Decision: Train vs. Car hire in the UK.
July 23, 2007 5:22 PM   Subscribe

Decision: Train vs. Car hire in the UK.

As I'm coming from North America, my personal choice would be the train. I'd like to see the sights, not worry about parking, gas, or learning to drive on the opposite side of the street. However, the cost seems rather prohibitive ($400 CND for two people to travel from Edinburgh to London).

Reading Bryson's Notes From a Small Island it seems rather easy for someone to jump around by train on a whim. I realize that he probably has a Rail pass in order to do this but they're fairly expensive as well. A 4-day pass is $652 CND for two people and I'm not sure that 4 days will be enough. 8 days is far too long.

So, I'm looking at rental cars and they are a lot cheaper. I can get an automatic 4 door for less than $500 CND and it would offer a lot more flexibility in terms of where to go, how long it takes to get there etc.

It feels like I'm missing something though. The UK seems like such a train friendly place but the prices indicate otherwise. I'm basing the costs above on quotes from BritRail and easycar.

I would really like to do this by train! Any advice or assistance would be appreciated.
posted by purephase to Travel & Transportation around United Kingdom (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
$400 from Edinburgh to London is absurd. Ignore nonsense like that, BritRail is probably just a travel agent ripping off tourists.

Look at the GNER website ( They run the East Coast Main Line from Edinburgh to London.

For instance, the cheapest available ticket for one adult to go from Edinburgh Waverley (the main station in the centre) to London a week from now is about £30 (about $60 USD). If you buy online from GNER, if possible opt to pick up your tickets from a Fast Ticket Machine at the station, because I imagine they don't post tickets abroad. Try to buy tickets as soon as possible because they increase in price nearer the time of travel.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 5:31 PM on July 23, 2007

You're not telling us where you want to go, other than Edinburgh, nor when.

There are London-Edinburgh returns to be had for £29, if you book them sufficiently in advance. Rail ticket pricing, now the train operators are private, is geared towards their ability to accurately predict and manage demand in advance. Turn-up-and-go is prohibitively expensive. And one-way tickets have always been a waste of time, so A-B B-A A-C A-C is almost certainly a lot cheaper than A-B B-C C-A.

Magic Google words include 'Apex' and (for Edinburgh) 'GNER'.
posted by genghis at 5:37 PM on July 23, 2007

Where are you going? If you just want to go from Edinburgh to London, you can get tickets for as little as £17.50 per person one way on a less direct route. You'll have to buy in advance and travel on specific trains. It works somewhat like airline pricing. If you want to show up on the day and buy a ticket to travel whenever you feel like it, you'll pay through the noise for it.

It really depends on where you want to go. But if you just wanted to visit Edinburgh and London, which is a lot to see, train could be the best bet.

Remember that if you get a hire car you will also have to pay for petrol and I'm guessing that it costs much more than in Canada.

Also, the international currency symbol for Canadian Dollars is CAD. I found "CND" briefly confusing.
posted by grouse at 5:39 PM on July 23, 2007

Petrol in the UK costs about 1 GBP per liter, or close to $8 per gallon. Make sure to include this in your calculations.
posted by blue mustard at 5:42 PM on July 23, 2007

The UK is a really train-friendly place. The only time you're going to really want a car is to travel into the darkest countryside, or in remoter parts of Scotland.

For city-to-city connections, you can't beat the train (and depending how much notice you give, the plane, but taking a shorthaul flight in the UK is practically criminal).
posted by bonaldi at 5:45 PM on July 23, 2007

Yikes! I have a feeling that buying individual train tickets will, if booked in advance, be insanely cheaper than a C$400-600 - just because you're Canadian doesn't mean you are obliged to book a pass via the Britrail website! Britrail doesn't really even exist over there - it's a marketing thing they use to package passes for foreigners, I think.

