For getting around England your first big decision is whether to travel by car or public transport.
Having your own car makes the best use of time, and helps reach remote places, but rental and fuel costs can be expensive for budget travellers (while traffic jams in major cities hit everyone) – public transport is often the better choice. As long as you have time, using a mix of train, bus, taxi, walking and occasionally hiring a bike, you can get almost anywhere in England without having to drive.
The 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 times you must book in advance to be sure of getting a ticket. If you book early or travel at off-peak periods – ideally both – train and coach tickets can be very cheap.
England's domestic airline companies include British Airways, FlyBe/Loganair, easyJet and Ryanair. If you're really pushed for time, flights on longer routes across England (eg Exeter or Southampton to Newcastle) are handy, and often very competitive in price – although on shorter routes (eg London to Newcastle, or Manchester to Newquay) trains compare favourably with planes on time, once airport downtime is factored in.
England is a compact country, and hiring a bike – for an afternoon, a day, or a week or longer – is a great way to really see the country if you've got time to spare.
London is famous for its Santander Cycles, known as ‘Boris bikes’ after Boris Johnson, the then-mayor who introduced them to the city. Bikes can be hired on the spot from automatic docking stations. For more information visit the website. Other rental options in the capital are listed at www.lcc.org.uk (under Advice/Bike Shops).
Around the Country
The nextbike (www.nextbike.co.uk) bike-sharing scheme has stations in Bath, Exeter, Oxford and Coventry, while York and Cambridge also have plentiful bike-rental options. Bikes can also be hired in national parks or forestry sites now primarily used for leisure activities, such as Kielder Water in Northumberland and Grizedale Forest in the Lake District. In some areas, disused railway lines are now bike routes, notably the Peak District in Derbyshire. Rental rates start at about £12 per day, or £20 and up for a quality machine.
Bikes on Trains
Bicycles can be taken free of charge on most local urban trains (although they may not be allowed at peak times when the trains are crowded with commuters), and on shorter trips in rural areas on a first-come, first-served basis – there may be space limits.
Bikes can be carried on long-distance train journeys free of charge, but advance booking is required for most conventional bikes. (Folding bikes can be carried on pretty much any train at any time.) In theory, this shouldn't be too much trouble as most long-distance rail trips are best bought in advance anyway, but you have to go a long way down the path of booking your seat before you start booking your bike – only to find space isn't available. A better course of action is to buy in advance at a major rail station, where the booking clerk can help you through the options.
A final warning: when railways are undergoing repair work, cancelled trains are replaced by buses – and they won't take bikes.
The PlusBike scheme provides all the information you need for travelling by train with a bike. Leaflets are available at major stations, or downloadable from www.nationalrail.co.uk/118390.aspx.
If you're on a tight budget, long-distance buses (coaches) are nearly always the cheapest way to get around, although they're also the slowest – sometimes by a considerable margin. Many towns have separate stations for local buses and long-distance coaches; make sure you go to the right one!
National Express (www.nationalexpress.com) The main coach 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 £15 to £25 if you book a few days in advance.
Megabus (www.megabus.com) Operates a budget coach service serving more than 100 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.
Passes & Discounts
National Express offers discount passes to full-time students and under-26s, called Young Persons Coachcards. They cost £12.50 and give you 30% off standard adult fares. Also available are coachcards for people aged over 60, families and disabled travellers.
For non-UK citizens, National Express offers Skimmer passes, allowing unlimited travel for seven/14/28 days (£69/119/199). You don't need to book journeys in advance: if the coach has a spare seat, you can take it.
Car & Motorcycle
Travelling by car or motorbike around England means you can be independent and flexible, and reach remote places. Downsides for drivers include traffic jams, the high price of fuel and high parking costs in cities.
Compared with many countries (especially the USA), hire rates are expensive in Britain; the smallest cars start from about £130 per week, and it's around £190 and upwards per week for a medium car with unlimited mileage.
Some main players:
Another option is to look online for small, local car-hire companies in Britain that can undercut the international franchises. Generally those in cities are cheaper than in rural areas. Using a rental-broker or comparison site such as UK Car Hire (www.ukcarhire.net) or Kayak (www.kayak.com) can also help find bargains.
