News center
Masterful execution of their duties.

Iceland road trip: How to explore cascading waterfalls and shimmering glaciers by electric car

Aug 14, 2023

A green mindset and ample charging points make for the perfect sustainable road trip in Iceland.

The rental car won't start, and people are staring. “Have you tried turning it off and back on again?” my husband Luke unhelpfully asks.

I suppress my rage and try to will the car to move before concerned Europcar staff decide that I'm unfit to be in command of an electric vehicle.

I've not driven any kind of e-car before, and getting this fancy Kia Plug-in Hybrid to start in ‘electric mode’ is challenging for a clueless newbie like me.

There's some disconcerting beeping and whirring as the car’s touchscreen display performs a ‘system check’. As I frantically tap the clutch, it suddenly springs to life, and we thankfully glide away.

Remembering to drive on the right-hand side of the road, we leave Reykjavík's collage of primary-coloured buildings and head for the famous Ring Road - Route One.

Spanning approximately 1,332 km, this well-maintained road offers an impressive journey through Iceland's wild terrain.

You can easily drive to many of Iceland's natural wonders by car, from frothy cascading waterfalls and shimmering glaciers to rugged coastlines and shifting volcanic landscapes.

As we head south on Route One, the low-rise cityscape soon gives way to expansive raw beauty. Jagged mountains rise abruptly from verdant coastal plains, and Geysers burst forth - erupting with fiery displays of boiling water.

Zipping along winding roads, it's becoming easier to understand the appeal of renting an e-car.

Once cajoled into starting, this plug-in hybrid is a smooth and surprisingly quiet drive, and the large touchscreen map proves essential for navigating Iceland's secluded spots.

It’s my first time driving in Iceland, I have my ‘Very Best of Fleetwood Mac’ on full blast, and I’m ready for a road trip adventure.

With 85 per cent of Iceland’s primary energy needs being met with local renewable resources, it's no surprise that the country has enthusiastically adopted electric cars.

This North Atlantic outpost now has the second-highest market share in the world after Norway.

E-cars also align seamlessly with Iceland's commitment to using renewable energy sources and becoming carbon neutral by 2040 - one of the world's most ambitious climate goals.

To encourage residents to go green, the government has made EVs cheaper and offered several attractive incentives, including lower taxes on CO2-free vehicles and eventually removing VAT from EVs.

Tourists are also embracing the e-car revolution, with car rental companies quickly expanding their electric vehicle fleet to keep up with growing demand. It’s now easier than ever to rent an electric car in Iceland, and the costs aren’t as high as you’d think.

While the power source is fundamentally different, electric cars essentially drive the same as petrol cars; they just feel smoother and quieter on the road.

If you rent a hybrid - as we did - be aware that they feature multiple driving modes that you can switch between, once you get the hang of it.

As you get more confident driving an e-car, why not mix it up and try Electric Mode, Hybrid Mode, Charge-Sustaining Mode and Save Mode?

If you're tempted to try ‘sport mode’ and experience an enhanced throttle response, remember, you are not Jeremy Clarkson, and Icelandic police are hot on enforcing strict speed limits. Stick to eco mode and admire the scenery instead.

Hiring an e-car in Iceland starts from around €50 per day, depending on your chosen model and optional extras - including insurance and breakdown cover.

Many hire car companies will require that drivers are at least 20 years old and hold a valid driver's licence. In some cases, newer e-car models (such as the Tesla Model Y) have a minimum hirer age of 23.

For pick-up, most car rental services offer collections from Keflavík Airport, and you can also book self-drive holiday packages through travel companies like Discover the World and Nordic Visitor.

If you're planning a DIY trip to Iceland, you can fly directly to the capital Reyjavik with airlines like PLAY, Icelandair, easyJet and British Airways. Or if you have time on your hands, you can take the two-to-three night Smyril Line sleeper ferry from northern Denmark to Seydisfjordur in Iceland.

You can also book an e-car in advance, to collect from the airport or the city centre.

Initially, hiring an electric car can be a tad overwhelming, especially if you're unfamiliar with renting an e-car abroad and don't know your BEVs from your PHEVs.

Start by researching the different types of e-cars to understand each vehicle's battery life and driving range, so you can get the most suitable car for your road trip.