You'll absolutely want to check out National Rail, as well as Seat 61's UK page. National Rail came up with a quote of £34.50 for a mid-morning trip from Edinburgh to London Kings Cross on GNER on a randomly chosen day in August, the 13th. I've printed out tickets before, as well as just picked them up at the station with a reservation number, so don't worry about not having a UK address.
posted by mdonley at 5:46 PM on July 23, 2007

oops, submit too soon. On the official rail network website, a train in mid August from London to Edinburgh and return costs £57, or about CD$250 for the two of you.
posted by bonaldi at 5:49 PM on July 23, 2007

One thing I noticed when booking tickets in the UK was that the time of travel made a big difference. Going before 10 AM or so was twice the cost.
posted by smackfu at 6:36 PM on July 23, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers. I should have been a bit more specific in the question, but the dearth of options online has been a bit overwhelming.

We're landing in Edinburgh at the end of Sept. We have a flat for a week while we're there, then we were hoping to meander down through England to London, then hop the train across the chunnel to Paris.

We have everything planned for Edinburgh and the trip from London to Paris, but the meander through England is the only outstanding part. We wanted to make it as random as possible, but not cost a fortune.

I'll check out the links (and ignore BritRail) and see if I can beat the car hire costs.

(Also, sorry for the CAN/CND confusion. It's a left over vestige of my work. For some reason they refer to it that way in the homegrown financial reporting system.)
posted by purephase at 7:11 PM on July 23, 2007

Best answer: I'm a USian who has spent some time traveling around the UK. Most of the time, I was very happy to use the train. For example, when I lived in Edinburgh I would regularly hop down to London on a GNER and it took only a few hours and it went by beautiful scenery and was never more than 40 pounds. They would serve me tea and I would read a book and watch the fields roll by. When living in London, I often traveled into the countryside, including some fairly remote seeming parts of northern Wales, using only trains and buses and it was very, very easy. And especially when you're in a city, you will wish you didn't have a car as inner city driving and parking is absolutely horrible and taking public transportation is way more fun anyway.

Then once I wanted to see some of the remote parts of the Scottish Highlands. I had been living in left hand drive parts for over a year at that point, so I was pretty confident that it wouldn't be too hard to take my "look right before crossing the street" skills and translate them to driving. I took my tent and hired a car and drove up into the wilderness. It was awful. I was so stressed out about driving on the other side of the road and about navigating the round abouts and about what would happen if I got in an accident that I was a shaking wreck the entire time. After that, whenever I wanted a "remote" weekend, I'd just take a bus somewhere and then hike or hitch for a few miles until I got to somewhere less populated. Much, much, much nicer.

So, if you're doing a lot of traveling in very remote parts of Northern Scotland or are looking to go camping in the Lake District, consider hiring a car but with the understanding that it might make you more nervous than you think.

But if you're looking at going between London and Edinburgh and mostly staying in the city with perhaps a few day trips to the countryside, I would really strongly recommend that you don't hire a car. Trains and buses are so reasonably priced and so pleasant and so reliable that it seems madness to hire a car. Plus, you'll enjoy the landscape so much more on the train.

There are some websites that have tips for how to get the best deal on a train ticket (the pricing system is convoluted and can be confusing). They are mostly aimed at Britons, but no reason the tips wouldn't help you out as well. I seem to remember the Guardian running an article about a year ago with the top ten tips for buying cheaper tickets? But if you're only going from London to Edinburgh, I will nth the suggestion to just go to the GNER website and play around with times til you get a good fair. IIRC, booking ahead usually got me a reserved seat in first class, which is really pretty comfortable and, again, should only be 40 pounds at the most.

Good luck, and have a great time!
posted by mosessis at 7:16 PM on July 23, 2007

Best answer: The price of the ticket will vary depending on such factors as:

- When you book. Generally, earlier you book, cheaper it is. If you rock up on the day, it's going to be expensive.
- Flexibility. You can buy extremely cheap tickets, sacrificing flexibility. For example, say you want to travel from London to Durham. You can get a fairly open ticket, or you can pay less, but you have to get a train at a specific time.
- Timing. Generally, travelling after 10:00 and before 17:00 or after 19:00ish is cheaper, as they want less people to travel during rush hour.
- Random other stuff that you have no control over.

You may also be able to get various discounted travel cards - try and talk to someone at a ticket kiosk about your planned journeys, as they're legally obliged to try and find you the cheapest solution. Although probably best to do so at a time when you're not under pressure to go somewhere and they're not insanely busy.

As for websites, I always use The Trainline.

