Driving a Car in the UK
February 16, 2013 5:07 PM   Subscribe

We're headed to England for Christmas. The plan is to fly into Birmingham and then use Stratford-upon-Avon as a home base (there are two productions that we want to see at the RSC). Are we crazy to consider renting a car and driving in England? Pros = We'll be able to drive to other locations we want to visit; we'll be able to get to supermarkets to stock our vacation rental. Cons = December weather (snow? ice?)? Driving a manual (will renting an automatic be cost prohibitve?)? Most importantly: driving on the left? Thoughts? Advice?
posted by tmharris65 to Travel & Transportation around Manchester, England (25 answers total)
I assume from your question history that you're in the States. You may be surprised at how easy it is to get places by train! (For example, it's an hour to Birmingham or two hours direct to London.)

You can't drive a manual unless you have learnt how -- it's a totally different skillset from driving an automatic.

We usually deal with ice pretty well, but snow tends to cause problems for all methods of transport. It's pretty uncommon, though -- maybe once or twice a year, everything comes to a grinding halt.
posted by katrielalex at 5:22 PM on February 16, 2013

FWIW, I rented a car in Ireland and I took to it instantly. We did pay extra for an automatic and it was worth it. Really just be extra careful pulling out of intersections and you'll be fine. I drove all over the Southwest of Ireland on those narrow roads with stone walls instead of shoulders and I was ok.

The biggest problem I had was, whenever I went to use the turn signals, I put on the windshield wipers instead. When I got home I did the same thing.
posted by bondcliff at 5:27 PM on February 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

The one time my wife Christine, our friend Stuart, and I drove in England, Christine and Stuart had no trouble staying on the left, but I did. I second what katrielalex said. Christine and another friend traveled to a number of places in England recently, and had no trouble getting where they wanted without renting a car.
posted by lukemeister at 5:29 PM on February 16, 2013

When driving in any foriegn land keep one thing in mind: the driver always sits nearest the middle of the road. If you find yourself near the curb, then you are on the wrong side of the road!
posted by SueDenim at 5:31 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm an American living in the UK (not far from B'ham actually) and have driven a lot here. Do you already know how to drive a manual transmission car? If so, the only problem that you're likely to have is that you'll continually bang your right hand on the car door as you reach down to change gears (the shift is done with the left hand in the UK). But I was able to adjust rather quickly and because I already knew manual transmission driving it wasn't a big deal. The pedals are in the same order as in the US though, and I've found that I had no problem figuring out that I needed to be on the opposite side. Most of the time you just pick it up from following that all the other cars are on the left. If you don't feel comfortable with manual transmission or traffic circles ("roundabouts") then renting a car might not be a good idea. The major supermarkets do deliver for as little as 3 pounds/order (e.g. Tesco, Sainsbury's, etc) so you do not necessarily need a car. But if you want to be based in Stratford you might want to have a car as it will facilitate getting around to other places in the region, especially if you want to go to smaller places -- trains in England are nice for getting from large city to large city but can be less than ideal for transit between smaller places.

As far as weather is concerned I think the English over-react to snow but then again I learned to drive in Michigan. If there is a serious storm ("the wrong type of snow") then everything will shut down anyway so it shouldn't make a difference whether you have a car or not. There are a lot of decent car rental agencies in the Birmingham airport, and I know from experience that they will readily accept your US license. I would say if you can't currently drive a manual transmission car and you can't find an automatic to rent then definitely don't do it. Memail me if you want more info about the West Midlands from an American perspective.
posted by tractorfeed at 5:32 PM on February 16, 2013

Trains are good, but dear. If there is a group of you (or really more than one) driving is likely to be cheaper. Definitely check train prices for expected journeys before making your mind up. Don't turn up at the train station and be shocked.

I wouldn't worry too much about snow and ice in December. We don't always get that much, and even when we do it's seldom bad. We like to werrit about "winter chaos on the roads!" but it is overplayed for the sake of news.

Also, I don't drive, but I do know that automatics are rare in England. I haven't ridden in one for many many years, and most folk would never have driven one I'm sure. You might not even get the choice of renting an automatic, but of course, you can still check.
posted by Jehan at 5:33 PM on February 16, 2013

Maybe you could practice the driving on the left in Jamaica, first. That's what I did, in a manual transmission rental car. No problem changing gears with the left hand. No problem passing from the left. Goats in the road? Piece of cake. Jamaicans flagging down buses? No problems.

