Should You Rent a Car When You Visit the UK?

road on the Isle of Skye in the UK through the mountains on a cloudy day
by Anisa // 0 Comments

You want to get out and see more than just London when you visit the United Kingdom, so you might be thinking about renting a car (or hiring one as the British say).  It’s an important decision that can make or break your trip.

Let’s take a look at some of the factors you need to consider when deciding if you should rent a car when you visit the UK.

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Driving in the UK

Driving in the UK has its quirks that may differ from what you’re used to in other countries. For starters, they drive on the left side of the road, which might feel a bit odd if you’re used to driving on the right.

You’ll notice fewer traffic lights around, mainly because roundabouts are widely used instead. Understanding the rules governing how to use roundabout entry is essential, as is staying in the correct lane. Stick to the guidelines, and roundabouts work like a charm; otherwise you could easily find yourself in a fender bender.

Also, you need to be prepared for some narrow roads, especially in rural areas where you will find some single-track roads. These roads are technically for two-way traffic but can fit only one vehicle at a time. So, when you encounter another car, you’ll need to find one of those passing places to let each other through.

As an American living in the UK, I do not enjoy driving here. The narrow roads and unfamiliar road layouts give me the most anxiety. I am lucky that I have Russell who is British and comfortable driving here so that we can explore the country by car.

In short, driving in the UK can be quite stressful if you lack experience with its unique road rules and conditions. Read more about the differences between UK and US roads here.

If you want to learn all the rules for driving in the UK, you can get a copy of the Highway Code here.

Public Transportation in the UK

Public transportation in the UK provides a viable alternative for those who prefer not to drive. Called public transport by the Brits, its quality and availability vary across different regions of the UK.

You can use Google maps to help determine the best route. Consider the overall journey time, number of changes, and walking time in addition to the cost.

London Public Transportation

London boasts an exceptional public transportation system, renowned for its efficiency and affordability. If you are only visiting London, you do not need to rent a car as it is easier to get around using the Tube and bus.

train entering an underground station in london
The tube is my favorite way to get around London.

The Tube, London’s underground railway network, offers swift and convenient travel with clear signage to guide passengers. While buses occasionally run into traffic delays, they provide comprehensive coverage throughout the city, ensuring accessibility to various destinations.

double decker bus traveling past St. Paul's in London
While the bus may get stuck in traffic, you do get a nice view traveling around London.

In London, you do also have the option to use Uber or black cabs. These can be a good option when traffic is good (like late at night), but they can also be expensive.

Train Travel in the UK

Beyond London, trains and buses serve as primary modes of public transportation. Although trains typically offer faster travel times, they tend to be more expensive. Booking tickets in advance for specific departure times will help you save money compared to flexible fares.

Different train companies operate across the UK, each varying in terms of comfort and cleanliness. Generally, I feel like trains in the UK are better than those in the US as most are more modern.

You can check out train options and pricing here.

Bus Travel in the UK

national express bus in route
The National Express buses provide a comfortable ride.

National Express is the largest provider of bus services in the UK. While their buses are known for comfort and affordability, it does take longer to get to your destination than if you were to take a train. Compared to the buses I have been on in the US, the National Express buses feel more upscale. Local bus services vary considerably when it comes to reliability and comfort depending on the provider.

You can see National Express routes and pricing here.

Pros of Renting a Car in the UK

Renting a car in the UK offers several advantages that can enhance your travel experience. Firstly, you’re liberated from the constraints of public transportation schedules. Instead of following fixed timetables, you have the freedom to start on your journey whenever you please, which gives you more convenience and flexibility.

Moreover, renting a car grants you the freedom to explore diverse destinations without being bound by the limitations of public transport routes. You can venture off the beaten path, discovering hidden gems and scenic routes that may not be accessible by train or bus.

Additionally, having your own wheels allows you to make spontaneous stops along the way, whether it’s to admire a breathtaking view, explore a charming village, or sample local foods. This flexibility adds an element of adventure to your trip, enabling you to tailor your itinerary according to your preferences and interests.

Overall, renting a car in the UK empowers you to seize control of your travel experience, offering unmatched convenience, freedom, and flexibility to embark on memorable adventures at your own pace.

