The United Kingdom is a wonderful country for touring. Within a relatively small area, England, Scotland, Wales, and the offshore islands offer such a variety of landscape, culture, food, and activity that it's really a shame not to experience some of that variety yourself.
If you tend not to venture far from the starting place of your UK vacation, maybe it's because you're not sure what transportation options are available, what they cost, how to book them, and whether you'll even like them. After all, you didn't cross an ocean or a continent to get to Great Britain just to spend your time rushing around or stressing over travel plans.
If you can zero in on your travel style, that should help to point you in the direction of your own "best" way to get around the UK. Be realistic - about what you like, what you can put up with, and what you can afford - and see where that leads you. What kind of traveler is the real you?
You're a Rambler and a Gambler
- What you like: You like to go off the main routes to wind your way along country roads and byways, discovering villages, landmarks, markets, gardens, beautiful scenery, quaint country pubs, and hidden valleys as they come. If you plan at all, it's got to be loose; perhaps you aim to be in a certain region or a particular city on a certain day but want to be spontaneous along the way. You love surprises.
- How you'll travel: Nothing beats the spontaneity of a car on the open road - except, perhaps, a bicycle. You can cover as many miles as you feel like and stop to explore where and when you please. You could, of course, try doing that with a bicycle but, unless you are super fit, the trip becomes more about cycling than touring. And, on a bicycle, you can't take the motorways or busy roads to make up a little time.
Travel tip: Even during the high season, you should be able to find a room for the night in B&B's, chain hotels, and pubs with rooms along the way. But make a few advance reservations in destination cities or big towns along the way, as they'll be more likely to be booked up.
- The Pros:
- Freedom of the road.
- A chance to visit out of the way places and make discoveries, to go off-piste.
- Almost no toll roads in the UK.
- The Cons:
- Petrol is expensive.
- Parking can be hard to find, inconvenient or expensive.
- Motorway driving is fast and you can be hemmed in by gigantic semis (called lorries or articulated lorries in the UK).
- Breakdowns or flat tires waste time.
- Brits drive on the left side of the road.
- London and Durham now have daily Congestion Charging schemes for cars and more cities are considering implementing them.
- The average rental car has a standard transmission.
- Tips for Drivers:
- Carry plenty of change. When popular towns and market towns have city center parking it's usually on a "pay and display" basis. You buy a ticket with cash from a machine and display it prominently on your dashboard.
- Take advantage of Park and Ride facilities when you see them. Medieval towns and cities can be one-way nightmares to drive in. Using an inexpensive parking lot on the edge of town, with bus or minivan service to the town center is a sustainable and stress-free compromise.
You’re a Campaign Planner
- What you like: You plan every detail of your trip with military precision and you enjoy the challenge. You like to know where you'll be on any given day, how long it will take you to get there and what it will cost. You prefer to pay for as much as you possibly can in advance. You have a clear itinerary of destinations and you don't want to waste time messing about en route.
- How you'll travel: It's clear you should take the train. In the UK, except in really foul weather or when "the wrong kinds of leaves" get on the line, the trains run pretty much on time. While not luxurious, most of the Intercity express trains are clean and comfortable, though local and commuter lines can be grotty and even unheated in winter on occasion.
- The Pros:
- Convenience - There is probably nowhere that is more than a 10 miles from a train station, anywhere in the UK.
- Schedules - Arrivals and departures are relatively predictable.
- Buy tickets online from anywhere in the world, collect them from machines at stations when you need them.
- Trains are more sustainable than cars.
- You can take a bicycle - or a pet - on a train.
- Tickets are good value if you plan ahead and buy in advance or travel "off-peak".
- Stations are almost always in or very near the center of town.
- You can enjoy views of the countryside without trying to find turn-offs and be watching traffic and speed.
- The Cons:
- Best value tickets limit you to your specifically booked train and journey. Miss it, or get on or off at a different stop and you'll have to pay full fare.
- Other passengers - Crowds of secondary school boys, crying babies or noisy phone users - can be irritating.
- Little, if any, spontaneity.
- You may have to hump heavy luggage up and down stairs and in and out of trains by yourself.
- Miss seeing most of the smaller villages and hamlets.
- Train toilets - They never get better. Ditto for train coffee.
You're a Budget Backpacker or the Senior Explorer
- What you like: You're probably on a tight budget and you don't like to spend more than you have to. But you'd still like to do a bit of exploring and you want to be able to make last minute changes in your travel plans if something interesting comes up.
- How you'll travel: Coaches (what intercity buses are called in the UK) are your choice. They are economical and the main bus and coach companies visit most places, making multiple stops in the bigger cities.
- The Pros:
- Coach travel is cheap - If you book in advance it can be even cheaper and with senior and student or youth fares, even cheaper than that.
- You can usually buy your ticket on the day of travel, sometimes from the coach driver.
- Modern intercity coaches have toilets, wifi, television or DVD players, and snacks.
- Your luggage is safely stowed in the hold.
- The Cons:
- Comfort and quality of coaches and stations vary from luxurious to dire.
- Limited room onboard for carryon luggage, packed lunches, and water bottles.
- If traveling alone, you may not like your seatmate.
- Traffic jams can delay your journey just as if you were driving.
- If you tend to get carsick, you may be unable to read or relax.
- Less popular destinations may involve multiple changes and layovers in bus stations - occasionally for several hours.
- If you dawdle at rest stops, you can get left behind.