Getting around Britain

Travelling by car

The two most startling difference for foreign motorists is that in Britain you drive on the left and distances are mostly measured in miles. Once you adapt, however, rural Britain is a nice place to drive and you’ll enjoy an extensive network of toll-free motorways and trunk roads, which make travelling around the country pretty straightforward. You’ll also view many quaint towns and villages as you drive from place to place and you can tailor your journey to your individual desires. 


What you need

To drive in Britain you need a current driving licence with an international driving permit if required. You must also keep proof of ownership or a rental agreement in your vehicle, plus any insurance documents.


The roads in Britain 

Rush hour can last from 08.00 to 9:30 and from 17.00 to 19.00pm on weekdays in the cities so avoid starting your journey then if possible.

Most hire cars will include GPS but keep a good map handy. If you want to delve into the more rural areas it’ll be worth picking up a map from the Ordnance Survey series – they’re comprehensive and will guide even the most specific of trips.

Motorways are marked with an “M” followed by their identifying number. “A” roads, sometimes dual carriageways (that is, with two lanes in each direction), are main routes, while “B” roads are secondary roads. The latter are often less congested and your view will almost certainly be prettier. Rural areas are crisscrossed by a web of tiny lanes.


Get to know the road signs

Signs are mostly standardised in-line with the rest of Europe. Directional signs are colour-coded: blue for motorways, green for major routes and white for minor routes. Brown signs indicate places of interest. Advisory or warning signs are usually triangles in red and white, with easy-to-understand pictograms. Watch for electronic notices on motorways that warn of roadworks, accidents or patches of fog.

Level crossings, found at railway lines, often have automatic barriers. If the lights are flashing red, it means a train is coming and you must stop.

The UK Highway Code Manual, available online at the Department of Transport website, is an up-to-date guide to all the current British driving regulations and traffic signs.


The driving rules 

Speed limits are 20–40 mph (50–65 km/h) in built-up areas and 70 mph (110 km/h) on motor­ways or dual carriage­ways. Look out for speed signs on other roads. It is compulsory to wear seatbelts in Britain.

Do not drink and drive in the UK as the penalties are severe; see the UK Highway Code Manual to check the legal limit. It is illegal to use a mobile phone while driving unless it is operated hands-free - even then it's advisable you put your phone away while you drive. 


How to park your car  

You may find yourself using a meter to park when you’re in a British town or city, so keep a supply of coins on you to pay for these hassle-free. Some cities have “park and ride” schemes, where you can take a bus from an out-of-city car park into the centre. Other towns have parking schemes where you buy a card at the tourist office or newsagents, fill in your parking times and display it on your dashboard.

Avoid double red or yellow lines at all times; single lines sometimes mean you can park in the evenings and at weekends, but check signs carefully – you don’t want to earn a costly parking ticket or have you car towed away because you misunderstood the sign.

If in doubt, keep things simple and find a car park. Outside urban areas and popular tourist zones, parking is much easier. Look out for signs with a blue “P”, indicating parking spaces. Never leave any valuables or luggage alone in your car. 


Fill-up with petrol 

You can save some pennies by filling-up on petrol at one of the larger supermarket, as they tend to offer the best deals. Motorway service areas and rural or isolated regions are generally more expensive – so avoid these if possible.

Most modern cars in Britain use unleaded petrol. Most petrol stations in Britain are self-service and the instructions at the pumps are easy to follow.


Get to know the breakdown services

If you suffer a breakdown while on the road you can contact the AA (Automobile Association) and the RAC (Royal Automobile Association) from the roadside SOS phones (orange boxes that contain a phone for a driver to use in the event of an emergency) that are found on the motorway. If you’re not near an SOS phone then simply Google the telephone number from your phone or, even better, write the numbers down before you begin your journey.

Both the AA and the RAC provide a comprehensive 24-hour breakdown assistance for members, as well as many other motoring services. Both offer reciprocal assistance for members of overseas motoring organisations – before leaving home, check to see if you are covered. Green Flag is the other major rescue service in Britain.

Most car-hire agencies have their own cover, and their charges include membership of the AA, the RAC or Green Flag. Be sure to ask the rental company to provide all emergency service numbers.

If you are not a member of an affiliated organisation, you can still contact a rescue service, although it will cost more. If you have an accident that involves injury or another vehicle, call the police as soon as possible.

The Environmental Transport Association gives advice on reducing the impact of carbon emissions, as well as offering a number of ethical breakdown services.


How to hire a car

It's worth doing your research when hiring a car in Britain to make sure you get the best price. One of the most competitive national companies is Autos Abroad. Other reputable car-hire companies include Avis, Hertz, Europcar and Budget.

It is illegal to drive without third-party insurance, and it is advisable to take out fully comprehensive insurance. Most companies require a credit card number; if not, you may have to part with a substantial cash deposit. You will need your driving licence and a passport to pick up your car. 

Automatic cars are also usually available for hire. If you are touring Britain for three weeks or more, you may find a leasing arrangement cheaper than hiring. Remember to add insurance costs when you check rental rates.