Getting Around the UK
The UK is a relatively small country and is very well connected. Do the right thing for the planet and travel by train wherever you can. In England, Scotland and Wales the extensive National Rail network covers more than 34,000km (21,000 miles) of the country and over 2,600 stations.
The UK by train
Trains operate under franchises and travelling by train is very popular, although a lot of people complain that it’s just too expensive and can get very overcrowded at peak times. Get around this by travelling in the middle of the day if you’ve got the time on your gap year in the UK. In Northern Ireland there’s a state-owned system called Northern Ireland Railways (NIR).
The National Rail website has all the details you need on getting around the UK via train. You can also book tickets and either have them mailed to you or printed via eTicket. The train coaches come in Standard Class or First Class – if you upgrade you’ll get more space, a newspapaper and free drinks to your seat. On the odd occasion they’ll do these upgrades for cheap and it’s well worth it if you can spare the pennies.
Most of the trains will have free seat reservations, a trolley service, air conditioning, a quiet coach and sometimes Wi-Fi, although there’s often a charge. Book early for the best deals, but always travel with a ticket or you will get stung deep by the penalty charges. If you’re in the UK for a while it might be worth getting a Young Person’s Railcard. Also if there are a group of you make sure you ask about group deals as you can save a lot.
The UK by plane
You can easily travel by plane between the main hubs of London, Belfast, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh. There are also a few budget airlines operating in the UK – all you need to do is book well in advance and travel at about 3am in the morning to secure the best deals. Tickets follow the ‘no-frills’ approach, with charges for checked bags, assigned seats and dodgy sandwiches up in the sky.
The UK by car
They travel on the left hand side of the road in the UK and most cars are manual. If you want to hire one that’s specifically automatic you need to request at the time from the car hire, as they will presume you want manual. The UK is riddled with roads – whether you want them big and fast or tight and windy, you’ll find a road to suit you here. Parking can be a problem – especially in the big cities. If you’re planning to park in London you’re looking at shelling out at least £25 for the day. Petrol can also be very expensive as it’s heavily taxed. You’ll find the petrol cheaper at supermarkets than specific fuel stations like Esso/Exxon, Shell and BP.
If you’re going to be driving around London on your gap year you need to bear in mind that there’s an £8 congestion charge in the centre. Stay out of London and off the motorways during rush hour – it’s insane. Make use of the Park and Ride schemes available in the big cities too. You just park your car on the outskirts in a special car park and a (sometimes free) bus will take you in.
Parking on the streets is restricted. You should never park on a white, double yellow or double red line or you will be fined.
Speed limits operate everywhere and will always be well signposted so keep a look out if you’re unsure or you risk getting flashed by a speed camera. The roads in the UK are among the safest in Europe.
Never drink and drive in the UK. The penalties are steep and the risks to yourself and others even steeper. The maximum limit is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood (0.08%) and fines are up to £5000, minimum driving ban is 12 months for a first offence, and you may be imprisoned for up to 6 months. Using your phone while driving is also illegal – you can be subject to an on the spot fine.
For further information on driving in the UK, consult the Highway Code.
The UK by bus
In the big UK cities and towns there’s always a regular bus service between the centre, suburbs and nearby villages, and less frequent services to more rural areas. The London Underground operates an extensive overground system and bus network in the Big Smoke, while in Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Blackpool you can travel by tram. Most buses will operate on a ‘pay-as-you-board service’ except those in London.
The UK by campervan
Hiring a campervan is a great way to explore the UK. Sleeping in your campervan can be a great moneysaver rather than staying in bed and breakfasts. Make friends with the country pub owners and they may even let you used their parking lots for overnight stays.
The UK by coach
Travelling around the UK by coach is another option. It’s obviously slower than rail travel, but it can be much cheaper and generally it will take you to the centre of town. The biggest providers in the UK are National Express and Megabus. Get your ticket booked early enough and you can get certain routes for just £1.
The UK by taxi
There are two types of taxis in the United Kingdom – metered (black) cabs that can be hailed in the streets of the bigger towns and cities and minicabs (private hire taxis) which have to be ordered by telephone. Minicabs are usually cheaper and offer fixed prices to destinations which are sometimes open to negotiation. Be careful of fake taxis: always check that the taxi you are getting in to has a rear taxi-licence plate on the rear bumper and that it carries the name of the local authoritative council. The driver’s taxi licence should be displayed on the dashboard. Always double check who the driver is here for when they arrive too.
The UK by boat
You can get into and around the UK by ferry. They link the mainland to the offshore islands such as the Isles of Scilly, the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Man and the Orkneys and Shetland Islands from Aberdeen and the far north of Scotland. You can travel on these ferries with your car, making this a great way to explore the UK.
The UK by bicycle
Cycling is popular in the UK. There are bike hire schemes in Cambridge, Oxford and London, and a whole host of rental shops around the other towns and cities that make up the UK.
Urban cycling possibilities can vary from city to city. All the big cities have designated cycle lanes – although these are often taken with a pinch of salt by pedestrians and drivers alike. Make sure you know the cyclists highway code if you plan on hopping on a bike on your gap year in the UK. Unfortunately bike theft is common in the UK so make sure you have a good lock. You can take your bike on certain trains – but check with the operator beforehand.