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Driving in England and Wales

Hi, we are traveling to England in August with my family and we are thinking about renting a car to drive to towns outside of London - Salisbury, bath, oxford, stratford upon avon, cambridge and to Wales. Being US drivers, do you think this is a good plan? is driving "easy" and the directions clear in England/Wales? I realize the British drive on the other side of the road, but other than that, do you forsee any difficulties?

Posted by
445 posts

First of all Tilehurst is not the second stop from London on the Bath train. You need to change in Reading for a local train (usually to oxford). Or you can take a local train directly from Paddington to Tilehurst and avoid the change..which sometimes involves changing platforms which can be a pain with luggage. I speak from longggggggg experience in doing this as I always use this line to reach where I stay.

However, I agree that Tilehurst would probably be a great place to hire a car although I know nothing about the care rental places there. Don't do it in Reading...much too busy.

I personally find driving in the UK difficult...easy on the Motorways but you see nothing of the lovely countryside that way. The A roads are not bad. You need to learn some of the road customs...there are olaces that you sort of have to pull to one side and
let the oncomng traffic through. Always drive cautiously and mind those roundabouts!!

The places you plan to visit are rather widespread.
Salisbury is in one direction and Oford, Stratford. Bath, Wales in another. Cambridge is northeast of all these places and would involve a cross-country trip. Maybe better to visit by train from London as a day trip.

You could visit Salisbury on your way to Bath but then you would have to backtrack to Oxford, Stratford, et al.Buy yourself a good roadmap and try to plan a sensible route.

On my first trip to England we drove Oxford, the Cotswolds, STratford and on to Shropshire and into Wales. We did not do Bath or Salisbury, but drove north to the Lake District and Scotland. I do not recommend the Lake District in August as it is packed with British holiday makers. The schools do not get out until about the third week of July so
August is peak time to vacation and the Brits do love the lakes...I have seen many photos of wall-to-wall roads. And it rains a lot.

I would make my plans soon as August is a very busy month and more Brits are vacationing at home this year !!

Posted by
5668 posts

Most of my UK driving experience has been in Scotland and the north of England, but I expect it's not that much different in the south if you stay out of London! You have to realize that navigation is different in the UK and Europe. To get to Dodgeville WI, we say take 90 north out of Chicago and take route 12 west, the first Madison exit; next take 151 south to Dodgeville. In Europe it would follow 90 toward O'Hare, continue on toward Rockford, follow on toward Janesville, then Madison. follow the first Madison exit onto 12 toward Verona, take 151 toward Verona, follow toward Mt. Horeb, Barneveld, to Dodgeville. ; ) So, in other words, you need to know the towns in between your starting point and your destination or you risk getting lost. But then, getting lost is not a disaster. You'll probably find something interesting. It is all in the attitude that you bring to the trip! I am not sure if it's a successful vacation if I don't get lost at least once. Pam

Posted by
606 posts

I've always found driving in the British Isles easy and fun. Roads are generally good, though they often don't have wide shoulders like in the USA.

If you're not anti-technology, you might consider taking a GPS. It's not a MUST (in Italy it's almost a must). It's easy to get around UK just with maps. But a GPS is even more foolproof, and lets you keep your eyes more on where you are, and where you're going, with less time looking down at a map.

Roundabouts are easy if you remember to always yield to those already in the roundabout. Of course, in UK you go around clockwise, so you'd be yielding to anybody already coming from your right side. Don't be afraid to stop and wait as long as you need to, until it's safe to drive into the roundabout, and you'll be fine.

I much prefer roundabouts to four-way stops. Traffic moves through them smoothly, and they're a nice place to put a statue or some landscaping!

Posted by
1661 posts

We really enjoy driving in the UK and Ireland. Buy an AA road atlas (4 inches to the mile), available from Amazon or Don't be afraid of the B roads--if you get lost within 5-10 miles you will always come to an A road and it adds to the adventure. Then, check your map and re-orient yourself. Also, there are frequent passing places and we have always found the B-road drivers in the countryside drive slowly. Pamela is right about knowing towns, not road numbers. For some inexplicable reason, the Brits sometimes change the road number but the road still goes to the same place. It is also helpful when you plan your route to have one of the orange Michelin maps which show the entire region. When you consider driving distances, remember that while the roads are slow, all of England is about the same size as Illinois. Also, avoid driving in any larger cities. For Oxford and Cambridge, find a car park near the city center.

