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  • Joanne Herd

Traveling in England: Train or Car

I made absolutely sure I had all the insurance you could possibly buy before I hit the road. It was my first time renting a car with an RHD (right-hand-drive), and I was more than a little nervous.


I lost track of how many times I said “stay left!” to myself. I know it was a lot!


But the strangest part was that I had to keep reminding myself that the gas and brake are in the same places they are on my car at home.


For some reason, when I was sitting on the other side, it seemed like everything should be reversed, but it’s not.


When you rent a car in England, or any country where you drive to the left, everything is laid out exactly like your car in America or mainland Europe, except it’s all moved to the other side of the car.


So you don’t have to try and remember where the turn signal is, or which side the gas and brake are on. But it was still so backwards to me I wasn’t sure I’d ever figure it out.


After a couple of hours, I was ready to be done. No major incidents, other than temporarily forgetting which side those pesky pedals are on and hitting the gas instead of the brake. 


Fortunately the only thing that suffered injury was the hedgerow. It’s probably still short a few branches, sacrificed to the orange rental car with the American driver.


At the end of the day, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to try driving in England again. But we had the car for two days, so I made myself give it another go. And something amazing happened overnight.


This won’t happen for everyone, but for some reason the second day driving was so much easier. My brain seemed to have rewired itself overnight, and the driving just made sense!


The next time we rented a car, it wasn’t an issue at all. Now driving on the left comes quite naturally. In fact, if I’ve driven in the UK, when we get home I don’t drive home from the airport because everything at home will feel backwards for a few days.


Who knew that a couple of weeks doing things the opposite way could override more than 20 years of driving experience here!


When it comes to traveling in England, it’s important to know your options, as well as if you’re comfortable with the idea of renting a car.


Traveling in England by train


England has an extensive train network, and if you’re planning to visit larger cities and towns it may make sense to travel by train.


The UK doesn’t have a single rail operator like some other European countries. Instead, the rail system is made up of 28 major rail operators, each with their own distinct trains and areas they serve.


To start planning a rail journey in England, head to the National Rail website. As you search, you can see every option for where you want to travel, and then you book the ticket directly with the operator that runs the rounte.


Some lines are higher speed, but not as fast as you’ll find in France or Italy, and others are more like commuter trains. Each rail operator has a specific station in London that they operate out of.


So if you’re taking Great Western Railways out to Oxford or Bath, you know you’ll be departing from Paddington. If you’re heading north to York or Edinburgh, you’ll go to King’s Cross to take LNER.


Always make sure you know which London rail station you’re departing from to help your journey start off smoothly.


Train Travel in England: Pros and Cons


Taking the train can be a simple, low-stress way to see England. But with every mode of travel, there are both pros and cons.


Pros:

  • Low stress

  • Easy and affordable

  • Environmentally friendly

  • No traffic and you can’t get lost

  • Large cities and towns are easily accessible


Cons:

  • Less control over when you travel

  • More difficult to deal with changes and cancellations

  • Small towns and villages are much harder to get to

  • Not able to set your own schedule

  • Carrying luggage on and off trains


Finding and boarding your train


When you arrive at the station, most likely your train won’t be assigned a platform yet. That’s why you’ll see crowds of people around the schedule boards.


You’ll need to know the final destination of your train and/or the train number, since the trains are listed by time and final destination. The other stops the train calls at will be listed, but it’s a whole lot less stressful if you know the final destination or train number.


If you’ve downloaded the app for your train line, it may have a platform listed for your train. Don’t trust it. I almost got on a train to a completely different destination my first time because the app was wrong. Always go by what the boards say.


Once the platform is announced, you’ll scan your ticket to get through the barrier and go to the platform.


If you have an assigned seat, you’ll see both the carriage (usually a letter) and the seat listed. Sometimes the trains pull in with the lower letters carriages first, other times they’ll pull in with the higher letters first. Unless you’re running for the train because you’re late, it’s much easier to walk down the platform to your carriage than to get on and try to make your way through the train.


Once you find your carriage, head to your assigned seat. If someone is already sitting in it, just let them know you have that seat assigned and they’ll move somewhere else. Or, if the car isn’t full, you can sit elsewhere if you prefer.


Over the seats you’ll see red and green lights with words next to them. If the light is red, that seat is assigned. The words next to the color will tell you if it's assigned for the full journey, or just part of the way.


For example, when I take the train from Paddington to Bath, the final destination is often Bristol. So my seat will have a red light with the words “LON PAD to BATH SPA”. That means the seat is reserved from London Paddington to Bath Spa. If someone gets on at Bath heading to Bristol, they can feel free to sit in that seat because it isn’t reserved for that portion of the journey.


