Exploring the UK Independently from London
Some guidelines for the independently minded visitor to the UK
Bibury: Cotswolds, England
The United Kingdom is a tremendous place to explore independently visiting just the places that appeal to you however obscure at a pace of your own choosing. Variety is one of the UK's strengths and everything is very easily accessible whether you prefer to travel using public transport, a hired car or even just walk.
On this page we don't attempt to be a guidebook pointing you towards what is worthwhile. Here we present guidelines with regards the logistics of getting around so you can make an informed decision on how to get about the country independently at a budget of your choosing.
Hire car, public transport or tour to get around?
Public transport, whether it be coach, train or air is very good and is with the help of the internet very easy to navigate for ticketing options and schedules - if you know where to look.
If I was contemplating a grand tour of England and Scotland independently I would probably opt to mix and match all three options.
For major cities and towns, especially tourist hotspots like London, Bath, Oxford and Oxford a hire car can be a real (expensive) millstone around your neck. Much better to use local public transport and walk for independent freedom.
If you want to explore the countryside and wilder parts of the UK then a hire car does
become worthwhile as public transport becomes very sparse.
Tours from London
London sightseeing buses
Tour from London
In places like the Cotswolds, Scottish Highlands and Peak District it is possible to get around using public transport and many do, but in the same way a hire car in the main towns and cities hinders rather than helps, in the countryside travelling by public transport may present a tight straight jacket of options within which to explore independently.
For many whose preference is travelling independently, guided tours are often avoided like the plague. However it is worth checking out the local tourist offices for local guides and companies. You've spent a lot of money getting to be in a position to view these places so you may as well get someone to explain what you are witnessing.
Outside the world of expensive mass-market tours, there is in most areas and towns affordable, quality guides and small tour companies that may restore your confidence in the quality of the modern tourist industry.
Getting around England, Scotland and Wales by public transport
There is a truly national network of scheduled bus services dominated by two companies, National Express and Megabus. Coach is normally the cheapest way to get around the country but is not as fast as the train.
National Express has the largest network with daily schedules between most major towns and cities in England and Wales. Megabus has a smaller network with a focus on high frequency schedules between the major city pairs and a reputation for having the cheapest fares.
Both operators engage in a dynamic on-line pricing model where you are rewarded for planning ahead and being flexible. Fares can very low, it can be cheaper to get between London and Scotland by coach than your airport transfer into London. If you behave like a business person and book at the last moment you'll be charged a fare like a business person too.
Train carries far more passengers than coach and for most journeys is much faster but is more expensive.
The UK's railways are privatised with many different train operating companies. Ticketing is integrated despite the competition so a journey may use several different train companies on the same ticket.
Fares are very complex and can be very hard to fathom out the best deal. It can be cheaper for example to buy two single tickets breaking your journey at an intermediate station than buying a direct ticket.
Fares can be eye watering if you buy on the day. For leisure visitors with one eye on your wallet the best fares are around often about 3 months in advance of travel. Like the coach services you are rewarded for planning ahead, being flexible and buying tickets in advance on-line.
The UK is a relatively small country, the longest flight is no more than 90 minutes. The low cost budget airline easyJet has flights between most of the UK's main cities and the fares can be very low, if booked months in advance. However, if you are travelling city centre to city centre it is often quicker to get the train once you have factored in the airport transfers and time in the waiting lounge.
Flybe is the main regional specialist flying smaller regional aircraft between city pairs other than London.
For the leisure traveller the main reason for using air would be to get quickly back to London from the north of Scotland or if your itinerary involves an offshore island like Jersey, Isle of man or the Orkney Islands.
Passes & discount cards on public transport
Railcards are money saving passes targeted at leisure travellers to encourage then to use the British railway network on their travels.
The initial cost of the Railcard doesn't justify their use just for one or two journeys, but if you regularly use the railways for leisure travel or are using the railways to tour the UK they are very well worthwhile looking at.
However, if you're organised it will probably be cheaper to buy tickets for each journey individually taking advantage of advance promotional ticket prices that start to appear about 3 months prior to travel.
The BritRail Pass is a railway pass only available to overseas visitors to Great Britain and unlike the Railcards are firmly targeted at overseas visitors.
