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Help with a road trip dilemma!

Hi all,
I'm planning a trip to Scotland in 2020 for 4 people and just starting planning. We are not sure what we are doing yet, but in general we want to see castles (Doune, Eileen Donan), Loch Ness, do some Scotch tours/tastings, Highland Games, Isle of Skye (time permitting), and Edinburgh or Stirling. I could use some advice for my first problem... to rent a car or not and for how long?? So, a couple years ago, the same 4 of us did a road trip in Ireland and it was an amazing trip. However, none of us were very happy with the driving part of the trip. The car we rented was small, and we knew it so we limited ourselves to one suitcase per couple and one backpack each. It was still cramped and uncomfortable in the back seat. So this time I would like to find a better solution. One is just rent a bigger car, right? Except I remember from Ireland that the roads are very narrow and it was great to have a small car - I'm assuming that the Highlands of Scotland will be the same. My second idea was to find a central location to rent our airbnb, take the train there from Edinburgh, then rent the car once we get there and make small day trips. I'm thinking maybe Inverness, but any other suggestions would be great. This would probably take Isle of Skye out I'm guessing :( My third idea was to do a normal road trip style spending 2 or 3 nights in different locations around the country but rent 2 small cars, one for each couple. This way we wouldn't have to limit luggage and it would be more comfortable for the people who otherwise would be in the backseat. But, we would have to pack and unpack more often and there's always the chance of getting separated/lost.

Any thoughts on this? Is there another option that I'm missing or reasons why any of these won't work? Is having a bigger car that big of a deal? What would be a good central location if we choose that? Also, if we have to choose between Edinburgh and Stirling, which one is better? Any ideas or advice will be appreciated!

Posted by
21879 posts

The only issue I see is that if you rent two cars you double the parking problems and it is hard to keep two cars together when driving. I would look for a decent mid-size car and reduce your luggage.

Posted by
2949 posts

We rented a full-size car (with automatic transmission) on both of our Scotland trips because of mobility limitations. As I recall, they were a Mercedes CLA and a Volkswagen Jetta. We didn't have any difficulty driving these cars on Scottish roads, even when we had to take a lengthy detour on a rather dodgy looking rural route. Probably the greatest challenge was in the centers of historic towns where the streets are really narrow because of old buildings on both sides. Once or twice this meant we decided to park and walk around instead of trying to drive right to the landmark we wanted to visit. Public car parks are usually "pay and display."

Renting two separate cars would, of course, cost more, but if you really are not comfortable having 4 adults cooped up in one vehicle then it may be worth it. Getting separated shouldn't be too much of a worry as there's a limited amount of road to get lost on. In our trips we would sometimes encounter the same party of fellow tourists one day whom we had chatted with at breakfast the previous day.

You can certainly see a great deal of Scotland using public transport. There's a robust network of bus routes in addition to very good rail service. The drawback to public transport is that once you get off the train or bus, you've got your luggage and you get to hoof it or else organize a taxi. It's amazing how heavy your luggage can feel if you have to carry it for, say, half a mile. If it's raining -- as it often is -- this can be especially inconvenient.

For suggested driving itineraries, take a look at the Secret Scotland site

Posted by
2949 posts

Another thought, regarding your idea of finding a central location from which to take day trips. The geography of Scotland really doesn't lend itself to this. The places you've named are not all in a central region. You'd be spending an awful lot of your time "commuting" if you tried to settle in and take day trips.

IMO the Rick Steves principle of 2- or 3-night stays works very well in Scotland.

Posted by
635 posts

I'd have thought that public transport would be pretty inconvenient with luggage and some of the places you mention are poorly served by public transport. For example there is no train on Skye, and it is also impossible to get right to Eilean Donan castle by train (the nearest station is at Kyle of Lochalsh a few miles away). There are long distance (Citylink) buses but you need to book seats on these in advance in the summer, which would tie you down quite a bit.

So I'd suggest renting a car from your arrival airport and getting one car that is big enough to seat you and your luggage in comfort. I'd also recommend getting an automatic to give you one less thing to think about. There are plenty of videos on You Tube explaining how to cope with our single track roads (where traffic in both directions shares the same bit of road with passing places) so check those out so you're ready when you eventually encounter such a road (they are mainly in rural areas and we have plenty here on Skye).

I agree with the suggestion to do a circular road trip with 2 or 3 nights in each location. Driving is not fast in Scotland once you get out of the central belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh. You can probably double any timings that Google maps suggests, so this makes day trips from one location pretty much impossible. To give you an idea of times, it takes me 7 hours to get to Edinburgh from here on Skye and I'm not stopping to take photos, and I probably drive a good bit faster than you will want to. I allow 6.5 hours to Glasgow, 6 hours to Stirling and 3 hours to either Inverness or Fort William.

As to whether to choose Stirling or Edinburgh, well it depends what you want to see. Stirling has a fantastic castle, Bannockburn battle site and the Wallace Monument. It's a nice town. But Edinburgh also has a fantastic castle, the Royal Yacht Britannia, the architecture of the old and new towns, Arthur's seat, the Botanic Gardens, a couple of world class art galleries and so much more. You could easily spend 3 days in Edinburgh. By the way you won't want a car there so I'd do Edinburgh either at the start or end of your trip and either pick up the car when you leave or drop it off when you arrive if leaving Edinburgh until the end of the trip. There is a very good tram link to the airport where you could get your rental car.

Hope this was helpful.
Jacqui (Skyegirl)