Pay $100 more for a UK car rental with an automatic transmission?
June 6, 2015 11:35 AM   Subscribe

I'm renting a car in England this summer and I'm a little anxious about driving on the opposite side. Added to my concern is left-hand shifting. I don't know if left-hand shifting is difficult to master... especially in an airport carpark. Should I pay the extra $100 to get an automatic or am I worrying too much?
posted by Bushmiller to Travel & Transportation around Manchester, England (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you've never driven a car with a manual gearbox before, you should go with the automatic. I had an Australian friend come over to the UK and pick up a rented car with a manual gearbox and he couldn't drive it to the end of the road, let alone use it for touring. I had to drive it back the short distance to the rental firm, so I would say definitely pay the extra for an automatic, if that's what you're used to.
posted by Flitcraft at 11:45 AM on June 6, 2015

I'm a terrible manual transmission driver, but when I drove a rental in another country, didn't have a problem with the shifting issue at all. Now, putting on my windshield wipers every time I meant to use my turn signal... that happened a million times.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:46 AM on June 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

Take this for what it's worth because I struggle mightily with left and right so driving in the UK is totally taxing for my brain, but I'd get the automatic just to have one less thing to think about.
posted by cecic at 11:50 AM on June 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I recently went to New Zealand and rented a car there. I had never driven on the opposite side. While I've driven stick in the past, it's been a long time since, so I paid extra for the larger, automatic car - and I was glad I did.

While there were no major issues with driving on the opposite side of the road, and it was something I picked up relatively quickly, I found it to be much more stressful than I anticipated. It wasn't just the opposite sides, it was also the opposite controls - I continually would turn my wipers on instead of the lane-change blinkers, or change the station when I meant to adjust the volume. This caused endless moments of combined hilarity and panic for my family. I was relieved when I returned the car, and I can't imagine what it would have been like had I had to shift, too.

You're not worrying too much. Pay the extra $100 for the automatic.
posted by eschatfische at 11:56 AM on June 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

US expat living in the UK who prefers driving manual speaking: get an automatic for your first time. The differences in driving in the UK compared to North America (and to some extent continental Europe) go far beyond just driving on the other side of the road. Roads are, in general, narrower, twistier, and have more obstacles - like parked cars and traffic calming devices. When I first started driving over here, the biggest challenge wasn't staying left, it was the complete change of perspective and not having any confidence I could tell where the corners of the car were. You'll have enough challenge without adding left handed shifting to the mix.

For the record, after moving over, it took me about two weeks before I could shift without having to consciously think about it.
posted by penguinicity at 12:56 PM on June 6, 2015 [8 favorites]

Number one, in the UK, if you don't know how to drive a manual transmission, you can only be licensed to drive an automatic. You are asking for trouble if you think you can just get into a manual car for the very first time in a foreign country and off you go.

Number two - are you sure you're even licensed to drive in UK and/or Europe? Driving licenses aren't transferable in the opposite direction, that I know for sure.
posted by tel3path at 1:27 PM on June 6, 2015

Yes you can drive in the uk as an American if you are a short term visitor.

I'll n-th getting the automatic at that price point. I found shifting worth my left hand and entering roundabouts to be a bit awkward.
posted by JPD at 1:54 PM on June 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

I drive a manual in the US, and I have rented them in the UK. My only problem related to the manual transmission is that when I needed to shift, I unthinkingly reached out with my right hand, which would of course hit the door. This caused hilarity as I was attempting to downshift to go through a roundabout!

However, after the third or fourth time that happened (i.e., in less than two miles—lots of roundabouts leaving Oxford), I trained myself to move my left hand to the shift lever before I reached the point of having to shift. That solved the problem.

The other problem I had was not having a great sense of where the left side of the car was; on narrow lanes with hedgerows and no shoulder, it felt a bit awkward and I'm sure I put a few small scratches in the paint.

