Travelling in Britain
April 3, 2009 9:33 AM   Subscribe

What are ways to travel in Britain outside of the public transportation system?

I will be travelling to England from Toronto Canada in the next 3 to 4 months. The trip will include my wife, my older sister (senior) and myself. We are to meet up with my daughter who is already living over there while attending university in Newcastle upon Tyne. We will probably either start our travels there or London depending on my daughters schedule. Our trip will last a total of between 10 and 14 days, possibly more, staying in various towns and villages. I understand the public transportation system ( buses and trains) is very good in Britain, however some of our travels will take us outside of that system. We also plan on going into Scotland as well as England. My main concern with renting a vehicle is driving on the left hand side in the more populated areas. I have driven in downtown Toronto and don’t find it too much a of a problem, but driving on the left is much different. Or is it? The only other option we can think of is a taxi when needed, but this may be too costly.

What are our options regarding our trip? Any ideas would be most appreciated.
posted by Taurid to Travel & Transportation around United Kingdom (17 answers total)
When I visited England, I never had any trouble driving on the wrong side of the road, and that was stick, too. The only difficulty is when you're turning onto a country road with no markings and no traffic, and you have to remember which side you normally turn onto, and then turn onto the other one. In traffic, no problem.
posted by musofire at 9:35 AM on April 3, 2009

One thing to keep in mind if you get a rent/hire a car, especially going up to scotland is to keep in the left lane on the 3-lane highway. Traffic tends to leapfrog a lot, but it is smoother and more courteous. Whereas in Ontario most people seem to stay in the middle lane, when you're not in Toronto gridlock that is.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 9:51 AM on April 3, 2009

I drove an automatic in New Zealand and Australia (wasn't ready to take on a left-handed shifter). I thought driving on the left would be really hard -- I was convinced I was going to make a turn into the wrong lane, or take a roundabout the wrong way, or do something else stupid. But actually, I got used to the traffic rules within minutes. I think in the UK especially things are well-signed, because they know there are a lot of European drivers who aren't used to it.

The two difficulties I had had nothing to do with driving on the left side of the road, and everything to do with driving from the right side of the car:

1. The turn signal and windshield wiper controls are on the opposite side of the steering wheel. It was a month before I stopped hitting the wipers when I meant to signal a turn.

2. This is a little hard to explain, but you have to change your perspective within the traffic lane. At first I was drifting to left a lot (because usually I'm looking down the lane from the left side of it, right?). I solved this problem by keeping my side-mirrors precisely adjusted and checking constantly to make sure I was driving within my lane markers.

I think you should go for it! You'll have so much fun on your two-week British road trip.
posted by jillsy_sloper at 9:52 AM on April 3, 2009

The whole family has spend several weeks in rented vehicles driving on the wrong side of the road in the UK before. It's really not too bad, the hardest part if the first 15minutes to an hour on the road. After that it just sort of falls in to place. A couple of suggestions though:

1) Get a good GPS, buy it a couple of weeks before you go, make sure you are familiar with it's operation and make sure you have maps loaded on it for where you want to travel. Make sure whomever will be in the passenger seat knows how to operate it as well. You may also want to make sure your GPS has a walk mode, if you get a nice enough one you will probably find yourself using it all the time.

2) Make sure you are renting a vehicle you will be comfortable driving...if you get a manual transmission make sure you're comfortable using one. If you rent a wagon be sure you are comfortable with vehicles of that size.

When we were in England and Scotland we didn't use anything other than the train system, the bus system and cabs, it worked out pretty well. We went all over Ireland and Northern Ireland in the rented cars and generally speaking we thought the roads were a bit bigger and easier to Navigate in Scotland and England if it comes down to driving.
posted by iamabot at 9:56 AM on April 3, 2009

I find that driving in more traffic in the UK is easier than in the countryside, because there's no confusion -- there are lots of other cars around clearly indicating which side to be on, and you just follow suit. If you're a) comfortable with urban driving and b) comfortable with manual transmission driving then it won't add much of a burden to make the mental switch to driving on the other side.

Two differences though: the cars are smaller, in general, and the roads are narrower, in general, than in North America. This can be disconcerting for a bit until you (and your passengers) get used to the width of the car you're in and the sometimes frightening closeness of building you drive by.
posted by tractorfeed at 10:04 AM on April 3, 2009

Can you clarify what you're wanting to hear? I'm struggling with your question -- other than public transport or private transport what else is there?

As you said, the buses and trains are pretty good (although they get a bad press here). I'm not a driver but others have that covered and seem to concur that you should be able to cope with the traffic, etc.

Taxis can be expensive, particularly if you take black cabs (on a meter) -- mini-cabs (private hire) are a cheaper alternative but less pleasant.
posted by Lleyam at 10:06 AM on April 3, 2009

We spent 3 weeks in England a few years ago, and rented a car for most of that time. I had no trouble adjusting to driving on the other side of the road. What most surprised me was how hard it was to shift gears with my left hand (I'm left handed and have always driven manual cars).

I'd recommend it--it was nice being able to travel on our own schedule and not have to rush to make a train schedule, and there's the flexibility you mention in not being limited to train and bus routes (e.g., Tintern Abbey, which didn't seem easily accessible by public transportation).
posted by fogovonslack at 10:19 AM on April 3, 2009

You could get a canal boat :)

You should be fine driving on the left, just pay attention that you are looking the right way when entering roundabouts.
posted by zeoslap at 11:18 AM on April 3, 2009

driving on the left is much different. Or is it?