I would avoid a car - other side of the road, high gas prices, unnecessary stress etc. Public transport is pretty decent, if not as good as in mainland Europe.
posted by djgh at 7:41 PM on July 23, 2007

try and talk to someone at a ticket kiosk about your planned journeys, as they're legally obliged to try and find you the cheapest solution

They aren't. Generally, if you ask for a ticket between two destinations, Train Operating Companies must offer you the cheapest through ticket between the destinations, but there may be other ways of getting there cheaper (such as two shorter journeys) that they don't have to tell you about. And there are some provisos where even the first condition is not true.

And given that the OP won't be in Great Britain until about a week before the trip, waiting until he gets there is not a good way to get the cheapest tickets.
posted by grouse at 7:52 PM on July 23, 2007

mosessis beat me to it: north of Edinburgh and the Lakes are easier to explore by car, but otherwise, you'll be thankful for not having to drive.

If you want a cheap ticket from Edinburgh to London, and then explore out from London, then buy advance purchase tickets as soon as possible. The GNER site allows you to book from overseas and collect the tickets from the Quick Tickets machine at the station.

If you still want to meander down from Edinburgh, the advance purchase fares are out. Either get a 4-day Britrail Flexipass before you leave (I'll email you a tip) or get a couple of point-to-point advance purchase tickets, ideally on the East Coast main line. For instance, consider breaking up the journey south at Leeds, York or Durham. That way, you stay on GNER's network, and can take advantage of the special fares they often offer.
posted by holgate at 10:21 PM on July 23, 2007

Best answer: Train pricing in the UK is bonkers. The cheapest single ticket from Edinburgh to London is £15.70. An open single is £117. If you get a pre-booked cheap ticket, you are committed to catch that specific train. The ticket is not valid on any other train. They are like airline tickets, in that there are N tickets at the cheapest price and once those are gone you have to buy the next most expensive one, and so on.

If you want flexibility, you have to suck it up and buy the open, or do the slightly strange thing of buying ultra-cheapo tickets on consecutive trains (2x15.70 being much less than 117!). If you're flexible about times and dates the websites will tell you which prices are available on which trains. I don't think I've done a long train journey at my original choice of time for years, but I've also never paid anything like the open rate.

Pre booked cheapo tickets are available over the internet from, or If you have any difficulty using these sites from abroad, drop me an email and I'm sure we can sort something out.

Getting from Edinburgh to London is totally worth doing by train though. Sit on the left hand side of the train and you get fantastic views of the coast all the way from Berwick, and then you get Newcastle with it's bridges, then after that the Angel of the North, and after that Durham (beautiful town). Then you're into the flatlands around York where it's fairly serious big sky country... A beautiful train journey. That stretch is one of the best train rides in the UK IMHO.
posted by handee at 1:37 AM on July 24, 2007

You can also look into Virgin trains or an Explorer pass for National Express (the coaches, or in North American terms, the bus). Coaches aren't as frequent (so you'll want to check times ahead of time), take a little longer (examples), and aren't as comfortable....but it's 7 days of travel for £79, probably more comfortable than squeezing into a tiny rental car, etc.
posted by Martin E. at 1:37 AM on July 24, 2007

I'm a Spaniard, but I spent a few years in the UK and had to deal with the British rail system on a pretty regular basis.

My own take on the subject is that the rail system in the UK is hideously expensive and notoriously unreliable, especially over the weekends, when engineering works are frequently done. You will want to keep an eye out for special announcements, both on the rail stations and when booking your tickets.

As everyone else said, you will need to book quite far in advance to get tolerably priced tickets. The exact rules that govern ticket pricing are pretty much unfathomable, but if you do not want to be ripped off you will want to make any bookings at least two weeks in advance, one month if at all possible.

Any cheapish tickets you book will almost certainly be for a specific train at a specific time. If you miss your train you will not be refunded, and you will have to pay for a turn up and go" ticket, which will invariably be hideously expensive. So you will not want to miss your train - be sure to show up at the rail station well in advance.

On the good side, you may be eligible for a Railcard of some sort, which will get you some pretty good discounts. See here for details. If you can, get one - it will pay for itself in no time.

You may want to have a look at the National Rail website, which has a search engine for train times and shows all available fares. Also, if you are on a tight budget, you may want to check out coach companies like Megabus and National Express.