Before I drove in the UK, though, I had spent several weeks, on three occasions, cycling in the UK and Ireland, so I had already internalized the whole driving on the left business.
posted by brianogilvie at 1:56 PM on June 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

nthing 'get an automatic this time' so that you can concentrate on the unavoidable adjustments: road position, narrower roads, town centre traffic, etc. If you normally drive a manual, then the unfamiliarity might actually help. If all goes well, try a manual next time.

JPD is right: for short-term visits, Americans can rent both manuals and automatics.
posted by holgate at 2:11 PM on June 6, 2015

Other than the money, there's not much to lose by getting the automatic. That said, I'll be the slightly contrarian voice and say that if you are super comfortable with driving a manual transmission, switching to left hand shifting is not at all difficult and isn't something to be feared.

(Confusing the wipers and turn signals is a real thing, though, and I still frequently get those wrong, whereas I can shift equally comfortably with either hand.)
posted by Dip Flash at 5:00 PM on June 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

are you sure you're even licensed to drive in UK and/or Europe? Driving licenses aren't transferable in the opposite direction, that I know for sure.

This is absolutely not true. You can sometimes (but no-one I know has ever been asked for it) need a separate piece of paper detailing the international aspect of the license but there is no issue at all with a full US license in the UK/Europe or vice versa.
posted by Brockles at 6:43 PM on June 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

As a manual-driving Australian, I had no trouble with the gears in Germany where things switch sides; but I commuted on a pushbike there for a month before even operating a car, so by the time gears could have been an issue I was already used to negotiating traffic on the wrong side of the road.

For what it's worth, I don't recall that working the gear lever with the wrong hand was difficult at all. Very glad the pedal layout stays the same.

If you're a confident and competent manual driver in the US, I would expect British gearstick placement to be so far down the list of Oh No Weird Bad Wrong as to be a non-issue.
posted by flabdablet at 7:58 PM on June 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

This just depends on your comfort with manual transmission more than anything else. The left-right shift isn't as big a deal as you imagine it will be, especially if you just keep your hand on the gear shift for the first several trips. You'll get used to it quickly.

If you're not a regular manual driver, pay for the automatic and spend your time trying to keep your side mirrors from getting sheared off when you inevitably drive too close to the left shoulder.
posted by yellowcandy at 11:01 PM on June 6, 2015

I live in the UK and only ever owned manual cars. In a foreign country I had never driven in before I would STILL consider renting an automatic, because you need a lot of extra brain for junctions with foreign layouts and foreign signage and everything back to front, and trying to downshift with the wrong hand is just one extra thing at the wrong time.
posted by emilyw at 1:36 AM on June 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

As a brit who has driven in the US a few times I'd say get an auto. I'm guessing you're flying into Heathrow, so you aren't going to be able to find a quiet bit of road to practice shifting on, you'll be in a tight car park, straight onto a busy ring road then a motorway. It's by no means impossible or difficult, but if you aren't confident in a manual it's not the place to learn.
posted by chrispy108 at 2:30 AM on June 7, 2015

Nthing everybody who says if you are confident driving a manual and have driven a range of different cars with different controls in the last few years a manual would be fine.

If you are generally happy with manual but have only driven one or two different cars in the last 5 years get an automatic. Driving a different car, on unfamiliar roads on the other side of the road, with completely different road furniture, signage, after a longhaul flight each requires incremental bits of attention so don't add shifting with the other hand into the mix unless you're not easily phased by different controls and what not. And do get a satnav/bring one and buy a UK map.

Be prepared for multilane, busy roundabouts pretty much as soon as you leave the airport car park . And lots of roundabouts in general. Plan to go round a few times if you have to until you've worked out where you want to go and how to get there.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:29 PM on June 7, 2015

eschatfische's experiences are the same as my Italian friend when she moved to the UK. She found it difficult to use a different hand for a gear shift and kept knocking into things.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 7:45 AM on June 8, 2015

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