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Driving in Britain

I prefer to travel by train, however, I hear you can really get off the beaten path with a car. I'm quite nervous about driving on the left-hand side of the road, and also the convenience (or lack thereof) of petrol stations, parking, maps/signs (are they easy to follow? Are things well marked?) and traveling in the larger cities (picking up/dropping off the car). Did it take awhile to get used to driving on the opposite side? I would probably rent a car in the vicinity of Edinburgh, York, or perhaps Cotswolds area. I live in a rural area (always have) and not real comfortable driving in heavy congested traffic. I'm not looking for best rental agencies, etc. at this point, but your feeling about renting a car in general. Would you rent again? Why/why not? Thanks so much.

Posted by
9363 posts

I would absolutely rent a car in Britain. I've rented in Ireland three times. It only takes a short time to get used to driving on the other side of the road. My main problem was turning into driveways (like at gas stations), remembering to stay left. Most gas stations have little convenience stores just like they do here. Signs used to be a problem in Ireland, but they are getting better -- they were always better in Britain. The rental place will give you a workable map, and there are lots of places to get a more detailed one.

Posted by
4555 posts

I agree with Kent. If you think you'll be nervous in city traffic (and usually on much narrower streets than we're used to) and you're nervous about making turns, etc (entering new highways and traffic circles were the worst for me) then I would advise you consider other modes of transportation. The big problem is orientation.....hazards come at us from the opposite side from what we're used to....we automatically look to the left, but that big tanker truck is coming at us from the right. If you aren't prepared for it, it can be nerve-wracking. I've done it several times, but I consider myself an experienced and confident driver. Check out the bus and train systems in the areas you plan to travel...they are both extensive in their coverage. It may not give you the exact flexibility you were hoping for....but it may end up being a more relaxing vacation in the long run.

Posted by
389 posts

To Norm and Kent I applaud your honesty and like so many experiences they are all about the individual. I love driving in England and Ireland, but even though I live in a big city I don't enjoy Dublin, Edinburgh, or London (I've driven there 3 times and I keep swearing I'll never do it again). That said there are many places I would not have gone had I not been driving, but if you know about places you want to see there are usually busses that will take you there. Don't ruin your trip with stress. Also, you might find a partner who wants to travel and doesn't mind the driving. Then you can have the best of both worlds.

Posted by
152 posts

I drove in Ireland for a week. Took a cab to the rental place on the outskirts of Dublin, drove around to the south, to Dingle, and dropped it off at Shannon airport. It took about 3 days to feel comfortable, but I had a co-pilot to watch the signs.
In England I rented at the York train station, drove in Yorkshire for 5 days. Returned to the same location, but the return was a couple blocks away, and we had a hard time finding it.
In summary, don't drive in the cities. Give yourself enough time en route. I found drivers in the countryside to be much less aggressive than here in the USA, without the constant stress of being pushed on narrow two lane roads, dangerous passing, etc. Have fun.

Posted by
2664 posts

Driving on the left side can be stressful, especially the first couple of days. If you decide to rent I would advise to pick up the car in a smaller town, and not try to drive in London, Edinburgh or any large city. I haven driven several times in the UK. After the first day its enjoyable. If you have someone with you they can help to watch for signs, etc. Some people think that the round abouts are horrible, just remember that the people already in the round about has the right away, you can go around the round abouts a dozen times if you have to until you know what exit you want to take. I would strongly suggest you getting an automatic, they cost a little more but worth the money. While drive just keep thinking to yourself left, left. If you decide to rent a car, I think you will be glad you did, it gives you much more freedom to see what you want to see and things that you never even thought you would see. Have a great trip.

Posted by
970 posts

It's difficult to know in advance how an American will react to driving in the UK. I'd certainly recommend starting in as uncrowded an area as possible. In fact, if it's possible to simply test the waters for a day, with a fall back plan if you decide driving isn't for you, that might be the way to go.

Even if the UK drove on the right, things are different enough to throw Americans off balance. I've done a lot of solo driving in the UK. The maps are excellent, but navigating in strange territory by yourself can be challenging anywhere.

You'll have no reason to drive in major urban areas. Don't even think about it. I'd recommend it only for people who drive in Manhattan or back and forth between Boston Logan and Faneuil Hall and think that's fun.

Bottom line: Yes, a car can take you where trains and buses can't. Give it a try on your next trip, but don't make it a dependency. Then, you'll know.

Posted by
75 posts

Diane:

Been to England 4 times since 2003, have rented a car every time. For the first time, rent an automatic, one less item to worry about. To find an automatic, you generally need to rent at an airport. Get as small a car as you can,(compacts(Ford Focus, et al) with auto) DO NOT DRIVE IN LARGE CITIES!!!! Get a good Atlas(AA) and a good navigator.

