We will be in Scotland in July, spending 2 nights in Edinburgh, 2 in Oban, a night in Inverness, then back to Edinburgh. We had hoped to rely solely on public transportation, as we find it more relaxing. Does anyone have experience taking the train from Edinburgh to Oban, and the bus from Oban to Inverness? We're wondering how tight the connections are getting to Oban, and whether the bus to Inverness goes along the Caledonian canal. Or are we crazy for considering this and should just rent a car? Any advice would be appreciated.
Firstly afaik there is no direct train from Edinburgh to Oban. The vast majority of public transport to the W Highlands, including Oban, departs from Glasgow, so to get the train from Edinburgh to Oban you need to take the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow Queen Street and change trains there for Oban. Unfortunately during July there are engineering works taking place at Glasgow Queen Street which mean both legs of the journey will take about 25 to 30 minutes longer than normal and the few platform still open might be rather busy and chaotic! Looking at tickets on the ScotRail site it appears they are trying to suggest changing at Dalmuir station in the Western Suburbs of Glasgow instead. I suppose this may save some hassle but they only seem to allow 6 to 7 minutes to make the connection. The problem is if your train from Edinburgh is late then you could get stuck at Dalmuir for hours waiting for the next train to Oban - and there ain't exactly many facilities or much to do to pass the time at Dalmuir station! - these aren't major issues and it's still perfectly doable to take the train from Edinburgh to Oban, its just that it's a bit more more hassle for the next few months than it would be normally.
Bus from Oban to Inverness looks fine although appears that you need to change in Fort William.
The other issue is once you get Oban/Inverness then you need to rely on local public transport if you want to travel around these areas and this can be very limited - a major issue for somebody with such limited time. I guess it's ok if you just want to see the towns themselves and you can get a ferry from Oban.
Having a hire car might save a little time, will definitely give a lot more flexibility and save a little stress in dealing with public transport, however I think the problem is the same whether you're using public transport or driving a hire car and that is that youre just trying to cover an awful lot of ground in 3 days. However you travel, Edinburgh to Oban will take a good half day of travel, Oban to Inverness another half day travel and then Inverness to Edinburgh the same and that's without any time for stops and sightseeing en route. As a result it's an awful lot of travel or driving in short time. Even with a hire car the roads in the Highlands can be twisty, narrow and busy in July with other tourists so it can take quite a while to drive distances that don't look far on a map.
Overall whether you take public transport or drive a hire car I think you could find that itinerary far from relaxing. Perhaps you could just focus on the Oban/Fort William area, or alternatively Inverness? (although personally I don't think there's enough in Inverness to fill three days).
I don't know how you feel about tours, but there are companies that offer small bus tours from Edinburgh to the highlands and get very good reviews, so thats maybe something to consider.
If you have no real reason to go to Oban: like take the Ferry to the Islands. The town itself is not that quaint. I would suggest would that you would find more in enjoyment to spending your time in Edinburgh and Inverness and even Glasgow. Lots more sites to see and cultural activities. More easily done in a short time and with public transportation.
I really agree with Kathleen about Oban. I love the places you can get to from there, but I struggle to figure out why it's a destination in and of itself. The whisky?
So, I do like renting a car, but you can do this without one. Inverness is okay as a base as there some day tours and trips that you can take. First of all, in Inverness you can take the public transportation to Culloden and it's not a far walk Clava Cairns and back. There dolphin tours by boat of the Moray Firth. You can take the train to Aviemore and go for walks in the Cairngorms or ride the steam train. There is a bus that will take you to Grantown on Spey if you want to check out distilleries. The trainride from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh is gorgeous. There is tour that you pick up in Kyle that will give you a brief intro to Skye. They are day tours to Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness. There is even a day tour Orkney, which would be too much bus time for me, but others have liked it.
Thank you for all the advice. We're actually fine with the amount of driving, as we're thinking of it as a road trip to get a glimpse of the Highlands. We're planning to take a ferry to Mull and Iona, which is why we're stopping in Oban (though the distillery is also a draw). After reading the responses here, my husband is leaning towards renting a car for a few days to give us more flexibility, but it's good to know that it's possible to piece together the trip with train and bus, too.
I took a car to Mull when I visited. I stayed up in Tobermory. I liked the town even though it was a drive to Fionnphort to catch the boat tour to Staffa and Iona. I was able to get there in time for the two island tour. I also like the castles. Duart Castle was amazing due to the history and the location. You stand and look up the Sound of Mull and up Loch Linnhe and down past Oban and you can imagine the galleys coming....
When I was in Oban in 2009, one needed a reservation for the distillery tour. I didn't have one, but it was the end of the day and just me, so they allowed me to do it. I don't know if that's still the case, but just saying! Iona is wonderful. That's why I was there, too.