Upon arriving in London, you should arm yourself with a detailed street map if you plan to do a lot of walking. London is a maze of narrow streets and "villages" within a vast city, and many addresses are obscure and hard to find.
If you plan to motor through England, arm yourself with a road atlas, especially one of the large format ones produced by AA, RAC, Collins, and Ordnance Survey. Virtually every motorway gas (petrol) station in England stocks one or more of the big road atlases.
At www.multimap.com, you can access detailed street maps of the whole United Kingdom -- just key in the location or even just the postal code, and a map of the area with the location circled will appear. For directions to specific places in London, consult www.streetmap.co.uk.
A Eurailpass is not valid in Great Britain, but there are several special passes for train travel outside London. For railroad information, go to Rail Travel centers in the main London railway stations (Waterloo, Kings Cross, Euston, and Paddington).
You can download faxable order forms or order online from BritRail at www.britainontrack.com, or call tel. 888/667-9734.
BritRail Travel Passes -- BritRail passes allow unlimited travel in England, Scotland, and Wales on any British rail scheduled train over the whole of the network during the validity of the pass without restrictions. If you're traveling beyond London anywhere in the United Kingdom and plan to hop on and off the train, consider purchasing a BritRail Consecutive Pass. These passes allow you to travel for a consecutive number of days for a flat rate. In first class adults pay $395 for 4 days, $559 for 8 days, $839 for 15 days, $1,065 for 22 days, and $1,259 for 1 month. In second class, fares are $259 for 4 days, $375 for 8 days, $559 for 15 days, $709 for 22 days, and $839 for 1 month. Seniors (60 and older) qualify for discounts in first-class travel and pay $336 for 4 days, $475 for 8 days, $713 for 15 days, $905 for 22 days, and $1,070 for 1 month. Passengers 25 and younger qualify for a Youth Pass. In second class rates are $207 for 4 days, $300 for 8 days, $447 for 15 days, $567 for 22 days, and $671 for 1 month. One child (age 14 and younger) can travel free with each adult or senior pass when the BritRail Family Pass is requested while buying the adult pass. Additional children pay half the regular adult fare.
A more versatile pass is the BritRail FlexiPass, allowing you to travel when you want during a 2-month period of time. In first class, it costs $395 for 4 days, $575 for 8 days, and $865 for 15 days of travel. Second class costs $265 for 4 days, $385 for 8 days, and $579 for 15 days of travel.
A Freedom of Wales Flexi Pass allows you to discover the small country by bus and rail. The pass also offers 20% discounts on narrow-gauge railways. The pass costs £74. You're granted 4 days of rail travel and 8 days of bus travel. You can also inquire about passes granting more extended travel time. Check their website at www.walesflexipass.co.uk. More information is available from Arriva Trains Wales, St. Mary's House, Penarth Road, Cardiff CF10 5DJ (tel. 0845/6061-660; www.arrivatrainswales.co.uk).
For more information on train pass options and on rail vacation packages in England and the U.K., contact BritRail (tel. 866/2748-7245; www.britrail.com). Travelers who arrive from France by boat and pick up a BritRail train at Dover arrive at St. Pancras Station, in the center of London. Those journeying south by rail from Edinburgh arrive at Kings Cross Station.
In Britain, a long-distance touring bus is called a "coach," and "buses" are taken for local transportation. An efficient and frequent express motorcoach network -- run by National Express and other independent operators -- links most of Britain's towns and cities. Destinations off the main route can be easily reached by transferring to a local bus at a stop on the route. Tickets are relatively cheap, often half the price of rail fare, and it's usually cheaper to purchase a round-trip (or "return") ticket than two one-way fares separately.
Victoria Coach Station, on Buckingham Palace Road (tel. 020/7730-3466), is the departure point for most large coach operators. The coach station is located just 2 blocks from Victoria Station. For 24-hour information, call tel. 020/7222-1234 (www.tfl.gov.uk). For cash purchases, get there at least 30 minutes before the coach departs.
National Express (tel. 0871/781-81-81; www.nationalexpress.com) runs long-distance coaches that are equipped with reclining seats, toilets, and nonsmoking areas. You can obtain details about all coach services by calling the company between 8am and 10pm daily. The National Express ticket office at Victoria Station is open from 6am to 11pm daily.
For journeys within a 56km (35-mile) radius of London, try Green Line coach service, 23-27 Endsleigh Rd., Merstham Redhill, Surrey RH1 3LX (tel. 0870/608-7261; www.greenline.co.uk).
