I just returned a couple of days ago from nearly a month in Europe–2/3 of which was spent as the driver of vehicles in Scotland and England. I am nowhere near an expert in U.K. driving laws (quite the opposite), but I can offer some advice and thoughts on driving in the U.K. as an American. Before this trip, I had spent a fair amount of time in cars in Wales, Scotland, and England, but never as the driver. This trip was my first time driving on the left, my first time driving a motorhome, and my first time driving on single-track roads. I come from Utah–a state known for its exceptionally wide roads, so driving in the U.K. was quite the adventure!
My week in Scotland was spent driving a motorhome–23 feet long, 10 feet tall, and nearly 8 feet wide. There were times where the road gave only inches to spare for the motorhome itself, not to mention another car passing from the opposite direction. And then there were times when I had to reverse and go back from where I came as the motorhome would not fit where I was trying to go.
Three thoughts on motorhome-driving for anyone who, like me, is driving one for the first time and on the other side of the road.
1. It is scary
At first, it was petrifying. I want to be honest about that. Have you seen the move The Holiday where Cameron Diaz drives for the first time in England? Completely accurate. I winced and braced myself every single time we passed a vehicle for quite some time, except on dual-lane carriageways (two lanes going each direction). As over 90% of the driving I did was not on dual-lane carriageways, I never felt I could relax. Every passing car posed a threat and an opportunity for mishap. It did get easier with time, but the worry never went away. At the end of the week, I had graduated to only wincing when passing lorries (trucks) and buses. I say this so that you know that driving a motorhome is unlikely to be a relaxing experience for you. If you know that and are okay with it, great! You are in for a treat!
2. Know the etiquette of driving a motorhome in the United Kingdom
I rely quite heavily on TripAdvisor as I prepare for travel, and I received some very helpful advice by searching and posting on the Scotland forums. People are generally very kind and helpful on the forums, and it definitely helped prepare me for what was expected of me as a foreign driver of such a wide-berth vehicle. The etiquette of passing and the rules of wild camping (aka sleeping anywhere but a designated campsite) are two things that are incredibly important to understand, as your decisions and actions heavily influence not only the locals’ feelings toward tourists, but also the freedom of future tourists. Be conscious and considerate of others in all you do.
3. If you don’t know how to drive manual transmission, do not rent a manual transmission motorhome
This may seem like a no-brainer to some, but it bears saying. The vast majority of cars in the U.K. are manual transmission. I drive a manual transmission at home, so I was fine with this. If you are not accustomed to driving manual, it adds another element of difficulty to your driving experience that I would not recommend. I promise you will be stressed out when you have to get into first gear on a steep hill with a car right behind you that you can’t see because you don’t have a rear-view mirror. Some rental companies have automatic transmission vehicles, but make sure you know what you’re renting.
Having said those things, driving a motorhome around Scotland was an amazing experience! I wouldn’t trade it! It allowed us freedom and flexibility that we could have had in no other way. We stopped when and where we wanted. We ate when we wanted. We saved money on food. We slept next to amazing sites. It was such an adventure, and I look back on it very fondly.
My second week of driving was quite a different experience from the first week. For 6 days, I drove a tiny Fiat 500 around southern England all by myself. This car is literally half as long, half as tall, and half as wide as the motorhome I drove. After the stresses of the motorhome, it felt like a breeze. I loved it. Some general thoughts now.
1. Study up on signage and traffic laws
In case this is your first time out of the country, know that there are no international traffic sign standards. The stop sign is pretty much universal, but it ends there. I made sure to read up on general British driving laws, and I was very glad I did. The signage is different there, and you will come across signs you don’t understand. For instance, “heavy plant crossing” is a sign I saw many times. I still don’t know what it means. That one isn’t quite as pivotal for your safety (at least I don’t think it is), but there are definitely signs you’ll need to understand in order to drive safely in the U.K.
2. Don’t get a car with the driver side on the left
Some companies offer these for hire. It may be tempting, since it’s what’s familiar to you. Don’t do it. Having the driver on the right side of the car helps you mentally shift to driving on the left side of the road. It feels different than you’re used to, so it helps you to drive differently than you’re used to.
3. People drive differently
Outside of the States, people drive differently. They may come off as more aggressive or decisive–that is because they are better drivers. In the U.K. (and generally in Europe), getting your driver license is much more time-intensive and expensive than it is in the U.S. The result is a better-equipped driving population. I trust drivers in the U.K. much more than I do here at home.
In a similar vein, they obey the fast lane/passing lane concept religiously. It’s wonderful! People stay on the left unless they are actively passing someone. Don’t be that person that gums up the works!
