Langaholt on Day 5 and take a detour to visit Hraunfossar – this was our first time visiting this waterfall, and we weren’t disappointed. These falls are often referred to as “Lava Falls” – water seeps through lava and falls into the Hvita river. Moreover, the drive to Hraunfossar takes you through some remote and stunning panoramas – definitely worth a visit. Once done, drive straight to the next accommodation (see later). You will drive through the Hvalfjörður Tunnel and have to pay ISK 1000 (USD 8.5 as of Nov 2017) but it will save you almost an hour of driving round the fjord.
- The highlights of the Golden Circle need no introduction whatsoever. They are covered by most tourists visiting the country. Spend a day visiting the magnificent Gullfoss Waterfall, exploring Thingvellir National Park. and marvelling at spouting hot springs at Geysir
- Make sure you put the surreal Kerid, a volcanic crater lake, on your list. We visited it both during summer months and winter months, and the two sights are as different as could be. During winter months the lake is completely frozen and you can even walk on it!
- Spend some time exploring the waterfalls in the area. Our favourites include Seljalandsfoss (yes this is the one in which you can walk behind the falls but that path is often closed in winters) and Skogafoss. Iceland’s waterfalls are gorgeous during all seasons but other-worldly during winter months because dripping water frequently metamorphoses into icicles – it almost seems like time stands still here.
Hey Iceland’s scenic Hestheimar Guesthouse was one of the highlights of our winter road trip in Iceland. The guesthouse boasts of both rooms and independent cottages – we chose the latter and would definitely recommend you do the same. 6 cottages are nestled tidily on a slope away from the main building. Each cottage houses a fully-equipped kitchen, 2-3 beds, spacious bathroom, and a large balcony. The best part? You don’t need to make your way to the breakfast buffet each morning. A generous basket, packed with jams, yogurts, breads, cold-cuts, milk, and cookies is handed over to guests each evening. You can wake up at leisure and enjoy breakfast to a spectacular view of snow-covered fields dotted with wild horses. Hestheimar Guesthouse is close to the attractions of The Golden Circle, yet it is situated away from the hustle bustle of the area. The lack of ambient light or activity maximises your chances of spotting the Northern Lights if you are visiting during winter months. In fact we saw the Northern Lights every single day at Hestheimar Guesthouse. Highly recommended!
Days 7-8 Jokulsarlon, Ice Caves, and The Diamond Beach
Now onto my favourite part of this winter road trip – a lagoon full of floating icebergs next to a lava beach strewn with rocks of ice! How often do you hear all those words together in a sentence?!
The Jokulsarlon area is one of my favourites to visit during winter months. We recommend doing the following things – do not leave without checking them all off your list
- Mornings at Jokulsarlon are splendid. Try getting there before the tour buses and you might even get a stretch of the lagoon all to yourself. If the main visiting area is crowded with tourists, just drive to the viewing platform across the bridge and you’ll get some peace and quiet. We spent many an hour just gazing at the mesmerising icebergs floating in the lagoon – their leisurely rhythm is almost hypnotic.
- Visit the truly unique Diamond Beach – a black lava beach which is dotted with hundreds of glistening rocks of ice that have been washed ashore. I haven’t seen another place like it! Just walk down the beach in case the main stretch is crowded. The crowds will thin as you keep walking along the beach and soon you’ll have it entirely to yourself.
- Explore the unique crystal caves of Iceland. Each year during winter, secret caves are formed under Iceland’s glaciers. This year we went into the caves and came away totally fascinated. It is not possible to visit the caves independently. We chose the Crystal Ice Cave Tour with Arctic Adventures. The actual tour requires minimal physical activity, so it’s ideal for families with young kids or elderly tourists. The tour starts off in a specially designed truck, made for glacial surfaces. A short drive leads to the entrance of the caves, where visitors are made to wear helmets and crampons. Following this you can explore the caves. The size of the caves differ from year to year and there are always other tour groups around. Nevertheless, it is a surreal experience. Glacial ice is SO blue here because it has been compressed over centuries and hasn’t been spoilt by the weather or UV rays of the sun.
- If you’re looking for a more active excursion, we highly recommend a guided glacier hike in Iceland. It’s one of the best ways to experience the Icelandic wilderness. Just a word of caution – opt for a guided hike and do NOT attempt to do this independently, even if you are an experienced hiker. Guides are familiar with the glacial crevices et al and ensure that you enjoy the experience and come out of it unscathed.
- If the skies are clear, definitely go back to Jokulsarlon at night – watching the Northern Lights dance over the glacial lagoon was one of the best experiences EVER 🙂
We opted for Hey Iceland’s Gerdi B&B in this area. While the room was comfortable and the location fantastic, our stay wasn’t exactly great. For starters the bathroom in our room did not have a heater and we had to think twice before exiting the comfort of our heated room to enter the freezing bathroom. There was no hot water in taps at times, which is extremely inconvenient when it’s -15°C outside. These little niggles continued with the flush not working in communal toilet and a crowded breakfast area. For these reasons we would recommend opting to stay at Hey Iceland’s Hali Country Hotel, which is right next to Gerdi. We stayed here during summer months and loved it. You can find all details about our time at Guesthouse Hali here
Day 9 Reyjavik/Fly out of Keflavik Airport
As your road trip draws to a close, it is time to drive to Reykjavik. On this day, start early and spend some time at the Black Beach of Vik (Reynisfjara). The magnificent rock formations and towering basalt columns have made this little seaside town popular in TV shows and films as well. Vik offers a number of short hikes and is an ideal pit-stop for both photographers and bird-watchers. If time permits, you can also drive up to the church of Vik, perched atop a hill with commanding views over the ocean and the rock formations – it’s a truly magical sight, especially as the sun starts to dip.
Once you reach Reykavik, you could spend a couple of days in the city. If this is your first time in Iceland, we would highly recommend this. Reyjkavik is an exciting city, full of new-age cafés, restaurants, and bars. Check out our article on A Summer Road Trip In Iceland for some recommendations
As we had explored Reyjavik before, we chose to spend our last night at the same airport hotel we chose for our summer road trip in Iceland. Hotel Aurora Star (previously Hotel Smari) is located mere minutes away from the Keflavik Airport. It is perfect for your first and/or last night in Iceland if you have a morning flight to catch. Rooms are spacious, breakfast is plentiful, and wifi is fast. It is a 5 minute walk to the airport, so you needn’t wait for shuttle buses or hail a cab.
With this our winter road trip in Iceland drew to a close – it was time to go home but not without everlasting memories of floating icebergs, glimmering crystal caves, the crunch of ice as we hiked that glacier, lava fields stretching to infinity, the dancing Northern Lights, and waterfalls frozen in time.
If you’d like to see some videos and other photographs from our trip including a day by day breakdown of activities, do head over to our Iceland Journey on Travelibro – we have documented a slightly longer itinerary there, for people who’d like to go for more than a week. We document a lot of our exciting travels from around the world on Travelibro, so do follow us there 🙂