Big problem at the first roundabout in Ocho Rios, though... Insure for the maximum you can, with everyone you can; wear your seat belts, and don't take passengers if you don't have to.
posted by paulsc at 5:36 PM on February 16, 2013

i and a friend drove long distances in an automatic in ireland on mostly country roads. it wasn't hard but you do have to be aware that you may start to creep over to the other side of the road. i don't think i'd drive on the left alone in a car because i didn't always realize when i was creeping over but my friend would let me know. when my friend drove she also would creep over and i'd let her know.

i'd personally take the train in england as it's so convenient.
posted by wildflower at 5:41 PM on February 16, 2013

It's true automatics are rare in the U.K., but car rental companies do have them: I had to take one in a random provincial rental location on my last trip home.

So I think you would be able to reserve one at a major airport without a problem.
posted by galaksit at 5:54 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

We rented a car in England last year and got an automatic without even asking. (Actually a bit annoying, as we had never driven automatic before). I can't answer your questions about driving on the left etc as I am from Australia, so this wasn't new to me. (I did drive on the right once in the USA and it was terrifying, but I am a nervous driver at the best of times.)

On other trips to the UK I have relied on public transport and it was fine. It is reliable and not too expensive. If there are more than two of you, though, and you are planning on travelling long distances every day, a car might be cheaper.

If you are going to London, don't take the car. Congestion charges make it expensive, and it's slow and unpleasant to drive in the city.
posted by lollusc at 6:15 PM on February 16, 2013

My parents have rented cars for several trips to England and it's never been a problem to have an automatic reserved. If you do get one, try to find a parking lot to fiddle around in first and don't get a size upgrade-- we ended up with an upgrade to a larger/better car that was actually more difficult to take down smaller country roads.

That said, I would say price out the car/train fees, and really look at your location for train times and access to markets, etc. Train tickets can be very expensive, but book in advance and they're much better. Petrol will always be very expensive.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:26 PM on February 16, 2013

I'm an American who has rented & driven cars in the UK a couple of times. When I rented a car in Ireland this fall, the cheapest automatic was easily double the price of the cheapest manual, so, yes, cost is a factor. I drive a standard at home, and making the transition to shifting with my left hand was not difficult. Driving on the left took some getting used to but the real challenge was driving at 100k/hr on a road not quite as wide as 2 cars ...
posted by mr vino at 7:03 PM on February 16, 2013

So I think you would be able to reserve one at a major airport without a problem.

It's like a law of a universe that there will be an American trying to rent an automatic at the Manchester Airport who is a) outraged at the cost, b) outraged that they were supposed to book an automatic specifically and possibly c) outraged that the last one's just been rented. In other words, for the love of god, if you need an automatic, double and triple check that you've booked one. You and everyone else will thank you.

Depending on what you intend to do, you may or may not need/want a car. You likely don't need one for groceries--there's a Tesco and a Morrisons within a mile of the Stratford train station (which I have randomly decided is obviously quite close to where you're staying--really just because it's marked on Google maps). In addition to trains, taking the bus is an option.
posted by hoyland at 8:00 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some of the ease in adapting to opposite-side driving is related to age. If you're older than XX then you may find it awkward or dangerous, but of course XX varies between people. My dad had problems; I never did.

It's mainly at the time you set off from stationary position when you are most likely to make a mistake over the correct side of the road; once you're under way things are pretty easy.
posted by anadem at 11:27 PM on February 16, 2013

Apart from everything else, and because nobody has mentioned it yet: you have to take great care when you get back, too. You'all be vigilant more or less automatically when you're in the UK, because, hey - everyone's driving on the wrong side of the road. But when you get back you have to mind that you might have gotten quite very used to this new way of driving, and before you know it, without thinking about it, you find yourself on the wrong *wrong* side of the road, as it were. It takes some unlearning, too.
posted by labberdasher at 12:04 AM on February 17, 2013

When I drive in the States, the thing I find most difficult from driving in the UK is that the rear-view mirror is to my right, not my left, so it was hard to get used to looking up in the 'wrong' direction. Likewise, road signs in the US are to my right, and I found I missed a couple of stop signs because I didn't see a sign in my left-side peripheral vision - because it was on the right.

But I'm agreeing with people who suggest checking out the train. If you book via the Trainline, you can get very cheap tickets in advance. I went from London to Birmingham just before Christmas for £18 because I'd booked so far ahead. If you buy them on the day, you'll pay much more, possibly a

Petrol is around £1.37 a litre at the moment - which is approx. £6.20 ($9.40) per Imperial gallon (or £5.20 ($7.90) per US gallon).

If you drive into London you'll have to pay the congestion charge, and the cost of parking is prohibitive. The local authorities in London are fanatical about parking enforcement, because they earn a lot of money from it, and they won't think twice about towing the car to a pound way out of town if you park in the wrong place or overstay on a parking meter. Traffic in Central London is insane.