The passes are for varying lengths of time and different geographical areas of Great Britain. There is even one aimed at visitors based in London who want to do day trips outside the capital by train.
The Brit Xplorer Pass provides unlimited Travel For 7,14 or 28 days on National Express coach services.
The pass allows you to travel without a reservation. You can make firm reservations including at Heathrow and Gatwick Airports for an additional reservation fee.
Car hire & campervan hire
All the global branded car hire companies are alive and kicking in and around London. The airports are a good place to pick-up the car in London, for most its not a good idea to pick-up your hire car in Central London. Few locals venture into Central London with a car for good reason.
Most drivers in the UK prefer manual gearbox cars so if you are used to, or want an automatic car do make sure this is clear on your reservation.
Car hire companies are notorious for unexpected extras when you come to pay your bill. Insurance is one of those extras that often are only made clear to you when you arrive at the car hire desk.
Many of the car hire consolidators as well as offering very good car hire rates also offer much better insurance deals that you can select at the time of reservation, rather than the often very expensive options offered by the car hire company themselves.
easyCar and Holidayautos are two of such consolidators.
Campervan hire gives you the ultimate flexibility to explore independently. Your only constraints on itinerary being the start and finish dates.
The Volkswagen T5 campervan sleeps up to 4.
This is a short-wheel base van conversion that drives in exactly the same way as a family car. With very few parking restrictions in terms of height and length to worry about, you will be able to drive and stop for sightseeing in cities, towns and country alike.
Each T5 has 5 belted travelling seats (3 in the front and 2 in the rear), a fridge, gas cooker with 2 rings, a grill, utensils for 4 people, central heating for when the campervan is parked, a pup up roof for up-to 2 children or 1 adult and a rock and roll bed for up-to 2 adults in the main cabin area. This vehicle also comes with an electric hook-up facility so that your batteries can stay fully charged for extended stop-overs.
Of course the various hotel options are endless, so here we give you some benchmarks to compare against and some basic guidelines for the first time visitor to the UK.
In cities, airports and major towns the cheapest rates are normally at the weekends where business customers drive the market. This is especially so in the large global chain hotels.
In the countryside, coast and tourist hotspots the reverse is normally true. Because of the business market driving room rates cities like London have their cheapest rates over the Christmas holiday period. UK school kids have their summer holidays confined to August and the week outside August, so again city room rates are weak at this time, while on the coast and at leisure venues its the most expensive time of year.
If you buy from a UK web site room rates will include sales tax, currently 20%. Some overseas web sites present rates without taxes on the advertised rate.
Hotels are for the most part geared towards UK preferences. This means tea and coffee in the room is far more important than air conditioning, things like ice machines are almost unheard of. The standard room of nearly all hotels is double or twin room. A double room means one King or Queen size bed, a twin room is two single beds. Many family rooms mean a King/Queen size bed for the parents and a sofa bed for the kids.
Premier inn is a great benchmark hotel chain for most leisure visitors and is the most numerous as well with hotels in most UK cities and towns. In a recent poll by a UK consumer group it was rated third for quality and service only beaten by two very expensive 5 star chains and well ahead of luxury chains like Marriott despite having room rates at a fraction of the price.
Premier Inn is a no frills budget hotel with high standards which if you had to allocate a star rating too would probably be three star.
Travelodge is the big rival to Premier Inn in terms of numbers of hotels in the leisure/budget market and its key buying point is low price rather than quality. Having said that they are perfectly acceptable and are broadly similar to a motel in other countries.
If you can get a promotional saver rate it will probably be the cheapest hotel room in town.
Other independent & chain hotels
Arguably the best single source for looking for the accommodation options in any town in the UK is the Bookings.com web site. Bookings.com will have the majority of accommodation options available and especially with regards independent and/or budget hotels will have a much wider choice than sites like Expedia that tend to have a narrow choice with emphasis on global brands.
The Bookings.com web site also has a very useful mapping feature that is normally accurate so you can see the precise location of each hotel option. Very useful if you are arriving in town by coach or train.
Talk to the author
If you have any questions or wish to discuss any of the above you can make contact with the author by using the Contact menu option at the top of the page.