Green Line has bus routes called Country Bus Lines that circle the periphery of London. Though they do not usually go directly into the center of the capital, they hook up with the routes of the Green Line coaches and red buses that do.
To the delight of the frugal traveler, a new no-frills bus service has been introduced in England. Megabus.com (tel. 08705/505050; 10p per min.) charges the lowest bus fares in the country -- only £1 to £5 for a single journey on any route. From London, popular stops include Oxford, Brighton, and the old port of Plymouth. The network uses double-decker buses that once rolled through the streets of Hong Kong. Reserve at www.megabus.com, which levies a booking charge of less than a U.S. dollar.
In Wales, 65 independent bus operators serve the little country. Public transport guides for local areas are available at tourist offices. One of the most important is Arriva Cymru (tel. 08448/004411; www.arriva.co.uk), servicing North Wales. The area around Cardiff is covered by Cardiff Bus (tel. 029/2066-6444; www.cardiffbus.com).
British Airways (BA; tel. 800/AIRWAYS [247-9297]) flies to more than 20 cities outside London, including Manchester.
To get to the heart of England quickly, visitors fly BA to Manchester, operating a dozen flights a day from London's Heathrow and seven daily flights from Gatwick.
There's no doubt about it, the best way to explore England, with its little villages and off-the-beaten path attractions, is by car. It's also the most expensive, far more so than the train or bus.
Because cars in Britain travel on the left side of the road, steering wheels are positioned on the "wrong" side of the vehicle. Keep in mind that most rental cars are manual, so be prepared to shift with your left hand; you'll pay more for an automatic -- and make sure to request one when you reserve.
Speed limits are generally 50 to 60kmph (30-40 mph) in heavily populated areas, or 110kmph (70 mph) on motorways or "dual carriage ways," as the English call double-lane highways.
In England you drive on the left and pass on the right. Road signs are clear and international symbols are used.
Warning: Pedestrian crossings are marked by striped lines (zebra striping) on the road; flashing lights near the curb indicate that drivers must stop and yield the right of way if a pedestrian has stepped out into the zebra zone to cross the street. It's a good idea to get a copy of the British Highway Code, available from almost any petrol or gas station or newsstand in Britain.
Breakdowns -- Membership in one of the two major auto clubs can be helpful: the Automobile Association (AA), at Norfolk House, Priestly Road, Basingstoke, Hampshire RG24 9NY (tel. 0870/5444-444; www.theaa.com), or the Royal Automobile Club (RAC), P.O. Box 700, Bristol, Somerset BS99 1RB (tel. 08000/966-999; www.rac.co.uk). You can join these clubs through your car-rental agent. (Members of AAA in the U.S. can enjoy reciprocity overseas.) There are roadside emergency telephone boxes about every mile along the motorways. If you don't see one, walk down the road for a bit to the blue-and-white marker with an arrow that points to the nearest box. The 24-hour number to call for the AA is tel. 0800/887-766; for the RAC, it's tel. 0800/82-82-82. In addition, you can call a police traffic unit that will contact either of the auto clubs on your behalf.
Even if you're not a member, you can call these organizations, though a substantial fee will be involved for nonmembers.
Gasoline -- There are plenty of gas ("petrol") stations in England and Wales, especially around cities and big towns and most definitely along the motorways. However, in remote areas they're often few and far between, and many are closed on Sunday. If you're planning a lot of Sunday driving in remote parts, always make sure your tank is full on Saturday.
Note that gasoline costs more in Britain than in North America, and to encourage energy saving, the government has imposed a 25% tax on gas.
Parking -- In overcrowded cities, such as London, parking has become a nightmare, and it costs a fortune. Touring English cities by car, especially London, is not recommended. Use public transportation. Even in small villages, parking can be a problem, especially in summer. There are just so many spaces.
In general, long- or short-stay car parks are cheaper than using city or town meters, which usually limit you to 2 hours. When you see a yellow line along the edge of a road, that means parking is restricted; refer to the nearest sign to read the conditions. A double yellow line indicates that parking is forbidden at all times.
Getting the Best Deal on Your Rental Car
The British car-rental market is among the most competitive in Europe. Nevertheless, car rentals are expensive, unless you avail yourself of one of the promotional deals that are frequently offered by British Airways and others. It's always cheaper to arrange a car in advance though one of the big chains such as Hertz or Avis. You might also look into a fly/drive deal.
