Getting around, Car, Rail and Bus Travel for Visitors to Britain, England, Northern Island, Scotland and Wales
Britain has a well developed transport infrastructure, it is possible to travel almost anywhere by more than one means and on almost any day. It is always advisable to book in advance, especially during the summer months and around public holidays, this will often also result in worthwhile savings even just the day before, the further in advance the better, up to 90 days.
At a Glance
Greatest number of services to / from
Rail stations are often fairly central in towns and cities
More seat space (usually)
Great views of the countryside
First class carriages available
Late tickets available but can
Can be crowded during morning and evening busy periods
Connections needed to / from station
Usually the cheapest option (by
quite a margin)
Bus stations are often centrally placed and also have local bus services
Some coaches have a lift at the entrance for disabled passengers
May be extra costs for more than
Slower than car or rail
Not so many timetable or destination options
Connections needed to / from station
Maximum convenience, your own
Easily reach less visited places
Becomes relatively cheaper with more people
No connecting taxis or buses needed
Cars can be picked up and dropped off at different points
Cars drive on the left,
unfamiliar road and rules system
More tiring when driving
Route planning and finding
The British rail network is one of the densest and most used in the world, rail travel is the most popular form of public transport in Britain. The rolling stock is clean and generally modern with comfortable seating in groups of 2 or 4. As a rule of thumb, it is easier to travel north-south than it is east-west and many main lines radiate out from London, bear this in mind if you are planning a trip with extensive rail travel.
The fare structure is complex and can be bewildering thanks partly to a range of privatized operators, on the plus side you can buy tickets from just about anywhere on the mainland to anywhere else from any ticket seller and the ticket is good for the whole journey even if it requires a change of train and operator.
More than any other form of transport, you should always buy your train tickets in advance and look at alternative times and days, the same journey can cost £20 or £200 with the very low fares much vaunted but rare. Companies release their cheapest fixed-time Advance tickets, which are limited in number, around 90 days / 12 weeks before departure. There is no difference between slow and fast trains fare-wise, express trains stop less often, a later train can sometimes get to where you want before the earlier train.
The cheapest tickets are booked long in advance, have no refunds (if you miss the train), allow limited or no changes to the journey once booked and are at off-peak times. Peak time varies by route, it lasts longer around London for instance, try to avoid 06:30 - 09:30 and 15:30 - 18:30, all weekend trains are classed as off-peak. The most expensive tickets are for anytime and are flexible.
Travel cards are currently available for: 16-25 year olds / 26-30 year olds / Family and friends / adults and children travelling together / Seniors over 60 / Two named adults travelling together or the registered Disabled. They cost £30 per year and save 1/3rd off many fares (usually excluding peak times), depending on your journey, they can pay for themselves in a single ticket.
Travelling by train feels a more relaxed way of doing things, the journey is smooth and feels quiet and unhurried even though the actual outside speed may be very hurried indeed. It is also the most environmentally friendly option.
More comfortable than you might imagine, many long distance coaches have air-con, power sockets for phone and laptop charging and WiFi is becoming more common. Fares vary with the time of day (up to 2-3 x difference depending on departure time), the more flexible you are the cheaper. The more popular routes and times can be fully booked in advance, so don't expect to be able to turn up and buy a ticket on the day, it might be possible, but could be a big spanner in the works if it doesn't happen. You can book in advance before you reach the UK or do it here early on in your trip.
Travel cards are available from National Express (the biggest national coach operator), they cost £12.50 per year and are available to: 16-26 year olds, Seniors over 60 and the registered Disabled. They save 1/3rd off many fares and depending on your journey, they can pay for themselves in a single ticket.
Coach tours - A popular way of visiting many tourist attractions. Full or part-day day excursions from city centre bus stations are popular and convenient ways of visiting stately homes, theme parks and in the summer months especially to seaside towns or national parks. They are an easy way of making such visits without hiring a car, and unlike the train they go directly to the attraction itself avoiding another transfer from the station. They can fill up early, so make sure you buy your tickets in advance as turning up on the day can result in disappointment.
Note - in Britain a "bus" is the name given to vehicle that drives over local routes making multiple stops and could be a single or double decker, a "coach" is a vehicle that drives over longer routes between distant towns and cities which is almost always a single decker. The more rural the bus, the fewer of them and the more expensive the fare.
Driving yourself around by car is a great way to see Britain, especially those less frequented tourist places and destinations such as national parks and coastlines where the whole area is worth visiting though it's not so easy to get to other than the main tourist spots. Cars can be hired for a short time mid-week for much cheaper than at weekends.
An easy way of adding another dimension to your trip to Britain is to take a few days out from the big city and explore the smaller towns and villages, the countryside, and the coastal sights and settlements, of which we have a very disproportionate amount for our size thanks to a very long, convoluted coast line and extensive maritime past.
A few nights in a bed and breakfast moving along each day or striking out in a different direction each day from the same base will give you a different perspective, and you'll likely be seen as an interesting curiosity to people who don't see so many tourists rather than being nothing very unusual in the larger cities.
There are many options for hiring cars in the
UK. and they don't always have to be returned to
where you collected them from or they can be delivered
to where you are staying.
More about driving a hire car in Britain