Replicating Reykjavik’s Golden Circle tour without the bus

Finding more flexibility and saving significantly with a car rental on an Icelandic day trip

If you look at a map of Iceland (or watch Sigur Rós’s “Route One” footage), you too may be tempted to set off on a full circumnavigation of all 828 miles (i.e., 1,332 km) of the main road encircling the country; however, if you find yourself in Reykjavik for a long weekend or a few-day stopover, you’ll more than likely curtail your aspirations to one of the routes offered by Reykjavik Excursions bus tours.

The Golden Circle tour is billed as the most popular day trip from Reykjavik as you’ll take in the Geysir geyser, the Gullfoss waterfall, and Þingvellir national park. I did this when I first visited Iceland nearly a decade ago and wanted Cathlin to have a chance to experience these natural highlights as well.

The only catch: the bus tour isn’t cheap. At the time of our visit, the exchange rate between the Icelandic króna and U.S. dollar put the price of an adult ticket around US$65. For the two of us, that netted out to $130 for a day. The strict departure time, we also worried, might be trickier to manage with a baby. (There aren’t many obvious alternatives for guided transportation, though perhaps your hotel, B&B, or hostel could arrange a private tour, which I assume would be only more expensive.)

We talked about it quite a bit, but kept delaying a decision—not only due to the cost, but also with some uncertainty about the weather and how our daughter would adapt to the timezones. Then, the day before we left New York for Iceland, I checked a few car-rental sites and found a steal through one of the major rental-car brands with a base rate of US$12 and full insurance coverage pushing the total up to US$40. Of the destinations on the Circle Tour’s route: Geysir is free, as is Gullfoss. Parking for Þingvellir is less than US$5, leaving more than enough of a difference for gas and food along the way.

Of course, not everybody visiting Iceland might feel comfortable renting a car, but it can be well worthwhile, especially if you’re traveling with a group of 2-5 people or with children. (Since May 26, 1968, traffic in Iceland drives on the right side of the road. See: H-dagurinn: The right day.) There can be seasonal fluctuations with rental rates (i.e., no guarantee of such a steal), but for us this ended up being a perfect option: besides needing to figure out the local bus or take a long walk to the pick-up point and make sure we got it back before closing time, we had plenty of flexibility.

This flexibility ended up being incredibly useful, but for entirely the wrong reason: we woke up to a blizzard. As if the snowfall and winds outside weren’t enough of a guide, the website run by the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration confirmed that the roads we would be taking were in fact closed. A webcam showed why. Since we were awake an hour before the scheduled pick-up time, we cancelled our car rental from the coziness of our bed without incurring any charges.

The proverbial icing on the cake: the following morning as we took a bus out to the Blue Lagoon, other passengers recounted their Golden Circle tour being redirected and several hours longer than expected due to the blizzard conditions and road closures. When we told friends back in New York afterwards, they wondered what we expected going to Iceland in January.

Well, we’ll have to look forward to trying this again next time.

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