Hiring a motorhome or campervan (£650 to £1100 a week) is more expensive than hiring a car, but saves on accommodation costs and gives almost unlimited freedom. Sites to check include the following:
Just Go (www.justgo.uk.com)
Wild Horizon (www.wildhorizon.co.uk)
Motoring organisations in Britain include the Automobile Association (www.theaa.com) and the Royal Automobile Club (www.rac.co.uk). For both, annual membership starts at around £40, including 24-hour roadside breakdown assistance.
Britannia (www.lv.com/breakdown-cover) offers better value at £30 a year, while a greener alternative is the Environmental Transport Association (www.eta.co.uk); it provides breakdown assistance but doesn't campaign for more roads.
It’s illegal to drive a car or ride a motorbike in England without (at least) third-party insurance. This will be included with all hire cars as standard, but you will usually be liable for an excess for any damage to the vehicle (sometimes up to £1500).
You can pay an extra fee to the hire company to waive the excess, but it is often quite expensive at around £5 per day; a cheaper (if more convoluted) option is to arrange your own excess insurance through a comparison site, such as Money Maxim (www.moneymaxim.co.uk). If you damage the car, you will pay the excess and reclaim it later from the insurance provider; make sure you document any damage and, in the case of an accident, receive a copy of the police report.
Many cities have short-stay and long-stay car parks; the latter are cheaper though may be less convenient. 'Park & Ride' systems allow you to park on the edge of the city then ride to the centre on frequent nonstop buses for an all-in-one price.
Yellow lines (single or double) along the edge of the road indicate restrictions. Nearby signs spell 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 £130 or more to get driving again. In some cities there are also red lines, which mean no stopping at all. Ever.
Motorways and main A-roads deliver you quickly from one end of the country to another. Lesser A-roads, B-roads and minor roads are much more scenic – ideal for car or motorcycle touring. You can't travel fast, but you won't care.
Speed limits are usually 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.
A foreign driving licence is valid in Britain for up to 12 months after entering the country.
Drink-driving is taken very seriously; you're allowed a maximum blood-alcohol level of 80mg/100mL (0.08%) – campaigners want it reduced to 50mg/100mL (0.05%), in line with most European countries (including Scotland).
Some other important rules:
- Drive on the left (!).
- Wear seatbelts in cars.
- Wear helmets on motorcycles.
- Give way to your right at junctions and roundabouts.
- Always use the left 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).
English cities usually have good public-transport systems – a combination of bus, train and tram – often run by a confusing number of separate companies. Tourist offices can provide maps and information.
There are good local bus networks year-round in cities and towns. Buses also run in some rural areas year-round, although timetables are designed to serve schools and businesses, so there aren't many noon 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.
In tourist areas (especially national parks) there are frequent services from Easter to September. However, 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.
Local Bus Passes
If you're taking a few local bus rides in one area, day passes (with names like Day Rover, Wayfarer or Explorer) are cheaper than buying several single tickets. Often they can be bought on your first bus, and may include local rail services. It's always worth asking ticket clerks or bus drivers about your options.
There are two sorts of taxi in England: those with meters that can be hailed in the street; and minicabs, which are cheaper but can only be called by phone. Unlicensed minicabs operate in some cities.
In London, most taxis are the famous ‘black cabs’ (some with advertising livery in other colours), which charge by distance and time. Depending on the time of day, a 1-mile journey takes five to 10 minutes and costs £6 to £9. Longer journeys are proportionally cheaper.
Ridesharing apps such as Uber (www.uber.com) are an option in most towns and cities, while similar apps like Kabbee (www.kabbee.com) allow you to book a minicab in double-quick time.
In rural areas, taxis need to be called by phone; the best place to find the local taxi's phone number is the local pub. Fares are £3 to £5 per mile.
Traintaxi (www.traintaxi.co.uk) is a portal site that helps 'bridge the final gap' between the train station and your hotel or other final destination.
For long-distance travel around England, trains are generally faster and more comfortable than coaches but are nearly always much more expensive. The English like to moan about their trains, but around 85% run on time. The other 15% that get delayed or cancelled mostly impact commuter services rather than long-distance journeys. The main headache these days is the cost – if you leave booking your ticket to the last minute, fares can be extremely high, so it's always worth booking as far in advance as you can.