If you choose not to reserve a seat, you can sit in a reserved seat if you’d like. Just be aware that if the person who reserved that seat comes you’ll need to move. Many people will reserve a seat in case the train is full, but if it isn’t the’ll just pick a seat anywhere and never go to their reserved seat.


For trains that don’t have reserved seats you can sit in any open seat.


Getting to and from the train station


Train stations in cities and larger towns will have taxi ranks outside. Smaller towns and villages don’t have taxi ranks, so it’s good to pre-arrange a taxi. There is usually a sign with phone numbers for the local taxi companies, so if you haven’t arranged a taxi you can call and have one come as long as a taxi is available.


Uber is an option in some cities, but don’t plan on calling for a ride with Uber unless you’ve already made sure that it’s available where you’re going. It’s not that the service itself isn’t available, because Uber is all over the UK, but they may not have any drivers in the area you’re going to.


Your hotel can usually assist with arranging a taxi back to the train station, or if you’ve booked your trip with a travel advisor (like Girasole Travel) they can help make arrangements in advance.


Rail strikes and cancellations


The UK is dealing with frequent rail strikes and cancellations, so if you’re planning to use the train as your primary transportation you’ll want to be aware of any industrial action coming up.


All industrial action in England is planned and disclosed to the public, usually several days or more in advance. The National Rail website will post any upcoming industrial action at the top of their homepage.


Just because there is industrial action planned, it doesn’t mean your trip is affected. Rail operators strike at different times, so make sure you know which operator you’re traveling with.


When you view the notice on the National Rail website, you'll see something like this.


A screenshot of the National Rail industrial action notification showing affected train operators and dates in England

Even if your operator is affected by a strike, check to see if your specific train is expected to be impacted. If it is, make alternate arrangements as soon as possible.


If your train is delayed or canceled, the UK has robust consumer protection measures in place to protect passengers. Each rail operator has a specific “delay repay” submission and repayment portal, so if you are delayed by more than 15 minutes check to see if you’re entitled to a full or partial refund.


Traveling in England by car


When you travel by car, all of England is open for you to explore. From the smallest hamlets and villages to the largest cities, you can go where you want, when you want.


If you’re renting a car, all the major car rental companies have a presence in the UK. You can rent any type of vehicle, from a luxury sports car to a car so small you can practically pick it up and carry it with you.


Keep in mind that cars in England, and Europe in general, are much smaller than we’re used to. Just because you’re renting a car, don’t think that means you can take a ton of luggage.


Most cars can fit 2 medium to large suitcases in the trunk (or boot, as they’re called in England). Many cars are hatch-back, so you may be able to stack a smaller suitcase on top.


The most I’ve been able to fit into a car, which was considered a large SUV by British standards, is two large suitcases, two very small suitcases, and two backpacks.


If there are only one or two passengers you can put luggage in the back seat, but keep in mind that it isn’t secure if you stop someplace. At large tourist destinations it could become a target for thieves, which is the last thing you want to deal with on vacation.


Renting a car in England: Pros and Cons


The freedom to go where you’d like whenever you want can be very appealing, but there are pros and cons to renting a car in the UK.


Pros:

  • Set your own schedule

  • No juggling luggage on and off of trains

  • Able to explore small villages and scenic roads


Cons:

  • Navigating

  • Driving on the opposite side

  • Finding parking in some locations

  • Cost of the rental, insurance and fuel


Renting a car


You can choose to rent a car directly from the airport, or there are also rental locations in many smaller cities and towns.


If you choose to rent a car from London Heathrow, there is an additional daily tax of approximately 16% added to the rental. That can make it quite expensive, especially when you factor in insurance and charges for adding a second driver.


But renting from smaller cities isn’t always more cost effective, especially if you want to rent in one location and drop off in another. If you are concerned about the cost, do a bit of research to find out which is the better option for your trip.


If you're nervous about renting a car in England, you may prefer to rent from a smaller city instead of from Heathrow. My first time renting I picked up the car out by Windsor, and the second time was in Oxford. Both of those allowed me to get out onto smaller roads quickly without dealing with much traffic.


Make sure you know what, if anything, is covered by your insurance before you rent your car. Many credit cards also have some coverage for rental cars, so you’ll want to be familiar with what is covered prior to reserving your car.


If you’re traveling for a longer period of time, some companies also offer short-term leases. This can be more cost effective than renting if you’re traveling for several weeks.


Some rentals offer unlimited mileage, others have a mileage cap. If you’re renting a car with a maximum mileage, know approximately how far you’re planning to travel so you don’t go over.