The main types of electric vehicles (EVs) include:

BEVs are powered entirely by a battery pack and electric motor - producing zero tailpipe emissions. They have a driving range that varies depending on the model, and they need to be charged using an electric charging station or a standard electrical outlet.

PHEVs combine an electric motor with a conventional internal combustion engine. They can run on electric power for shorter distances, reducing the need for petrol consumption. This can result in lower fuel costs for your journey.

EREVs are like PHEVs but operate slightly differently. They have a larger battery pack and an electric motor that powers the vehicle for a certain distance.

When the battery depletes, an internal combustion engine acts as a generator, providing electricity to power the electric motor and extend the vehicle's range.

Initially, I was hesitant about renting an e-car to explore Iceland. Would an e-car be too complicated to drive? What if I break down in a remote corner of a national park and run out of snacks?

Thankfully, my flat battery worries were unfounded. ON Power, Iceland's largest clean energy provider, has set up EV chargers along the island's coast. Fast chargers are also placed 100km apart, so you have plenty of opportunity to recharge on your road trip.

Typically, EVs cover between 150-300 miles on fully charged batteries, so plan your route and charging breaks to ensure you have enough juice for your epic road trip.

The handy Ísorka app is also essential for planning your charge stops and features live information and prices of charging stations in Iceland.

My top tip is to pay close attention when car hire staff explain how to charge the car you're hiring.

Don't be like me and just nod along while secretly planning your road trip playlist, or you will find yourself later Googling 'How to charge a Hybrid??' on the side of a windswept road.

Most electric cars can charge at standard AC charging stations, while some models are also compatible with DC fast chargers. Supercharger stations are also available for Tesla cars.

Costs vary, but ON rapid chargers typically are around 19 ISK (€0.13) per minute, and regular chargers are 2 ISK (€0.01) per minute.

In Iceland, you drive on the right side of the road. If, like me, you're used to driving on the left side, pay extra attention - especially at roundabouts - and do not get distracted by ‘cute ponies’.

Iceland's notoriously wild weather can also make driving somewhat unpredictable, with road conditions varying massively, depending on the season and location.

A valuable tool is the Safe Travel conditions map, with real-time updates on road closures, wind speed, traffic situations and webcams, so you can stay safe on your Icelandic driving adventure.

As you cruise along, If you see a rugged mountain path and want to go off-grid, let me remind you that electric cars drive best on paved roads. They do not do well on single-track and unmaintained roads.

You risk getting stuck, damaging the hire car and causing harm to Iceland's fragile landscape while pursuing the ‘perfect glacier shot for Instagram’. Stick to the main roads or hire a 4X4 EV to venture into the untamed wilds of Iceland.

We hit Iceland's south coast to explore a surreal landscape of volcanoes, black sand beaches and powerful waterfalls. Driving out of Reykjavik, we joined Route One - Iceland's main highway and headed towards Hotel Ranga in Hella - our home for the week.

Hella's central location makes it an ideal base for exploring the south coast of Iceland. It's a reasonable driving distance from some of Iceland's most famous natural attractions, and plenty of restaurants and scenic stops are nearby.

If you're road-tripping through the south coast, here are some of the must-see highlights:

Head south along the Ring Road and discover the cascading Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls. Feel the mist on your face as you venture behind Seljalandsfoss. Witness the thundering power of Skogafoss, where rainbows often appear in the misty spray.

A short drive from Skogafoss will lead you to Reynisfjara, a wild, black-sand beach near the village of Vik. Admire the towering basalt sea stacks of Reynisdrangar, which rise dramatically from the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

Continue your journey eastward to Skaftafell and Vatnajokull National Park, a haven of towering glaciers, ice caves and snow-capped mountains. Take a scenic glacier hike or a guided tour of the ice caves within Vatnajokull - Europe's largest glacier.

Just a short distance from Vatnajokull National Park, discover the ethereal beauty of the floating icebergs that have broken off from the glacier and drifted slowly in the lagoon.

Portia Jones was a guest of PLAY airlines and Discover the World.

Share this article

Icelandvolcanicroad triprenewable resourcesrenewable energyEVscar rentalelectric carpetrol carsan e-careco modeIcelandIcelandroad tripIcelandroad triproad triproad tripTeslaponiesIcelandicmain roadsvolcanoesdrivingwaterfallsbeachhikeicebergs