In this installment 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. These ten tips will give you some guidance and help you plan the ideal road trip for you!
If you’ve had a look at my introductory guide to planning a trip to Scotland before and you decided renting a car (or bringing 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!
Alright, now that you are certain that a road trip is an ideal choice for you, let’s get started.
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!
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
If you are not comfortable with the idea of driving on the left, doing everything in the car the “wrong way round”, navigating the Scottish countryside and enjoying a bit of your road trip as well, it might be worth investing in an automatic instead of a manual car.
I’m a fairly inexperienced driver, so I feel much safer, knowing that there is one less thing I need to concentrate on – especially when I drive 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 if you have to reduce your pace, take it slowly. Safety first, is the most important rule of any road trip.
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 maps, renting a GPS might be useful. I would not entirely rely on your phone/Google maps, especially since you won’t always get signal up in the Highlands!
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. Being aware and reminding yourself over and over to stick to the left, maybe even vocalising it in the beginning can help a lot!
5) Don’t underestimate distances
When planning your road trip in 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, won’t knock an experienced driver off their socks. North Americans in particular are used to far distances; while Europeans have already crossed through two or three countries, they are still on their daily commute to the supermarket. Just kidding – kind of.
Fact is that many roads in the Scottish countryside are windy and narrow – if you have a camper van in front of you, you might as well get comfortable. Traffic can be super busy in peak holiday times. Many roads off the main routes are single track roads, meaning that you have to drive extra carefully, and potentially got to stop at passing places frequently.
A word on passing places: Thank drivers who stop to let you past – lifting your fingers or hand off the steering wheel is plenty. When going down a hill, try your best to stop for the person going up – people will return the favour when you go up too!
PS: Also make use of petrol stations (gas stations) while you can – the further away from the main roads you get, the less frequent they become!
6) 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!
7) Consider the time of the year
Could there potentially be snow on the road, or a strong winter storm? Are you traveling around a national holiday, or during a major local event? Do your homework and try to anticipate what else could slow down your journey.
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 a 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. On some routes and certain times of the year it is advisable to book in advance, to avoid long waiting times at the harbour.
Other routes, such as the ferry to the Small Isles, operate passenger ferries only.
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!
You can find more information, such as speed limits and license requirements here.
Have you ever been driving in Scotland before? What would your top tip be?
Planning a trip to Scotland?