What’s the best way to travel the UK? By car, of course! How else can you witness the splendor of the Lake District or Brecon Beacons? But wait, before we go off on a tangent about our favorite places, we’d like to focus on driving. Driving in the UK is a little different than the USA (as well as most other parts of the world) and you should probably know a few things before getting behind the wheel.
From renting a car to all the roundabouts, we share our tips for Americans (or anyone) driving in the UK for the first time.
We’ve driven from Edinburgh down to Cardiff, circled countless roundabouts, had a leaky tire, driven in central Bath and Oxford (that was stressful) and we want to use this post to give you as much advice as we can.
The UK is full of gorgeous drives and if you’re stressing behind the wheel, it will be hard to appreciate its beauty! In fact, having a car is the only reason we were able to visit Stonehenge for free and experience the beautiful countryside.
So, if you’ve never driven on the left side before or if you’ve never even driven in a foreign country, we’ll walk you through what to expect while driving in the UK and hopefully make your trip smoother!
Renting a Car in the UK
This is the easiest part about driving in the UK, especially for Americans. All you need is your driver’s license and passport.
Yes, having an international driving permit is a good idea but having driven in several European countries (UK included), the only country to ever require it has been Italy. Otherwise, our driver’s licenses and passports have been sufficient.
The most important question when renting a car is whether to choose a manual or automatic transmission. In the US, manuals (stick shifts) are less common; in Europe, automatics are harder to come by.
Why does manual or automatic transmission matter?
The price is the biggest difference you’ll find when searching for a rental car in the UK. Manual cars, since there are more of them, are much cheaper than automatics. But there’s more to this decision than just the price.
Remember, you’re going to be driving on the left side of the road. If you’re not super comfortable behind the wheel of a manual car then just get an automatic, even if it costs more! Getting used to the left side of the road is hard enough so it’s not a good time to try out a manual!
Even though automatics are typically more expensive, there are deals galore out there that you can find. Our go-to is Kayak.com for rental car deals. It’s always a good idea to search plenty of time in advance (1-3 months) of your trip for the best deals. Prices will almost definitely change during that time so keep an eye out for a great deal!
What About Gas?
One of the main differences Americans will notice while driving in the UK is gas. While “unleaded” is a common term that drivers will recognize, it’s the price that usually throws people off. Remember, the price you’ll see is per liter, not gallon. Gas can get pricey very quickly.
Whether you rent an automatic or manual, try to get the smallest car possible, aka the best gas mileage. While the UK isn’t that big in size, gas prices aren’t wallet-friendly so a fuel-efficient car will save money for your travel budget.
Wait, That Sign Says Miles
Yep! You’ll buy gas in liters but your speedometer, as well as road signs, will be read in miles.
So, when you see that Edinburgh is “x” amount of miles away, don’t be surprised! Having become so used to kilometers throughout the rest of Europe, this one threw us off a bit!
What About Car Insurance?
You are required by law to have car insurance when you drive in the UK.
What kind of car insurance do you need?
There are insurance options through the rental company (usually very expensive) or through your credit card.
For instance, our Chase credit card acts as insurance for our rental. This is the cheapest option but also the bare minimum.
If you already have car insurance at home, your policy may allow you to transfer that to a rental in the UK; however, the odds of that are unlikely.
No matter which you choose, Americans driving in the UK need to have car insurance!
Important Rules of Driving in the UK
Stoplights in the UK are purple, blue, and orange. Of course, not! That’s not the case in the UK (or anywhere in the world).
You’ll find stoplights are the same green, red, and yellow as in America; seatbelts are required; there are speed limits; you can’t text and drive; stop signs mean STOP. It all sounds pretty similar to back home.
While there are many similarities between driving in the UK and the USA, there are some massive differences that we’d like to bring to your attention.
If you’d like to do some extra reading on all the official rules of driving in the UK, check out the UK.gov website.
Drive on the Left Side of the Road
The one rule that everyone already knows, driving in the UK means driving on the left side of the road. But that’s not all, the steering wheel is on the right side of the car, which will add more confusion to Americans who are used to its place on the left.
Take caution while adjusting to this change and remember at roundabouts (there will be many!) you go clockwise (left) and not counterclockwise (right).
Our experience: It was a bumpy ride, especially at first. The curb was our best friend (or enemy) during the first few hours in England, as we found ourselves on narrow roads, navigating the beautiful Lake District.
It’s not the hardest adjustment to make and if you’re focused then you’re going to be just fine driving in the UK. However, some roads are harder than others and when faced with cyclists, pedestrians, and traffic, your instincts get a little twisted due to being on the left side of the road.
What Are the Roads Like?
Just like the US has huge interstate highways and (not so smooth) rural roads, you’ll find a variety in the UK as well. Thankfully the major motorways aren’t toll roads. However, there are a few toll road exceptions you’ll want to check.
M roads are large motorways and usually the fastest way of getting from point A to point B. While M roads aren’t our preferred route (less scenic) they’re the most convenient for gas, restrooms, and speed. M roads don’t have roundabouts.
A roads can be similar to M roads in terms of size but the speed limit is slightly slower (more on speed limits below). You can expect some traffic lights and some roundabouts on A roads.
