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Experiencing Gas Stations in Iceland

The N1 is one of the many gas stations in Iceland. Photo from Hallie (Creative Commons).

One of the strangest things about Iceland is the gas station culture in the country. While we had been warned about this before visiting, we weren’t prepared for Iceland’s gas stations. In a country of less than 400,000 people and where basic infrastructure just doesn’t exist, the gas stations in Iceland have filled the void. This is something that every visitor needs to be experience.

The gas stations in Iceland (typified by companies such as N1, Olis, etc.) are a strange breed. At their core, they are places that dispense gas and diesel. However, Iceland’s gas stations are also a combination of coffee shop, restaurant, grocery store, retail store and community center. It’s not uncommon to find some gas stations with complete grocery stores and full sit-down restaurants inside. It is also not uncommon to find gas stations that have stores that sell clothing, knitting supplies or even farm implements. And if a town has a tourist information center, you can be sure that it’s located at the gas station.

Horseshoes and farm supplies can be purchased at gas stations in Iceland.  Photo credit:  Jbdodane (CC)

Horseshoes and farm supplies at Iceland gas stations. Photo credit: Jbdodane (CC 2.0).

The gas station is the provider of all goods and services. Forgot your European electrical adapters? Don’t worry – the local Icelandic gas station has you covered. Given the lack of infrastructure (particularly in some of the remote parts of the country), the gas station is the one ubiquitous service provider. Grocery stores and liquor stores may be open only a couple of days a week for a few hours, but the gas stations are open much longer. So they fill the void – selling food and providing a place for locals to congregate and selling all types of goods (from groceries to clothes).

A whole gas station culture has developed on the island. Most Icelanders eat at these gas station restaurants – a lot. For many people in Iceland, the big night out on the town is dinner at the N1 gas station. I’m not kidding. At first, I thought this would be freakishly lame or weird, but it really isn’t and turned out to be one of the great surprises during our Iceland trip. And, compared to the rest of country, the gas station meals are reasonably priced. They may not be the fanciest, but they are quite good. It’s definitely worth hitting up the local Iceland gas stations for lunch or dinner – and be sure to try more than the ubiquitous hot dogs.

A typical Iceland gas station and restaurant combination.  Photo credit:  Stefán Freyr Margrétarson (CC)

A typical gas station/restaurant combination. Photo credit: Stefán Freyr Margrétarson (CC 2.0).

If you are visiting, here are some tips for gas stations in Iceland –

Food at Iceland’s Gas Stations

It seems the national cuisine of Iceland is the hot dog. These little gems are universally available at every gas station and can be incredibly gourmet. However, Iceland gas stations serve far more than just hot dogs. These stations can have sandwiches, ice cream, pizza and the Icelandic yogurt called skyr.

The food at gas stations in Iceland can go way beyond the hot dog.  Some meals can be fresh and gourmet.  Photo credit:  Alyson Hurt (CC)

The food at gas stations in Iceland can go way beyond the hot dog. Photo credit: Alyson Hurt (CC 2.0).

Gasoline in Iceland

Not all gas stations in Iceland are the same. Some gas stations are full service with restaurants, store, restrooms and dispensing petrol. However, some gas stations are only pumps with a self-serve credit card payment system. Sometimes there can be large distances between gas stations, so we recommend topping up your tank frequently. All gas stations are marked on the Iceland Road Atlas or on the map provided by your rental car agency; however, these maps usually don’t differentiate on which kind of station it is.

The gas stations in Iceland can be few and far between - always top up your tank when you pass a gas station.  Photo courtesy of Chris Zielecki (CC).

The gas stations in Iceland can be few and far between. Photo credit: Chris Zielecki (CC 2.0).

Credit Cards at Gas Stations in Iceland

Full service gas stations accept all manner of payments. However, some of the automated Iceland gas stations only accept credit cards with a pin. If you’re traveling from the United States, make sure you know the pin for your credit card. This is especially important when returning your rental car at Keflavik airport – the pumps at the airport need a credit card with pin. An alternative is to buy pre-paid gas cards at the beginning of your trip.