4. Do get a Sat Nav
Do it. Do it. Do it. It is so worth it. There were times when I tried to use Google Maps on my phone (admittedly, sometimes Google Maps finds destinations the Sat Nav can’t find), and, in the middle of a busy city, or in the middle of nowhere, my phone would suddenly say the dreaded words, “GPS signal lost.” Having a Sat Nav on your windshield or dashboard to tell and show you where to go is incredibly helpful. I would go so far as to say as it is non-negotiable, especially in Great Britain.
5. Multiply the time estimate of the Sat Nav
If you are driving a motorhome, multiply whatever the Sat Nav says as your estimated travel time by 2. If you are driving a normal car, multiply it by 1.5. It may not always take that long, but it often does. This is a function of numerous things–small roads, unrealistic speed limits, traffic delays, and road works. Prior to our trip, I planned our travel time based on Google Maps. We ended up having to cut out quite a number of planned stops because we just didn’t have time, due to longer travel time than was estimated by Google Maps–sometimes significantly longer. Give yourself ample time and be pleasantly surprised if you arrive early. It’s better than the alternative.
6. Speed limits
Speed limit signs are sometimes lacking in the U.K. The Sat Nav can be helpful with this, as it generally shows you the limit for the road you are driving as well as pointing out when there are fixed speeding cameras or speeding camera zones. It also notifies you when you are going over the limit.
Speaking of speed limits, some roads in the U.K. have speed limits that I think are entirely bonkers. Single track, winding roads that have a 60 mile per hour speed limit–you would have to have a literal death wish to drive 60 on some of those roads. Go at your own pace, take that into your travel time calculations, and make sure to let vehicles behind you pass if you are holding them up. Passing places and lay-bys come by pretty frequently, and people will be so grateful to you when you allow them to pass you. When you allow oncoming traffic to pass you, the other driver will give you a “thanks” wave 99% of the time.
Roundabouts are ubiquitous in the U.K. Make sure you know the traffic laws of roundabouts. You cannot escape them. And you shouldn’t. They’re wonderful traffic-management tools. They are magical things. In the States, we are used to freeways where we could potentially drive thousands of miles on cruise control. This is absolutely not the case in the U.K. (even if its size allowed a drive of thousands of miles). Even when you are driving on a major motorway, you will stop every few miles for a roundabout, sometimes with three or more lanes to it. If you don’t know how to work a roundabout, this is one of the most likely places for an accident to occur. I was honked at once during my two weeks, and it was when I didn’t navigate a roundabout properly.
8. Traffic lights
I love U.K. traffic lights. They look just like the ones in the States (though they don’t hang in the air), so they have the normal green, yellow, and red (though Brits call it “amber” rather than yellow), BUT here’s the catch. In a genius move (I think), the traffic light shows amber to indicate that you should stop for an imminent red light (and, from my experience, British drivers don’t view that as a sign to step on the gas pedal like most Americans do), but it shows a combination of amber + red when the light is about to turn green! That way, you know that you should prepare to go (put in the clutch, and start to press the gas, for example). I love it. I wish we would implement that in the States.
9. Public Transportation
Public transportation is readily available and accessible in most of Europe. It is extremely convenient, compared to what Americans are used to. Many people would recommend using public transportation over a hired car. Having done both, I would say that it depends on your travel style. Unless I am staying in the city (I would absolutely NOT rent a car if I were traveling to London), I prefer the flexibility offered by having my own vehicle. Using public transportation outside of a city requires better planning and time management than renting a car does. On a few occasions this past trip, I drove places only to find out they were closed or that I wasn’t actually very interested in spending the planned time there. If I were relying on public transportation, this would have been frustrating. However, I simply hopped back in my car and drove off to my next destination.
You have to weigh the pros and cons against your travel style to make such a decision.
10. Be alert
Driving is a much more involved activity in the U.K. You need to constantly be on the alert. Some roads are in bad shape and have large potholes. Even to get to well-known tourist destinations, you may very well drive on roads that are in awful condition where you can’t go more than a few miles an hour. Some roads are just plain flooded. In my tiny Fiat, I had no way of knowing how deep the waters were and had to turn around and find a new route to my destination. Some roads are so narrow that you need to be very aware of oncoming traffic in order to plan who is going to pull into a passing place and where. You will drive around bends on small roads and have a car appear seemingly out of nowhere. Pay good attention while you drive. That’s true anywhere, but especially in the U.K.
11. Leave time for unplanned stops
There were so many times that I made unplanned stops at places I felt intrigued by, or places I wanted to have more than a passing glance at. Make sure to leave time for these!
Driving around the U.K. is a wonderful adventure! With some prior planning, preparation, and thought, I highly recommend it!