Cheers

Tom

Posted by
2664 posts

Hi Diane, you can get an automatic at other places besides at the airports. I have always gotten an automatics and never from the airport. If you would like some more information on locations send me a private message.

Posted by
31524 posts

Diane,

As the others have indicated, you know your abilities best, so use that as a guide on whether to rent. Driving on the "other side" does take some practise; you have to always remember to look the opposite way for oncoming traffic (that applies to stepping off curbs also!).

I strongly agree that driving in larger cities is a BAD idea! On my last visit in 2004, I was warned NEVER to drive in London, and I took that advice (of course, the congestion charge was a deterrent also).

I found it much easier driving in the north (Yorkshire) than in the south. However, most rural roads are quite narrow, and there's not much shoulder. Approaching a large truck on a narrow stone bridge is always interesting! Be sure to review the protocol for roundabouts!

My approach is to use public transit where available, as it's less complicated and expensive. I use car rental "strategically" for travel to specific sites that would be difficult or time consuming to visit by P.T.

Good luck!

Posted by
993 posts

Diane, Cary is right. It's impossible to predict how driving on the "correct" side of the road will affect someone. Having said that..we always rent a car. If I am with my fearless husband we pick it up in London, if I am with someone else we pick it up in Brighton or York...someplace smaller. Book early so you can get an automatic at a decent price AND try to get one with Satellite Navigation. Imagine coming into a strange town, it's dark, and you're looking for your B&B and all you want is a nice cup of tea. Then you hear the words "you have arrived" in a beautiful British accent. Life is sweet.

Posted by
12 posts

Diane
The husband and I went over to Britain for 3 weeks several years back. We spent our first week in London seeing stuff then took the train to Cambridge and picked up a rental car there to avoid London traffic. My husband did all the driving and I was the navigator with a good Michelin Map. At first it was very awkward for him driving on the opposite side and shifting too. But I must say by the 3rd day, he was doing really well. I'm sure you've read about the roundabouts over there, a little intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it, it's really slick, keeps traffic moving. Also, they do drive fast on the motorways... We were clipping along at about 70mph and low and behold we had some little old white haired lady barely could see above the steering wheel honking and whizzing by us, must have been doing at least 85! Hope this little bit of info helps you out. Have a wonderful time~

Posted by
34 posts

I have been to Britain twice and each time rented a car. In order to practice driving, my husband actually bought me a right-hand drive Volkswagen Bus! It didn't teach me how to drive with others but it did get me used to shifting and turns, etc...
The first time I picked up the car in London and the trip that took 15 min.s to get to the rental place took about 2 1/2 hours to get back! What a joke. Don't drive in London if you can avoid it. As far as the other places we visited, the car was great to have. We saw so many "off the beaten path" places. I am returning in Sept. and will be renting a car again. The one thing I had the most trouble with was pulling up to the curb! I was glad the hubcap was already pretty well hit by previous drivers. The roads are much narrower and Americans tend to overcompensate when oncoming traffic approaches so be aware of that and you'll do fine. Go to www highwaycode.gov.uk. and get the book. Familiarize yourself with the rules and signs. Have fun.

Posted by
95 posts

Thanks for all of your advice and input. It's all very helpful. I've discovered the "European Driving Stories" thread under the Transportation section, and I'm finding that to be helpful. I think I've decided that I will forgo car rental, at least for the time being. However, I find that as my plans settle in to place, I may need to reconsider car rental in either the Cotswolds and/or Yorkshire (read: "Herriot Country"). Any thoughts on driving in these areas? Nearest pick-up to these areas (preferably not big cities)? Alternative transportation choices? I don't have a departure date as of yet, and will not likely be traveling until 2009, so I'm not looking for details, just trying to get a plan in place. Thanks for all your help. (PS: will be traveling with my husband who is a truck driver, maneuvering a fuel truck daily in Boston. I've learned and driven a manual for 30 + years). Interested in all the pro's and con's. Thanks again for all of your advice.

Posted by
993 posts

In 2004 a friend and I picked up our car in York where it was relatively easy to get out of town. My friend loves to drive and did most of it on this trip, her firs to the U.K. She took to driving on the correct side like a fish to water and did wonderfully. We went first to Whitby then make our way down to Thirsk, stopping where ever we wanted, whenever we wanted. A week or so later we were in the Cotswolds and stayed several nights in a tiny village called Kingham. It was perfect as a base for exploring. At the end of our stay, we dropped our car in Salisbury and took the train back to London.
Just think "left" and remember right hand turns are the hardest...that was even a question on "The Weakest Link". AND there is nothing wrong with getting one of those big red L's to put in your back window telling the world you are a Learner. Even one of Rick's guides (Ireland) will tell you so.