Car-rental rates vary even more than airline fares. The price you pay depends on the size of the car, where and when you pick it up and drop it off, length of the rental period, where and how far you drive it, whether you purchase insurance, and a host of other factors. It's cheaper to rent a car with a stick shift; if you can't drive a stick shift, you can rent a vehicle with automatic drive, but invariably you'll pay more for this convenience.
The best car-rental deals are made in the off-season, as thousands upon thousands of potential motorists descend on Britain to drive its clogged highways and country lanes in fair weather.
For booking rental cars online, the best deals are usually found at rental-car company websites, although all the major online travel agencies also offer rental-car reservations services. Priceline and Hotwire work well for rental cars, too; the only "mystery" is which major rental company you get, and for most travelers the difference between Hertz, Avis, and Budget is negligible.
Virtually every kind of car imaginable is for rent in England, including an old Rolls-Royce discarded by the queen or a small little budget number from Japan that seats two uncomfortably.
Keep in mind that most companies will only rent to persons 23 years old and above. Many agencies will not rent to people age 70 or older.
Rentals are available through Avis (tel. 800/331-1212; www.avis.com), Budget (tel. 800/527-0700; www.budget.com), and Hertz (tel. 800/654-3001; www.hertz.com). Kemwel Drive Europe (tel. 877/820-0668; www.kemwel.com) is among the cheapest and most reliable of the rental agencies. AutoEurope (tel. 888/223-5555 in the U.S., or 0800/223-5555 in London; www.autoeurope.com) acts as a wholesale company for rental agencies in Europe.
When booking your rental car, a few key questions could save you hundreds of dollars:
- Are weekend rates lower than weekday rates? Ask if the rate is the same for pickup Friday morning, for instance, as it is for Thursday night.
- Is a weekly rate cheaper than the daily rate? If you need to keep the car for 4 days, it may be cheaper to keep it for 5, even if you don't need it for that long.
- Does the agency assess a drop-off charge if you do not return the car to the same location where you picked it up? Is it cheaper to pick up the car at the airport compared to a downtown location?
- Are special promotional rates available? If you see an advertised price in your local newspaper, be sure to ask for that specific rate; otherwise you may be charged the standard cost. The terms change constantly, and phone operators may not volunteer information.
- Are discounts available for members of AARP, AAA, frequent-flier programs, or trade unions? If you belong to any of these organizations, you are probably entitled to discounts of up to 30%.
- What is the cost of adding an additional driver's name to the contract?
- How many free miles are included in the price? Free mileage is often negotiable, depending on the length of your rental.
- How much does the rental company charge to refill your gas tank if you return with the tank less than full? Though most rental companies claim these prices are "competitive," fuel is almost always cheaper in town. Try to allow enough time to refuel the car yourself before returning it.
When you reserve a car, make sure you find out the total price, including the 17.5% value-added tax (VAT).
Smart Insurance Tips -- Before you drive off in a rental car, be sure you're insured. Hasty assumption about your personal auto insurance or a rental agency's additional coverage could end up costing you tens of thousands of dollars -- even if you are involved in an accident that was clearly the fault of another driver.
U.S. drivers who already have their own car insurance are usually covered in the United States for loss of or damage to a rental car and liability in case of injury to any other party involved in an accident. But coverage probably doesn't extend outside the United States. Be sure to find out whether you are covered in England, whether your policy extends to all persons who will be driving the rental car, how much liability is covered in case an outside party is injured in an accident, and whether the type of vehicle you are renting is included under your contract. (Rental trucks, sport utility vehicles, and luxury vehicles, such as the Jaguar, may not be covered.)
Most major credit cards provide some degree of coverage as well -- provided they are used to pay for the rental. Terms vary widely, however, so be sure to call your credit card company directly before you rent. But though they will cover damage to or theft of your rental, credit cards will not cover liability or the cost of injury to an outside party and/or damage to an outside party's vehicle. If you do not hold an insurance policy or if you are driving outside the United States, you may want to seriously consider purchasing additional liability insurance from your rental company. Be sure to check the terms, however. Some rental agencies only cover liability if the renter is not at fault.
Bear in mind that each credit card company has its own peculiarities. Most American Express Optima cards, for instance, do not provide any insurance. American Express does not cover vehicles valued at over $50,000 when new, such as luxury vehicles or vehicles built on a truck chassis. MasterCard does not provide coverage for loss, theft, or fire damage, and only covers collision if the rental period does not exceed 15 days. Call your own credit card company for details.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.