Iceland Family Travel Tips: Planning a road trip on a budget

Iceland family road trip travel tips

Are you thinking about taking a road trip around Iceland with kids?

This is a brilliant trip to take; we loved (almost) every minute of our Iceland ring road trip.

A family road trip around Iceland takes a fair bit of planning so I’ve put together a post which will hopefully cover most things you need to take into consideration.  We tried to do this trip as cheaply as possible with regards to car hire, eating and sleeping so I’ve included budgeting tips too.

When to go to Iceland

You’ll get very different experiences depending on when you travel to Iceland.  When to go totally depends on what you want to see and how comfortable you are driving in the dark.  There are pros and cons to each season.

Advantages of travelling to Iceland in the summer were:

  • good weather (mostly!)
  • long days so we got tons of sightseeing and driving done

Disadvantages were:

  • not much choice of budget accommodation
  • it’s highly unlikely you’ll see the Northern Lights

If you travel to Iceland in the winter the advantages are:

  • you can go chasing the Northern Lights (something we’d love to return to Iceland to do)
  • the winter scenery is especially beautiful, and there are lots of winter activities.

On the flip side:

  • you won’t be able to see as much as daylight hours are limited – you might only get 3 or 4 hours.
  • driving conditions can also be very difficult and dangerous.

If we’d gone in the winter I don’t think we’d have attempted the Ring Road in the dark – we’d have stuck to Reykjavik and done day trips.

What to see in Iceland

Just driving around Iceland is incredible.  The scenery can change dramatically from one corner to the next.  Before we went we thought that Iceland was probably over-hyped (so cynical!), but we were totally blown away by the gorgeous views.

Our favourite places were the sites that showcased the fire and ice side of Iceland.  We loved Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon and Diamond beach, and visiting Lake Myvatn was like stepping onto another planet.

You can get some fantastic animal encounters in Iceland too; puffins on the cliffs in summer are enchanting, and whale watching was an brilliant experience.  There are also lots of opportunities to meet Iceland’s famous ponies; alas, we didn’t do this as our kids are too small, and the husband is allergic to horses!

If your kids are into Vikings, then there are some great museums and outdoor reconstructions to visit.  The turf farmhouse at Glaumbaer was interesting as was the Viking longhouse at Eiriksstaðir.  Don’t miss the Viking museum at Keflavik, either.

Take a look at our 2 week Iceland itinerary for more ideas.

What to pack for Iceland in the summer

The weather in Iceland is changeable to say the least – you need to be prepared no matter when you travel!

If you are travelling to Iceland in the summer you will still need to bring a warm waterproof jacket, gloves and a hat with you.  Don’t underestimate how cold it can get, it’s not even like the (usually pathetic) British summer.

Sturdy shoes are a must – we wore our hiking boots all the time.

Layering is key; when the sun’s out it can be t-shirt weather but the weather can quickly close in and you’ll need a jumper and then a coat.

A full set of waterproofs is needed in case it pours or you get a bit too close to waterfalls.

It can also snow in the summer in Iceland; we got caught in a snow blizzard when we went up Langjokull glacier, so yes, you’ll need a warm hat and gloves!  This is especially important for little ones.

Of course, in the winter you’ll need to be prepared with thermals as well as thick jumpers, socks and coats.


Money in Iceland

Iceland’s currency is the Icelandic Krona.  We picked up all the cash we thought we’d need at Gatwick, which wasn’t necessary at all.

Everywhere in Iceland takes cards; whenever we paid for something in cash we got a slightly puzzled look from the checkout staff.

Just make sure that your bank won’t charge you for paying or withdrawing cash in Iceland.

Souvenirs and shopping are expensive in Iceland, but you can get a VAT refund at Keflavik airport when you leave.

Getting to Iceland

Wow Air generally offer the cheapest prices to fly to Iceland – initially at least.

They’re a budget carrier so beware the hidden extras – you’ll have to pay to choose your seats, to check luggage into the hold and to take any hand baggage larger than a handbag.

Our extra charges for return flights came to:

Seat choice x 4 people: £47.92

2 check in bags: £119.96

1 carry on suitcase: £37.02

So a grand total of £204.90 of unavoidable fees on top of the flight prices.  Make sure you check to see if other airlines have all this gumpf included as they might be cheaper overall.

