Getting aroundFor getting around England your first main choice is going by car or public transport. While having your own car helps you make the best use of your time to reach remote places, rental and fuel costs can be expensive for budget travellers – while the trials of traffic jams and parking in major cities hit everyone – so public transport is often the better way to go. Your main public transport options are train and long-distance bus (called coach in England). Services between major towns and cities are generally good, although at ‘peak’ (busy) times you must book in advance to be sure of getting a ticket. Conversely, if you book ahead early and/or travel at ‘off-peak’ periods, tickets can be very cheap. As long as you have time, using a mix of train, coach, local bus, the odd taxi, walking and occasionally hiring a bike, you can get almost anywhere without having to drive. You’ll certainly see more of the countryside than you might slogging along grey motorways, and in the serene knowledge that you’re doing less environmental damage.
Traveline (0871 200 2233; www.traveline.org.uk) is a very useful information service covering bus, coach, taxi and train services nationwide, with numerous links to help plan your journey. By phone, you get transferred automatically to an advisor in the region you’re phoning from; for details on another part of the country, you need to key in a code number (81 for London, 874 for Cumbria etc) – for a full list of codes, go to the Traveline website.
Hitching is not as common as it used to be in England, maybe because more people have cars, maybe because few drivers give lifts any more. It’s perfectly possible, however, if you don’t mind long waits, although travellers should understand that they’re taking a small but potentially serious risk, and we don’t recommend it. If you decide to go by thumb, note that it’s illegal to hitch on motorways; you must use approach roads or service stations.
If you’re on a tight budget, long-distance buses are nearly always the cheapest way to get around, although they’re also the slowest – sometimes by a considerable margin.
In England, long-distance express buses are called coaches, and in many towns there are separate bus and coach stations. Make sure you go to the right place!
National Express (08717 818181; www.nationalexpress.com) is the main operator, with a wide network and frequent services between main centres. Fares vary: they’re cheaper if you book in advance and travel at quieter times, and more expensive if you buy your ticket on the spot and it’s Friday afternoon. As a guide, a 200-mile trip (eg London to York) will cost around £15 to £20 if you book a few days in advance.
Megabus (www.megabus.com) operates a budget airline–style coach service between about 30 destinations around the country. Go at a quiet time, book early, and your ticket will be very cheap. Book later, for a busy time and…you get the picture.
Bus passes & discounts
National Express offers discount passes to full-time students and under-26s, called Young Persons Coachcards. They cost £10 and get you 30% off standard adult fares. Also available are coachcards for people over 60, families and disabled travellers.
For touring the country, National Express also offers Brit Xplorer passes, which allow unlimited travel for seven days (£79), 14 days (£139) and 28 days (£219). You don’t need to book journeys in advance with this pass; if the coach has a spare seat, you can take it.
Travelling by private car or motorbike means you can be independent and flexible, and reach remote places. For solo budget travellers a downside of car travel is the expense, and in cities you’ll need superhuman skills to negotiate heaving traffic and deep pockets for parking charges. But if there’s two or more of you, car travel can work out cheaper than public transport.
Motorways and main A-roads are dual carriageways and deliver you quickly from one end of the country to another. Lesser A-roads, B-roads and minor roads are much more scenic and fun, as you wind through the countryside from village to village – ideal for car or motorcycle touring. You can’t travel fast, but you won’t care.
Compared to many countries (especially the USA), hire rates are expensive in England; you should expect to pay around £250 per week for a small car (unlimited mileage) but rates rise at busy times and drop at quiet times. Some main players:
1car1 (0113 263 6675; www.1car1.com)
Avis (0844 581 0147; www.avis.co.uk)
Budget (0844 581 9998; www.budget.co.uk)
Europcar (0870 607 5000; www.europcar.co.uk)
Sixt (08701 567567; www.sixt.co.uk)
Thrifty (01494-751540; www.thrifty.co.uk)
Many international websites have separate web pages for customers in different countries, and the prices for a car in England on the UK webpages can differ from the same car’s prices on the USA or Australia pages. The moral is – you have to surf a lot of sites to find the best deals.
Another option is to look online for small local car-hire companies in England who can undercut the big boys. Generally those in cities are cheaper than in rural areas. See a rental-broker site such as UK Car Hire (www.ukcarhire.net).
