I think most Americans (and maybe some continental Europeans) are a bit nervous to drive in the United Kingdom. I certainly was! Driving on the other side of the car on the other side of the road? Eek. Truthfully I could not find many resources when I did what I do before any trip: research. I’m hoping that this post gives you everything you need to know about driving in Scotland as an American.
I had my rental car for 6 days and drove 729 miles across Scotland. At times, it was simple. Other times, it was nerve wracking. Overall it was just like driving anywhere you didn’t know, but with an added layer. In my opinion, any confident driver will be able to safely navigate driving in Scotland with minimal issues.
Disclosure: there are some affiliate links below and I may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this post, but these are all products I recommend. I won’t put anything on this page that I have not verified and/or personally used.
First things first: do you need a rental car?
Yes! Unless you plan to spend all your time in major cities, I think you need a rental car. It is the best way to see Scotland! Cities will have public transit options, and honestly going between cities you can get trains or buses. However, you won’t be able to get out to some of the more off-the-beaten-path locations without your own car. If you are unable to drive, there are companies that offer tours or private drivers.
Where do you rent your car in Scotland?
There are several options as to where to rent your car. All the major companies (Hertz, Enterprise, etc.) have offices in the UK. You can also use Europcar which is a common brand in Europe. After reading a couple of reviews, I actually rented through Celtic Legend. They organize the rental cars, but I picked up the car from Arnold Clark.
I cannot say enough excellent things about Celtic Legend and Arnold Clark. The booking process was extremely easy and they were quick to respond via email. I knew I wanted a smaller car, but needed an automatic transmission which limited my options. I emailed back and forth with Celtic Legend and they helped me pick which car would be right for me. In addition, all their cars come with GPS included in the rental cost. All the communication about picking up, dropping off, etc. was clear and precise.
How much does it cost?
I’d say rental car prices are about the same in Scotland as they are in the US. Perhaps slightly more. I paid £376.50 ($515) for six days. If you rent a manual it will be a bit cheaper, but if you need a larger car then it will obviously be a little more. I think you should budget $75-100 per day for a rental car…then be happy when it costs a bit less 🙂
What type of car should you rent?
I have two pieces of advice in regards to choosing your car for driving in Scotland as an American. First of all, if you are not completely comfortable driving a manual you should get an automatic. Driving an automatic transmission is just one less thing you have to adjust to in the UK. But if you drive a manual normally, go for it – you’ll get used to it quickly.
The other piece of advice is to rent the smallest car you’ll need. Parking spaces, streets, and roads are all narrow. If you don’t need a large sedan or an SUV then don’t get one! My car was the smallest I could get in an automatic, but it was larger than I needed. However, if my husband had been with me and had his clubs and bags, it would have been what we needed.
I picked up my car in Inverness and to be honest, it was stressful. As I was driving out of the parking lot I kept saying, “on the left, on the left.” Of course there are a lot of roundabouts. By the time I reached Clava Cairns my heart rate was back to normal. It just took a few minutes and it felt completely normal. I only had ONE slip-up…I literally pulled on to the wrong side of the street. Luckily, there was very little traffic and people were super kind and let me backup and correct it.
Everything you need to know about driving in Scotland as an American
Driving on the left side of the road
The only real advice I can give for this is to pay attention. It’s so easy to get distracted while we’re driving, so do your best to keep your mind on the road. Make sure you put your destination in the GPS before leaving and turn on voice commands so you’re not looking at the map too much. Queue up your music/book/podcast so you don’t need to worry about that. Most of the major roads have arrows so it’s pretty easy to remember where to go. I also found that I preferred when there were other cars around so I could follow someone else. Any instincts you may have to drive on the right side are automatically corrected by the car in front of you.
When in doubt, repeat “drive on the left” in your head! Particularly when you’re turning and entering/exiting roundabouts. I’ve also heard from a few people that putting a small sticky note on the windshield with an arrow pointing left is helpful. However, I did not do that and was fine. LIke I mentioned before, I only slipped up once and it was the first day. Take your time and think about every move you make – turns, lane shifts, etc. Driving on the left definitely isn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, but it’s probably the #1 thing that comes up about driving in Scotland as an American.
Driving on the right side of the vehicle
Like driving on the left side of the road, I got used to the driver’s seat on the right quickly. The pedals are all in the same place as they would be in an American car, so that is very easy. Also like American cars, controls for headlights, etc. vary in their placement. Turn signals are in the same place! Before driving anywhere, make sure you familiarize yourself with where your headlights turn on/off and adjust your seats and mirrors. We take it for granted being able to adjust those things on the road. But you don’t want to be stuck doing it while also remembering to drive on the other side of the road in traffic.
Finding petrol (that’s what it’s called in the UK) in cities is simple. In the cities they’re everywhere. I found that I preferred petrol stations at supermarkets (Morrison’s, Tesco, etc.) because they were larger and offered pay at the pump. It just made it a bit easier to navigate.
Along more rural roads and in smaller villages you’ll always be able to find a petrol station. However, it probably won’t be open 24 hours and you may have to pay inside. There will be a sign telling you what to do. I only stopped at one station that did not have pay at the pump and I just filled up, then went inside to pay at the register.
I probably got gas more than I needed to, but I was a bit paranoid about “running out.” Not really running out, I guess I just didn’t want to worry about it. So any time I’d pass a station that looked easy in/out I would fill up. I don’t think my tank was ever below half full! You’ll also most likely need to return your rental car with a full tank. So make sure you leave enough time and find a petrol station near your drop-off location.
Make sure you know if your vehicle runs on gasoline or diesel. Diesel cars are common in Europe and that is NOT a mistake you want to make.