Having said that, the flights were fine and we had no complaints about Wow Air.  The stewards were all friendly and helpful; Bee had his own seat but fell asleep on me for most of the way home and the stewards fetched me a child seatbelt for landing so I didn’t have to wake him by putting him back in his seat.

We like to use Skyscanner or Kayak to find the best prices.  Don’t forget to use a private browsing window to search for flights!

Getting around Iceland

Iceland travel tips

Renting a car – 4WD or 2WD?

It goes without saying that you’ll need to rent a car.

Driving Iceland’s ring road is popular so there are tons of companies to choose from.  Booking the car rental was the husband’s job – he chose Orange car rental and a tiny Toyota Yaris.  It was a squeeze but we just about got all our stuff in the back!

The company was based just outside of Keflavik airport so we needed a shuttle bus to get to and from the rental company which was a bit of a pain but otherwise the rental went smoothly.

Unless you’re planning to drive into Iceland’s centre, you won’t need a 4WD at any point.  Some roads you drive on will be gravel but a 2WD will be absolutely fine so don’t waste any money by getting a 4WD.  Do be careful though, the rental companies are strict about any damage.

If your sat-nav has Iceland maps I’d recommend bringing it.  Ours has all European maps except Iceland (of course) so we hired one.  If you’re from the UK you should be able to use your data on your phone plan in Iceland at no extra cost,  so one of you can navigate using google maps while the other drives.

Driving in Iceland

Iceland travel tips

Driving in Iceland is fairly straightforward, in the summer at least.

  • In Iceland you drive on the right.
  • The speed limit in Iceland is 50km/h in urban areas,  90km/h on paved roads and 80km/h on hard gravel
  • Headlights must be on at all times.
  • You can’t take a 2WD on any F roads (these are the mountainous routes which are usually only open in the summer).
  • You cannot drive off any marked tracks or roads.
  • Don’t stop on the road to take photos – there are lots of picnic spots where you can stop.

Be very careful when planning your drive time and add on extra time  – your journey will take you longer than you think even if conditions are good.  Do not believe the timings on Google Maps – we learned the hard way.

The roads are pretty clear from traffic but do watch out for the odd errant sheep.   Driving in the summer is great as the long days mean that you can stretch out your sightseeing without having to drive in the dark at all.  You should always check the weather forecast before you travel as the weather is unpredictable.

Iceland travel tips
This is Route 1; gravel and hairpin bends!

You will probably spend most of your time on Route 1, Iceland’s Ring Road.  You’d think that the main road around Iceland would be wide and paved all the way round.  Nope.  It’s single lane and in places it’s hard gravel.  We had a hairy moment when we were driving up a mountain towards Egilsstaðir; our puny Toyota really struggled up some hairpin bends.  Even in first gear and with his foot down the husband wasn’t sure we’d make it!


You should also take care to plan your fuel stops.  There are several stretches along the ring road where there are no fuel pumps for 100km or more.

For example, if you’re driving anticlockwise,  you should refuel at Vik as the next fuel stop isn’t until Kirkjubæjarklaustur, 70km away.  Or if you miss filling up at Egilsstaðir, your last chance is only a few minutes away before a 123km drive to the next pump at Lake Myvatn.

Fuel pumps all take cards, some are staffed and have shops; others aren’t and are literally just a pump by the road.

We got a discount card for Olis petrol stations with our car hire.  This also came with a useful map so we could see where the next fuel stops were (helpfully, the restroom stops were marked on there too).

Car seats for kids in Iceland

Iceland travel tips
The Cub in her hired car seat

Children must use a car seat until the age of 12 or if they are under 150cm in height.  Wearing a seatbelt is, of course, compulsory.

We didn’t take our own car seats with us – they are isofix with large bases so it’s impractical.  Instead we hired them from our car rental company and while they weren’t as sturdy as our car seats back home, they were clean and complied with regulations.

The Cub got a high-back booster seat while 2 year old Bee still fitted into a rear-facing seat; it’s recommended to use a rear-facing seat until your child is 3.

Where to stay around the ring road

Hotels in Iceland are expensive, especially for family rooms – think upwards of £200 per night.  You will need to book your accommodation as far in advance as possible if you’re on a budget.

We tried to keep as close to £100 a night as possible, although pretty much everywhere I booked was in the range of £120 – £130 a night.  Summer is a busy time to visit Iceland so when I booked our accommodation back in December, many of the cheaper places were already booked.

