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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 are a strange breed. There are several different gas companies in Iceland: the red and white company (N1), the green and yellow companies (Olis and OB), the white and pink company (Orkan), and the blue and red company (AO). 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.
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.
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.
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.
The rental cars in Iceland are all designed to take a very specific kind of gasoline or diesel. Putting the wrong kind in is guaranteed to ruin your trip! The result will shut down the engine, likely leaving you stranded and with a very large repair bill. Generally, in Iceland, the gasoline/petrol pump handle is green and the diesel pump handle is black. This usually confuses people from the U.S., where the green pump handle is diesel. Pay careful attention to which kind of gasoline you are putting in your rental car.
Gas Station Discount Programs
Each of the gas station companies in Iceland operate a discount loyalty program. Luckily, each of the rental car companies have partnered with a gas station company to participate in their discount company. The rental car company provides the discount program fob and a map of all of their locations.
The gas station discount program will get you a few Icelandic króna off per liter. There are also other program benefits like free coffee as well as discounts on food and other items. While it seems like a gimmick, the discounts are tangible and worthwhile.
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.
Iceland Gas Station Restrooms
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.