B, C, or D Roads
This is the rest of them! Of course, the roads become smaller and less traveled as you go from B to D. These will be more rural roads in general but some B roads will connect to major roadways.
Letters aside, the UK’s system of roads is pretty simple to understand. Motorways are large, crowded and fast and roads like C or D are rural and much slower.
Take a shot at driving all of them while in the UK. The more scenic the road the better!
Lines and Lane Markings
Unlike the U.S., all lane lines are white in the U.K.
In the UK, a solid white line on the left side is an edge line. This tells you where the left side of the road is. If it’s on the right side, you’re driving in the wrong direction.
Long lines separated by a small amount of space tell you that there’s a hazard ahead. Don’t cross hazard lines unless you know it’s safe and clear to do so.
Similar to the United States, if you’re driving next to a dashed line it’s okay to pass.
Finally, short white lines with a large amount of space between them indicate lane separators. Cars on both sides of this type of line are going in the same direction.
Roundabouts are hard to find in the United States. Granted, you’ll find more roundabouts in major cities but in rural areas, they’re few and far between.
In the UK, you’ll have no shortage of roundabouts. Whether it’s the city or the countryside, we hope you like circles!
The most important thing to remember about roundabouts is that you’re going left (clockwise). Use your blinker to signal your directions.
For instance, if you’re going around the roundabout then signal your right blinker. If you’re going straight through, you don’t need to worry about a signal.
Our best piece of advice for driving in roundabouts? Take it slow! And no, we don’t mean “be a turtle and hold up traffic” kind of slow.
Slow=Cautious. It’s important to check your blind spots, check your speed, and use your blinkers for everything. If you rely on Google Maps or Waze or any sort of GPS system, be sure to listen carefully! It will tell you which exit to take.
For example, Google Maps told us to “take the 3rd exit” before we approached the roundabout. This is important because your GPS may not be perfect. When it instructs you to “turn now” you might miss it and have to go round the roundabout again.
This is where having an awesome copilot comes in handy. If there are two people (or more) then someone should be designated as the official navigator, guiding the driver through roundabouts.
Do you think roundabouts sound kind of hectic? They can be pretty crazy.
So is there anything good to say about roundabouts? Of course! If you mess up and miss your turn, just stay on the roundabout until you figure it out! This is so much easier than missing an exit on an American interstate and driving miles in the wrong direction before you can exit again and turn around.
You’ll rarely spot a police car while driving in the UK.
Wait, no police on the road? Then I can go as fast as I want!
Wrong! The speed cameras are watching you and you should take them seriously! If you’re caught in a rental car, the fine (not cheap) will be sent to the rental car company and added to your bill.
However, you’re going to witness A LOT of speeding going on around you but don’t follow suit.
We don’t know everything behind the speed cameras, but we do know that you should follow the speed limit or risk a fine!
In an ideal world, each road is clearly labeled with its speed. We don’t live in an ideal world, unfortunately, so when in doubt stick to the following speed limit rules:
If you’re driving around a built-up area (streetlights, shops, houses, and other signs of civilization) then you need to keep your car at a steady 30 mph unless signage dictates otherwise.
When driving on a single carriageway (known to us yanks as a two-lane road) you should be cruising at no more than 60 mph unless signs tell you otherwise.
Finally, you can top off at 70 mph on dual carriageways (a four-lane road) and motorways. Again, unless there are signs telling you otherwise.
While we’re not fans of being pedestrians in the US, being one in the UK is awesome. This is why you need to pay special attention to pedestrians while driving in the UK!
As you approach a crosswalk (zebra crossing), you are REQUIRED to stop for pedestrians if they are crossing.
Don’t be that guy who’s in a hurry and causes an accident. This is a very strict rule and one that citizens abide by. Having stayed in smaller villages and large cities all throughout the UK, drivers treat the crosswalk with care and so should you!
If you come upon a pelican crossing, wait for these large birds to fly away before driving forward.
Ok, bad joke?
A pelican crossing is not striped like a zebra crossing. You’ll find a stoplight for the crossing to either be red (STOP) or flashing yellow (yield). So, obviously, if it’s red, then stop. If it’s yellow, take care as you pass through the crossing and STOP if a pedestrian is crossing!
These “pelican” crossings aren’t just in the UK; they can be found all over the world.
For fun, we’re going to mention these other crossings you might find. And yes, all of these types of crossings are from the official UK website.
In addition to zebra and pelican crossings, you could run into toucan, puffin or equestrian crossings. You’ll just need to take it slow and follow the traffic lights. If there aren’t any lights then pay attention and drive with caution!
All in all, watch out for pedestrians crossing the road and don’t speed!
To Honk or Not to Honk…That is the Question
While it’s tempting to honk your horn in frustration when the guy in front of you is driving 10 under the speed limit, you’re not supposed to do that.
While driving in the UK, the only acceptable moment to honk your horn is to warn others on the road of your presence.
You can’t honk your horn in anger, aggression, while not moving on a road or between the hours of 11:30 pm and 7:00 am (unless you’re in danger by another road user).
Summary of Americans Driving in the UK
If we can do it then so can you! Even though you’re driving on the left and everything seems a bit off, you’ll come to find exploring the UK by car to be quite enjoyable. If you have any questions about driving in the UK or a foreign country in general, drop us a comment or contact us!