This meant that we had to backtrack sometimes, or stay further away from the main things we wanted to see – for example, we had to stay in Akureyri to see Lake Myvatn which is over an hour away.

We used AirBnB for many of our stays but we also found a cheap hostel in Siglufjorður on and gorgeous huts between Jokulsarlon and Hofn.  All of our accommodation was absolutely fine – with Lambhus being our favourite.

An alternative that I looked at was hiring a camper van.  However this worked out to be as expensive as car hire and accommodation combined and as we’d never tried this sort of trip before, we decided not to risk it.  But it could be a fun experience if your kids are a bit older.  Travel with Meraki has a post on tips for travelling around Iceland in a camper van.

And if you’re really brave, you could just camp along the ring road!

Food and drink in Iceland

Iceland travel tips
Probably about £50 worth of food… I wish I was joking

Iceland is as expensive as it is beautiful.  So, very expensive indeed.

Even if you’re prepared for Iceland to be expensive, the food prices are still an eye-watering shock.  Think about 2.5 – 3 times the prices in the UK.  £5 for a loaf of bread, anyone?  A large block of cheese was about £8.50, and not particularly nice, either.  The Icelandic yoghurt, Skyr, was comparatively cheap and a big hit with the kids.

We didn’t eat out much and stuck to self catering.  That meant cereal for breakfast; cheese sandwiches, Skyr, and fruit for lunch and pasta for dinner most of the time.  Not particularly inspiring, but then again, we didn’t go to Iceland for the food.

One local snack we thought was delicious was kleina, a sort of croissant-shaped doughnut with one end dipped in chocolate.  It was a perfect road-trip snack.  You can buy kleina in local bakeries.

We took plenty of kids’ snacks with us but in hindsight we wish we’d coughed up for another suitcase on the plane and taken as much food with us as we could carry.  It would have been cheaper!

The food prices are off-set somewhat by the fact that many of the natural attractions are free.

Buying kleina in a bakery

Icelandic supermarkets

No matter how much food you bring with you, there’s no escaping the fact that you’re going to have to brave Icelandic supermarkets while you’re there.

The cheapest supermarket is Bonus.  Bonus shops are mainly found in and around Reykjavik.  Keep an eye on the opening times – we found that they were open from 10am to 5pm, right in the middle of our precious sightseeing time.

Hagkaup is not quite as cheap as Bonus but the selection in store is a bit better.  They also have 24 hour stores – much better for busy tourists.

Netto is another fairly cheap shop.  There didn’t seem to be as many of these shops about, but we did see a big one in Egilsstaðir.

You want to avoid small grocery shops and petrol station shops as these are the most expensive of all.  Of course we ended up using these several times – especially because the day we arrived happened to be a bank holiday and the cheap shops were all closed.

Shopping options around some parts of the ring road are quite limited so try to plan ahead as much as possible.  For example, the town of Vik on the south coast is tiny with few options.  Egilsstaðir in the East Fjords is your best bet until you get to Akureyri.

One thing you don’t need to worry about buying in Iceland is water.  The tap water is fresh and as good as any bottled water you’ll buy.  It’s drinkable everywhere so just bring a refillable bottle with you.

Alcohol in Iceland

I know, you’re spending all your days driving, and you’ve got kids with you, so you’re not exactly going to be out on the pop much.

But if you’d like a beer to relax with at the end of a long day, you should know that the stuff they sell in the service stations and supermarkets is basically water.

To get anything stronger than 2% lager you’re going to have to stop at an off-license.  In Iceland there are state-run shops, Vinbuðin, where you can buy whatever you like.  There’s usually one in each large town.  They’re not open all the time so you’ll have to check opening times on the website.

Driving after having a drink, even one, is illegal in Iceland.  If your blood alcohol level is higher than 0.05 you’ll lose your license and get a heavy fine.

Sightseeing in Iceland with small children

Getting around Iceland’s outdoor attractions

Iceland has been experiencing a boom in tourism for the last few years.  We found that many of the attractions were being upgraded.  There were lots of new walkways and fencing to keep tourists away from getting too close to precarious ledges or to protect flora.

This means that several locations are suitable for buggies/strollers.  You can get around most of the Golden Circle attractions with a buggy, for example, although be prepared to carry it up and down steps.  Other attractions are not buggy-friendly, such as most of the places around Lake Myvatn, as pathways are rocky.