Locally, in and around Stratford-upon-Avon, you can get 'minicabs' - these are private hire taxis. They can't be hailed in the street, but you can book one easily to come and pick you up. All the big supermarkets have a 'hotline' phone to a local minicab company and there'll be details of minicab companies in the phone book or you can google them.

Oh and while you're in the area, you must check out Warwick Castle. It's awesome - it looks like a Hollywood film set castle, except that it's real.
posted by essexjan at 12:44 AM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I went from London to Birmingham just before Christmas for £18

That was £18 for the round-trip, not each way.
posted by essexjan at 12:47 AM on February 17, 2013

If you're mostly wanting to go to London, I'd say NO. You certainly don't want to drive to London (most Brits wouldn't even consider doing this; public transport is way more convenient and sane). You can either order groceries online and get them delivered, or walk to the shop and call a taxi once you're standing with a big pile of bags. Supermarkets usually have a taxi phone near the exit.

It's unlikely to be difficult driving weather in December. All our road-halting misery usually shows up in January and February.

I'd go to thetrainline.com and look up the journeys you'd want to make. You'll get a sense of whether the price and time taken is reasonable. Then pop on Google Maps and get a car journey time. Look near the bottom for the estimated fuel cost, which will probably horrify you. Then make a decision.

If you decide to get a car, shop around; some companies charge through the nose for automatics (I guess they don't have very many in their fleet) but I don't think that's universal. It might be easier if you're looking for a bigger car; small automatics are very very unusual over here.
posted by emilyw at 1:29 AM on February 17, 2013

I'll just add, that, from the reverse side of things, when I drove in the US for the first time last year, I took to it pretty quickly - and this was a 1000 mile driving holiday down the west coast, including driving in SF etc. I think that whole way, I only ended up on the wrong side of the road once, which my passenger quickly pointed out! Aside from driving a manual, the thing that many Americans driving in the UK find difficult is roundabouts - which are very much more common and often more complicated (multi-lane) than in the US. You'll have a great time - check out the Cotswolds just to the South of Stratford whilst you're here!
posted by prentiz at 3:08 AM on February 17, 2013

Public transport in the UK between towns and cities as well as locally in the large cities is good. But if you want to explore towns or more rural parts you may find that things become quite infrequent and stop early, like 6.30pm, because they are aimed solely at the local commuter. So depending on what you want to do a car may be a better option, especially if there are several of you.

So if you do get a car - don't book a large one - the roads and car parks are smaller in the UK. And traffic in general is quite heavy. So if you're used to light traffic be prepared for it not to be light.

If you can learn to drive a manual before you come get one. If not be sure to reserve an automatic.

In my experience, what tends to throws you when driving abroad is the fact that most driving is habitual and sub conscious and based on experience. You know how your car works and reacts, where to look out for signs and traffic lights and have expectations about the behaviour of your fellow road users, be they drivers, cyclists or pedestrians.

All of these things require conscious effort when you get in a hire car abroad. You don't know how your car reacts or even where some of the controls are...I have a checklist of things I locate before pulling out of the rental companies' lot. When I picked up my last hire car it transpired that the list was incomplete as it did not include window controls, which turned out to be in the centre console in that car...something I found out as I was approaching a toll station on a motorway and was fumbling with cash and also remembering that unlike the car I'd driven the two previous weeks this one was a manual and that I was about to stall it...and I'll happily drive any car or van, manual or not on any side of the road. But it was cold and wet and I'd just got off a long haul flight and was tired...and I'd never come across the window buttons anywhere other than the door.

And then there's the road layout and signage and positioning of traffic lights and what everybody else does. In addition to driving on the left and multi roundabout set-ups, roundabouts with several lanes and traffic lights round them and what have you. At that point the last thing you want to do is stall your vehicle multiple times cause you've never driven a manual.

Having said all that no reason not to get a hire car because these things are very intense the first day or two and then you know the car and have started to notice patterns in road furniture and things become easier. Just beware that you will find it very exhausting at first because everything will require a more conscious effort. In fact the most dangerous time is probably a few days in, when you start to relax and go back to autopilot.

Finally, book a satnav. You'll find no clear pattern in the road system, a lot of cities and towns have one way systems and unless you have an excellent navigator in the passenger seat money spent on a satnav will be well spent. And be sure to look up both the post-code of your destination and the road names - don't rely on one or the other.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:36 AM on February 17, 2013

Wow...I woke up this morning to all these great responses!

1) I can drive a manual - my concern there (and I should have clarified) was adjusting to the gear shift being on the left as opposed to on the right. It does help to know that the foot pedals are in the same positions.

2) I've driven in Europe before, so roundabouts are not an issue. (We even have a random roundabout here and there in the States.)