No, not really. Clutch, brake and gas pedals are in exactly the same cofiguration, and after an initial uncertainty, driving on the left seems quite natural. Traffic in the UK is much more disciplined, and the only main thing that will occupy your special attention is the round-about system
posted by Neiltupper at 12:18 PM on April 3, 2009

I'll second the notion that switching sides of the road really isn't that hard, assuming you are not a neurotic driver :) You can hire an automatic, but it will cost extra. Only you know if that is worth it to you. The only residual issues I encounter when switching is that I keep hitting the door with my hand when I go to change gear, and looking out the window when I want to look in the rear-view mirror. That takes about a week to get over, but the actual driving on the other side is fine within a few minutes, simply because other cars and signs all communicate where you need to be. Just be careful on empty roads!
posted by Joh at 12:19 PM on April 3, 2009

driving on the right/wrong side of the road, was way easier than i ever imagined. even roundabouts were okay, just remember to give way to traffic from the *right* and you'll be ok. no turns on reds! also hired an automatic, only slightly more expensive.

the extreme north west of scotland is really the only part of the british isles that's significantly out of the public transport system, but buses still operate here and there especially to ullapool where ferries leave for the hebrides. you'll need a car if you venture onto the western isles, which you should not miss, but i'm biased.

i find that traffic "flows" better in the u.s. especially on highways, where there's less rigid observance of lane etiquette. just my observance. and christ, city centre streets are narrow!
posted by iboxifoo at 2:13 PM on April 3, 2009

I'm an American who rented a stick-shift car in England. I was concerned about shifting gears, but that was no problem at all. My problems:

1) I drove in London, where the streets are narrower than they are in an American or Canadian city. That sucked. Don't drive in London.

2) Same as jilsy_sloper's #2. When you're used to driving on the left side of the car, you unconsciously place yourself in the center-left part of the lane, so the car is centered in the lane. If you do that while driving on the right side of the car, you'll hit the curb, or parked cars, or pedestrians, or whatever is to the left of your lane. Lucky for me all I hit was the curb. It scraped up the wheels of the car pretty bad.
posted by Dec One at 2:58 PM on April 3, 2009

Get a good GPS
I have one. I should have included that in my question. Sorry. Yes, they are great.

Can you clarify what your wanting to hear?
I guess what i was hoping for is something that I haven't thought of other than taxis and/or public transportation ( buses and trains). Getting to some small towns and villages with perhaps a stop or two here and there. We're doing some genealogy research while there. I think in the process I was also trying to get some reassurance that renting a car might still be an option. I was trying to seek out any viable alternatives....if any.

And yes an automatic would be a must have.

Thanks for all the tips and advice so far!!!
posted by Taurid at 4:16 PM on April 3, 2009

When I spent a week in Corsica I was worried about my first time driving on the right hand side of the road, I picked up the car at the airport and had no problems whatsoever. It just takes a few minutes of mental gymnastics and you get used to it surprisingly quickly. By the end of the week I was getting worried about going back to driving on the left! There were one or two moments when I dropped my left hand to change gear before swiftly remembering the gearstick was on my right, but you won't face that problem if you're getting an automatic.

My biggest problem was just remembering the side the driver's door was on. This caused my girlfriend no end of amusement as I had often laughed at her for getting it wrong (She's from a right-hand drive country) when I've driven her in the UK and Ireland. It's a surprisingly easy mistake to make unfortunately, but at least it has no negative safety consequences!
posted by knapah at 6:17 PM on April 3, 2009

You aren't specifc about where you're going, but, in general, there's no reason to drive in the large cities. In fact, don't even think about driving in London. If you want to tour the Highlands, for example, then you probably want to do that by car.

Note, too, that stick shifts are more common in the UK than in North America, so if you want an automatic i'd book ahead and request it.

Transitioning to driving-on-the-left is best done on quiet, empty roads, but doesn't need to be stressful. Keep your wits about you and repeat the "stay to the left" mantra, especially on roundabouts. It helps if study up a bit on British road rules and signage before the epart. And remember that some rural roads are often no wider than they were when first buit centuries ago.

All that aside, driving in the British countryside is one of my favorite things.
posted by justcorbly at 4:49 AM on April 4, 2009

Thanks for all the answers.

I think just about each answer has some good advice on renting and driving in Britain. Although I was hoping for another way to get to (and around) the small towns and villages, I might try going the rental route. I'm not sure exactly where we will be going, thats why I didn't say. But it will be into some small, out of the way places. We will in all likelihood be going up north as far as Tongue Scotland and probably as far south as the London-Swindon area.

I'll try and not do any driving in any major cities.

Thanks again!
posted by Taurid at 4:16 PM on April 6, 2009

What you could do is rent a car to get between places, and then use the train to get between the cities.

Or hire a taxi/chauffeur for two weeks, but that would be pricey!

People in Europe drive on the right - then they catch the ferry to the UK and end up driving on the left. Despite that, there aren't daily reports of huge traffic accidents from Europeans in that part of the UK...
posted by almostwitty at 1:22 PM on April 7, 2009

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