Be prepared for lots of walking wherever you go – the kids are going to get tired.  You obviously won’t be able to hike as much as you’d like at some locations.

We didn’t take our buggy; we managed with the Cub on foot or daddy’s shoulders and Bee in a sling on my back.  This is probably the last time we’ll be able to travel buggy-free – the kids are getting heavy!

Safety in Iceland for small children

You should always keep an eye on your kids; the sights are beautiful but footpaths can be slippery and treacherous and there are lots of high cliffs and so on.  There are rarely any real safety barriers – sometimes a cliff edge is simply roped off with a bit of string.

Be wary of water, too.  The hot springs that we saw weren’t really fenced off that much and water can reach boiling point.  There are lots of pools and rivers, especially somewhere like Þingvellir, which a small child can easily slip into.  And the waves can be dangerous on some beaches, like at Vik’s black sand beach where people have been swept away by sudden surges.

You’re going to have to be vigilant, 100% of the time.

You could consider a toddler backpack with reins if your toddler is determined to walk by themselves.  We found our sling to be invaluable; Bee refuses to hold hands or wear the backpack, so into the sling he went if the terrain was dangerous.

Iceland travel tips
It took a lot of effort (and chocolate biscuits) to keep them happy…

Pick and choose your activities carefully.

While we were glad we went into the glacier at Langjokull, in hindsight Bee was probably a bit too small (he had just turned 2).  It didn’t help that he went to sleep on the bus on the way there and woke, furious, inside the cave.

The same went for our boat trips at Jokulsarlon and Husavik – Bee was not impressed with his life jacket to say the least.  Any activity where they were cooped up and not able to run around meant a lot of entertaining from mum and dad so we had less time to enjoy the sights.

Be armed with plenty of snacks if you’re going to be doing any similar activities!

Iceland is kid-friendly

Iceland travel tips

Overall Iceland is a friendly place to travel with small children.

There were a few activities that weren’t suitable; no glacier walking or lava caves for us.  You can still be adventurous though;  we explored man-made caves in Langjokull glacier, took a boat tour on Jokulsarlon lake and went whale watching in Husavik.  The kids went free on all of these trips, which saved us loads of money.

Some places had kid-friendly spaces, like the Viking museum at Keflavik.  The husband and I could look around while the kids busied themselves playing.  Our kids are far too young to show an interest in most museums.

There also didn’t seem to be much of the Victorian children should be seen and not heard attitude either.  One of our AirBnB hosts seemed a little nonplussed when we asked if local restaurants were suitable for kids.  Of course they are.

Happy days.


I hope you found this post useful.  Let me know if I’ve missed anything in the comments!

Tips for taking your family on an Iceland Ring Road trip. From what to see, pack, how to hire a car and keep your kids safe, this post covers it!

Tips for taking your family on an Iceland Ring Road trip. From what to see, pack, how to hire a car and keep your kids safe, this post covers it!

7 thoughts on “Iceland Family Travel Tips: Planning a road trip on a budget

  1. Connies Tricklin says:

    My husband wants to visit Iceland on our next vacation. But I had no idea about it. how it will cost, is it perfect for the family trip, what things we can do there? many questions arrived in my mind. but after reading this article I feel relax. Now I think it is the best place for family trip. Thanks for sharing this blog.

  2. Agness of aTukTuk says:

    The Iceland’s landscape is truly scenic and it is a perfect destination for a road trip! Thanks a bunch for the awesome post and excellent tips which I am definitely going to use. How many days did your road trip last?

  3. Pingback: Iceland Travel Tips - What You Need To Know Before You Go!

  4. Kanika Bakshi says:

    Thanks for sharing this interesting post. This weekend my husband is planning a road trip to Iceland and your this post is very helpful to me so that my kids can enjoy the trip.

  5. Cannon Law says:

    You’re kidding! It never came to my mind it’s even possible to go to Iceland on a tight budget. I heard some horror stories about this country’s pricing before reading this post. The Northern Lights certainly worth seeing, btw. I saw it once in Finnish Lapland and it was stunning.

    • Emily Cole says:

      It’s possible, especially if you self cater, stay in airbnb or camp (summer only). We splashed out on some tours but otherwise we were pretty strict with ourselves. It helps that most of the natural attractions are free!

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