Cons of Renting a Car in the UK

Renting a car in the UK also comes with its share of drawbacks to consider. Firstly, navigating UK roads can be stressful, particularly if you’re accustomed to driving on the right side of the road. Adjusting to driving on the left and adapting to unfamiliar traffic rules and signage may pose challenges, leading to increased anxiety behind the wheel.

Another potential inconvenience is the limited availability of automatic transmission rental cars. While manual transmission vehicles are the norm in the UK, finding an automatic rental can be challenging and may require advanced booking or additional costs. (Although I do see this changing as electric and hybrid cars become more popular.)

Additionally, fuel costs in the UK can be relatively high compared to other countries. This expense can significantly impact your travel budget, particularly if you plan to cover long distances during your trip.

Furthermore, parking in urban areas and popular tourist destinations can be both difficult and expensive. Limited parking spaces, strict regulations, and high parking fees contribute to the hassle of finding suitable parking, adding frustration and inconvenience to your journey.

You may also have to deal with road works as they call them in the UK. It seems like there are always diversions to get around road construction that can had time to your journeys, especially if you plan on driving overnight.

Remember, adverse weather conditions like heavy rain, strong winds, or snow are common occurrences in the UK. These conditions can significantly escalate the stress and risks associated with driving, leading to longer travel times and heightened safety concerns.

Overall, while renting a car in the UK provides freedom and flexibility, it’s essential to consider these potential downsides, such as the stress of driving on unfamiliar roads, limited availability of automatic vehicles, high fuel costs, likely bad weather, and challenges with parking, before making your decision.

Should you rent a car when you visit the UK? 

If your plans primarily involve exploring London, renting a car isn’t necessary. The city’s extensive public transportation system, including the Tube, buses, along with walking, is a convenient and efficient way to get around.

Even if you plan on visiting more parts of the UK, opting out of renting a car may be a wise choice if you are feeling nervous about driving in the UK. The trains and buses can offer a less stressful alternative, allowing you to navigate the city and beyond with ease.

Instead of renting a car, you should consider using London as your home base and venturing out on day trips to nearby cities using public transport. Places like Cambridge, Oxford, Norwich, Bath, Canterbury, Salisbury, and Colchester are all easily accessible by train, offering rewarding excursions without the hassle of driving.

If your itinerary includes exploring rural areas of the UK (like the Cotswolds), renting a car could be the best solution. However, it’s crucial to adequately prepare yourself beforehand and familiarize yourself with UK road signs, roundabout rules, and other unique aspects of driving in the country.

Should you rent a car when you are traveling in the UK alone? 

It’s understandable to have reservations about renting a car in the UK when traveling solo. The road system in the UK can indeed be less straightforward compared to places with grid layouts, and having a companion to navigate can be extremely helpful.

Without another person to assist with directions, solo travelers may find it more challenging to navigate unfamiliar roads and roundabouts, which could be stressful and frustrating. Therefore, if you’re traveling alone and not confident in your navigation abilities or prefer not to handle the complexities of UK roads solo, relying on public transportation or alternative modes of travel may be a more suitable option.

Choosing the Right Transportation Option to Get Around in the UK

In summary, while renting a car in the UK provides flexibility, you should consider the complexities of the road system and the potential need for help with navigation, regardless of whether you are traveling alone or with companions. Exploring alternative transportation options can help ensure a smoother and more enjoyable journey for all.

So what do you think is the best way for you to travel around the UK? Will you rent a car or use public transportation?


road leading to London with text overlay - Should you rent a car when traveling in the UK? - UK Travel

Expert Tips for Hiring a Car in the UK

  • Make sure you understand the rules of the road for the UK.  It is different than many other places.
  • If you need an automatic car, be sure to book in advance and be prepared for it to be more expensive.
  • If you don’t already have travel insurance, you can check out different options available through Travel Insurance Master here.

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Last Updated on June 26, 2024

About the Author

Anisa is an experienced international traveler with extra pages in her passport and stamps from 41 different countries across 5 continents (and counting). She was born and raised in Texas. After a 13 year stint in NYC, she moved to England to live with her husband.