Travelling by public transport is a fantastic way to experience Scotland. It is a responsible and sustainable way to explore the country at a slower pace. But where in Scotland can you go by train and bus? How do you navigate the public transport system? And can you travel the Islands and Highlands without a car? Find out everything you need to know in this guide to travel Scotland by public transport.
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From high costs, especially when you travel solo, to the fear of driving on the wrong side of the road. Hiring a car and driving in Scotland can be challenging.
I usually drive when I travel around Scotland, but I get asked all the time – what to do if you don’t (want to) drive? Is the country accessible by public transport? Can you get there by train and bus?
If you ever thought about visiting Scotland without hiring a car, you will be happy to hear that the short answer is yes. You can travel around Scotland on public transport with ease.
You might just have to edit your itinerary and travel pace accordingly.
I recently went on an adventure to Glencoe and Fort William and was forced to leave my car at home. For five days, I relied on buses and trains to see the Scottish Highlands and quickly realised that I had to adjust my plans to fit everything in.
This post is for you, if you want to see Scotland by public transport and wonder how to make the most of your time. I will cover:
- The Benefits of travelling by public transport.
- Public transport options explained: Buses, trains and ferries, travel passes and where to buy tickets.
- Tips for travelling on public transport to make your trip more enjoyable.
If you have any questions left, leave a comment or post in my Facebook group!
The Benefits of travelling Scotland by public transport
First let’s talk about the advantages of seeing Scotland by bus, train and ferry.
Spare yourself the driving. If you can’t drive or are worried about driving on the left side of the road, or a manual car, or on tiny mountain roads, travelling by public transport saves you from having to drive. No need to stress about driving, traffic or the roads.
Enjoy the views. Driving down scenic roads in Scotland is great – but the driver rarely gets to enjoy it in the same way as their passengers. They have to concentrate on the actual road after all. Travelling by public transport means that everybody gets to soak up the views and enjoy the scenery.
Be more eco-friendly. Whether you go by bus or train, travelling by public transport is better for the environment than hiring a car. So if your impact on the planet when you travel matters to you, public transport might be the way to go. Read up on my guide for responsible tourism in Scotland!
Save some money. It can be a lot cheaper to travel by public transport than renting a car and paying for petrol.
Great for solo travellers. All of the above are especially true if you travel by yourself. You’ll save yourself the stress of driving and navigating by yourself, you can focus on the views, you can travel more responsibly and save some money along the way.
But of course, there are also a few downsides – being restricted to timetables, having to adjust your pace accordingly, not being able to follow your nose down random roads. But with the right kind of planning and mindset, you can get just about anywhere on public transport.
Before I give you some tips for exactly how to do that, let me walk you through the different public transport options in Scotland, travel passes and how to buy tickets.
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Public Transport Explained
There are countless scenic train journeys in Scotland and it is arguably one of the most beautiful and relaxing ways to see the countryside.
Train operators in Scotland
The main train operator in Scotland is called ScotRail. They run services across the country, such as the West Highland Line connecting Glasgow with Oban and Mallaig through the southern and central Highlands, the Kyle Line from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh and the Highland Main Line from Glasgow and Edinburgh through Perthshire to Inverness. Trains stop in most major towns and cities in Scotland, including also Dunfermline, Perth, Dundee, Aviemore, Thurso and Dumfries.
There are also a few other operators that run train services between Scotland and England, such as CrossCountry, Avanti West Coast and others. Many people choose to travel from London to Fort William or Inverness on the Caledonian Sleeper Train, leaving the south in the evening and waking up in the Highlands.
Where to check train times
The most reliable place to check train times is directly on the ScotRail app or website. You can also use Google Maps, but they will not always register cancellations, rail replacement services or delays. Another great app to use is Rome2Rio. You can find more useful travel apps at the bottom of this post.
How to buy train tickets
Train tickets are available at train stations or online from the ScotRail app or website or via Trainline. I highly recommend buying tickets in advance to make sure you get the best price. If you travel from Scotland to England with an operator other than ScotRail, you can still buy tickets via ScotRail.
There are peak-time trains (weekdays before 9.15 am and between 4.42 and 6.11 pm – more info here) and off-peak trains, which are cheaper and less busy.
If you buy tickets online, you will have to pick up your tickets from a ticket desk or machine at a station. Remember to bring the ticket code you received in the confirmation email and the card you used to pay. You need both to pick up your tickets.
