Renting a Car in Iceland on a Budget

A Solo Journey Backpacking Northern Europe:

Renting a Car in Iceland on a Budget

Not renting a car in Iceland is like buying a ticket to a movie and leaving after the trailers. You’re missing something. The best parts of the country lie outside the city limits, so get some wheels and take to the open road.

Because this is such a popular way to travel throughout Iceland, car rental agencies are all over, but it’s not cheap. Definitely do some research before you go; peak season is nearly twice the cost as off-season rentals.  Everything is online, so do some shopping. 

I had heard about an agency called SADcars which boasts the cheapest rental car in the city.  Pre-booking online warrants an additional 20% discount. I was stoked. After shopping around I found it was, in fact, considerable cheaper than the competition. I booked a car for three days.  If you’re sensing an ominous tone, that’s because there’s a caveat. Isn’t there always?

 

 But before I go there, first some tips:

  1. If you can’t drive a manual (uh hum, Americans) let them know when you book, otherwise you’ll get a manual. Automatics are usually more expensive and may not always be available.
     
  1. When comparing prices, see what’s included with a rental.  For example, some agencies include navigation with the vehicle while others charge extra for it.
     
  1. Speeding fines in Iceland are among the highest in the world and they don’t take mercy on tourists. Expect to pay up to $2,000 (Yes, $2,000 USD) for blowing off their speed limits (which are usually 90 kmh, about 55 mph).
     
  1. Bring a good map, even if you have navigation. A garmin gets you from A to B, but you’re here to explore. Maps at the tourism offices offer points of interest which encourage you to slow down and enjoy the journey a bit more. You’re also more inclined to know where you are if your navigation device goes haywire for some reason.
     
  1. Don’t let your gas drop below half a tank. This is cold, desolate country, and not a good place to test your luck, especially if you’re alone.
     
  1. Bring snacks. Modern conveniences aren’t scattered along the highways–that’s why we think it’s beautiful!
     
  1. Iceland has a number of routes especially popular for sightseeing, and for good reason: they’re breathtaking. Drop into any tourism office to discover where they are and what you’ll encounter with each before just aimlessly hitting the road and wasting gas.
     
  1. Have a working cell and phone number to roadside assistance and/or the rental agency (just in case).
     
  1. Note: The gas stations pre-authorize your credit card something ridiculous. Don’t panic when you look at your bank statement. It will go away.

 

After picking up my SADcar for nearly half the cost others were paying at my hostel, I headed for the horizon feeling spend-thrifty and travel-savvy. Me, the road, my camera, and a beautiful country: It’s liberating.

In three days, I covered some pretty serious ground.  I drove the Golden Circle which begins in Reykjavik and continues through central Iceland and back, Rout 47 which follows along Hvalfjords or “whale fjord, and finally the Snaefellsnes Peninsula which is frequently called “mini Iceland” because it represents so many of Iceland’s landscapes.

My little 1995 Yaris and I were getting along just fine. It had even rekindled my love for driving a stick as I cruised along the ocean, through lava fields, and over mountain passes on long winding roads.

I returned to Reykjavik feeling fulfilled and excited. It was a fun journey. The next morning it was time to return my rental car. 

 

The caveat: My car wouldn’t start. We had such good times together. Why is this happening? Did I do something wrong? Was it me? No, it wasn’t me. It was the 1995 Toyota Yaris that clearly had commitment issues--with life. It was old. It was dead. (No, I did not leave the lights on.)

I called the agency who sent the roadside assistance guy, who was also the office guy, and also the owner.

He shrugged with a smile and said, “It’s old; it happens when it gets cold.” And that was it.

 

This was my ah-ha moment. The caveat. The explanation for why SADcars is so affordable. At this exact moment I heard those annoying voices circling my head in a taunting tone, “You get what you pay for!” You know the voice; the same one that told Ralphie, “Yooou’ll shoot your eeeye ouuut!”

Renting a car from SADcars is, in fact, like grocery shopping at Aldi. You get the bruised bananas no one else wants.

In theory, I really wanted to love SADcars and their effort to efficiently cut costs and luxury so tourist can enjoy the beauty of the county at a more affordable price.  It’s an admirable business model. But in reality, what happened to me is relatively laughable because I was in a large city and it happened the morning I was returning my car. However, this could have been a not only devastating but possibly even dangerous situation had a few variables been different.

I was traveling alone in off-season to very remote places of the country. Reliability is not a luxury, but a must.

Would I give SADcars another chance? I’m not emotionally over our rough ending after so many good times to answer that rationally.  I think SADcars has the best intensions but proceed with caution, know what you’re getting into, and remember: You get what you pay for.  

 

This trip was supported by GetYourGuide