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Prospective Itinerary May 2020 (Conflicted about Driving)


I've purchased air fare for me and my husband for a trip to Scotland, in May, (18 days, including those arriving and departing from Edinburgh). I've put together a tentative itinerary but have yet to book any accommodations. However, based on some reading here (and elsewhere) and some queries I've made, now is apparently not too early to begin doing so. --So any input on this and anything below will be appreciated.

First, I'm trying to limit our self-driving to the Isle of Skye, but I'm open to extending this. This is the reason why (and again your thoughts will be appreciated): We made a trip to Ireland a couple of years ago (also in May and a similar length of time). After three days in Dublin, we picked up a car (manual, which I now regret), and my husband drove us counterclockwise around the island, including Belfast, other towns (large and small), along scenic drives, across passes, etc. Though I charted us into some tight driving situations and onto some surprisingly narrow roads--surprising, even though I had read about the roads beforehand--we had no incidents (no damages, no additional fees, nothing, car and ourselves returned intact). I thought my husband drove great (better than here in the States), but ... in discussing our trip with friends afterward, I realized the stress of anticipating each day's driving had diminished his, overall, enjoyment of the trip.

He says he's willing to give the driving "a go" again, but I'm wondering if the itinerary below--traveling primarily by train--will work just as well or almost as well as hiring a car and driving ourselves. (For the record, my husband is not a timid man or a timid driver, but ... as he definitely felt under some unexpected pressure driving in Ireland, I'm conflicted about how I should plan this trip.) I will definitely reserve an automatic and add myself as a second driver (something I did not do before--again regrettably--to save money).

2 Nights in Edinburgh > Train to Glasgow

3 Nights in Glasgow (with a train to Stirling and back to tour the castle and an all-day Rabbies tour to visit castles and villages in and around Stirling and Fife) > take the West Highlands Train to Fort William

2 Nights in Fort William (with bus, Uber, or taxi to visit Glen Coe) > Train to Mallaig > Ferry to Armadale to pick up a car for Skye

3 Nights in Portree > and then Skye Bridge and over to Eilean Donan Castle before returning to Kyle of Lochalsh to drop off the car and pick up a train to Inverness

2 Nights in Inverness (with an all-day Rabbies tour to Clava Cairns, Cullodin, Glen Affric, Loch Affric, Beauly Priory, and Loch Ness but not Urquhart Castle)

1 Night Ullapool (on Rabbies North Coast 500 Tour)

1 Night Thurso (on Rabbies North Coast 500 Tour)

1 Night In Inverness (end of Rabbies North Coast 500 Tour) > Train the next day to Edinburgh

1 Night in Edinburgh before our next day's departure for home


Thus far, it appears that hiring a car on the Isle of Skye for our use there will be easy (if booked in advance, of course), but I haven't yet found evidence that it is routine or easy to hire a car on Skye and drop it off in Inverness or in Edinburgh--alternatives, which would negate our need to travel by train to Inverness and book a tour there to see the nearby sites mentioned above, as well as--potentially--some others.

The Rabbies North Coast 500 Tour, which I want to do regardless, has to be situated where it is in the itinerary because those tours will be leaving Inverness on Thursdays in 2020. (I did email to confirm that, and I'm keen to leave the driving to someone else for this portion of the trip.)

Sites that I have, so far, not been able to include in the itinerary above that I had on my list when I began planning this trip are ... Urquhart Castle, the Leault Working Sheep Dogs, the Scottish Crannog Centre, and a short trip to Pitlochry.

Advice? Thoughts?

Thanks :-)

Posted by
3122 posts

If you rent an automatic and pay the supplement for a second driver, I think that will reduce the stress. Your preferred style of travel may be a lot different from mine, but to me your itinerary sounds exhausting apart from the driving question.

Switching between public transport, rental car, and organized tours would drive me completely batty. A rental car starts to feel like "home" after a day or two, and my husband and I find we get into a comfortable routine with luggage, navigation, deciding when we want a rest stop, etc. I also like the flexibility of having our own car. For example, when we visited Culloden Battlefield it was pouring rain, so we had lunch in the cafe and looked at the indoor exhibits, then moved on so we had more time to see other things in the region. Had the weather been better, we would have spent another hour or two walking around the Culloden site. An organized tour doesn't give you that kind of flexibility.

Bottom line, if it were me, I'd rent a car for the entire time outside the major cities, or else just visit places that are either covered on an organized tour or easily served by public transport. Just my 2 cents' worth, of course.

Posted by
98 posts

This is super helpful, epltd. --Just the sort of reflection I am seeking.

And considering your comments, I wonder if the schedule I've devised would insert a stress factor of its own with the need for increased punctuality in order to make connections on time--to fit everything in.

