Britain can be a challenging place for most foreigners to drive, considering that people drive on the left side of the often disconcertingly narrow roads, many rental cars have standard transmissions, and the gearshift is on the wrong side entirely.
There's no reason to rent a car for a stay in London because the city and its suburbs are well served by public transportation and traffic is desperately congested. Here and in other major cities it's best to rely on public transportation.
Outside the cities, a car can be very handy. Many sights aren’t easily reached without one—castles, for example, are rarely connected to any public transportation system. Small villages might have only one or two buses a day pass through them. If you’re comfortable on the road, the experience of driving between the tall hedgerows or on country roads is a truly English experience.
In England and Wales your own driver's license is acceptable. However, you may choose to get an International Driving Permit (IDP), which can be used only in conjunction with a valid driver's license and which translates your license into 10 languages. Check the Automobile Association of America website for more info as well as for IDPs ($15) themselves. These permits are universally recognized, and having one in your wallet may save you a problem with the local authorities.
Gasoline is called petrol in England and is sold by the liter. The price you see posted at a petrol station is the price of a liter, and there are about 4 liters in a U.S. gallon. Petrol is expensive; it was around £1.35 per liter, or $2.10 per liter, at the time of this writing. Supermarket pumps just outside city centers frequently offer the best prices. Premium and superpremium are the two varieties, and most cars run on premium. Diesel is widely used; be sure not to use it by mistake. Along busy motorways, most large stations are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In rural areas, hours can vary. Most service stations accept major credit cards, and most are self-service.
Parking regulations are strictly enforced, and fines are high. If there are no signs on a street, you can park there. Many streets have centralized "pay and display" machines, in which you deposit the required money and get a ticket allowing you to park for a set period of time. In London's City of Westminster (www.westminster.gov.uk) and some other boroughs, parking machines have been replaced by a pay-by-phone plan, enabling you to pay by cell phone if you've preregistered. In town centers your best bet is to park in a public lot marked with a square blue sign with a white "P" in the center.
If you park on the street, follow these basic rules: Do not park within 15 yards of an intersection. Never park in bus lanes or on double yellow lines, and do not park on single yellow lines when parking meters are in effect. On busy roads with red lines painted on the street you cannot park or stop to let a passenger out of the car.
Rental rates are generally reasonable, and insurance costs are lower than in the United States. If you want the car only for country trips, consider renting outside London. Rates are cheaper, and you avoid traversing London's notoriously complex road system. Rental rates vary widely, beginning at £30 a day and £117 a week for a midsize car, usually with manual transmission. As in the United States, prices rise in summer and during holidays. Car seats for children cost £5–£20, and GPS is usually around £10. You can also arrange for cell phone hire or a portable Wi-Fi hot spot with your rental.
Major car-rental agencies are much the same in Britain as in the United States: Alamo, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz, Thrifty, and National all have offices in Britain. Europcar is another large company. Companies may not rent cars to people who are under 23. Some have an upper age limit of 75.
There's a good network of major highways (motorways) and divided highways (dual carriageways) throughout most of England and Wales. Motorways (with the prefix "M"), shown in blue on most maps, are mainly two or three lanes in each direction. Other major roads (with the prefix "A") are shown on maps in green and red. Sections of fast dual carriageways (with black-edged, thick outlines on maps) have both traffic lights and traffic circles. Turnoffs are often marked by highway numbers, rather than place names. An exit is called a junction in Britain.
The vast network of lesser roads, for the most part old coach and turnpike roads, might make your trip twice as long but show you twice as much. Minor roads are drawn in yellow or white on maps, the former prefixed by "B," the latter unlettered and unnumbered. Should you take one of these, be prepared to back up into a passing place if you meet an oncoming car.
On major highways emergency roadside telephone booths are positioned at regular intervals. Contact your car-rental company or call the police. You can also call the British Automobile Association (AA) toll-free. You can join and receive assistance from the AA or the RAC on the spot, but the charge is higher than a simple membership fee. If you’re a member of the American Automobile Association, check before you travel; reciprocal agreements may give you free roadside aid.
Ambulance, fire, police. Ambulance, fire, police 999; 101.
Automobile Association. Automobile Association 0800/887–766; 0800/068–2912; www.theaa.com.
RAC. RAC 0800/197–7815; 0800/015–6000; www.rac.co.uk.
Rules of the Road
Driving on the left side of the road might be easier than you expected, as the steering and mirrors on British cars are designed for driving on the left. If you have a standard transmission car, you have to shift gears with your left hand. Give yourself time to adjust before leaving the rental-car lot. Seat belts are obligatory in the front and back seats. It’s illegal to talk on a handheld cell phone while driving.
Pick up a copy of the official Highway Code (£2.50) at a service station, newsstand, or bookstore, or check it out online by going to www.gov.uk and putting "Highway Code" in the search bar. Besides driving rules and illustrations of signs and road markings, this booklet contains information for motorcyclists, cyclists, and pedestrians.
Speed limits are complicated, and there are speed cameras everywhere. The speed limit (shown on circular red signs) is generally 20 or 30 mph in towns and cities, 40 to 60 mph on two-lane highways, and 70 mph on motorways. At traffic circles (called roundabouts), you turn clockwise. As cars enter the circle, they must yield to those already in the circle or entering from the right. If you're taking an exit all the way around the circle, signal right as you enter, stay to the center, and then signal and move left just before your own exit.
Pedestrians have the right-of-way on "zebra" crossings (black-and-white-stripe crosswalks between two orange-flashing globe lights). At other crossings, pedestrians must yield to traffic, but they do have the right-of-way over traffic turning left.
Drunk-driving laws are strictly enforced. The legal limit is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood, which means two units of alcohol—approximately one glass of wine, 1–1.5 pints of beer, or two shots of whisky. However, these figures will vary according to the alcohol’s strength, your size and weight (so women tend to reach the limit on less), and how much you’ve eaten that day.