Yet another option is to hire a motorhome or campervan. It’s more expensive than hiring a car but it does help you save on accommodation costs, and gives almost unlimited freedom. Sites to check include these:
Cool Campervans (www.coolcampervans.com)
Just Go (www.justgo.uk.com)
Wild Horizon (www.wildhorizon.co.uk)
Large motoring organisations include the Automobile Association (www.theaa.com) and the Royal Automobile Club (www.rac.co.uk); annual membership starts at around £35, including 24-hour roadside breakdown assistance. A greener alternative is the Environmental Transport Association (www.eta.co.uk); it provides all the usual services (breakdown assistance, roadside rescue, vehicle inspections etc) but doesn’t campaign for more roads.
England is small, and people love their cars, so there’s often not enough parking space to go round. Many cities have short-stay and long-stay car parks; the latter are cheaper though maybe less convenient. ‘Park and Ride’ systems allow you to park on the edge of the city then ride to the centre on regular buses provided for an all-in-one price.
Yellow lines (single or double) along the edge of the road indicate restrictions. Find the nearby sign that spells out when you can and can’t park. In London and other big cities, traffic wardens operate with efficiency; if you park on the yellow lines at the wrong time, your car will be clamped or towed away, and it’ll cost you £100 or more to get driving again. In some cities there are also red lines, which mean no stopping at all.
A foreign driving licence is valid in England for up to 12 months. If you plan to bring a car from Europe, it’s illegal to drive without (at least) third-party insurance. Some other important rules:
- drive on the left (!)
- wear fitted seat belts in cars
- wear crash helmets on motorcycles
- give way to your right at junctions and roundabouts
- always use the left-side lane on motorways and dual-carriageways, unless overtaking (although so many people ignore this rule, you’d think it didn’t exist)
- don’t use a mobile phone while driving unless it’s fully hands-free (another rule frequently flouted).
Speed limits are 30mph (48km/h) in built-up areas, 60mph (96km/h) on main roads and 70mph (112km/h) on motorways and most (but not all) dual carriageways. Drinking and driving is taken very seriously; you’re allowed a minimum blood-alcohol level of 80mg/100mL (0.08%) – campaigners want it reduced to 50mg/100mL.
All drivers should read the Highway Code. It’s available at main newsagents and some tourist offices, and online from www.direct.gov.uk.
For long-distance travel around England, trains are generally faster and more comfortable than coaches but can be more expensive, although with discount tickets they’re competitive – and often take you through beautiful countryside. In the 1990s, rail travel had a bad reputation for delays and cancellations. A decade later, the situation had improved markedly (so much so that passenger numbers have increased massively), with around 85% of trains running on or pretty close to schedule. The other 15% of journeys that get delayed or cancelled mostly impact commuters rather than long-distance leisure travellers. If your journey from London to Bath runs 30 minutes late, what’s the problem? You’re on holiday!
About 20 different companies operate train services in Britain (for example: First Great Western runs from London to Bristol, Cornwall and South Wales; National Express East Coast runs London to Leeds, York and Scotland; Virgin Trains run the ‘west coast’ route from London to Birmingham, Carlisle and Scotland), while Network Rail operates track and stations. For some passengers this system can be confusing at first, but information and ticket-buying services are mostly centralised. If you have to change trains, or use two or more train operators, you still buy one ticket – valid for the whole of your journey. The main railcards are also accepted by all operators.
Your first stop should be National Rail Enquiries (08457 484950; www.nationalrail.co.uk), the nationwide timetable and fare information service. This site also advertises special offers, and has real-time links to station departure boards, so you can see if your train is on time (or not). Once you’ve found the journey you need, links take you to the relevant train operator or to centralised ticketing services (www.thetrainline.com, www.qjump.co.uk, www.raileasy.co.uk) to buy the ticket. These websites can be confusing at first (you always have to state an approximate preferred time and day of travel, even if you don’t mind when you go), but with a little delving around they can offer some real bargains.
You can also buy train tickets on the spot at stations, which is fine for short journeys, but discount tickets for longer trips are usually not available and must be bought in advance by phone or online.
