In this instalment of ‘How to plan a trip to Scotland’ we will be looking at the most popular mode of transportation among visitors: the road trip. Driving in Scotland can be intimidating though, especially if you’re new to driving on the left-hand side of the road. My top tips will give you some advice and help you overcome your worries about driving on Scottish roads!
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If you’ve had a look at my introductory guide to planning a trip to Scotland before and you decided to rent a car (or bring your own) is the best way to explore Scotland for you, then read on.
If you are not sure yet what is the best way to get around Scotland, and would like to get an overview of all the transport options you have (and more trip planning tips), check out my Scotland 101: Plan your Trip to Scotland guide first!
Driving in Scotland FAQ
Do I need an international driver’s license to hire a car in Scotland?
No. As long as you have a valid driver’s licence from your home country, you can hire a car in Scotland.
If you become a resident in the UK, you can drive with your foreign license for up to one year. After that, you have to exchange your license for a British license.
If you have a license from an EU country, you currently do not have to exchange your license. This might change after Brexit.
Check the full rules here.
What are the best car hire places?
There are two services I recommend to hire cars in Scotland:
Auto Europe: A comparison platform where I always find the best deals for car rentals. They compare prices from various international car rental agencies and offer great insurance packages (much cheaper than booking insurance directly with the agency).
I recommend choosing established agencies like Avis, Europcar, Enterprise, Hertz or Sixt, and stay away from low-budget options like Easirent or Keddy because their small print can be vicious, emergency support lacking or deposits super high!.
Arnold Clark Car Rental: A fantastic local car rental company with comprehensive insurance packages and great support – if a bit more expensive. They also work with Celtic Legend, a highly recommended service!
Which side of the road do you drive on in the UK?
In the UK and Ireland, we always drive on the left-hand side of the road.
On a road with more than one lanes in your direction, stay in the left lane. The right lane is for overtaking. You can only overtake other cars on the right-hand side.
How to drive a roundabout in Scotland?
We love roundabouts in the UK. Most of them are fairly straightforward, but there are also massive roundabouts with traffic lights and multiple lanes. Here are some tips:
- To enter a roundabout, slow down and enter anti-clockwise (very important).
- Use your indicators: Left for when you leave the roundabout or to indicate that you’re taking the 1st exit, right to show that you are staying in the roundabout for a later exit.
- Look at the arrows in the lanes approaching and in the roundabout and make sure you are in the right lane for where you want to go. Usually, the lane on the left is for the first exit, the middle lane is for exits 2 and/or 3, the right lane is for the exits furthest away.
- Look at the signs near the exits to see where they lead to.
- Don’t panic when you miss your exit, just go around again.
What are the speed limits in Scotland?
Speed limits are often signposted on the side of the road. If there are no signposts, national speed limits (for the kind of road you are on) apply.
- 70 mph (60 mph if you tow a caravan or trailer) on motorways and dual carriageways
- 60 mph (50 mph) outside built-up areas
- 30 mph in built-up areas
- 20 mph in many residential areas and near schools
Are there any other special traffic rules?
Unlike the United States, you cannot turn at a red traffic light.
Should I hire or buy a GPS?
I personally don’t drive with a GPS but use my phone. I type in the route before I leave the house (while I definitely still have reception) and follow that throughout the day. Your phone won’t always get signal up in the remote parts of the Highlands!
If you can get coverage in the UK at a reasonable price, I think that is sufficient.
Remember, that currently, EU mobile phone plans have no roaming costs in the UK at the moment – you can use your data normally. However, this might change after Brexit.
It’s a good idea to have a paper map like the Collins Road Atlas Scotland with you as a backup – especially if you are driving with a passenger who can navigate.
All that said, a GPS might be useful if you travel by yourself or want to be sure that you have a navigation system regardless of reception.
What are the most scenic drives in Scotland?
Check out my post about the most beautiful road trips in Scotland.
Driving Tips for Scotland
1) Take it slowly
Driving in Scotland can be daunting. If this is your first time driving on the left, make sure to take your time and get used to the new circumstances.
Don’t plan to pick up your rental car and then drive for 7 hours straight on the first day – you’d be exhausted!
Take the first day of your trip to get used to driving on the left and only drive a short distance. Drive slowly and think twice about every turn or roundabout.
In the beginning, it’s tricky doing these things the other way around, but you will be surprised how quickly you get used to it!
Top tip: Stick a sheet of paper behind the steering wheel reminding you to drive left – obviously not covering your speed indicator.
2) Invest in an automatic car
It is worth hiring an automatic car if you don’t know how to drive stick / a manual.
Even if you know how, but you are a nervous driver, you could invest in an automatic. They are usually a bit more expensive because they are less common in the UK.