About 20 different companies operate train services in England, while Network Rail operates tracks 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 journey. The main railcards and passes are also accepted by all train operators.
Where more than one train operator services the same route, eg York to Newcastle, a ticket purchased from one company may not be valid on trains run by another. So if you miss the train you originally booked, it's worth checking which later services your ticket will be valid for.
Your first stop should be National Rail Enquiries (www.nationalrail.co.uk), the nationwide timetable and fare information service. Its website advertises special offers and has real-time links to station departure boards and downloadable maps of the rail network.
Tickets & Reservations
Once you've found the journey you need on the National Rail Enquiries website, links take you to the relevant train operator to buy the ticket. This can be mailed to you (UK addresses only) or collected at the station on the day of travel from automatic machines. There’s usually no booking fee on top of the ticket price.
You can also use a centralised ticketing service to buy your train ticket. These cover all train services in a single site, and add a small booking fee on top of every ticket price. The main players include the following:
Rail Easy (www.raileasy.co.uk)
Train Line (www.thetrainline.com)
To use operator or centralised ticketing websites, you always have to state a preferred time and day of travel, even if you don't mind when you go, but you can change it as you go through the process, and with a little delving around you can find some real bargains.
You can also buy train tickets on the spot at stations, which is fine for short journeys (under about 50 miles), but discount tickets for longer trips are usually not available and these must be bought in advance by phone or online.
Mobile train tickets are gradually becoming more common across the network, but it's a slow process – for now printed tickets are still the norm.
For longer journeys, on-the-spot fares are usually available, but for long-distance travel, tickets are much, much cheaper if bought in advance. You can also save if you travel off-peak. Advance purchase usually gets a reserved seat, too.
Whichever operator you travel with and wherever you buy tickets, these are the three main fare types:
Anytime Buy any time, travel any time – always the most expensive option.
Off-peak Travel at off-peak times (what constitutes off-peak depends on the journey). Can be bought at any time up to the point of travel.
Advance These tickets can only be purchased in advance, and travel is only permitted on specific trains. This is usually the cheapest option, as long as you're happy with the restrictions. Note that the cheapest fares are nonrefundable, so if you miss your train you'll have to buy a new ticket.
For an idea of the price difference, an Anytime single ticket from London to York will cost £127 or more, an Off-peak around £56 to £62, with an Advance around £44 to £55, and possibly less if you book early enough or don't mind arriving at midnight.
If the train doesn't get you all the way to your destination, you can add a PlusBus (www.plusbus.info) supplement when making your reservation to validate your train ticket for onward travel by bus. This is more convenient, and usually cheaper, than buying a separate bus ticket.
There are two classes of rail travel: first and standard. First class costs around 50% more than standard fare (up to double at busy periods) and gets you bigger seats, more legroom, and usually a more peaceful businesslike atmosphere, plus extras such as complimentary drinks and newspapers. At weekends some train operators offer 'upgrades' to 1st class for an extra £5 to £25 on top of your standard-class fare, payable on the spot.
If you’re staying in England for a while, passes known as Railcards (www.railcard.co.uk) are available:
16-25 Railcard For those aged 16 to 25, or a full-time UK student.
Family & Friends Railcard Covers up to four adults and four children travelling together.
Two Together Railcard For two specified people travelling together.
Senior Railcard For anyone aged over 60.
Disabled Persons Railcard For people with registered disabilities.
Railcards cost £30 (valid for one year, available from major stations or online) and get 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.
A digital-only 25-30 Railcard was being trialled at the time of research; find out the latest at www.26-30railcard.co.uk.
Local & Regional Passes
Local train passes usually cover rail networks around a city (many include bus travel, too).
If you're concentrating your travels on southeast England (eg London to Dover, Weymouth, Cambridge or Oxford), a Network Railcard (www.network-railcard.co.uk) covers up to four adults and up to four children travelling together outside peak times (£30 per year).
For countrywide travel, BritRail (www.britrail.net) passes are available for visitors from overseas. They must be bought in your country of origin (not in England) from a specialist travel agency. Available in different versions (eg England only; all Britain; UK and the Republic of Ireland) for periods from four to 30 days.