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Day Trips from London by Car or Train?

I will be in London in August with my family of 4 including 2 teenagers. We plan to take a few day trips from the city and are interested in seeing Oxford, Cambridge, Windsor Castle, and Bletchley Park. My plan was to rent a car for a few days but I’ve been told the train would be a better option.

We would probably leave around noon and return around 8 or 9 pm each day. We don’t necessarily need to see all these places but this was a list I came up with.

Google Maps calculated the time for the train and car options which were quite similar although I’ve been told parking at these destinations will be a problem. I’ll just valet the car at our hotel overnight.

Any thoughts as to whether we should attempt this with a car or just take the trains? We are from Canada, so used to driving everywhere.

For reference, we have 8 nights in London and then head West to the countryside for a week.

Posted by
8512 posts

A car will be a nuisance!

I’ve done Bletchley Park and Windsor Castle on your list as day trips by train and they were quite easy. You may want to think about Hampton Court Palace which is another easy trip.

Posted by
1449 posts

I rented a car at Heathrow years back and was elated the day it was returned to the rental agency. Driving out of London and then back into London is not a good idea. Traffic in London and the surrounding motorways is horrendous; parking, if you can find it. Is extremely expensive, as is gasoline . For both Oxford, and Cambridge. you cannot even drive into the city center but have to park miles outside the center and take a bus the remaining few miles. It makes more sense to take public transit in the first place as it will go near the city centers.
Take the train or bus and enjoy your holiday.

Posted by
2446 posts

Have you ever been to London? It is massive and if your hotel is within a certain zone, your car will face a congestion charge very time you go in/out. Also note that hotels in London tend to be more expensive than those in other places in the UK. I am not sure why you don’t plan to leave until around noon? You need to have breakfast and get out and about early - ideally by 9am in order to make the most of your time. Far better to have ‘surplus’ time in late afternoon & then head back to hotel than run short of time and then have to miss out seeing things.

All of the places you have mentioned can be easily reached by train from London. For Cambridge - it will be King’s Cross station. For Windsor, Oxford (& I would also throw in Bath) - it will be Paddington. When you get to these places, you will also see that a car would have been a hindrance. A Railcard (£30) will get a third off most rail fares but some are not valid before 9.30am on weekdays. https://www.railcard.co.uk

Check out rail fares & timings here:> https://www.traintickets.com/?/
(For longer trips - such as Bath, advance booking specific trains is usually cheaper. Peak fares before 9.30am apply on weekdays only. Sundays in particular can be prone to engineering work).

Check out this You Tube video about taking the train from London (Paddington) to Bath.

See this You Tube Video on London.

Posted by
331 posts

“ I’ll just valet the car at our hotel overnight.”

I second what the others above have said, but if you do choose to have a car in London, make sure your hotel does actually offer valet parking as very few in London do.

Posted by
33124 posts

Are you planning to have a car in Central London? That will be quite the experience. I have to drive into London, Oxford and Cambridge quite often and none of those is an experience to be anticipated excitedly.

London: there is the expensive Congestion Charge which needs to be paid online daily, the very expensive ULEZ (Ultra Low Emissions Zone) charge which must be paid online daily. Parking is extremely expensive. Most street parking is restricted, or short term only and very expensive. Garages will run £10 to £20 per hour. Figure £50+ for a day if you don't move the car. Valet parking is only at the very top hotels, if even there, but I suppose if you are staying there the cost is irrelevant to you. Much of London has adopted 20 mph camera controlled speed limits (more cameras per square foot than anywhere else) but in Central London that's a bit of a joke because it is often faster to walk. Remember bus lanes (camera controlled), Box Junctions (camera controlled) and cycle lanes.

Oxford: the city council is actively discouraging use of the motor car, with some concessions for EVs. Driving is a nightmare because of these policies, with frequent barriers prohibiting through traffic, and one-way mazes. Street parking is mostly restricted and where there are a few paid spaces competition is very high so you will often go around and around waiting for an expensive space. Use the Park & Ride lots out of town. Bicycles everywhere.

Cambridge: Traffic is heavy and slow. There are several carparks in the centre but they have high price-tags. I think there are bicycles than in Oxford, if that is possible. Use the several Park & Rides. A car is convenient for Duxford and the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial.

