Everyone has their own preferred traveling pace; for us, it’s about 90mph. With so much to see and never enough time, we always want to fit in as much as we can. Which is why when we planned our first 2 ½ week road trip through Great Britain, we opted to rent a car and drive ourselves instead of joining a tour group. As we plan our second trip to the UK, we’re reminded of all “little incidents” we had on our first trip. We can laugh about them now… but during the trip things did get a little tense once.. or twice.
The first time we drove in Great Britain was the first time we had ever driven outside of the US-Canada. The initial idea of driving in England and Scotland was extremely nerve wracking since our brains had needed to be reprogrammed for that trip –the Brits drive on the left hand lane, and the driver sits on the right hand side of the car. Surprisingly, after a few minor bumps, we successfully navigated through England and Scotland accident-free! Here are a couple tips to help you, as a foreign driver, successfully navigate your road trip vacation!
1. Car Rental
By default, car rental companies in Great Britain provide manual transmission vehicles. We have a manual transmission Jeep Wrangler but only one of us knows how to drive it. Personally I think he did that on purpose so I can’t drive his precious car but that’s another matter… In the US, most vehicles provided are automatic. We didn’t realize it was otherwise in England so when we tried to pick up our rental… what we needed wasn’t available. We wasted 3 hours waiting on a vehicle until they got sick of us looking forlornly at them and upgraded our rental to the only automatic they had left (a new luxury Mercedes). Joke’s on them; by the time we brought it back, it looked like we had been driving it for 4 months instead of 2 ½ weeks.
Tip: Book directly with the car rental company instead of with a discount travel site to avoid any surprises. We booked with Priceline.com, who ended up sourcing through Europcar. What we thought would cost a couple hundred dollars, ended up costing $1,800 ($650 being insurance we did not request or need). Plus 3 hours of precious sight-seeing time wasted.
2. Congestion Charges
What does that even mean??!
We had no idea what “Congestion Charging” was but we did see about a dozen signs posted around London. We were stressed out enough driving “backwards” so we didn’t bother to worry about the signs, opting to figure out the consequences later. We did figure it out later –at the rate of a $142.74 charge from the rental company to cover the Congestion Charge ticket.
Tip: Driving in the city of London itself is actually unnecessary. We explored London by foot and took a very interesting cab ride when needed but easily accessible public transportation is around every corner. Most necessary tourist sights are within walking distance. If driving is a MUST, you can avoid the ticket by paying the congestion charge ahead of time for $14.84 (£10.50) online at Transport for London. OR… you can always take to the road during the weekend.
3. Hotel Parking
Believe it or not, hotel parking is NOT a given standard in England. In a country with structures built before the first century, it’s understandable (if not inconvenient) that space is a limited commodity in the larger cities. Thankfully, there were only 3 times hotel parking was an issue for us: London, Bath, and at the Legacy Hotel Victoria in Newquay where we ended up with a $84.80 (£60) parking ticket at what we thought was hotel parking. Off-site parking can be a hassle since majority of the time it is limited and pricey. During our stay in London, we spent 2 nights at the Grange City Hotel because of its proximity to the Tower of London. We didn’t realize this hotel didn’t provide parking and the nearest parking garage was about 2 blocks away, inconvenient when you’ve overpacked and have to drag luggage around that weighs as much as you do…
Tip: When booking hotels within the city, make sure to check what kind of parking they offer. Most hotel websites are pretty mum on this but Tripadvisor has a search option in their reviews.
4. Narrow 2-Lane Roads
2-way roads don’t necessarily mean 2 vehicles will actually fit side-by-side. This wasn’t significantly noticeable until we began our journey through beautiful Cornwall, where narrow backroads, tall hedgerows, parked cars, and winding turns made for a slightly harrowing experience. Locals fly through these roads like they’re racing in the Indianapolis 500 so drive defensively on these roads and pull to the side to let them pass. Most drivers are courteous enough to wait on you if they are on the wider area of the road.
Brits sure do love their roundabouts –and we did too! Roundabouts were actually not as complicated as we had thought they would be. Signs beforehand warn which exit goes where. Vehicles already in the roundabout have the right of way so always yield when you’re entering the roundabout. Vehicles on the outer lane of the roundabout exit sooner. For example, if there are 3 lanes and you need to get off on the 3rd exit, enter into the lane that is closest to the inside of the circle.
Tip: Yield to vehicles already in the roundabout and note how many lanes there are.
6. Get Your Husband to Drive For You
The Brits are probably having a good laugh at this common sense advice but it really can be quite an experience driving in a foreign country –and opposite what you’re used to! Hopefully these tips can be of some use as you plan your trip to Great Britain. Our Final Tip: If you can avoid driving through large cities, do so. The best sights are off the main road and away from the large cities anyway.
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