Posted by
1838 posts

We drove a rental for one week about a month ago in Kent and Wiltshire. For our needs, nothing but a car would do. It was great, but also not that easy. It requires almost constant concentration, and that takes it's toll at the end of a day. The major motorways are easy to navigate but the other roads---the ones you'll likely want to travel---while scenic are generally narrow, walled in with hedgerows and weave in and out of small villages. It takes a lot longer to travel what looks to us like a rather short distance. You will pull over often to allow others to pass. They drive a bit faster than we do here at home, but were courteous I thought. Allow more time to travel than you would if you were home, and add in extra time to wander around the lovely places you'll find yourself in. An automatic transmission was a boon and we were glad we got it. We got a good deal from Autoeurope, and the GPS was indispensible. As the late Mr. Malden said, "Don't leave home without it."

Posted by
655 posts

Do rent the car. You will enjoy the freedom it afords you. Three hints to make it more successful and a little easier. First, be sure to rent a car that has automatic transmission. Second, study up on driving in England or Ireland - there are some good resources available which you can locate on Google. Three, seriously consider a GPS unit. Best to buy it at home and use it before the trip so you are familiar with its operation. Lastly, when searching for directions know that those funny English postcodes (such as GP3TO) are remarkably detailed and will pin most locations down to within four or five houses.

Posted by
5668 posts

And do buy full collision. I love driving in the UK, shifting with my left arm as I travel the wee roads, but I hit the curb a lot and the tiniest ding seems to result in a big charge. So, buy insurance. Pam

Posted by
3428 posts

We haven't driven in the UK for several reasons. 1- Trains are EASY and very convient. We also like being able to focus on the journey- not the driving. 2- We both drive automatics and can't do shifts- much less on the opposite side. 3- Gasoline (petrol) and parking are VERY VERY VERY expensive in the UK.

We really like riding the trains- I can sketch and my husband can listen to his music.

Posted by
1316 posts

We've found driving in England to be 10 minutes of sheer terror (as you get used to everything), then its easy. We purchased an excellent, extensive road atlas before we left, and really learned how to read it, including every little symbol. Having a great road atlas made driving easy and fun. We also pay the extra for automatic -- why make driving more complicated?

Posted by
1424 posts

My husband always drives there, and it's allowed us to see sites we never would have been able to if we hadn't been on backroads. It doesn't seem to make my husband nervous to drive on the opposite side - I've been the nervous passenger since there always seems to be deep ditches that a person could swerve into, but over time I've become less nervous about this - it has been fun.

Posted by
2654 posts

Do rent a car getting on the back roads and driving thru all the small beautiful villages is fantastic. A lot of villages have free car parks and/or on street parking. Places like Salisbury, Bath, have car parks with park and ride which cost around £3 which I don't think is expensive. Of course you don't have to ride if you would rather walk. Yes, petrol is high but you get a lot of miles per liter.

Posted by
61 posts

Last trip over we got a car in Cardiff, and drove to Bath and to Burford (Cotswold village that had significance to my wife)and then to Oxford. The motorways are just like highway/freeways, just the driving on the left bit takes a bit of getting used to.

Get an automatic. You'll have to ask for that in advance, or fly into a major airport and hope they have one. I can drive left hand stick, but it's not fun getting used to it.

The GPS that came with the car was programmed for British english. This becomes significant when it tells you to stay right at the roundabout. What this really means is that the left lane exits 1 and 2, and the right lane exits 3, 4 and 5. Look at a roundabout and it makes more sense, with 1 being the bottom left, and going up clockwise. I must have cutoff a lot of UK drivers, and for some reason they kept giving me the "V for Victory" sign. :) (Yes, I know its not that, I'm not daft)

If we hadn't had to get to Burford, we would have stuck with bus/train to get to the major points. If you want to muck around with out of the way places, a car is mandatory. Bath was horrible to drive in, twisty roads and lots of hills. Daylight might be a bit better, we arrived in the middle of the night. Not recommended.

Oh, if you plan on driving to Wales from England, have MONEY ready, the major bridge is a toll bridge heading west, though free heading east.

Most of all, enjoy your trip however you intend to get from place to place.

Glenn in Tucson

Posted by
993 posts

Niti, Ditto to what everyone else said exept Toni. Sorry, Toni, but I did a month in the UK by train and vowed never to do it again and we haven't. There is nothing to compare with being able to stop where ever and when ever you want and not have to schlep your luggage around. Just pay attention and think LEFT! You'll have a marvlous time.