Travel Passes for Trains
There are four different kinds of travel passes offered by ScotRail:
- Spirit of Scotland Pass: Includes travel on trains, buses, coaches and Calmac & Argyll ferries all over Scotland, as well as discounts on Northlink Ferries, city sightseeing buses, loch cruises and more. You can choose between 4 travel days over 8 consecutive days (£149), or 8 travel days over 15 consecutive days (£189).
- Central Scotland Rover: A 3-day travel pass for trains in the Central Belt of Scotland as well as the Glasgow Subway (£55). The major lines included run between Glasgow and Edinburgh, Stirling, Falkirk, North Berwick and Tweedbank.
- Highland Rover: A travel pass that allows you to travel across the Highlands on 4 days over 8 consecutive days (£95). Includes train routes from Glasgow to Oban, Mallaig, Inverness, Ullapool, Thurso and Aberdeen, ferries to Skye and Mull, some bus routes in the west Highlands and discounted tickets for Northlink ferries to Orkney and Shetland.
- Scottish Grand Tour: Includes train travel on the West Highland Line (Glasgow to Mallaig), Kyle Line (Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness) and Highland Main Line (Inverness to Glasgow or Edinburgh), ferry travel to Skye, bus travel from Armadale to Kyle of Lochalsh. The pass is valid on 4 travel days over 8 consecutive days, but only in one direction (£89).
If you’re planning a visit to a Scottish town or city, you can book your train ticket and a day pass for local buses in one go by adding PlusBus to your train ticket via the ScotRail webshop. The PlusBus ticket allows you to use local public buses on the day of your train journey.
There are several PlusBus destinations, such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen, Stirling, Dunfermline and more.
Bus networks cover the majority of Scotland – you can get almost anywhere by bus. That said, buses are often slower than the train and are, of course, more dependent on road traffic.
They tend to stop more frequently and if you ask nicely, many drivers will also make an unscheduled stop to let you off between stations. It’s best not to rely on that though as they might be on a tight schedule, can’t find a safe spot to stop, or the bus is too busy to fulfil special requests.
Buses are also the only mode of public transport on islands. Note that there are some islands without any public transport, like Coll or Colonsay. There, walking, cycling and asking for lifts will be your only options.
Bus operators in Scotland
There are a number of bus companies operating local, intercity and regional buses (or coaches) in Scotland. Two of the big operators are Citylink and Stagecoach. Intercity routes are also run by National Express and Megabus. Both are also great to travel between English and Scottish cities on a budget.
You can purchase individual tickets or multi-day passes for their networks. Citylink’s Explorer Pass gives you access to the entire Citylink network for 3 travel days over 5 days, 5 over 10 days or 8 over 16 days (£49/79/97). Stagecoach’s MegaRider pass is valid for 7 or 28 days and includes all routes in specific cities and regions (from £7.50).
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Where to check bus schedules
Google Maps and Rome2Rio do a great job with bus routes. But to be 100% sure, I recommend double-checking bus schedules on the operator’s website or on Traveline – especially on the islands.
How to buy bus tickets
On intercity connections and popular routes, you should book tickets in advance. For shorter journeys or on regional buses, you can buy your ticket on the bus. Most accept contactless card payments, but it’s a good idea to have enough cash on you for backup.
If you want to go island hopping – unless you visit the Isle of Skye or the Isle of Seil – you will have to catch a ferry in order to visit the Scottish isles.
Ferry operators in Scotland
There are two large ferry operators in Scotland that operate the majority of ferry routes. Calmac runs most of the ferries to islands on the west coast, from Arran to Lewis. Northlink Ferries runs boats to Orkney and Shetland from Scrabster (Thurso) and Aberdeen.
The majority of these ferries are for passengers and cars, but there are some islands where cars may only be brought across by locals or with a license (such as Rum and Eigg). When travelling with a car, you generally have to book ferries in advance. As a passenger without a vehicle, you usually don’t have to book tickets in advance, but with limited capacity due to Covid, you should book all ferry tickets before you travel.
There are also a number of smaller local ferry operators running short routes, such as Western Ferries, Corran Ferry and John o Groats Ferries.
Where to check ferry schedules and buy tickets
You can check ferry schedules and buy tickets directly on each individual ferry operator’s website. Some ferries must be booked in advance, while others operate on a first-come, first-served basis.