Places in England aren’t as far apart as most Americans are used to, so you may not actually drive as far as you think. England is smaller than the state of New York, and the entire United Kingdom is smaller than the state of Michigan.


When you rent a car, you'll be offered roadside assistance at an additional cost. If you're a member of AAA, there is a reciprocal agreement between AAA and the British Automobile Association. Check to see what is covered and if you need or want any additional coverage from the rental car company.


Driving English roads


The roads in England can come as a bit of a surprise to Americans. This is a country where towns and villages were built when horses and carriages were the norm. They were single-track roads and didn’t need much room to pass. That means a lot of the roads are really, really narrow.


If you’re going a long distance, you’re probably going to hop on one of the M's, which are similar to a freeway or interstate. They’re major, multi-lane divided roads with a speed usually around 70 miles per hour. England uses miles, not kilometers, so speeds are the same there as they are in the states.


The A's and B's are major roads that connect towns and cities, but “major” doesn’t always mean they’re large roads. In some places they’re divided highways, with one or two lanes in each direction.


But going through towns and villages they can be very narrow. I’ve come across many places where they narrow to one lane.


That’s one lane total, not one lane in each direction. Sometimes they’re signed which way has priority, other times you just pack your patience and take turns.


Then there are the smaller roads and lanes. Often these are so narrow there’s only room for one car, but they’re signed at a speed of 60 miles per hour. As the highway code puts it, the speed is a limit, not a target. Just because it says 60 MPH doesn’t mean you should try to go 60 MPH.


These narrow roads have slightly wider areas from time to time where two cars can (barely) pass. If there’s a car coming towards you you’ll want to get as far to the left as possible in one of these areas to let them pass.


If you come up to a car and there’s no passing area, one car will have to reverse until you get to a point where you can pass each other. Always look as far ahead of you as possible, and be prepared to stop or pull to the side.


It's not unusual to find major roads that are so narrow there are no lines on the sides or in the center. Cars pass at a speed of 45-50 MPH, and no one thinks anything of it.


Many cars are manual transmission, but even though I learned on a manual and have always enjoyed driving them, I’m not inclined to rent a manual transmission in the UK.


There’s enough to deal with driving on the other side of the road with different laws and customs without throwing a manual transmission into the mix!


When to rent a car vs. taking the train


If you want to visit certain parts of England, you’ll need a car. The Cotswolds are a prime area to drive, since most of the towns don’t have train stations. Some are connected by bus, but often it’s not even a daily bus service.


I also prefer a car if I’m planning to visit gardens, castles or country estates. Many of them are a significant distance outside of the nearest town, making them difficult to visit without transportation.


If your trip will revolve around larger cities and towns with train stations, you can definitely plan a trip using only trains and taxis. But for those smaller, more rural locations you’ll need a car.


Hiring a driver in England


If you don’t want to travel by train but aren’t comfortable driving or simply don’t want the stress of a self-drive trip, a car and driver can be a great option.


By combining the freedom of a self-drive trip with the stress-free travel experience that comes with having someone else do the driving, you have the best of both worlds.


You can hire a car and driver for the entire trip, or you can choose to travel between destinations by train and have a different car and driver each day or at each location. I work with companies that provide both services, so which way you do it is up to you.


If you’d like the same car and driver throughout your trip, expect to pay significantly more than you would with different drivers each day or in each location. Since your driver will be traveling with you, you’ll also be covering the cost of their meals and lodging.


When you hire each driver locally you’ll pay for their time and cost of the car, but they’ll be able to return home at the end of the day.


You have the option of hiring a driver or a driver/guide.


A driver will take you to various places and pick you up after you’re done, but they won’t be taking you inside. They’ll probably have plenty of information to share with you, but they aren’t actually a guide.


With a guide who is also your driver you can expect to discover a lot more about each place you’re visiting. Your guide can take you inside of estates, gardens, and museums and show you the things you’d be most interested in.


They won’t always be allowed to do so, since some places have their own licensed guides, but a combination guide and driver will give you the most high-touch experience.


When you plan a trip to England with a knowledgeable travel advisor (like Girasole Travel), you get access to the best drivers and guides in England. For a truly unique experience we can even get access to private homes, gardens, and collections that you wouldn’t be able to visit otherwise. 


The bottom line


Both train and car are great ways to travel around England. Depending on what you’d like to do and see, one may make more sense than the other for your trip.


Regardless of which you choose, you’re sure to have a memorable experience diving into the wealth of history and culture you find in England.


Are you planning a trip to England? Check out our other England travel blog posts. If you’re ready to start planning your next trip, contact us to get started.

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