Posted by
3 posts

Thank you all for your great advice. Based upon all this feedback and further research on our itinerary we have decided to rent an automatic car with a GPS and i'll get maps in advance. Also, i am pretty sure that we will stay in hotels a bit outside the city center so we can leave our car at the hotel and take a local bus to center of bath, cambridge, etc.

Posted by
31435 posts


Driving in the U.K. is not usually too difficult, but it can be challenging at times. The Motorways are great but some of the country roads are very narrow, so if there is traffic approaching in from the opposite direction you'll need to be careful.

A GPS unit along with a Michelin Map would be a really good idea. Don't trust the GPS unit totally though, as they're not infallible.

Be very careful with parking in towns, as in some places you could end up with "The Boot" and it's VERY expensive to have removed! Also, be very careful of your speed.

I usually take a few minutes at the rental agency to go over the controls and familiarize myself with the car. That way if I have any questions, I can ask the staff.

I'd suggest purchase of the full CDW, regardless of the cost. It provides some peace-of-mind and will save you money if there is an "incident".

You might enjoy reading This site or This site.

Happy travels!

Posted by
4674 posts

One additional thing is that many towns in Britain have Park-and-Ride facilities. You park your car somewhere on the edge of town and your fee includes an (often dedicated and express) bus journey into the centre and back.

Posted by
445 posts

ONe more thing about driving in England...often instead of meters, there is a system called pay and display. You park and then find the machine that sells you the ticket, you come back to your car and put it inside your windshield.

Also in some supermarket parking lots, you have to pay as well. I have noticed this in some busy towns and villages. Presumably this is to avoid all town
visitors from parking in the lot where parking is in short supply. If you shop in the supermarket, you can get your money back.

The one place that is impossible to find any parking
is Oxford! I first drove there over 30 years ago and we couldn't find a parking space it is
even worse.I usually drive to Oxford with a person who lives nearby and we still find it very difficult.

In short, parking in most English towns and villages is not easy, especially on a weekend. THe towns are old and were constructed long before cars were invented and many, if not most, houses in towns have no garages/driveways so you are competing with the locals. A lot of parking is specified "residents only".

We have a similar problem in the pre-Revolution town I live in. You can drive around forever trying to find a parking place, even at a very expensive meter.

I would not suggest hiring a car at Heathrow. It is an extremely busy place with roads going off in many directions and you are having to learn to drive your car while managing heavy traffic moving at a good speed. Not to mention that you are jet-lagged!
See London first and then take a train to a smaller
town to pick up your car. Much easier on the nerves.

In short, I don't think driving in England is constantly have to be on the alert and in my opinion, people tend to drive too fast. I have the advantage of driving with a local resident
so I get the best of all worlds. And as others have said, it takes forever seemingly to go short distances. It is not like driving in the US.

Posted by
425 posts

NEVER, EVER get fuel from a gas station on the "other" side of the road. That is when you momentarily forget and end up pulling away into the face of the oncoming traffic. Have a little routine every time you start up to remind you where you are ..... and do the same when you get home!! :-)


Posted by
253 posts

Suppose you are only interested in what problems you could encounter by renting a car in the British Isles. We have driven often all through England, Scotland, and Wales and these are the problems we have had.

Obviously, never rent a car in a big city and then try to figure out how to drive on the left in rush hour traffic.

If you buy a small compact, be sure the shorter person gets to drive it. Don't even think about it (:

The better navigator/GPS programmer had better be the passenger. Divorce lawyers are pricy.

If driving, try to remember that, while on-coming traffic speeding by on your right is a bit nerve-wracking, hitting the side mirror of a parked car because you overcompensated is much worse. Yes, we managed to avoid the costly divorce lawyer scenario over that one.

If returning the car to Heathrow, get exact directions to the car rental shop. Even with GPS, the access road can be missed, and if you miss it, the result is a 40 kilometer detour back.

We had fun with the in-dash stick shift one time, but the dash of the little "One Horse Hire" Citroen we were driving was a cardboard ledge that scraped the skin off your knuckles every time you shifted gears. My knuckles. My wife's hands are smaller.

Parking in some of the larger cities is completely impossible. Research beforehand if it is more convenient to park outside the city and use public transit to go into the center.