Distances in Scotland are small but the landscapes are enormous. A journey that looks like it should take minutes on the map can take hours once you factor in the glens, lochs and mountains in the way. Remember too that large parts of Scotland lie off the mainland, scattered across the choppy waters of the North Sea and the Atlantic.

With this in mind, the most important consideration when planning a trip around Scotland is time. On a fleeting visit, try not to be too ambitious about how much ground you can cover, and plan train journeys and ferry trips in advance so you’re not caught off guard by the limited schedules in outlying areas.

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When it comes to costs, getting around in Scotland can be expensive compared to the rest of Europe. Despite an impressive network of train, bus and ferry routes, the easiest option is usually to travel with your own car, particularly if you want to get off the tartan-and-shortbread tourist trail. However, costs can mount up if you plan to park in larger cities or take your car on the ferry.

Traveline Scotland is a good source of information and up-to-date timetables on all forms of transit, including ferries and flights to the Scottish islands.

Train crossing a stone bridge over water on a frosty, snowy day
There are some incredible scenic stretches of rail in Scotland © Paul McGee / Getty Images

The train is an easy option for travel between major towns and cities

Scotland's extensive train network covers all major cities and towns, but the railway map has large, blank areas in the Highlands and the Southern Uplands where you'll need to switch to road transport – in many cases, traveling by local bus.

Another challenge is the Scottish government’s decision to take Scotrail – the national rail company – into public ownership. At the time of writing, trains were operating on a much-reduced schedule, with many services stopping early in the evening, even between major hubs. It’s hoped that full service will resume once these transitional kinks have been ironed out.

The West Highland line from Glasgow to Fort William and Mallaig, and the Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh line, are two of the world's most scenic rail journeys. The ScotRail website is a good source of information on routes, fares and timetables.

Buses run to most places but not always frequently

Scotland is served by an extensive bus network that covers most of the country. In remote rural areas, however, services are geared to the needs of locals, for example getting to school or the shops in the nearest large town, and may not be conveniently timed for visitors.

Often, buses run into towns and cities in the morning, and back to outlying villages in the afternoon, which is inconvenient for those planning day trips. Local bus services are particularly sparse on the islands. The last postbus – a rustic rural transport operation where passengers traveled in a van with the mail – ceased operation in 2017.

Several different bus companies operate services around Scotland, with long-haul routes to destinations in England provided by National Express and Megabus. Within Scotland, Scottish Citylink runs a network of comfy, reliable buses to main towns. Away from main roads, you'll need to switch to local buses, which are often much less frequent – First, Stagecoach and Lothian Buses are the main local bus operators.

An aerial shot of a road weaving through a hilly green landscape near a lake, with mist coming down off the hilltops
Driving the B roads can make for a much more interesting road trip © Daniel Alford / Lonely Planet

Come with your own car or motorcycle for maximum flexibility

Scotland's roads are generally well-maintained and are far less busy than those in England, meaning you can concentrate on all that lovely scenery. However, speeding and drink-driving are taken seriously, and speed traps are common, so stick to the limits.

A non-UK license is valid in Britain for up to 12 months from your date of entry into the country, and you’ll need to be aged 21 or over to rent a car – surcharges and restrictions apply for drivers aged 25 or under. Hit comparison sites such as Kayak to find the best prices for car hire; hiring in town is usually cheaper than hiring at the airport.

If you’re bringing your own car from Europe, make sure you're adequately insured, always drive on the left, and be aware of local speed limits. If you’re planning a road trip encompassing the UK and the Republic of Ireland, car ferries run on from Scotland to Northern Ireland, allowing you to loop south through the Republic of Ireland before getting back on a ferry to Wales and England, and then heading back to Scotland. Make sure your insurance covers the fact you're passing through a European country before heading back to the UK.

Motorways (designated "M") are toll-free dual carriageways, limited mainly to southern and central Scotland. You’ll quickly notice their absence once you drive north of Perth. Main roads ("A") are dual or single carriageways and are sometimes clogged with slow-moving trucks and caravans – the A9 from Perth to Inverness is notoriously busy.

Life on the road is more relaxed and interesting on the secondary roads (designated "B") and minor roads (with no letter), though in the Highlands and islands there's the added hazard of sheep wandering onto the road (be particularly wary of lambs in spring). Winter driving conditions can be challenging; keep food, water and blankets in the car in case of blocked roads or breakdowns.

Petrol is more expensive than in countries such as the US or Australia, but roughly in line with the rest of Western Europe. Prices tend to rise as you get further from the main centers and can be more than 10% higher in remote areas, where petrol stations are widely spaced and sometimes closed on Sundays. On the islands, fill up whenever you get the chance.

Tip for renting a car: Inter-island car ferries can be another major cost. If you’re planning to visit the Outer Hebrides, Orkney or Shetland, it'll often prove cheaper to hire a car once you arrive on the islands, rather than paying to take a hire car across on the ferry.

Passengers wait on a wooden jetty to board a cruise boat that crosses Loch Lomond in Scotland
Ferries in Scotland come in every shape and size and schedules vary according to the season © JohnFScott / Getty Images

Ferries cross lochs and link the Scottish islands

Ferries run by Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) serve the west coast and the myriad islands to the north and west of the country, with smaller local ferries linking the islands of the Inner Hebrides to the mainland.

Northlink Ferries travel from Aberdeen and Scrabster (near Thurso) to Orkney, from Orkney to Shetland, and from Aberdeen to Shetland. Tourist-oriented waterbus services ferry passengers across some of Scotland’s larger lochs, including on Loch Lomond.