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As the name suggests, Rail & Sail tickets allow you to travel on the train and ferry on a single ticket. No need to stand in line for a ticket at the ferry port – just jump on with your Rail & Sail ticket.
This type of ticket can get you to Orkney, Shetland, Mull, Skye, the Outer Hebrides, Bute, Arran and more.
10 Tips for travelling Scotland on public transport
Now that you know why you should travel on public transport and what your options are, let’s make sure you get the most out of your time in Scotland.
Here are ten travel tips for public transport in Scotland.
When you are dependent on train and bus schedules, you might find that you have to slow down your itinerary. You probably won’t manage to fit in quite as many stops in a day as if you were travelling by car.
If you want to hop off and on throughout the day, remember that trains and buses can be quite far apart, so you might have a few hours in each location.
You may want to consider spending multiple nights in the same location to explore an area more in-depth, rather than rushing on each night.
When a bus or train gets cancelled, there is nothing you can do. That’s why it’s important to have a plan B (and maybe even a plan C) to make sure you don’t miss out on a day of exploring.
Prepare to think on your feet. Have a few different options in mind and go with the flow, if timings don’t work out as planned.
Prepare to walk a lot
You will be walking from train or bus stations to your accommodation, to sights, to restaurants etc. Travelling by public transport means that you probably have to walk further than if you were travelling by car.
Comfortable walking shoes are a must!
Alternatively, budget for taxi rides or private transfers. Uber is only available in Glasgow and Edinburgh. In other areas there are local taxi companies. In towns they are usually near the stations, in villages, they might come from further afield and it’s best to book in advance.
Research local taxi numbers and make sure you have a working mobile phone to call.
Double and triple-check scheduled departures
Make sure you check the correct timetable and note any difference between weekday and weekend schedules.
If possible, double-check at the station (preferably) or online to make sure a service hasn’t been cancelled on short notice. Twitter is a good source for the most up-to-date schedule info. If a service gets cancelled, refer to tip 2 (“Be Flexible”).
The fewer bags you have and the lighter they are, the easier you will find it to navigate buses, trains and walking with your luggage.
I suggest one big bag like a backpack or wheelie suitcase, which can go on luggage racks or down below in buses, and a small bag to keep on you at all times.
My Packing List & Packing Tips should help you with that!
Consider getting a Railcard
If you are under 30, over 65 or travelling with a partner or your family, it can pay off to get a Railcard. A Railcard costs £30 for a year and can give you up to 1/3 off regular ticket prices.
Railcards are also available to visitors, but you cannot get a physical Railcard shipped abroad. If you do not have a UK address, you must buy a digital Railcard to use on your mobile device.
Book ahead on busy routes
I recommend booking tickets to popular destinations in advance – for example, the train to Oban or Fort William, the bus to Glencoe or Portree (Skye), or the train to Inverness.
Services that link up with ferry services should also be booked in advance – for example, the bus from Ullapool to Inverness coming off the Stornoway ferry. Especially on weekends and during peak season.
Book accommodation near stations
It makes life so much easier if you book places to stay that are in comfortable walking distance to bus and train stations. That way, you can also request to drop off your bags before checking in without wasting precious time walking back and forth.
Alternatively, budget for taxis or private transfers to manage longer distances.
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Pack a battery pack
You might find that you are spending more time on your phone when you travel by public transport – to take photos, listen to podcasts or audiobooks, take pictures out the window etc. While some buses and trains have plugs or USB plugs to charge your devices, I wouldn’t always rely on it.
Bring a battery pack to keep your phone charged on the go.
Download useful travel apps
Here are some of my favourite apps to navigate public transport in Scotland:
- ScotRail – to check train schedules and buy tickets
- Google Maps – my go-to to research potential routes
- First Bus – to buy tickets and check FirstBus schedules in Glasgow
- Lothian Buses – to buy tickets and check Lothian bus/tram schedules in Edinburgh
- Uber – to book taxis in Glasgow and Edinburgh
- Traveline – to check public transport schedules across Scotland
- Rome2Rio – also to check public transport schedules
With these things in mind, I have successfully travelled on public transport all over Scotland. From following in the footsteps of Outlander in Fife, island hopping to Bute or the Outer Hebrides, to exploring the Scottish Highlands in Glencoe, Fort William and Arisaig.
I hope you find this guide useful for planning your own trip to Scotland on public transport. I’d love to hear from you – whether you need help with your itinerary or would like to share your route with others – leave a comment below!