Based on the places I've listed, ... it appears that most of our travel would be on major highways. In Ireland, much of our driving was not.

Posted by
137 posts

You have enough time to really get into the details of what you want to do, and how much time it's going to take for you to do it. As you mentioned, actually looking at the map and calculating times etc is not something everyone does - but they should! :) .

I'm curious why so few days in Edinburgh....

Posted by
358 posts

For what it is worth, the roads are generally better in Scotland than Ireland, at least that's been our finding. Not to say you won't have roundabouts and narrow roads - you would of course. But we found driving in Scotland easier.

Having an automatic, just having had experience driving on the left before on a prior trip, and being thoughtful in your approach to driving should make it easier this time, if you elect to drive again. For example, whenever I drive on the left I always think about training my eye toward the centerline on my right. My natural instinct from driving in the US is to train my eye to the left (ie our centerline)...and I find that looking left puts me up against the curb/shoulder a lot in the UK and Ireland. I will actually say out loud (the first day or so) when driving over there "Eyes go right, car stays left" just to get me thinking consciously about it. I don't think my wife is a fan of that practice, but I think it has served us well.

Even though the trains in Scotland are very good, I love the freedom that comes with a car rental, and it'll certainly help you in some of the areas outside of Inverness that you've highlighted.

An unsolicited word about Inverness too - we found the town itself charming. There's a lovely river walk and a lively downtown area, well worth a full evening out for dinner/drinks and a walk along the River Ness. I hope you can find time to squeeze that in.

Whether you give driving another try or not, you'll have a great trip - Scotland is as good as it gets in my book. Enjoy!

Posted by
98 posts

Again, my thanks for the very helpful feedback. Though much of the planning will remain tentative or in flux for a while yet, I now believe we should, at least, pick up a car at Fort William and keep it for the remainder of our trip. This could well change to picking a car up earlier. (Thank you, Steve, for sharing your observations regarding the similarities and differences between driving in Scotland and in Ireland.) I think the switch to an automatic will make a tremendous difference.

My husband actually had quite a lot of experience driving on the left side of the road--years before--during a nine-month-long deployment to Okinawa. I joined him for three weeks, and we toured up and down the entire island with no more concern that we normally experience driving somewhere unfamiliar, ... which lulled me into thinking that driving in Ireland would be fine. --I mean, ... lots of people do it, right? And we're as smart as the average bear. --That kind of thinking.

In retrospect, I think the stresses of driving in Ireland were probably exacerbated from the very start by how serious the staff at the rental agency was when we went to pick up the car. To honor our credit card's collision damage waiver, we had to call the bank in the U.S. that issued the card, and the car rental company required the name and position of the person with whom we and two of its staff spoke (the name and position of the person who guaranteed that the collision damage waiver did apply and would be honored in Ireland). After that was all sorted out, we noted the absolute seriousness of another couple preparing to leave with their car--after taking photos and much discussion. (Yes, I knew it was a good practice to look a car rental over before leaving the lot, but this couple was fastidious.)

Oh, and in answer to the question (MC's) regarding limiting our stay in Edinburgh to only two nights, ... I haven't actually decided on that either. (I'll be mulling over all this feedback.) I originally plugged in three days for Edinburgh, but decreased the number as my general thought was ... should we ever return to Scotland, I felt it was likely that we would be returning to Edinburgh--arriving or departing or stopping in somewhere along the way. (I'd love to return for the military tattoo, for instance.) --And as there is so much that I would like to see (and that I am having to skip already--so many islands, the border lands, the east coast, etc.), I thought I would decrease the number of days in Edinburgh in favor of someplace else.

I love this forum and appreciate your input. --I'm now looking very much forward to our time in Inverness.

Posted by
3122 posts

A couple more thoughts about reducing stress of driving.

We paid for the collision damage waiver even though, theoretically, we could have relied on the coverage of our credit card. Our car got a very noticeable scrape on it while parked at our hotel the first day, and another scrape on the other side while parked elsewhere the second day! We were pretty apprehensive when the time came to return the car. The agent who checked in the return didn't say a word, and we never got contacted or charged or anything.

When driving on the left, I found that making a right turn was one of the more hazardous maneuvers. We are so used to making a right turn without having to pay attention to oncoming traffic -- and of course you have to yield to oncoming traffic when driving on the left making a right turn. I know at least one oncoming driver probably had some choice words for me when I cut in front of her.

At a roundabouts, vehicles already in the roundabout have the right of way. Also, if it's a 2-lane roundabout, you're not supposed to get in the outer lane until you're ready to exit. (I know, that's crazy when you're unfamiliar with a certain roundabout and don't know how soon your off-lane is coming up -- so you may have to stay in the inner lane and go around twice, thus giving your GPS a headache if you have it on during this maneuver, LOL).