But the best advice, unless you have special circumstances, is to forget the car and take the train. Oxford, London and Cambridge are all extremely easy by train.

Posted by
27352 posts

The installation at Bletchley Park is a very short walk from the Bletchley train station.

I second the suggestion that you get your family up and moving much earlier than you're planning to on days when you're headed out of town. I spent nearly the entire day at Bletchley Park and two days each in Oxford and Cambridge. It's not a great use of vacation resources (time and money) to pay London hotel rates and UK rail fares in order to spend a few rushed hours in places worth a lot more time than you'll have if you don't leave the city until noon.

I'd choose either Oxford or Cambridge on this trip. Not that they are identical, but they're both historic college towns, and there are some similarities from the perspective of an American tourist. Save one for your next trip to the UK. Oxford pairs well with Bath and the Cotswolds (not on a day trip from London!).

Posted by
15545 posts

I just want to reiterate what others have said.....in London, forget the car. You don't want it, you won't need it, It will just make your life miserable Trying to drive in London from one sight to another, and then look for parking, is lunacy. Taking a cab will be cheaper.

As for the places you mention as day trips, all easily done by train.

If London is your first stop, don't get the car until you are ready to head out to the countryside. Or, you'll not only pay for the rental of the car but parking as well for a week. That will come into serious money.

And if you can leave a little earlier you would probably get more out of the day.

London Walks offers some escorted day trips out of London. I've taken many of their walking tours including the ones to Cambridge and Oxford. They were excellent. You take the train to the location and then either just walk or get on a bus to hit some of the local sites. But they start earlier than noon.

Posted by
2873 posts

" ...then head West to the countryside for a week." - That's when you'll need the car.
You'll save yourselves a lot of aggravation if you collect and return your rental as far away from London traffic as you can manage, maybe at the first stop on your proposed itinerary - taking the train to and from to simplify things a bit. Other posters here have suggested Bath, though you might want to shop around for the most convenient start/stop point in your particular case.
Unless you're comfortable driving a manual shifter you'll need to specify a vehicle with automatic transmission. It'll cost more but will be worth it for the comfort and convenience involved. Even if you're familiar with manual shifters consider that you'll be doing it with your left hand, in left-hand traffic, amidst unfamiliar rules of the road - probably still better to spring for the automatic.
Consider too that for a family of 4 you'll require a full size vehicle to accommodate both people and luggage, and that the price of petrol in England is around USD $8 per gallon (we were just there last month).

Posted by
5 posts

Thank you all. I will cancel our city car rental and use the train system.

Posted by
33124 posts

Look into a Family & Friends Railcard. Is at least one of the teens under 16?

Posted by
5 posts

Does anyone have any recommendations for a car service for airport transfers and short trips around town? We also need to get from London to our second stop at the FS Hampshire and there is no easy way there by train.

Thanks

Posted by
3982 posts

It looks like the Four Seasons Hampshire can provide car service for you from London, just contact the concierge. https://www.fourseasons.com/hampshire/getting-here/

Alternatively you can take the South Western Railway from Waterloo Station (2per hour) and get within a 10-15 minute taxi ride on your own from one of the smaller, nearby towns or the larger city of Basingstoke. You have options.

Posted by
457 posts

To answer your question re car service for airport transfers. Assume from Heathrow to a London hotel. Below noted 3 possible options that I have seen recommended. No personal experience.

www.blackberrycars.com
www.simplyairports.co.uk
www.justairports.com

For short journeys within London, get the citymapper app on your phone(s) - gives great, up to the minute, information about the transport options from place to place, or shows you the route to walk. Then use the bus and tube system - with Oyster cards. There are black cabs to hail, if you really want a car ride.