I am usually highly partial to public transport, but in the specific case of the UK I would recommend renting a car as the simplest solution. As long as you think you can cope with driving on the left, that is.

Hope this helps. Have a brilliant trip!
posted by doctorpiorno at 1:59 AM on July 24, 2007

In short: what handee said.
posted by doctorpiorno at 2:01 AM on July 24, 2007

the rail system in the UK is hideously expensive and notoriously unreliable, especially over the weekends, when engineering works are frequently done

The upside is that engineering works are frequently known about far in advance. So if the itinerary you are considering taking has a bus leg, don't buy an expensive rail ticket for it.

Any cheapish tickets you book will almost certainly be for a specific train at a specific time.

I should add that for short-distance journeys, special advance purchase fares are usually not available.
posted by grouse at 2:24 AM on July 24, 2007

The UK seems like such a train friendly place

Compared to the US, perhaps, but in absolute terms, no way. If the US were a 1 on the train friendliness scale, the UK would be a 3, with countries like France or Japan up at a 9.
posted by wackybrit at 6:04 AM on July 24, 2007

Please read my questions and answers on this here.

Good advice all around, but the short answer is look up the schedule online, get an idea as to when you want to go, then call them directly. You'll need to catch them during business hours UK time.

Unless you have a valid UK postcode, you cannot buy tickets for GNER online. Period. I went around and around trying to do this. Once I finally called GNER directly, I was on the phone for only a few minutes, used a Visa card to pay, and had a very helpful GNER employee arrange a ticket for me.

Also, the posted schedule online wasn't even correct. The operator at GNER had the most current schedule, and it all worked out great. He also was able to figure out the lowest price, which was better than any that I could figure out by poking through their (innacurate) website. I arrived at the station a half hour early, found the ticket machine, and was set to go.

Please note, as others said above, the ticket you buy this way is only valid for the exact train you buy it for. Make sure you don't miss the train.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 7:02 AM on July 24, 2007

Response by poster: I ended-up going through the Trainline site. It uses the same interface as the GNER site and prices were identical (probably the same backend) but I was able to trick into processing the visa payment with a non-UK address.

The prices were substantially different than any other site I had been looking at so thank you for those recommendations.

The Flexi-Pass seemed like a good option at first but we've decided to tone down our flexibility in bouncing from place to place so that we can enjoy the scenery and lack of hassle that comes along with a vehicle.

I was able to book a train from Edinburgh to Shrewsbury (we have relatives there) for £38 (2 adult tickets) and another one from Shrewsbury to London for £20 (2 adult tickets). So, all told for $125 CND it is far cheaper than either a rental car or a RailPass.

Outside of that travel I think we'll just hit up the train stations for return tickets for close destinations and maybe rent a car for a few days in Edinburgh for travelling up to the Highlands.

Thanks for all the advice! I missed that earlier thread on train tickets. Thanks for the link jeff-o-matic.
posted by purephase at 8:50 AM on July 24, 2007

Response by poster: Also, things I've taken down are:

1. Always call ahead to verify scheduling.
2. On day trips, purchase tickets after 10am.
3. I directed all FastTicket pick-up tickets to the Waverley station in Edinburgh so that I can pick them up ahead of time to ensure that everything is good to go on the day we leave.
4. Try to sit on the left to take in the coast.
posted by purephase at 8:56 AM on July 24, 2007

Try to sit on the left to take in the coast.

This works from Edinburgh to London, because the train goes along the coast for a while. But you're going to Shrewsbury, probably via Crewe, which is on the West coast main line, far away from the actual coast.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 9:27 AM on July 24, 2007

On day trips, purchase tickets after 10am.

Well, what time will be allowed on a Cheap Day Return varies by ticket. For example, a CDR Shrewsbury-Birmingham Stns can be used after 9:00, but a CDR Shrewsbury-Manchester Stns can be used after 08:30. You can ask at the station for details, or call National Rail Enquiries at 08457 48 49 50.

The only places I know where there are restrictions as late as 10:00 or in the evening are unlikely to be relevant to your journey, unless you travel out again after leaving London.
posted by grouse at 1:29 PM on July 24, 2007

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