Posted by
10 posts

The problem with Scotland is there is too much to see and not enough time. I think with your itinerary you would find yourself spending more time rushing from one stop to the next than you would enjoying the sites. We spent a month there last year covering basically the same route, but we spent four nights in Shetland and didn’t go to Glasgow.

You have enough time to do your trip in a car but switching from train to tour and back to car will add more stress, not reduce it. Drive the NC 500. By the time you get there you will be comfortable driving and you will have the flexibility of your own schedule.

I highly recommend Pitlochry, it is a beautiful little town. We were there for the Enchanted Forest in October and fell in love with it. With a car I think you could cut one night from Fort William and still see what you want. Three nights in Portree is good but more is always better. And to cap off your trip, drive over Bealach na Ba. That really was a highlight of our trip.

Posted by
31 posts

We just got back from Scotland and honestly the driving was VERY stressful for us. I don't even think we were on any single track roads but in general they were really, really narrow and endlessly winding. It's hard to feel confident on unfamiliar, extremely curvy roads. Our last drive was from Ballater to Edinburgh Airport and until maybe Perth I don't think there was 100m of straight, flat road on that trip. I'm sure the scenery was lovely but we were too stressed to enjoy it.
We also blew out a tire on our first day so I'm sure that didn't help with comfort factor!

We went to some great places we wouldn't have gone without a car but I'm sure we would have had a great time sticking to places we could reach by train too.

Posted by
7573 posts

In May, you’ll be a bit ahead of the full-on tourism season. We were in Scotland one August, and after flying into Inverness, we rented a car and took it to Skye, opposite of what you mention, but then took it via ferry back on to the mainland, eventually turning it in in Edinburgh. You may be able to pick up on Skye and drop off in Inverness, but make sure the rental company is clear on what extra charge that might incur.

Compared with Ireland, where there’s sometimes a stone wall covered by plants that don’t make it obvious there’s a hard wall close to the roadside, Scotland can present its own challenges. The roadway between Inverness and Skye in one stretch had a big drop-off at the left edge of the road, onto a dirt shoulder of sorts, but the drop-off was abrupt. And if it’s been raining, that dirt could easily be slippery mud.

Skye has some extremely narrow roads, especially in the most rural parts, and some are just a single lane wide, with Passing Places at regular intervals. The vehicle closest to the Passing Place pulls over at that wide spot in the road, after pulling forward or backing up into it, so that oncoming traffic can get by. Some give and take. And in August, there were a bunch of Europeans on holiday, and we saw a lot of cars with Belgian license plates, and many camper motor homes with Italian plates. Both had the steering wheel on the left side of the vehicle, and so their driver was having to drive from the “far” side of the road. Some did better than others, but some were drifting over the center lane, and not staying on their side of the road! If you’re in a Scottish rental car, nobody knows that you normally drive on the right side at home. If you’ve taken your own vehicle by ferry from The Continent to Scotland, your plates are advertising that you’re outside your normal driving situation.

We picked up a learner’s “L” to stick in our rental car’s rear window, as suggested by Rick Steves. It might have alerted other motorists that we might be learning to drive, like a new driver in Scotland who’s required to have an “L,” and might have bought us a little more leeway and room on the road from other drivers, than if we hadn’t displayed it.

Oh, and you might encounter sheep along, or in, the roads on Skye. They don’t make good hood ornaments, so go really cautiously if you encounter any!

Posted by
1188 posts

I don't know where Rick got the idea that one could/should use L (learner) plates when renting a car in the UK. It's actually against the Highway Code to do that. L plates must be used by drivers who are learning to drive and who haven't passed their driving test, but must be removed or covered when not in use by the learner driver. Here is what the government's website says:

"Vehicles. Any vehicle driven by a learner MUST display red L plates. In Wales, either red D plates, red L plates, or both, can be used. Plates MUST conform to legal specifications and MUST be clearly visible to others from in front of the vehicle and from behind. Plates should be removed or covered when not being driven by a learner (except on driving school vehicles).
Law MV(DL)R reg 16 & sched 4". And here is a link to the website.

What you could do is use a P (Probationer) plate, to indicate a less experienced driver.

Edited - to add that I have now found Rick's advice and he is actually clear that you can't use an L plate in Britain and he advises a P plate, as I suggested above.

Now for some notes on renting a car on Skye. There are 3 companies, Morrisons, Jans Vans and M2 Motors. You will probably need to contact all by phone as they are pretty lax on replying to emails. You can find their contact details by a quick google search. I am not sure how many automatic cars they have, as they are much less common in the UK. I am certain, however, that it would not be possible to do a one way rental as they don't have depots off the island. What they will usually do, if arranged well in advance, is meet either the ferry at Armadale or the train at Kyle of Lochalsh.

I hope this helps.
Jacqui (Skyegirl)