For planning your trip, some very handy maps of the UK’s rail network can be downloaded from the National Rail Enquiries website.
There are two classes of rail travel: first and standard. First class costs around 50% more than standard and, except on very crowded trains, is not really worth it. However, at weekends some train operators offer ‘upgrades’ for an extra £10 to £15 on top of your standard class fare, so you can enjoy more comfort and leg room.
Costs & Reservations
For short journeys (under about 50 miles) it’s usually best to buy tickets on the spot at rail stations. You may get a choice of express or stopping service – the latter is obviously slower, but can be cheaper, and may take you through charming countryside or grotty suburbs.
For longer journeys, on-the-spot fares are always available, but tickets are much cheaper if bought in advance. Essentially, the earlier you book, the cheaper it gets. You can also save if you travel at ‘off-peak’ times, Fridays and Sundays. Advance purchase usually gets a reserved seat too. The cheapest fares are nonrefundable though, so if you miss your train you’ll have to buy a new ticket.
If you buy by phone or website, you can have the ticket posted to you (UK addresses only), or collect it at the originating station on the day of travel, either at the ticket desk (leave time to spare, as queues can be long) or from automatic machines.
Whichever operator you travel with and wherever you buy tickets, these are the three main fare types:
Advance Buy ticket in advance, travel only on specific trains
Off-peak Buy ticket any time, travel off-peak
Anytime Buy anytime, travel anytime
Advance tickets are subject to availability, and usually available as singles only, but if you’re making a return journey (ie coming back on the same route) you just buy two singles.
For an idea of the price difference, an Anytime single ticket from London to York will cost around £100, and an Off-peak around £80, while an Advance single can be less than £20, and even less than £10 if you book early enough or don’t mind arriving at midnight.
Off-peak and Anytime tickets are available as returns and the price can vary from just under double the single fare to just a pound more than the single fare.
Children under five travel free on trains; those aged between five and 15 pay half price, except on tickets already heavily discounted. A Family & Friends Railcard is usually better value.
If train doesn’t get you all the way to your destination, a PlusBus supplement (usually around £2) validates your train ticket for onwards travel by bus – more convenient, and usually cheaper, than buying a separate bus ticket. For details see www.plusbus.info.
And finally, it’s worth a look at Megatrain (www.megatrain.com) – from the people who brought you Megabus; ultra-low train fares on ultra off-peak services between London and a few destinations in southwest England and the East Midlands.
Local train passes usually cover rail networks around a city (many include bus travel too), and are mentioned in the individual city sections throughout this book. If you’re staying in England for a while, passes known as ‘railcards’ are available:
16-25 Railcard – for those aged 16 to 25, or a full-time UK student
Senior Railcard – for anyone over 60
Family & Friends Railcard – covers up to four adults and four children travelling together.
These railcards cost around £25 (valid for one year, available from major stations or online) and get you a 33% discount on most train fares, except those already heavily discounted. With the Family card, adults get 33% and children get 60% discounts, so the fee is easily repaid in a couple of journeys. Proof of age and a passport photo may be required. For full details see www.railcard.co.uk.
A Disabled Person’s Railcard costs £18. You can get an application from stations or from the railcard website. Call 0191-281 8103 for more details.
If you’re concentrating your travels on southeast England (eg London to Dover, Weymouth, Cambridge or Oxford) a Network Railcard covers up to four adults and up to four children travelling together outside peak times.
For country-wide travel, BritRail (www.britrail.com) passes are good value, but they’re only for visitors from overseas and not available in England. They must be bought in your country of origin from a specialist travel agency. There are many BritRail variants, each available in three different versions: for England only; for the whole of Britain (England, Wales and Scotland); and for the UK and Ireland. Below is an outline of the main options, quoting adult prices. Children’s passes are usually half price (or free with some adult passes), and seniors get discounts too. For about 30% extra you can upgrade to first class. Other deals include a rail pass combined with the use of a hire car, or travel in Britain combined with one Eurostar journey. For more details see the BritRail website.
BritRail England Consecutive Unlimited travel on all trains in England for four, eight, 15, 22 or 30 days, for US$209/299/449/569/675. Anyone getting their money’s worth out of the last pass should earn some sort of endurance award.
