Getting around Britain

Travelling by car

The most startling difference for most foreign motorists is that in Britain you drive on the left, with corresponding adjustments at roundabouts and junctions, and distances are measured in miles. Once you adapt however, rural Britain is an enjoyable place to drive, though traffic density in towns and at busy holiday times can cause long delays – public holiday weekends near the south coast can be particularly horrendous. Thankfully, an extensive network of toll-free motorways and trunk roads makes travelling around the country quite straightforward.


What You Need

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


Roads in Britain

Rush hour can last from 8 to 9:30am and from 5 to 7pm on weekdays in the cities; at these times, traffic can grind to a halt.

Most hire cars will include GPS however, a good map is vital and the AA or RAC motoring atlases are good resources. For exploration of more rural areas, the Ordnance Survey series is the best. 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 more enjoyable. Rural areas are criss-crossed by a web of tiny lanes.


Road Signs

Signs are mostly standardised in line with 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 pictogrammes. 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.


Rules of the Road

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. Drink-driving penalties are severe; see the UK Highway Code Manual for legal limits. It is illegal to use a mobile phone while driving unless it is operated hands-free.



Parking meters operate during working hours (usually 8am–6:30pm Mon–Sat). Be sure to keep a supply of coins for them. 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. Traffic wardens will not hesitate to ticket, clamp or tow away your car. If in doubt, 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 in your car: thefts are common, especially in cities.



Large supermarkets often have the best deals; look out for branches of Asda, Morrisons or Sainsbury’s with petrol stations. Motorway service areas and rural or isolated regions are generally more expensive. Petrol is sold in three grades: diesel, LRP (lead replacement petrol) and unleaded.

Most modern cars in Britain use unleaded petrol, and any vehicle you hire will probably do too. Unleaded and diesel are cheaper than LRP. Most petrol stations in Britain are self-service, but the instructions at pumps are easy to follow.


Breakdown Services

Britain’s major motoring organisations are the AA (Automobile Association) and the RAC (Royal Automobile Club). They 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. You can contact the AA or RAC from the roadside SOS phones found on motorways. 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 for the service’s emergency number.

If you are not a member of an affiliated organisation, you can still call out a rescue service, although it will be expensive. Always follow the advice given on your insurance policy or rental agreement. 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.


Car Hire

Hiring a car in Britain can be expensive. One of the most competitive national companies is Autos Abroad, but small local firms may undercut even these rates. 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. Most companies will not hire cars to novice drivers, and may have age limits (normally 21–74).

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.


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