Last Updated on October 7, 2020 by Anisa
As I spend more time in England, I notice more cultural differences between the two countries. Of course, we do share the same language (sort of) but other things have surprised me. Let’s take road trips as an example.
You might think doing a road trip in the UK might be the same as one in the US. Of course, there are similarities, but for those of you planning a road trip around the UK, I thought I would share some of the differences between driving in the UK vs the US. I experienced it first hand during my recent UK road trip to the Isle of Skye.
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How is Driving Different in the UK?
Driving in the UK is very different from driving in the US. It’s important to know what to expect so that you will be prepared and not be caught off guard. Additionally, knowing the rules of the road in the UK can help prevent accidents.
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Which Side of the Road?!
The most obvious difference is the side of the road that you drive on. In the US, we drive on the right side so obviously, that means in the UK you have to drive on the wrong side. Luckily, I have Russell who is used to this and drove the whole time! For those of you that have never driven on the left, Katherine did not have issues driving on the left in Anguilla.
It can take some getting used to, but it does help that the driver in British cars sits on the other side. I do not recommend trying to drive a car from the US or mainland Europe in the UK, it will just confuse you more. It also makes it harder to see around cars if you want to pass and to judge your position on the road.
You would not think that driving on the other side of the road would affect me as a passenger, but it did. Not only did I forget and try to get in on the driver’s side, but I had difficulties navigating. It felt weird to be sitting on the left as a passenger.
This sometimes caused me to get my left and right confused. I would know that we needed to turn towards my side, but as the passenger, I would think that would be a right turn instead of left. Oh and all the roundabouts make navigating more difficult too!
Americans, in general, are not used to dealing with roundabouts. In England, you will find roundabouts everywhere. Some people think it’s as simple as driving around the circle and they exiting when needed, but there are official roundabout rules that you need to follow. These rules help prevent accidents. In some cases, you will come across a spot in the road instead of an actual roundabout, the rules still apply.
One of my most important tips for US drivers in the UK is to familiarize yourself with how to drive through roundabouts. You can find a more detailed explanation of roundabout rules here.
UK vs US Roads
When you think about American vs. British roads, you wouldn’t think there would be much of a difference – wrong! I think the roads in the UK are more narrow than in the US. While the lanes can be tighter, there are fewer lanes. There are also many country roads that don’t have any shoulder.
During our road trip around England and Scotland, we even had to drive on many one lane roads that were for two way traffic. They had what they called passing places for cars to pass each other. However, if you weren’t close to a passing place when you met the car coming from the other direction, someone has to reverse to allow the other one to pass. Plus, in the Isle of Skye, you sometimes had to share the road with animals – sheep and cows.
Also, in some places, it was difficult to tell if it was one way or two-way traffic. In the US, a yellow dotted or solid line signifies that it is two-way traffic. However, in the UK, the center line was white even if it was for two way traffic. If it was a narrow road, there might not be any markings and you might not know it was two way until you come across a car going the other direction.
Both the US and UK have some areas that have toll roads/bridges/tunnels. There are 23 across the UK – 18 of those are river crossings. In the US, you may need a toll tag or EZPass or something similar depending on the area. In the UK, many of the tolls can be paid online. You just need to make sure you go online and pay it timely. Payment is tracked by license plate number.
There are also still a few toll spots where you need cash though. I would recommend checking your route on Google maps in advance and see if you will be passing through any tolls. If so, it might be best to google that specific toll to find out how to handle the payment.
From my experience, free parking in the UK is rare. Some shops may have it but only for a limited time, so be sure to check the signs. I was surprised that even small towns in England charged for parking.
They have a few different methods for charging for parking – pay and display or pay by foot are the most common. For pay and display, you must estimate how long you will stay, pay for it when you park, and then display the receipt on your dashboard. For pay by foot, you get a ticket when you enter and then when you leave take that ticket to a machine and pay for the time you have been there.
Also, it’s a good idea to have small change with you. Some parking machine take credit cards but many do not. Usually, the machines that don’t take cards will not give you any change.
Cell Service in the UK
Also, I feel like there are a lot more areas in the UK where you can’t get any cell service. This can make it hard to navigate if you are using the GPS on your phone. Russell bought an Atlas (like this one) just in case, but it was still difficult to find and navigate to specific sites. We have gotten so spoiled by Google!
Luckily I remembered that if you download the maps you need in advance, you can use Google Maps even if you don’t have service. The travel blog Tales from a Fork, explains how to do it. You will definitely want to download the offline maps when you are planning a road trip in England or Scotland.
Road Side Services
I liked the rest stops or services, as they called them, in the UK better. I know in some places in the US the rest stops can just be bathrooms and picnic tables. Sometimes if it is a truck stop, you get a gas station and two fast food places together. You have to be lucky to find a clean bathroom. (Buc-ees is definitely the exception in the US.)
In the UK, the services we stopped at always had restrooms, several options for food, and a drug store or convenience store. Many of the services we came across while touring England and Scotland by car actually had Marks and Spencer Simply Foods. You can find some tasty snacks there.
While every place we stopped seemed to be out of my favorite chocolate-covered caramel corn, we got Scotch eggs, pork pies, and other British sweets! Any road trip needs fun snacks. Be sure to check out my road trip packing list for more suggestions on what to bring.
I thought it was smart that the services were easy to access regardless of what side of the road you were on. Both sides of the highway had options and then there was a pedestrian crossing so that you could easily access what was on the other side of the road. So clever, not sure why we don’t see this more in the US.
UK Speed Limit and Speed Cameras
While some road signs were similar to what you would see driving in the US, there are more different ones in the UK. For example, in the UK, they also have a national speed limit. Cars have a limit of 60 mph on highways or signal carriageway (as they call it) or 70 mph on a divided highway or dual carriageway. So when it is the national speed limit, you will not see speed limit signs with numbers. Instead, you will see a white circular sign with a black stripe diagonally across it.
Also, thank goodness I have not seen average speed cameras in the US. These have to be one of the most evil inventions of recent time. There is no escaping them. The cameras take a picture of your car when you enter the zone and then also when you exit. Then it calculates what your average speed was.
I know getting cars to slow down saves lives but it tests your patience when you are driving. Luckily, there are warning signs when you enter the area, so you can avoid the ticket, but you can’t speed. You will also see regular speed cameras in the UK, but always with warning signs. In the US, you find the speed cameras well hidden.
Tips for US drivers in the UK
As you can see, there are some real differences with road trips in the US and in the UK. You have to worry about narrow roads, roundabouts, and average speed cameras to name a few! Still, I definitely plan on doing more driving trips in England – the gorgeous countryside is worth it.
If you plan on driving in the UK, keep in mind these key tips:
- Be sure you are familiar with the different road signs rules, especially the roundabouts before you get behind the wheel.
- Be more cautious about your speed as it can change frequently and there are average speed cameras.
- Download google maps so you can use it when you are offline.
Have you ever done a road trip in another country? I would love to hear about your experience.
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