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Help with train or car decision Inverness to Edinburgh


I need a little help in planning some time in Scotland with my family of 5 (me. my husband, and 3 boys who will be 17, 14, and 11). This is a piece of a month-long trip to Europe. We did another month in Europe two summers ago and had an amazing time.

Our plan is to take the overnight train from London to Scotland. We plan to see Edinburgh and some of the Highlands on our visit which will be during August. We plan to return to London via the overnight train again. I know not everyone is a fan of overnight trains but we have done this before and find it an effective way to move and save money on hotel at the same time. We have already survived two journeys on Thello so the Caledonian sleeper to Scotland looks like the Ritz-Carlton compared to that!!!

The thought was to take the train from London to Inverness so we would arrive bright and early there. Trying to keep the boys engaged so we will definitely need to search for the Loch Ness Monster somehow and my husband will probably want to do some kind of Scotch whiskey tour. I read about the sheepdog demonstration as well and that sounds like something we would enjoy. If there is any kind of Highland games going on in August, we'd love to see that (although it seems like they are mostly earlier in the summer?). We like castles but plan to see the Edinburgh castle (and see the Military Tattoo) so not sure how many more castles the boys can stand.

I have read posts from a lot of people cautioning about driving. Being that there are 5 of us, we try to do the most cost effective solutions so I thought driving would be the way to go. I know I can take tour busses from Inverness around to these places but the cost TIMES FIVE always makes that less appealing. We love taking trains so if it is possible to see these things by train, that would be preferable. I just don't know how accessible everything is once off at the train stations between Inverness and Edinburgh. Places I have seen interesting like Plitochry and Aviemore - do they have local transportation?

If we drove, we would want to pick up the car in Inverness near the train station and drop it off in Edinburgh. We were thinking of staying somewhere in between Inverness and Edinburgh to break up the trip.

We plan to stay in Edinburgh 3 nights and then return to London on the night train either out of Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Also if anyone knows of places in Edinburgh or between Edinburgh and Inverness that have rooms that sleep a family of 5, please let me know! These are always hard to come by.

Thanks for any and all suggestions,

Posted by
2949 posts

Taking the overnight train all the way to Inverness makes sense to me. Driving on the left isn't that scary, at least not if you get an automatic transmission. At roundabouts, traffic already in the roundabout has the right of way (unless signs say otherwise), and you're supposed to stay in the inside lane until ready to exit. See If unsure which exit to take, you can always just stay in the roundabout and take a another go at it. If you take the wrong exit, just use the next roundabout to make a U-turn and come back and try again!

On Loch Ness is the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition which takes about 1 to 1.5 hours and gives a wonderfully informative experience of the history and science associated with "Nessie" sightings. A bit further west is Urquhart Castle, with free guided talks at regular intervals as well as a dock where you can take a boat cruise out onto the Loch. Both of these would easily fit into one-day trip out of an Inverness home base. In the other direction (east of Inverness) a day trip could include the Culloden Battlefield, Cawdor Castle, and Clava Cairns -- and/or dolphin watching on the Moray Firth.

Driving Inverness to Edinburgh along the A9 you can get off for a break at Aviemore, a pleasant and fairly modern town with a helpful Tourist Info office. Further south you will pass Dalwhinnie distillery and Blair Castle before you get to Pitlochry, which might make a logical overnight.

The caution we were told about the A9 is that in some places it's dual carriageway in both directions with a centre divider, and other places due to mountains you are out of sight of the opposite-direction traffic. This apparently has caused some drowsy or distracted drivers to collide head-on. Just be alert to the lane changes and you should be OK. Be aware that the etiquette is to use the right lane (what US drivers call the fast lane) for overtaking (passing) only, unlike US highways where you generally choose one lane and stay there.

South of Pitlochry you'll go through Perth, where you can branch off westward to Stirling or continue directly south to Edinburgh.

Posted by
127 posts

I did a similar trip to the one you are describing in 2014. We took the overnight train from London to Inverness and worked our way back down, with the difference being that we ended in Glasgow instead of Edinburgh. (We had already spent a week in Edinburgh on a previous trip.) I found the Caledonian sleeper to be fairly nice and it was certainly efficient to be able to spend the entire day touring in London and then arrive early in Inverness and spend the day touring there. We booked a compartment and, though it was tiny, it was a great way to travel.

We chose to rent a car in Inverness in order to see what we wanted to see around there and then we returned the car and continued the rest of our journey by train. I can also recommend the Culloden/Cawdor Castle/Clava Cairns combo day trip. We did that and enjoyed all three. We also drove out to Rothiemurchus for some hiking and went to a sheepdog demonstration then had dinner in Aviemore on the way home. That day was probably my favorite out of our whole 2 week trip. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous. We packed a picnic lunch and had a great time exploring.

As far as the car rental, we used Arnold Clark which has an office not terribly far from the train station. I believe it might be possible to get there by bus, but when we researched it it involved at least one bus change and seemed complicated for such a short trip. We went by taxi from the train station which cost us less then 5 pounds and was worth it for the convenience. This car rental office is also in the same parking lot as a gas station which made returning the car with a full tank easy as pie and then the rental company dropped us back off at the train station. They also have an office at the airport though, so if you reserve with them make sure you're booking from the city location. Not sure about dropping off in Edinburgh since we didn't take the car with us when we left.

After our time in Inverness we took the train to Pitlochry and spent 2 nights there. It's cute, although a bit touristy, but we really wanted to see the "Pitlochry Highland Nights" which is a show they do on Mondays during the summer with the junior pipe band and other local performers. I was a band geek back in high school and loved watching the kids marching around. It's how they raise money for their uniforms, travel, etc. It was a fun way to spend an evening. Also, since you're traveling with kids you might look into the "Treasure Trails" that you can buy and do all over Scotland, and the rest of the UK. If you google Scotland Treasure Trail you'll be able to find the website. I've done the ones for Pitlochry and Linlithgow and thoroughly enjoyed them. Basically they lead you through a particular town/area looking for "clues" to solve a mystery. The clues might be the date printed on a park bench or the name of someone famous who lived in a particular house, but it basically takes you on a self guided walking tour and the search for clues might help keep your kids interested. There are a ton of them so you could search through the website and find ones for areas you plan on traveling to.

I wish you all the best with your trip planning. Scotland is a fun and beautiful place to explore.

Posted by
5669 posts

I really do not understand all the cautions about driving. The challenges to driving revolve around being aware enough to drive on the left rather than the right. To begin with the driver is on the right, so you are positioned to drive on the left. If you are worried about standard and shifting then request an automatic. If you drive stick/standard all the time in the US, you will be fine driving standard/stick in the UK. The pedals are the same, so the only issue is using your left hand for shifting. Many, many people move between these two driving systems successfully.

To my mind the more challenging aspect is the navigation. With five passengers you should be able to assist the driver with that issue. The difference is in the signs. They tend not to say A9 north, but rather A9 Aviemore. So you need to know that Aviemore is north of Pitlochry, but south of Inverness.

I would recommend that you plot out the places that you want to visit and then look into tours and public transit. If it doesn't work, rent a car.