Look Both Ways! -- Visitors from the U.S. should remember that in Great Britain, cars drive on the left. Always look both ways before stepping off a curb.
Scotland has many excellent roads, often "dual carriageways" (divided highways), as well as fast trunk roads, linking the Lowlands to the Highlands. In more remote areas, especially the islands of western Scotland, single-lane roads exist. Here, caution while driving is important.
Passing places are provided. However, many of the roads are unfenced, and livestock can be a serious hazard when you're driving, either day or night. Drive slowly when you're passing through areas filled with sheep.
Car Rentals -- It's best to shop around, compare prices, and have a clear idea of your needs before you reserve a car. All companies give the best rates to those who reserve at least 2 business days in advance and who agree to return the car to its point of origin, and some require drivers be at least 23 years old (in some cases 21). It's also an advantage to keep the car for at least a week, as opposed to 3 or 4 days. Be warned that all car rentals in the United Kingdom are slapped with a whopping 17.5% government tax known as VAT.
To rent a car in Scotland, you must present your passport and driver's license along with your deposit. No special British or international license is needed.
Rentals are available through Avis (tel. 800/331-1084; www.avis.com), British Airways (tel. 800/AIRWAYS [247-9297]; www.british-airways.com), Budget (tel. 800/472-3325; www.budget.com), and Hertz (tel. 800/654-3001; www.hertz.com). Kemwel Drive Group (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.
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. 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.
Scenic Scotland by RV -- Many visitors prefer to rent an RV for exploring the scenic wonders of Scotland. Rental prices for a standard RV are about £400 a week. For rentals during July and August, reservations should be made well in advance. Check with Vivanti Motorhomes (tel. 08707/522-225; www.vivanti.co.uk).
Gasoline -- There are plenty of gas ("petrol") stations in the environs of Glasgow and Edinburgh. 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 new 25% tax on gas.
Driving Rules & Requirements -- In Scotland, you drive on the left and pass on the right. Road signs are clear and the international symbols are unmistakable.
It's a good idea to get a copy of the British Highway Code, available from almost any gas station or newsstand (called a "news stall" in Britain).
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.
Maps -- Good ones are available from the Royal Automobile Club (tel. 020/7930-2345; www.royalautomobileclub.co.uk) or from the Automobile Association (tel. 0870/600-0371; www.theaa.co.uk). The best road map, especially if you're trying to locate some obscure village, is The Ordnance Survey Motor Atlas of Great Britain, revised annually and published by Temple Press. It's available at most bookstores in Scotland. If you're in London and plan to head north to Scotland, go to W. & G. Foyle Ltd., 113 and 119 Charing Cross Rd. (tel. 020/7434-1574; www.foyles.co.uk).
Other excellent maps include the Collins Touring Map of Scotland and Frommer's Road Atlas.
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), or the Royal Automobile Club (RAC), P.O. Box 700, Bristol, Somerset BS99 1RB (tel. 08000/966-999; www.royalautomobileclub.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.
Flybe (tel. 871/700-2000; www.flybe.com) is based in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and has connections to Scotland from more U.K. airports than any other airline. Scotland's relatively small scale, notwithstanding the distant Orkneys and Shetlands, makes flights between many cities or towns impractical. An exception are the commuter flights between Glasgow and Edinburgh, which are very popular, especially with commercial travelers.
The cost of rail travel in Scotland is often quite low, and trains are generally punctual. Timetables are available at all stations, with free timetables covering only certain regions available at various stations. For £20, a Scottish Youth rail card (ages 16-18) is sold at major stations. Two passport-size photos are needed. It's estimated this card reduces all fares by one-third for 1 year.
If you plan much travel on European railroads, get the latest copy of the Thomas Cook European Timetable of Railroads. This 500-plus-page book documents all of Europe's main passenger-rail services with detail and accuracy. It's available on the Web at www.thomascooktimetables.com.
The Royal Scotsman (tel. 800/524-2420 or 401/884-0090; www.royalscotsman.com) is one of the most luxurious trains in the world -- called "a country house hotel on wheels." The train passes by ancient mountains and mysterious lochs, through glens and across villages as you live in sumptuous surroundings. It's like being the guest at a private party. The train carries a maximum of 36 guests, each passenger enjoying plenty of space. Plush beds and opulent bathrooms are the order of the day. The classic tour calls for 4 nights aboard, and goes from the panoramic Southern Highlands to the more rugged grandeur of the Western Highlands. Superb cuisine and a long list of fine wines and choice malt whiskies are more reasons to hop aboard.
