In our driving, the United Kingdom is an experience that can be described as "interesting". Most of our team has visited St. Thomas, USVI (where the maximum speed limit is 35 mph) and have thus driven on the left-hand side of the road! Fewer of our team has combined driving on the left-hand side of the road, right-hand drive, and a manual transmission! So what is it like to drive in the U.K.? Read on for some facts and tips!
Download the British Driving Manual
As a sign I passed on the M3 Motorway stated, "There is No Excuse for Poor Driving". Download The British Highway Code. Read The British Highway Code. Print out relevant sections if you think you might get stuck at some point in time. If one's driven in Continental Europe before, the signage will be familiar as there's a loose "standard" we've mentioned in a previous blog post. Yet there are still critical variations from one country to another.
And Speaking of Manuals, Let's Get the Obvious Ones Out of the Way
Vehicles in the U.K. travel on the left-hand side of the road. It may take a while to remember left-hand turns don't cross a lane of traffic while right-hand turns will! Picking up the car at the airport, the copious number of traffic circles will definitely accelerate the adjustment process!
The driver sits on the right-hand side of the car. At major airports, one's likely to have a choice between booking an automatic and a manual (manuals tend to be much less expensive than automatics). The gear-shift in a manual transmission is on the driver's left, although all other controls are in familiar locations (clutch on left, gas on right). The shift pattern still remains the same -- 1st gear at the top left, so now at the furthest point from the driver. What did I learn as someone who drives a manual every day in the U.S.? My shoulders ached after a 5.5-hour drive as the actions taken by each arm were opposite of those in the United States!
Know which way to look for Motorists and Pedestrians
About to drive in the U.K.? It may help if one's already been a pedestrian in the U.K. Given the reversal of driving lanes, one has to anticipate traffic coming from the "wrong" direction. While walking around some quasi-tourist areas of London, I was surprised to see "Look Left" or "Look Right" painted at the edge of crosswalks. In many parts of the world, we're accustomed to looking for traffic from another direction. The U.K. provides helpful notes to help train pedestrians, many of whom are visitors!
One Could Drive to the Other End in a Day
Long-haul driving is an exception, rather than the norm. Staff at my hotel were shocked that I had just driven from London-Heathrow to Yorkshire. Part of that relates to traffic patterns. Google Maps said it was a 3.5-hour drive; due to variable speed limits, the drive was 5.5 hours. Even the motorist services (travel plazas) on the major motorways have hotels.
What's a variable speed limit?
That means the speed limit can change based upon real (or perceived) traffic conditions, such as a suspected disabled vehicle, accident, debris in the road, or heavy traffic. While the speed limit is ordinarily 70 mph on a motorway and 60 mph on a dual carriageway, those speed limits can change from minute-to-minute in a variable speed limit zone. On multiple occasions, I saw the speed limit change as I was approaching a sign.
There are cameras everywhere, and it's not paparazzi
Have you seen La Dolce Vita? That film is the origin of the term paparazzi. Drive over the speed limit in the U.K. and your photo may be taken many times! However, it would be by the government. Thinking of speeding? Don't. Think the government's recording your every move? Don't look for the cameras, as there are signs suggesting they are all over. It's not a good idea to test which zones have cameras, which cameras may be active, and which are not! And the U.K. takes speeding seriously -- each ticket is 3 points on a license (plus fine) and licenses are revoked at 12 points! It's not a good idea to test in any way, even though it's unlikely your foreign jurisdiction has reciprocity with the U.K. Tickets would still be due with administrative fees (as those get sent to the rental car company); otherwise, one could get to visit the permanent "Do Not Rent" list!
Keep Left Except to Pass
Do you find yourself on a major motorway? As the traffic patterns (including exits) are transposed, the right-hand lanes are where passing occurs. The U.K. happens to be the major exception to AutoSlash's life lesson of "Keep Right Except to Pass". However, you won't be doing much passing; if you're driving the actual speed limit, you're not going to get passed because of the aforementioned speed cameras.
Road Works Happen Every Day, Even in the Rain
If the U.K. waited for a sunny, dry stretch to conduct road works and repairs, the roads wouldn't be driveable! So expect to encounter road works frequently, and those can add delays (speed limit is most commonly 50 during motorway roadworks). The sun came out precisely one time during my trip, of course when I was driving directly into the sun ...