3) We've done London before, so if we include London on this trip, it will be a day-trip by train; I have no plans to drive in London. :-)

4) I like the fact that the supermarkets will deliver, but part of the fun [we're nerds!] of being in a new place is to roam through the supermarket.

5) Having a car is for exploring towns and the countryside -- places that might not be easily accessible by train.
posted by tmharris65 at 5:50 AM on February 17, 2013

I think the question of whether you're comfortable driving on the opposite side of the road that you're used to comes down to what type of driver you are in the first place. If at home you're at all an unsure or nervous driver, or unable to mitigate distractions when talking to passengers, or you often miss signs or otherwise get lost, or you have near misses from time to time that are your fault, you might have difficulty incorporating the vigilance required to flip everything around.

Signs are on the opposite side. Entrance & exits ramps too. The fast lane is where the slow lane normally is for you. Passing/overtaking is in reverse. Multi-lane roundabouts, if you're not used to them, can be challenging even without drivers pressuring you to go from behind.

Plus, the roads in rural Britain are narrow and are often bordered by hedgerows taller than your line of sight. Roads winding through rural fields and smaller towns and villages are often not wide enough for two cars, and you must negotiate with the oncoming driver who will stop and reverse into a space wide enough to pass one another.

Not trying to scare you; I think you're wise to wonder if it's a good idea to drive at all, and examining your own driving habits are part of that. I wish I'd prepared before I, as a relatively inexperienced driver at age 20, drove a manual car in Wales and scraped the side of a house sticking into the road in Laugharne. I'm a much more confident driver now, more than 20 years later, but I still find an increased level of vigilance is necessary when driving in other countries because of differences in signage, language, rules, and cultural expectations that are unwritten rules. The problem of visitors in Britain having trouble with flipping their perspective is evident when you're walking around central London and the pedestrian crossings have (or at least they did last time I was there) "LOOK RIGHT -->" because people have looked left and been injured or worse.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 5:52 AM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another consideration over the Christmas period - as most people in the UK do not work over Christmas this time is normally used for extensive maintenance work on rail tracks. So on many routes rail replacement services operate, i.e. only some/most of a journey may be on coaches, not trains and or may follow a different, less direct route. Doesn't cost any more but usually takes longer and is a right pain if you're looking to do a lot of train travel over that period.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:06 AM on February 17, 2013

I really like Improvise's advice above. If those questions don't disqualify you from driving, and you have lots of money, then rent a car and a GPS. (Or look into other reliable GPS devices for your trip). Our car cost us $2000 for two weeks. That price involves: a surcharge for leaving England that you would not be paying, declining their insurance, paying for automatic, declining their GPS (25 pounds a day) and then getting a hybrid car with great gas mileage as a free upgrade (AND we got free onboard GPS, without which our vacation would have sucked!) and the gas cost. (We rented from Hertz)

I too love foreign supermarkets. You don't actually have enough room in your luggage to come home with a lot of stuff, so you can still walk there, or as mentioned above, take a cab back if you have a lot of stuff to buy for the vacation.

A vacation without a car is a different sort. We will not be doing another trip with a $2000 car, but it was quite nice to have dry socks and all sorts of snacks in the car, to turn the heat on high and warm up my feet, and to be able to stop at interesting things on the way to the main attraction of the day. Was that worth $2000? I can't say for sure as I haven't done those same things by public transport.

To repeat what many have said above, I found I adjusted and could drive on the left fairly comfortably, although I felt scared trying to drive narrow winding lanes at high speed at night (which everybody does). On the motorways (big highways) I was fine.
posted by Anwan at 3:51 PM on February 17, 2013

How long are you going to be in England? If it is only for a few weeks and you wish to see London, then I'd suggest that you forget about the car. Transport links are good, you'll be in Stratford-upon-Avon for a few full days at least attending the performances, and in towns of whatever size, parking can be difficult and expensive. You might be over estimating how many slow places you are able to visit in a limited time.

As others have pointed out, petrol is very expensive, and even sticking to the motorways, you are likely to find yourself in serious traffic jams which would delay you far longer than and public transport. Trains are good, and on some coaches (buses) there is WiFi.

Consider a local GPS (SatNav) even without a car ~ by entering the 6 alpha-num code in the GPS you will be taken EXACTLY to where you want to go.

Also as previously mentioned, driving on the wrong side of the road (whatever is the opposite to that you are used to!) isn't a big deal. I only find that leaving one way roads or parking lots that it is easy to go onto auto pilot and slip into what you are used to at home. nthing obtaining a smaller, rather than larger car for your journey if you decide to go this way.

Have a great trip!
posted by Flashduck at 12:20 AM on February 23, 2013

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