CalMac’s useful Hopscotch tickets have now been suspended, but the company offers some pre-bundled inter-island tickets on their website, which also has comprehensive timetable information. Note that ferry services are significantly reduced in winter.

Tickets for foot passengers cost a fraction of the price charged for cars, so consider picking up a hire car on arrival on the islands rather than taking your car across.

Tips for traveling by ferry: If you feel up to tackling the islands by bike, cycles can be carried for free by foot passengers. This is particularly useful when it comes to exploring smaller islands by ferry. On most routes, children under five also travel for free, while kids aged five to 15 pay half the adult rate.

Domestic flights link up remote island communities

Most domestic air services in Scotland are geared to business travelers or are lifelines for remote island communities. Flying is a costly way to cover relatively short distances, for both your pocket and the environment, but it's worth considering if you're short of time and want to visit the Outer Hebrides, Orkney or Shetland. With a journey time of as little as one minute, the flight between Westray and Papa Westray in Orkney is the shortest scheduled flight in the world.

The main domestic airline in Scotland is Loganair, with flights from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness to many smaller destinations across Scotland. It also operates inter-island flights in Orkney. Hebridean Air Services flies from Connel airfield near Oban to the islands of Coll, Tiree, Colonsay, and Islay.

Two cyclists ride their bikes along a path near a body of water
Cycling in Scotland is one of the best ways to explore, if you have the time © Will Salter / Lonely Planet

Cycling is ideal for exploring the islands

Scotland is a compact country, and traveling around by bicycle is a perfectly feasible proposition if you have the time – and the stamina! Indeed, touring around the islands by bicycle is both cheaper than driving (with lower ferry fares) and better suited to the islands' short distances and leisurely pace of life. Just be ready for uncooperative winds and weather, and persistent midges at rest stops in spring and summer.

VisitScotland has good information about bike hire and Sustrans details routes that form part of the UK-wide National Cycle Network. Spanning 200 miles and 10 windswept islands between Vatersay and the Butt of Lewis, the Hebridean Way is a bonafide cycling classic.

Transport Passes for Scotland offer good savings on trains, buses and ferries

Despite the multitude of companies providing different forms of public transport in Scotland, there are a few useful passes allowing travel on trains, buses, ferries and other forms of transport. Scotrail’s Spirit of Scotland pass allows unlimited travel on trains, buses and ferries for foot passengers, for either four days travel over eight consecutive days (£149), or eight days travel over 15 consecutive days (£189). They offer several other passes for train travel across Scotland or within specific regions, and combined passes for trains and buses or trains and ferries.

Scotland is also part of the same scheme of railcards as the rest of the UK, with various options giving up to a third off standard rail fares, usually for a one-off annual fee of £30 (US$37) – a good deal if you’ll be making lots of journeys by train or are on a longer trip.

Although the Scottish government’s generous free transport scheme for young people is only open to Scottish residents, visitors can get discounts using the 16-25 and 26-30 railcards, and there’s the Senior Railcard for the over-60s. For travelers with kids in tow, the Family & Friends railcard is a smart investment. Note that all these cards cover train travel across the UK, not just Scotland.

Several bus companies offer their own transport passes. Stagecoach has the Megarider, offering savings of at least 40% compared to buying daily tickets – passes are valid for seven or 28 days and cover specific areas of the country. Citylink has the Explorer Pass, allowing unlimited travel on their buses for three days over five consecutive days, five days over ten consecutive days, or eight days over 16 consecutive days.

Introducing Scotland

Accessible transportation in Scotland

Travelers with disabilities will find that Scotland can be both impressively accessible and frustratingly tricky to navigate. Travelers with mobility issues will have the easiest time in larger cities, where buses and local trains are wheelchair accessible, pavements and buildings have ramps, and most things are well set up.

Across the country, most major tourist sights cater for those with mobility issues, though historic buildings and ancient sights can be harder to explore for the less mobile. The biggest challenge will be the hills, which can make getting around a chore, even in the middle of Edinburgh. However, there are growing efforts to make the countryside more accessible, with wheelchair-friendly nature trails in some areas.

Away from the cities, newer buses are usually wheelchair accessible, but it's wise to check before setting out. Older train stations are being upgraded to ensure they are accessible and disabled travelers can get extra assistance by filing a request an hour or more ahead of travel – the Scotrail website has details.

The Disabled Persons Railcard offers discounts on rail travel for eligible travelers and a companion. Ferries offer boarding assistance at staffed ports for disabled travelers and large boats usually have accessible toilets and cabins.

Tourist attractions usually reserve parking spaces near the entrance for drivers with disabilities. Many places, such as ticket offices, are fitted with hearing loops to assist the hearing-impaired; look for a posted symbol of a large ear. VisitScotland has information on accessible transportation and accommodations, along with information on beach wheelchair hire.

Lonely Planet's Accessible Travel guide can also be downloaded for free.

Why I love Scotland’s ferries

When it comes to boat travel in Scotland, the smaller the boat, the better it gets. The small ferries linking outlying islands in Shetland and Orkney are not much bigger than fishing boats, and arriving by sea onto these tiny, wave-lashed isles will make you feel like donning a wooly jumper and trading the modern world for a life of salted fish and sea-spray. Look out for lolling seals by the boat jetties – they’ll keep you company on long, contemplative waits for the next ferry.

This article was first published May 2021 and updated August 2022

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