Another note: fuel is sold by the liter, not by the gallon. So at first glance it seems cheap, but don’t be surprised when it costs significantly more to fill up your tank. I think it averages $5-9/gallon.
Although I think it is important to get in-car navigation (or an external unit) with your rental, it is only so good. I would recommend also having a physical map and using your phone as a backup. I found that my car’s built-in GPS did not get into the details as much as I wanted. So I’d use the car’s GPS system for longer drives, then used my phone once I got closer. Google Maps on my phone was much more granular and easy to follow on city streets. Google Maps also worked without cell phone service (which was rare), as long as I input the destination before I lost service.
Each night, I’d plan my route for the next day. I quickly learned that it would take a bit longer than Google Maps said it would. Leave some wiggle room if you’re trying to get somewhere at a specific time. Particularly if your route is taking you on country or single-track roads. It only takes getting stuck behind one slow car without a passing lane to add several minutes onto your trip. In addition, the speed limit on rural roads is 60 mph. I found that wildly unrealistic for a non-native driver. So while Google thinks you should be traveling 60 mph, you’re more likely driving somewhere in the 45-50 mph area and thus it will take longer.
I packed my phone holder for the car and it was a lifesaver. It felt bulky when I put it in my bag but I’m so glad that I did. I was able to attach it to the vent and have my phone in view for navigation the whole trip! I have this one and use it daily on my commute at home.
Scotland’s speed limits are all in miles per hour (mph). The signs are posted regularly and are white circles outlined in red with the speed limit in black in the center. If you’re unsure about the speed limit and haven’t passed a sign, there are some national speed limits that you can use as a guide.
- Residential areas and school zones – 20 mph
- City/town streets – 30 mph
- Rural roads that are not M roads/dual carriageways – 60 mph for cars and 50 mph for large trucks/vehicles and vehicles towing trailers
- M roads and dual carriageways – 70 mph for cars and 60 mph for large trucks/vehicles and vehicles towing trailers
There are speed cameras on major roads that use average speed between. If your average speed is over the limit, then you’ll receive a ticket in the mail. Or, your rental car company will and then charge your credit card on file.
Navigating single-track roads while driving in Scotland as an American is a frequently raised concern. Honestly, you just get used to them. There’s really no preparing for it until you drive them and get the hang of it. I grew up in a very rural area where dirt and gravel roads are common, so that’s how I approached it. They’re a lot like those backroads in Indiana, but paved and with passing areas – so sort of better!
Go slow, particularly around corners, and pay attention. There will be passing places marked with signs in regular intervals. When you see a car approaching, slow down and pull into the next passing place on the left. If the next passing place is on the right and you arrive there before the next car DO NOT pull into it. Simply stop in the road with enough room for the other car to pull around you in the passing place. You may feel tempted to pull into the passing places on the right, but squash that down. Stay to the left!
I never encountered another car when there was not a passing place between us. However, if that happens, the car that is closest to the last passing place will back up. Sometimes the passing place will feel very small, particularly if you are passing a bus or motorhome. Get over to the edge as close as you can and be cognizant of leaving enough space.
Another thing to keep in mind is traffic on single-traffic roads. The passing places are only large enough for one to two cars. So if you’re following a line of cars, don’t crowd up to the car in front of you. Otherwise, you’ll clog up the road since there won’t be enough space for all the cars to get into the passing places. I noticed this a lot on the Isle of Skye, which unfortunately is where there are an abundance of tourist buses and motorhomes.
Lastly – a passing place PSA about driving in Scotland as an American!
Never ever ever park in passing places. Only ever park in a designated parking space. Any tourist destination or view will have a carpark or dedicated off-road parking. When vehicles use passing places to park in, it causes massive traffic backup issues. Don’t be that person!
Drinking and driving
Don’t. Seriously, just don’t. Several years ago, Scotland cracked down on intoxicated driving and now the legal limits are lower than nearly anywhere else in the world. The legal BAC is 0.05%, which for most adults is less than one drink consumed in an hour.
The penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol are steep, too. Fines of over £2500, 6 months or more in prison, and potentially being banned from driving in Scotland. It’s simply not worth it. Enjoy your dram within walking distance of where you’re staying the night or make sure you have a designated driver.
No tolls - but be prepared to pay for parking!
There are no toll roads or bridges in Scotland. However, you should be prepared to pay for parking nearly everywhere. Car parks and street parking will have kiosks where you pay and display. This was true almost every single place I parked. From cities to rural hiking trailheads, all parking was £2-5 for a few hours. In every case, the kiosk accepted credit card so it was simple. You select the amount of time you want to be there, tap your credit card, and then put the ticket in your dashboard. Although it is only a few pounds each time, it does add up. I think I spent about £40 on parking – which is over $50! Definitely not nothing in the overall budget.
Yea, so you’ll probably pass at least sheep and cows on the road. This is not limited to the rural single-track roads either. At one point, traffic was stopped on a four lane highway because of sheep! It’s sort of hard to fathom, but just be prepared and don’t say I didn’t warn you. Honestly this is one of the most bizarre things about driving in Scotland as an American!
My rental car company, Celtic Legend, had this helpful video on their website that I recommend watching. It goes through all the basics for driving in Scotland. You can find it here under the first FAQ. There is also another video further down specifically about driving on single-track roads. Even if you don’t rent through them, I think their frequently asked questions page is very helpful!
I hope this guide to driving in Scotland as an American is helpful to you as you plan your trip. Overall, driving in Scotland is not scary. If you’re a confident driver then you’ll be completely fine. Just remember to pay attention and not get distracted. Going on a road trip through Scotland is a truly magical experience. I highly recommend it for anyone!