Posted by
2339 posts

hey hey jashah
like others have said, a car is more problems and stress in london. driving on "wrong" side of road, traffic parking few and far between, paying high prices for hotel/parking lot that probably is not close by, what is cost of valet at hotel? have you been to london before? wait till you go out to countryside to get the car. do you have it booked? rental cars are expensive since pandemic, not only europe, it's all over the world with not enough help/employees, pack a lot of patience even the teenagers.
the times it says in google maps maybe 25-50% acurate but always give yourself more time due to traffic, accidents, road construction and whatever else to delay you
do spend time in london itself to see so much and do, not a day trip everyday
aladyinlondon.com
scroll down to popular posts "day trips from london by train", the places you mentioned are there with how long on train and what that place has to offer. another place your kids may like is brighton, seaside beach/boardwalk.
wowcher.co.uk
register online (free), it's like groupon. under more click what interests you and the gang. 2 for 1 items, theatre tickets, dining restaurants, river boat rides, afternoon tea
thamesrockets.com
speedboat rides on the thames
londonboxoffice.co.uk
cheap theatre tickets
jasons.co.uk
boat ride down the regent's canal from little venice to camden lock
streetsensation.co.uk/ markets
list of street markets, day/times open and what they sell. many food options at these places
walks.com
many walks, different days, 15 pounds & 5 pounds kids
wear comfy shoes, tired feet, sit and have a drink/people watch, take a taxi cab back to hotel, not that expensive but so so worth it, no grumpy/naggy people. it will be crowded/busy in high season. have a great time and enjoy
aloha

Posted by
5 posts

Thanks for all the replies. I have a few questions re: train tickets:

  • How far in advance do I need to book train tickets from London to places like Oxford, Cambridge, etc. for day trips? We are hoping to keep our schedule flexible so are planning to purchase the day of or day before.
  • Is there assigned seating or is it first-come first-served like a subway, etc?
  • Is first class worth it for trips under 90 min? I signed up for the Friends and Family railcard which seems to only work for coach/economy tickets. Wondering mainly for the way back after a busy day when we’ll be tired.
  • If I pre-book a specific time, can I use the tickets for an earlier or later train?
  • We’re going to buy Oyster cards to use in London. If I book a train to take us out of city and the journey starts on the Tube, will I end up paying twice for the Tube portion?

Thanks

Posted by
3982 posts

Here are some tips we’ve gleaned from the trip we’re currently on.

For day trip distances out of London often the fare is the same a week in advance or a day in advance. For example we are probably going to Oxford tomorrow and our fare is the same as it was a week ago.

You can buy an outgoing ticket with a set time and train but choose flexible return to give yourself options for returning on any train.

In Germany we could buy our train tickets to include city busses on the day of travel but I haven’t notice that option on our short trip tickets here.

We didn’t bring our Oyster cards this time so we set up accounts at tfk.co.gov and attached a cc to our account (one per person) so we could tap on the Tube and busses in London. We chose a card with no foreign transaction fees that taps.

Your teens may benefit from an Oyster card. You will probably need to bring a passport sized foto for each and go to a staffed station to get cards made. This is what we did with our teenaged granddaughters but that was 3 years ago.

For day trips I don’t think it is worthwhile to pay for 1st class tickets if they are even offered. We did choose this option on some of our journeys on a different trip we took in May just to allow for a bit more spacing, a Covid precaution we tried to take.

I like that you are getting the Friends and Family railcard. That should save a lot of money. You can begin to buy tickets even though you don’t physically have the railcard.

Read the seat61.com UK travel section for more tips.

Posted by
33124 posts

In Germany we could buy our train tickets to include city busses on the day of travel but I haven’t notice that option on our short trip tickets here.

Plus+Bus. A low priced ticket available with the purchase of either a return or single (it is issued as a separate ticket) good for all or most buses at a particular destination, like Oxford. Not advertised as much as previously, but still easily available if you know what it is.

There is a page on the national rail webpage.

https://www.nationalrail.co.uk/timesfares/tickettypes/plusbus.aspx

and there is a plusbus webpage https://www.plusbus.info/

Posted by
3982 posts

Thank you Nigel, very helpful. We will probably add this reasonable, convenient bus ticket to our Oxford train ticket.

Posted by
402 posts

Regarding Four Seasons Hampshire, the easiest trip if you wanted to use the trains would be to go from Waterloo to Fleet, and get a taxi from there.

Posted by
4538 posts

I am not sure why you don’t plan to leave until around noon

you've not heard of teenagers?