If you are worried about driving on the left, doing everything in the car the “wrong way round” and navigating the Scottish countryside, an automatic car can help you manage a bit better.
In the beginning, I always rente an automatic because I was a fairly inexperienced driver. I felt much safer, knowing that there is one less thing I need to concentrate on – especially when I drove by myself or with someone who’s not a good navigator themselves.
3) Don’t freak out
Lots of people stress out when they are driving in Scotland. They let other drivers, who are maybe more confident (or simply have a death wish) dictate how fast they should be driving.
Of course, you should not knowingly hinder the traffic behind you, but don’t be afraid to reduce your speed to feel safer on winding roads. Safety first, is the most important rule of any road trip.
When you have a car behind you, simply pull over at the next possibility and let them pass you.
Driving in cities, in particular, can be a nightmare if you are not entirely sure where you are going. Sometimes you only realise you should have turned once you’ve passed the crossing.
Again, stay calm, find a place where you can easily turn and continue on your way.
If you’re not comfortable with paper maps or are driving on your own, renting a GPS might be useful.
4) Remember to drive on the left
You would not be the first person to find yourself back on the right-hand side of the road, only to notice it when you see the oncoming traffic in your lane.
Turning right on bigger country roads seems to be a particularly tricky endeavour – and so are roundabouts. And there are many roundabouts in Scotland.
Be aware and remind yourself over and over to stick to the left-hand side of the road. Maybe even vocalise it in the beginning – it can help a lot!
5) Don’t underestimate the distances
When planning your road trip around Scotland, don’t underestimate the distances and schedule your daily itineraries generously!
I get it – Scotland looks tiny on the map!
Distances, like the 235 miles from Edinburgh to Portree, might not sound like much to you – especially if you are used to roads in North America.
However, remember that many roads in the Scottish Highlands are winding and narrow. If you have a camper van in front of you, you might as well get comfortable – there are not many places to overtake on these roads.
Traffic can be super busy in peak holiday times.
Make use of petrol stations (gas stations) while you can – the further away from the main roads you get, the less frequent they become!
Many roads off the main routes are single-track roads, which means that you have to drive extra carefully and potentially have to stop at passing places frequently.
6) Know how to drive on single-track roads
Here are some tips and trick for navigating single-track roads in Scotland:
- Don’t be in a rush. I tend to drive 30-40kmh max. on single-track roads. This also means that you will probably need more time than your GPS or Google Maps estimates.
- Let drivers behind you pass you – particularly locals, as they often go way faster than you on these roads.
- Drive as far left as you can for best visibility.
- Look as far ahead as possible and spot oncoming traffic.
- Use your headlights to signal oncoming drivers in the distance. Wave your hand or flick your fingers to thank them when you pass them.
- There’s an unwritten law that cars going down will stop and wait for cars going up to pass them.
- Always stop for lorries/buses/campervans etc. and give them as much space as possible.
- Don’t park in passing places. Depending on how busy a road is, it can be OK to stop for a photo, but don’t leave your car in a passing place to go for a hike.
7) Allow time for photo stops and little walks
As a natural follow up to point 5, make sure to allow for some time for photo stops and little walks. There are plenty of them and Scotland is way too beautiful to just drive through it.
Renting a car and driving in Scotland has the major advantage that you alone decide where to stop and for how long. Make use of that!
In my itineraries, I try to always point out a few lesser-known spots for little walks and photo ops – make use of them!
8) Watch out for farm animals & wildlife
Ever since I found out that in Norway if you hit a reindeer on the road, you have to pay hefty compensation to its owner (double if it was pregnant), I’m even more aware of watching out for wildlife on the road. Add my veganism into that, and you know why I’m telling you this.
Particularly in the more rural areas of Scotland, chances are high for wildlife or farm animals, such as deer or sheep, to be on the road. Don’t hit them!
9) Check & book ferries in advance
Island hopping is easy with a rental car – just make sure to check ferry times in advance. When you book the ferry, they might ask you for your registration, but you . can tick “I don’t know” if you’re travelling with a hire car.
On some routes and certain times of the year, it is advisable to book in advance, to avoid disappointment or long waiting times at the harbour. Among the busiest routes are the ferries to Skye, Mull, Islay, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides.
Other routes, such as the ferry to the Small Isles (Rum, Eigg, Muck), operate ferries for passengers only (no cars).
10) Zero Tolerance
Don’t drink and drive!
Sounds like a no-brainer, but it is good to remember that the legal limit of alcohol is 50mg in 100ml of blood.
This is lower than in England, but it’s best not to drink at all when you drive!
Have you ever been driving in Scotland before? What would your top tip be?
Planning a trip to Scotland?