BritRail England Flexipass No need to get on a train every day to get full value. Your options are four days of unlimited travel in England within a 60-day period for US$265, eight in 60 days for US$385, or 15 in 60 days for US$579.
If you don’t (or can’t) buy a BritRail pass, an All Line Rover gives virtually unlimited travel for 14 days anywhere on the national rail network. You can travel at any time, but aren’t guaranteed a seat (reservations cost extra), so it’s best to travel at off-peak times if you can. The pass costs £565 and can be purchased in England, by anyone.
Of the other international passes, Eurail cards are not accepted in England, and InterRail cards are only valid if bought in another mainland European country.
English cities usually have good local public transport systems, although buses are often run by a confusing number of separate companies. The larger cities have tram and underground rail services too. Tourist offices can provide information, and more details are given in the city sections throughout this book.
There are good local bus networks year-round in cities and towns. Buses also run in rural areas year-round, and in tourist spots (especially national parks) there are frequent services from Easter to September. Elsewhere in the countryside, bus timetables are designed to serve schools and industry, so there can be few midday and weekend services (and they may stop running during school holidays), or buses may link local villages to a market town on only one day each week. It’s always worth double-checking at a tourist office before planning your day’s activities around a bus that may not actually be running.
In this book, along with the local bus route number, frequency and duration, we have provided indicative prices if the fare is over a few pounds. If it’s less than this, we have generally omitted the fare details.
If you’re taking a few local bus rides in a day of energetic sightseeing, ask about day-passes (with names like Day Rover, Wayfarer or Explorer), which will be cheaper than buying several single tickets. If you plan to linger longer in one area, three-day passes are a great bargain. Often they can be bought on your first bus, and may include local rail services. Passes are mentioned in the regional chapters, and it’s always worth asking ticket clerks or bus drivers about your options.
A postbus is a van on usual mail service that also carries passengers. Postbuses operate in rural areas (and some of the most scenic and remote parts of the country), and are especially useful for walkers and backpackers. For information and timetables contact Royal Mail Postbus (08457 740 740; www.royalmail.com/postbus).
There are two sorts of taxi in England: the famous black cabs (some with advertising livery in other colours), which have meters and can be hailed in the street; and minicabs, which are cheaper but can only be called by phone. In London and other big cities, taxis cost £2 to £3 per mile. In rural areas it’s about half of this, which means when you find the next bus out of the charming village you’ve been staying in won’t arrive for three days, a taxi can keep you moving. The best place to find the local taxi’s phone number is the local pub. Alternatively, if you call National Cabline (0800 123444) from a landline phone, the service pinpoints your location and transfers you to an approved local taxi company. Also useful is www.traintaxi.co.uk – designed to help you ‘bridge the final gap’ between the train station and your hotel or other final destination.
England’s domestic air companies include British Airways, BMI, BMIbaby, EasyJet and Ryanair, but flights around the country aren’t really necessary for tourists unless you’re really pushed for time. Even if you’re going from one end of the country to the other (eg London to Newcastle, or Manchester to Newquay) trains compare favourably with planes, once airport down-time is factored in. You might get a bargain air fare, but with advance planning trains can be cheaper.
England is a compact country, and getting around by bicycle is perfectly feasible – and a great way to really see the country – if you’ve got time to spare.
Renting a bike is easy in London (outlets include www.londonbicycle.com; see www.lcc.org.uk for a list) and at other tourist spots such as Oxford and Cambridge. Rates start at about £10 per day, but £20 per day is more usual for something half decent. Bike rental is also possible in country areas, especially at forestry sites and reservoirs now primarily used for leisure activities, for example Kielder Water in Northumberland (www.thebikeplace.co.uk), Grizedale Forest in the Lake District (www.forestry.gov.uk/grizedale), and the Peak District in Derbyshire, where disused railway lines are now bike routes (www.derbyshire-peakdist rict.co.uk/cycling.htm).
Finally, mention must be made of Bristol – England’s first ‘cycling city’. From mid-2008 to mid-2011, around £11 million is planned to be invested in bike paths and other facilities, including a major rental network modelled on Paris’s famous Vélib (‘freedom bike’) project. Other cities, such as York, Cambridge and Chester will also get similar schemes.