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.
These fuel stations are a strange breed. There are several different gas companies: the red and white company (N1), the green and yellow companies (Olis and OB which are sister companies), the white and pink company (Orkan), and the blue and red company (Atlantsolía or just AO for short).
At their core, they are places that dispense fuel and diesel. However, Iceland’s stations are also a combination of coffee shop, restaurant, grocery store, retail store and community center.
It’s not uncommon to find some fuel stations with complete grocery stores and sit-down restaurants inside. It is also not uncommon to find 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 station has you covered.
Given the lack of infrastructure (particularly in some of the remote parts of the country), the 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 these 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 culture has developed around these stations on the island. Most Icelanders eat at these gas station restaurants – a lot. For many people, the big night out on the town is dinner at the N1. 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 more reasonably priced.
They may not be the fanciest, but they are quite good. It’s definitely worth hitting up the local station 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 station and can be incredibly gourmet. However, these fuel stops serve far more than just hot dogs. These stations can have sandwiches, ice cream, pizza and the Icelandic yogurt called skyr.
Not all fuel stations are the same. Some stations are full service with restaurants, store, restrooms and dispensing petrol (usually found under the names Olis, N1 and sometimes Orkan). However, some gas stations are only pumps with a self-serve credit card payment system (OB and AO are the brands for self-service, along with some N1 and Orkan stations).
Sometimes there can be large distances between fuel stations, so we recommend topping up your tank frequently. On each of our five trips to Iceland, we make a habit of filling up each night so we can start the day fresh and with a full tank.
The rental cars in Iceland are all designed to take a very specific kind of gasoline or diesel. Putting in the wrong kind 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 usually diesel. Pay careful attention to which kind of gasoline you are putting in your rental car. Don’t rely on the pump handle alone!
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 (full service with amenities or just stand-alone pumps).
EV Charging Stations
As Iceland has embraced electric vehicles, the gas station has also evolved to include green transportation. Many of the stations in the more remote parts of the country have added electric vehicle charging stations. These EV stations can supplement other locations throughout the country including major hotels, municipal buildings and other locations.
Each of the gas station companies in Iceland operate a discount loyalty program. Luckily, each of the rental car companies have partnered with a fuel company to participate in their discount company. The rental car company provides the discount program fob and a map of all of their locations. (N1 uses an app on the phone that we could never get to work.)
The gas station discount program will get you a few Icelandic króna off per liter. There are also other program benefits like discount/free coffee as well as discounts on food and other items. While it seems like a gimmick, the discounts are tangible and worthwhile.
Full service stations accept all manner of payments. However, some of the automated or self-service 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 (and is more a hassle than anything).
One thing to note, on our most recent trip to Iceland, we noticed the Olis and OB stations have upgraded their gas pumps to automated machines. This makes them much more friendly for Americans as you are not prompted for a PIN, rather the company prior authorizes a set amount you indicate. It’s really handy and much more friendly for tourists.
Since stations 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. Some even have shower facilities, particularly in the more remote parts of the country.
At many Icelandic 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, seek out the country’s hidden gems and top attractions.
If you visit, you’ll surely encounter this unique culture that exists in this tiny country. It may seem strange, but gas stations in Iceland will be an important part of your journey. Travel like a local and embrace them.
Lance Longwell is a travel writer and photographer who has published Travel Addicts since 2008, making it one of the oldest travel blogs. He is a life-long traveler, having visited all 50 of the United States by the time he graduated high school. Lance has continued his adventures by visiting 70 countries on 5 continents – all in search of the world’s perfect sausage. He’s a passionate foodie and enjoys hot springs and cultural oddities. When he’s not traveling (or writing about travel), you’ll find him photographing his hometown of Philadelphia.