The United Kingdom is a wonderful country, full of history, beautiful landscapes, and interesting places to visit. It’s been populated for millennia by Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and many, many other groups; like you, most of these people wanted to move around the country a bit. The Romans built their Roman roads, Anglo-Saxons often travelled on horseback, the Vikings famously got around by boat.
These days, you’re spoilt for choice with regards to UK transport options. Unlike many countries, where one form of transport is the preferred (or only) way to get around, travellers in the United Kingdom will almost always find multiple alternatives for getting from A to B. We’ve found Rome2Rio to be a great help for route planning, but it doesn’t cover everything!
This podcast mostly covers transport around England and Scotland, as we’ve spent most of our time in the UK in these two countries, but our tips hold true for Wales and Northern Ireland too. To listen to the UK transport podcast, hit play below or find episode 316 in iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud:
Air travel can be a great choice for travelling from one end of the country to another, and also for getting to some of the UK’s far-flung islands. Book in advance to get the cheapest fares; we use Skyscanner to find the best deals.
Keep in mind that getting to and from the airport will cost time and money as well: use toandfromtheairport.com to get an idea of how long it will take you to get to your final destination from the airport. In London, we often use the EasyBus or Terravision coaches to travel from the airport into the city — it’s not the fastest option but costs as little as £2 if you book in advance.
The UK’s rail network used to be a lot more extensive than it is today; many branch lines were pulled up in a flurry of enthusiasm for motorway building. However, trains remain an excellent way to get around. Depending on your destination, you might find that it’s faster to go by train than by air when you take into account time spent traveling to the airport, waiting to board, and collecting your baggage at the other end — I’d certainly prefer to travel from London to Edinburgh by train than plane!
Unfortunately, train travel can be prohibitively expensive, though you can get some good deals if you book in advance. Short journeys often cost a fixed price, so buying in advance won’t help, but if you’re travelling for more than an hour or so it’s worth getting your ticket as soon as you know your travel dates. Last year, we spent £8.50 on a ticket from Corby to London — the same journey could be purchased from a station machine on the day for £46.50. Quite a difference!
We tend to use thetrainline.com to find routes and prices, and either book through them or through the train company itself if there’s a price difference. Different companies operate in different parts of the country, so it’s worth using an aggregator rather than visiting each company’s website individually.
If you want to maximise your travel time, you could consider travelling on an overnight train, so you wake up in your next destination and don’t lose a day getting from A to B. There aren’t too many overnight trains in the UK, though it is possible to travel from London to various destinations in Scotland every day except Saturday and some public holidays. You can also travel from London to Cornwall overnight.
Rather than sleeping in your seat, choose a private sleeper or shared two-bed sleeper compartment — it’s usually safe to share your compartment with other travellers. The Man in Seat 61 has a lot of useful information about travelling by train in the UK.
If you’re looking for a super-budget long-distance transport option, travelling by coach is the way to go. We’ve travelled from London to Scotland by coach more times than we care to mention, drawn in by the £1 fares offered by Megabus. National Express also has a great network of routes and offers quite good advance fares (from £5) on many of their lines. The journey takes a lot longer by coach than by train (London-Glasgow takes 8-10 hours compared to under five hours by train) but you just can’t beat the prices.
With an excellent motorway network and thousands of miles of charming country lanes, the UK is a great place to drive — especially if you’re visiting a small town that’s difficult to get to otherwise. We’ve hired cars for day trips from London, for getting from one small place to another, and for exploring Wales — all good examples of when a car is a good choice over other transport options.
Car hire can be expensive and petrol isn’t cheap either, but it’s a great choice for flexibility. Be aware that people drive on the left on the UK, and manual transmission vehicles are more common than automatics.
You could also consider hiring a campervan (Spaceships operate in the UK) or caravan if you want to take your accommodation with you.
If you want to go by car but don’t want to drive yourself, ride sharing is a great choice. Drivers advertise spare seats in their car and you can join them on their journey for a fee. You’re most likely to find a ride on journeys between major cities, but you might get lucky and find someone going to the same village you want to get to!
There are many ride-sharing services to choose from in the UK. We’ve had a good experience with BlaBlaCar in Spain and Mexico, though LiftShare touts itself as “the UK’s largest car sharing community” — check them both out for people travelling the way you’re going. Make sure to choose a driver with references, and share your travel plans with a friend before you hop in the car.
Local bus and metro systems
All of the major cities have their own public transport system, which might incorporate buses, light rail, underground railway, or even a cable car. However, some of the local buses connect outlying towns and can be a good way to get from place to place — I recently traveled from Oundle to Northampton by local bus, a two-hour journey. Timetables are almost always available online but prices are often not — I had to email the customer support desk to find out how much my trip would cost.
The UK is an island nation and water is ever-present, whether it be the sea, the river, or man-made inland waterways. Ferries are a great choice for getting to islands like the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Man, and a whole lot of Scottish islands, or for travelling from England to Northern Ireland. You could consider hiring a sailboat for a coastal journey or hopping on a Thames river cruise.
Canal boating is currently enjoying an increase in popularity, as many of the canals that fell into disrepair in the early twentieth century have been redeveloped. It’s a slow but peaceful way to get around, and travelling up and down the locks is fun!
Of course, you can always book yourself a tour and save yourself the hassle of choosing the best way to get around — you get less flexibility in your itinerary but you might meet some great people. There are a lot of companies to choose from, from basic to luxury, as well as the hop-on-hop-off type of bus ticket offered by companies like Busabout.
Cycling is an excellent, eco-friendly way to get around the UK — though you might find it hard going in some of the more hilly regions. Be aware that you can’t cycle on the motorways, but back roads are fine, and cycle lanes are becoming more common in cities. Many of the UK’s extensive network of walking paths can also be cycled. You can even take your bike on some trains, which is a good option if you want to get back to your starting point or travel a bit faster than you can on two wheels.
Yes, walk. Not the most popular of choices for obvious reasons, but it’s a great way to see the countryside — and walking holidays are an important part of UK culture. There’s a pathway that runs from one end of the country to the other (Land’s End to John O’ Groats) that we’d love to do when we have a few months free, and thousands of miles of other walkways across the country. We particularly loved the West Highland Way in Scotland and the Cotswold Way from Bath to Chipping Camden.
There are many ways to get around the United Kingdom. Have a great time, however you choose to travel!
How do you travel around the UK? Have we missed something? Leave a comment below!
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