The United Kingdom is a road tripping paradise – windy roads, scenic vistas, rolling hills, majestic mountains, meandering rivers, quaint towns, castles and history galore.
Every great travel adventure starts with an equally great plan. So, I’ve put together my best British driving and planning tips to help kick off your own epic UK road trip.
Let’s jump in!
1) Start from the end
When hiring a car, it’s much cheaper returning the car to the starting point, rather than paying for an exorbitant one-way fee. Pick out a few key non-negotiable locations you want to see along the way (you’ll find ideas at the end of this article) and plan the high-level route first, then fill in the detail from there. Avoid the temptation to cram in too much detail (yes, I’m often guilty of that!).
2) Choose your car rental wisely
If you’re starting in the south (and don’t live in the UK already), chances are you’ll be flying (or train-ing) into London. Check out the cheapest London car hire options. If you’re starting in the north, then look through Edinburgh car hire options. Once you’ve settled on a rental provider, ensure you’re adequately covered. It is mandatory to have at least 3rd party insurance, which most rental car providers will include. However, check the fine print of your credit card or travel insurance terms to find out if “full cover” (also known as collision damage waiver - CDW) is automatically included. No point paying for the same thing twice!
Typically, you can use your driver’s license from your home country, but check the official list.
3) Don’t pay for a GPS
Pffft! Rental GPSs are sooooo 1999! Download offline maps using Google Maps. Or even better, travel with a Wi-Fi hotspot. Many roads in the UK were designed before automobiles, so there’s no shortage of 1-way streets and unexpected sharp turns. If you find yourself taking the wrong turn accidently you’ll be glad you’ve got Google Maps to re-route.
Tip: Bring your own car power adapter & USB cable so your smartphone never goes flat.
4) Make your drive cheaper by selling space
If your trying to stretch your road trip budget as far as it can go, make a little extra cash by driving other passengers using BlaBlaCar - a smart, safe carpooling platform. Once you’ve registered, let the platform know of your route and add as many “stopovers” as possible (cities that you’ll be driving through) for a better chance of picking up a paying passenger along the way. That’s guaranteed to make your road trip conversations more interesting!
5) Be flexible & book accommodation on the way
There’s oodles of small hotels and cute B&Bs in the United Kingdom. I recommend checking the latest accommodation prices on Kayak.com.au. It saves you time by comparing prices with several big agents, including Booking.com and Expedia. If you keep your hotel bookings flexible, and only book a day or two in advance (or even on the day), then you can go with the flow and see where the road takes you. Preparation is simple – just download the free Kayak mobile app before departing.
6) Stick to the speed limits
This is one thing you can’t be flexible about. Don’t just follow everyone else because the Brits have a reputation for speeding. Speed limits are indicated with black numerals on circular white signs with a red border. The “National Speed Limit” is indicated by a plain white circular sign with a black diagonal stripe (no numbers) which is 60 miles/h (~97km/h) on single-carriageway roads and 70 miles/h (~112km/h) on dual-carriageways and motorways. Built up areas are usually 30 miles/h (~48km/h) and school areas typically drop down to 20 miles/hr. It’s no fun adding the cost of a speeding fine to your road trip. Trust me!
7) Beware of local driving laws
If you’re from the United States or Canada, some of the local road laws may seem a bit foreign. There’s no “right on red”. And of course, they drive on the left side of the road (not a problem for us Aussies!). If you’re going through a roundabout (also called a “traffic circle”) don’t change lanes mid-way through and give way to traffic on the right (already on the roundabout).
8) Roads are narrow!
On UK roads it's often necessary to stray into the opposing lane to get around obstacles such as parked cars, vans unloading, or roadworks. Drive with caution and use courtesy. In rural and more remote areas, including Scotland, it’s common to find “single track roads” – just 1 lane that allows traffic in 2 directions. Fortunately, there are “passing places” (that’s their real name!) that you can pull off on the side of the road to let opposing traffic pass or an impatient overtaking driver from behind. If you get stuck, stay calm and patient. Just use a bit of common sense, and if in doubt, vehicles travelling uphill have right of way.
9) Park in the right places
While parking areas on streets are usually clearly marked with white lines, there’s marked areas that you should also avoid. A single yellow continuous line along a kerb means there are parking restrictions at certain times of the day. A double yellow continuous line means no parking any time. These are typically strictly enforced. No lines at all doesn’t necessarily mean that parking is acceptable either, so pay attention to what other local drivers are doing.
10) Avoid toll roads
There aren’t too many toll roads and bridges in the UK, but every penny saved is a penny earned. So, use your favourite maps app to try to avoid unnecessary paid roads.
11) Avoid driving around central London
This is especially true within the inner-city area called the “Congestion Charging Zone”. If you zip through here, even for a few minutes, you will get slugged with a hefty extra fee that is charged automatically to your car rental provider (and passed onto you). Cameras are used to track the number plate of every vehicle that enters and leaves. On top of that finding parking in central London ain’t easy (or cheap!). I found out about this the hard way, when the rental car provider notified me when I returned my vehicle. It would have been handy to know about it before!
12) Metric & imperial living side-by-side in harmony
File this under “strange but true”. The road speed limits and distances on signage in the UK are indicated in miles (imperial) but fuel purchasing is measured in litres (metric). No point fighting it, just go with the flow.
13) Take a ferry
Yes, you can drive your car onto some ferries. This is the best way to extend your UK road trip into Ireland. Check that your car rental agreement allows travel outside the UK – some, like Enterprise, may charge extra for the privilege.
14) Consider mixing a train with your car
The train network in the UK is world class, and especially for long distances. In some cases it can be more convenient than driving, especially if left-side driving freaks you out a little. So, consider mixing train travel with a car on your UK road trip. You could use a car to zip around a small region/city, then return the car and catch a train elsewhere in the UK. This is a good idea if you’re not planning on returning to the starting point of your road trip.
15) Save money on historic sites
A lot of historical sites in the UK are free or have a relatively small entry fee. However, on a road trip you’re likely to be stopping at quite a few of these places. If you purchase a special ticket in advance from specific organisations, you can access multiple sites for a deeply discounted rate. Check out prices from National Trust (specifically, their Touring Pass), and the Scottish Heritage Pass.
16) Road trip weather
Keep an eye on the daily weather forecast. As you can imagine, it can change very quickly in the UK. The ideal time for a road trip in the UK is late June to early September. There’s a good chance you’ll hit rain at some point, so don’t stress, and just pack your poncho.
17) A little location inspiration
If you don’t know where to start your UK road trip planning, here’s a few locations (with map links) to get the creative juices flowing:
Stonehenge – iconic prehistoric monument in the southwest of England.
Bath – known for its natural hot springs that were popular back in Ancient Roman times.
Salisbury – old medieval town home to the magna carta.
Oxford – home to the world-famous university and plenty of historic sites.
Stratford-upon-Avon – birthplace of William Shakespeare.
Liverpool – industrial city that was the birthplace of The Beatles.
Edinburgh – Scotland’s capital and home to Scotland’s crown jewels.
Cardiff – Wales’ capital with a beautiful redeveloped waterfront.
If you want a smaller road trip, check out my Wales road trip.
I hope this has helped to inspire you for a road trip around the UK.