For information on rail travel in Scotland, contact First ScotRail, Caledonian Chambers, 87 Union St., Glasgow G1 3TA, Scotland (tel. 0845/601-5929; www.firstgroup.com).
Eurailpass Warning -- Note that your Eurailpass is not valid on trains in Great Britain.
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. BritRail Consecutive Pass allows you to travel for a consecutive number of days for a flat rate. In first class adults pay $486 for 4 days, $697 for 8 days, $1,044 for 15 days, $1,325 for 22 days, and $1,568 for 1 month. In second class, fares are $323 for 4 days, $463 for 8 days, $697 for 15 days, $881 for 22 days, and $1,044 for 1 month. Seniors (60 and over) qualify for discounts in first-class travel and pay $413 for 4 days, $592 for 8 days, $887 for 15 days, $1,127 for 22 days, and $1,333 for 1 month of first-class travel. Passengers 25 and under qualify for a 2nd Class Youth Pass: $259 for 4 days, $370 for 8 days, $557 for 15 days, $704 for 22 days, and $835 for 1 month. One child (under age 15) can travel free with each adult or senior pass by requesting the BritRail Family Pass when 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 $465 for 4 days, $679 for 8 days, and $1,025 for 15 days of travel. Second class costs $315 for 4 days, $459 for 8 days, and $689 for 15 days of travel.
A pass for travel in England only, the BritRail England Consecutive Pass is sold at a price 20% lower than regular BritRail Passes, which cover rail travel throughout the U.K. (Britain, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland). Starting at $262 for 4 consecutive days of travel in standard class, the BritRail England Pass is also offered for 8, 15, or 22 consecutive days or 1 month or as a FlexiPass (days may be consecutive or nonconsecutive) for 4, 8, or 15 days within a 2-month period. It is also available in first class, starting at $413 and at discounted prices for seniors (60 and over) in first class and youth (25 and under) in standard class. As with other BritRail Passes, one child 14 and under may travel free when accompanied by an adult or senior purchasing a BritRail England Pass and requesting the Family Pass.
To call BritRail in the United States, dial tel. 877/677-1066. On the Web, BritRail Passes and vacation packages are presented at www.britrail.com and www.acpsecrets.com.
Travel Passes for Scotland -- If you plan to travel primarily in Scotland, the Scottish Tourist Authorities offer the Scottish Freedom Pass, with unlimited transportation on trains and most ferries throughout Scotland and discounts for bus travel. It includes access to obscure bus routes to almost forgotten hamlets, free rides on ferries operated by Caledonian MacBrayne, and discounted fares with P&O Scottish Lines. The ferries connect to the Western Islands, the islands of the Clyde, and the Orkneys.
The Freedom Pass covers the entire Scottish rail network and is usable from Carlisle, England (near the western Scotland-England border), and from Berwick-upon-Tweed, England (near the eastern Scotland-England border). In addition, if you have to fly into London and want to go straight to Scotland from there, a reduced rate is available for a round-trip ticket between London and Edinburgh or Glasgow for Travelpass holders.
The Freedom Pass is available for 4 days' travel over an 8-day period for $235 and 8 days' travel over a 15-day period for $315. For more information, contact BritRail.
By Bus (Coach)
No doubt about it, the cheapest means of transport from London to Scotland is the bus (coach). It's also the least expensive way to travel within Scotland.
All major towns have a local bus service, and every tourist office can provide details about half- or full-day bus excursions to scenic highlights. If you want to explore a particular area, you can often avail yourself of an economical bus pass.
Many adventurous travelers like to explore the country on one of the postal buses, which carry not only mail but also a limited number of passengers to rural areas. Ask at any local post office for details. A general timetable is available at the head post office in Edinburgh.
Scottish Citylink Coaches are a good bet. They link the major cities (Glasgow and Edinburgh) with the two most popular tourist centers, Inverness and Aviemore. Travel is fast and prices are low. For example, it takes only 3 hours to reach Aviemore from Edinburgh, and Inverness is just 3 1/2 hours from Edinburgh. A direct Scottish Citylink overnight coach makes the run from London to Aviemore and Inverness at reasonable fares.
Coaches offer many other popular runs, including links between Glasgow and Fort William, Inverness and Ullapool, and Glasgow and Oban. For details, contact Rapsons, 1 Seafield Rd., Inverness (tel. 01463/710-555; www.rapsons.co.uk), or Scottish Citylink, Buchanan Street Bus Station, Glasgow (tel. 08705/505-050; www.citylink.co.uk).
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.