Many people don’t know this, but Iceland is technically classified as being 20% desert. Crazy fact, right? The majority of this comes from the volcanic plains and the black sand surfaces of Iceland’s Highland and coastal areas. These areas, while stunningly beautiful and incredibly photogenic, can cause severe damage when coupled with high winds and storm fronts. This raises the question for many tourists: Should I opt-in for SAAP (sand and ash protection) insurance on my car rental during my Iceland trip?” Most people tend to mentally put rental car insurance into the category of “things people are just trying to upsell me” but that’s not true in Iceland. While picking up the keys to your vehicle at Keflavik airport or the rental office in downtown Reykjavik and deciding on insurance, the majority of people probably have no idea just how extreme weather conditions can get.

Iceland's sandy and stormy conditions mean your car can get covered in sand and ash

Sand and ash storms have been known to roll through the southern part of the country in the blink of an eye to unsuspecting visitors traveling around the country in motorhome or campervan. One famous case actually resulted in two tourists needing to be saved by a special armored vehicle, so yeah, things can get a little intense here. Let’s look at why you should always have sand and ash coverage if it’s not already included in the price of your rental.

Volcanic Activity

Iceland is much different than it used to be. It goes without saying this is true for most things in life, but Iceland is an outlier. Iceland resides in the middle of a massive tectonic fault zone. The North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly pulling away from each other at around an inch a year. The rift between the Earth’s crust ostensibly splits the country in two. One of the major rifts occurs smack dab in the middle of the Thingvellir National Park. This schism is both dangerous to surrounding flora and fauna, but yet it creates the breathtaking landscape we are so fortunate to have here in Iceland. So, what do you get when two of the earth’s tectonic plates slowly pull apart? Violent volcanic eruptions.

The clearest and most present memory of these powerful volcanic eruptions occurred when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted. The massive explosion spewed incredible amounts of dust and ash into our Earth’s atmosphere. Many won’t remember the tongue-twisting name of the towering and smoldering peak that inflicted so much destruction. They will remember that the volcanic activity caused a global transportation crisis. Much of Europe and North America’s international aircraft stayed on the ground for close to a week.

So what does this have to do with purchasing sand and ash protection on your next Icelandic holiday? Well, the sheer amount of ash that billowed out from Eyjafjallajökull is a good indicator in how readily present sand and ash are here in Iceland. I am not saying by any means that you should be on a high alert for volcanic activity on your trip.  Just be aware of how recently (geologically speaking) these volcanic eruptions took place in Iceland and how they contribute to the makeup physical makeup of the landscape.

Volcanic eruption leaving a lot of ash in the air and on the ground

Present-Day Iceland vs. Ancient Iceland

Another integral aspect of Iceland to be aware of, when considering the abundance of sand and ash, is how the country has dramatically changed over the course of a thousand years. When the original Icelanders first settled back in the late 800s, they remarked on how densely forested the entire country was. There are many early reports that lush forests covered the majority of the country. However, after a millennium of allowing our animals to roam and eat freely, couple with humans insatiable appetite to clear-cut wood and utilize it for building materials, the landscape is different.

While the country is in no way wholly deforested, the effect of human habitation on our quaint Nordic isle is very noticeable. Animal grazing and clear-cutting wooded areas have also contributed to Iceland’s many sandy regions. In the southern region of Iceland, sandstorms are not unheard of. This is especially true in the autumn and spring. Heavy winds sweep across the country during this time. But, does this justify paying extra for the SAAP insurance during your stay? Short answer: absolutely.

Due to centuries of small and large eruptions, much of southern Iceland and the Highlands have vast quantities of sand, that has bonded with basaltic volcanic glass and other porous volcanic-derived materials. That is what gives the black sand beaches their unique hue. It’s why long patches of pure black rock and sand accent the rhyolite mountains of the Highlands. Here in Iceland, we don’t have a shortage of sand and ash. And the animals grazing for centuries have reduced the natural barriers between these destructive natural elements and your rental car.

Protection from Sand and Ash: SAAP Insurance is Your Best Bet

Everyone is different. We all have different budgets, we all have differing levels of confidence, and we all have varying degrees of skepticism. However, as a local, I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt: SAAP will serve you well. This is especially true if you plan on heading south. Icelandic car rental companies know this. Many times when looking at rental vehicle prices, providers already include sand and ash coverage in the cost of your rental. If it’s not, this is an additional factor to add to the final price. Everyone is looking to save money when they hire a car on vacation. Skimping on car rental insurance in Iceland definitely isn’t the best way to do that.

Aftermath of an ash storm

To be fair, sandstorms aren’t exactly an everyday occurrence. Sand and ash from volcanic eruptions and deforestation can whirl up into a light frenzy. Full blown sandstorms are not a daily occurrence. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t happen. If you happen to get caught in one of these storms they can be deadly to both you and your bank account. Winds will become heavy, and with that, the storm will gather ash, dust, sand, and debris in its path. When this happens, you could be looking at an all-out assault on your safety and the exterior of your vehicle. Dust storms can blow out windows and deliver scathing blows to the paint job. If I got stuck in a storm like that, I would want all of the coverage I could get.

More Reasons for Sand and Ash Protection on Your Rental Car

Sand and dust storms aren’t the only contributing factor as to why you should get SAAP insurance. Unpaved roads and F-Roads (mountain roads) are ubiquitous in Iceland; You’ll find them mainly in the southern regions and the Highlands. These are coincidentally some of the most popular areas to visit in Iceland. Even if you are going at a turtle’s pace on these types of terrains, it is possible to inflict substantial damage on a rental car. If you want to really enjoy your trip and have peace of mind, then opt-in for the insurance. No one wants to think about possible rental car damage and the penalties attached to that while they trek through one of nature’s most unique environments.

Iceland Rental Car Insurance Basics: Protect Yourself with Sand and Ash Coverage (or Drive at Your Own Risk)

The Icelandic Meteorology Office does a fantastic job monitoring all sand, dust, and ash storms happening across Iceland. That is why it is crucial that you regularly check their website. The weather in Iceland can change at a moment’s notice. Be sure to keep an eye on the weather even with sand and ash protection. Make sure to have the IMO’s website bookmarked for any news or updates regarding incoming storms or meteorological events. Besides that, think long and hard about if you have the time, energy, and money to worry about broken windshields and ruined paint jobs on your Icelandic holiday. I know for me personally, I would get the insurance. Leave a comment below if you have ever gotten stuck in a dust or sandstorm during your visit to Iceland. Also, tell us what you think about SAAP insurance.


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