 A self-pay pump at an Iceland gas station.  Photo credit:  Alice Whale (CC)

A self-pay pump. Photo credit: Alice Whale (CC 2.0).

Gas Station Restrooms in Iceland

Since gas stations in Iceland provide a range of services, we frequently found that toilets were treated as public facilities (not just reserved for paying customers). However, you’ll probably want to pick up some food or a coffee while you’re at it. Given the lack of services in the country, make frequent use of the restroom facilities at the gas stations – you never know when you’ll have your next opportunity. Many gas stations in Iceland also have shower facilities, particularly in the more remote parts of the country.

Car Washes in Iceland

At many Iceland gas stations, they have free car washing facilities to get the mud off your car (and your car will get muddy). We learned the hard way that these are essentially one-car-at-a-time operations. If you try to get two cars in, you will likely be spraying the other driver and they won’t be very pleased about it. Show common courtesy and wait until the other driver is done. Also, etiquette dictates that you use a little water to clean up the car wash area. At a minimum, you should use your hose to push the mud out of the clean-up bay and into the drainage channels provided. It seems wasteful to use water for this purpose; however, we were instructed that this is common courtesy.

Exploring Iceland is best done by car. The Ring Road is one of the world’s greatest road trips. But visitors to Iceland should also get off Route 1 and head into some of the lesser explored areas. If you visit, you’ll surely encounter the unique gas station culture that exists in this tiny country. It may seem strange, but gas stations in Iceland will be an important part of your journey. Live like a local and embrace the Icelandic gas station.

A N1 self-serve gas station in Iceland.  Photo credit:  Stefán Freyr Margrétarson (CC)

Self-serve gas station. Photo credit: Stefán Freyr Margrétarson (CC 2.0).

Cover image courtesy of Hallie (CC 2.0).

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What do you think about Experiencing Gas Stations in Iceland?

  1. Anonymous October 13, 2010 at 10:53 am #

    It´s a pretty far off statement to say that almost all of us Icelanders have a night out at our local gas station when the truth is that the restaurants there are almost always Subway or Serrano (A mexican chain).

    Teenagers and people like taxi drivers etc frequent these places as they food is cheap and you get service fast.

  2. Lance October 13, 2010 at 5:31 pm #

    Thanks for your comment and I don’t mean this to be insulting. I mentioned this because it is very different than what we have in our country. However, we liked it. We ate at two gas stations that had excellent food (N1 in Blondus and a place in Egilsstadir). Our experience is that in much of Iceland, there were not many restaurant options.

    Thanks again for posting. And here’s to hoping we can come back to your country soon!

  3. Nimit June 22, 2017 at 7:23 pm #

    Thanks for this article. Been researching extensively for our trip and this was helpful regarding the comforts we can expect at the gas stations, which seem to be the only thing we can expect to rely on finding all around iceland haha

    We will be there for 5 nights, 6 days and really think all we will be eating is food from N1 stations and self catering in our apartments.

    Just have a question regarding the different gas station companies other than N1. Are they all reliable? Will we have any difficulty using our CHIP/PIN card at the gas stations – meaning is it going to be confusing if there isn’t english written with instructions?

    We will be going as far as Vestrahorn and Kirkjufell

    Thanks

  4. ME September 20, 2018 at 1:21 pm #

    Just got back from Iceland. They’re gas stations are confusing. Trying to figure out to change the information to English which is actually picking the British flag cuz no American flag. Had to use my debit card cuz only credit card I know that had a PIN. Always chose the “full tank” button. When I checked my bank account, these gas stations charged me hundreds of dollars. So mad…

    • Lance Longwell September 21, 2018 at 11:39 pm #

      Gas is EXPENSIVE in Iceland (and really all of Europe for that matter). But on the charges, try to get more info from your bank. While gas is expensive, you may have been hit with a lot of outrageous/unnecessary foreign transaction and convenience charges. Make sure you get a PIN credit card that has no foreign transaction fees!

      The flag is pretty universal. They figure England=English. Kind of makes sense from a semantics perspective.

      We do hope, however, that you enjoyed your time in Iceland. It is an amazingly beautiful country, isn’t it?

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