Travel Lanes are Narrow
The default lanes on a motorway (the U.K. version of an Interstate) are required to be at least 3 meters wide (just under 10 feet, as compared to 12 feet wide in the U.S.). Narrow lanes are a function of two factors -- a lack of space in many regions and research that narrow lanes are a very good speed-control mechanism! And the narrow lanes on motorways frequently get more narrow during road works! When traffic lanes are rerouted, the left-most lanes tend to stay the same width while the right-most lanes get cut to two meters wide. As the tallest member of the AutoSlash team, I could stand in the middle of one of those construction lanes, stretch my arms, and my fingertips would be in different travel lanes!
Drive into a city with age (like many U.K. cities) and a two-lane road is often barely wide enough for a single car each direction. Add some parking along the curbs / on the sidewalks and there are many instances where one has to drive on the opposite side of the center line. In fact, our team can even admit to knicking a few curbs, which are fortunately very low in the U.K.
Car Park Spots are Similarly Tiny
Back to the premium on space, car park spaces are small even when outside of major cities (old habits). You might have to train family members to stop flinging doors -- if you're lucky, there may be a few inches of space on each side of the car in the space.
A Full-Size Van Holds 9 People (8 Plus Driver)
Renters in the United States can frequently rent 12 or 15-passenger vans with no problems at all (except in California). However, those vehicles aren't going to be available for the average tourist. Driving a minibus (as those vehicles are called in the U.K.) requires a D1 driver's license.
London Congestion Charge Zone
Drive a rental car into the Congestion Charge Zone and you will have to pay the fee of £11.50 if paid same day, £14 if paid next day, or much more if not paid by end of the second day. The Congestion Charge Zone includes many popular tourist attractions also reachable via mass transit.
Of course, there are tolls, just not very many. I encountered precisely zero in 697 miles of driving (highways are funded another way).
A Roundabout Way
Traffic circles in the U.K. may be the type where one yields before entering the circle, one has a stoplight to enter, and even varietals where there are stoplights after each segment of the roundabout. Some lanes may even be stopped while others have green lights! No matter the type of roundabout, the key is to be in the proper lane in advance. Not only do roundabouts conveniently have eye-level signage but there's also information embedded in the road surface to specify which lanes continue onto which roadways!
And then it's finally time to return the rental car at the end of the trip!
Prepare for Sticker Shock at the Pump
My diesel compact SUV (Vauxhall Mokka X) acquitted itself well, averaging over 47 mpg for context. The cost for just over 12 U.S. gallons of diesel fuel was the equivalent of $90.02, as the price one sees for fuel in the U.K. is in liters.
Read the Fuel Dispenser Carefully -- Fuel Selection
There's a high probability your rental car will require diesel fuel. Misfuel a rental car anywhere in the world and you will be looking at a tow (plus other expensive charges). The color coding of pump handles is the exact opposite of the United States -- in the U.K., green is for unleaded and black for diesel! Check and recheck the fuel required and fuel dispensed carefully.
Read the Fuel Dispenser Carefully -- Fuel Quantity
When many of us have a rental in a familiar area, we tend to fill up somewhere we know fuel is cheap and then top off near the airport. There's really no such concept as cheap when paying more than one GBP per liter, just comparatively cheap. However, it may be hard to take advantage of cheaper fuel prices and then top off near the return site -- gas stations may require a minimum 5-liter purchase, a threshold I barely met when returning my car!
And if You're Flying Out, Allow a Lot of Time for Return
There are a few reasons -- the time needed to refuel and get back to the rental car company is just one. Hertz's documentation for London Heathrow says to expect up to 20-30 minutes while the vehicle is checked for damage, then a shuttle to the terminal! And airlines at Heathrow (looking your way, British Airways) are well-known as sticklers on their published check-in and baggage check timelines.
Honestly, we would not worry about a car if we were flying into one of the London airports and simply working or visiting tourist attractions in London. Mass transit fills that role well! However, those exploring many regions during a trip could well benefit from a rental car and we're always happy to help find the lowest possible rates on your behalf!