One of my favorite things to do when we visit Britain is to drive.
To me, there is nothing more pleasurable than hopping into the car and driving through the English countryside (or through a city).
I’m not like this back home – driving is more of a chore than something enjoyable.
But there’s something about turning on the rental car (you don’t turn a key these days), sitting on the right side of the car and driving on the left side of the road and just about puts me in my Anglophile Zen place.
All that being said, you can probably tell that I was very excited about the prospect of having a rental car for almost 3 weeks on our last trip.
First up, who did we rent with and how did we get the car?
This time around we partnered with Hertz in the UK. We’ve rented with them before and always had a good experience. This time around it was the first time we’ve worked directly with them. We paid for the cheapest rental available and then they gave us a free upgrade to the car we actually needed, which was a 4 door Estate car – big enough for us, our kids and all our luggage (hopefully).
I’m not embellishing when I say that we received stellar service. The car was in great condition, they provided everything we needed – including a SatNav (what the British call a GPS) and two car seats for the kids.
Normally we would pick up our rental car at Heathrow Airport but as we spent the first week of our trip in London, we didn’t want to travel out to the airport with the kids in tow and all our luggage to get it. I also didn’t really want to go get the car myself and then drive it back into London (driving out would be scary enough).
So, I opted to pick put he rental car at Hertz at Victoria Coach Station which was only a few miles away from where we were staying in South Kensington. I was pretty terrified at the prospect of driving in central London but thankfully when I hit the road, traffic was light and the SatNav told me exactly where to go.
Let me give the #1 recommendation from this experience: Do not rent a car in the UK without also buying your own SatNav or renting one (they are expensive to rent from the rental company so you might be better off buying one).
The SatNav is brilliant – it will generally always take you where you want to go. The British use a Postcode system (similar to the ZIP code but more specific). A Postcode is unique to an person’s address, so all you need to do is punch in the Postcode for where you want to go and the car will do the rest. It will take you right to the front door of a house. This made our trip so much easier. Previously, Mrs. Anglotopia would navigate with a massive road atlas in her lap. While this could be fun, even when we got lost, it caused a lot less stress so we decided to let the car do the work.
What’s great is that if you make a wrong turn or are unable to go the route it wants you go – simply make the turn and the SatNav recomputes your journey using the new direction. It’s all automatic and so easy. There were a few instances when the SatNav almost led us astray. For example, due to some bad flooding, it wanted us to drive through what appeared to be a new lake in the road. There was no way our car would make it through. So, we had to get creative and try a different way. But for several miles, no matter what direction we went in, it kept wanting us to go back the way we came – through the lake. We eventually managed to outsmart it. So, don’t blindly follow the SatNav!
For the gear heads (or petrol heads) out there, first a little about the car we ended up with. We ended up with an Audi A4 Estate – that would be what we call a station wagon here in the states. It’s a 4 door car with a large boot and a hatch on the back. The car was pretty new. It had all the bells & whistles. So much so, that it took awhile to become familiar with the car and how to operate it.
For example, the key and the ignition. You insert the key fob, but you don’t turn it to start the car. You push it and the brake in at the same time and the car starts. The car had excellent acceleration that you would expect from a German car. It was an automatic (I do not know how to drive a stick shift – or a manual as the Brits say). The car had radio, CD player, etc all that you would expect in a car these days. It had cruise control, which was useful for controlling speed on the Motorways. My favorite feature was individual climate control.
Despite it being German and made in Germany, Anglotopia Jr named it our ‘British Car’ and he still talks about it. We know what he means.
Honestly, it’s a much nicer car than we could ever afford back home. While in Europe it’s the equivalent of a Chevy back here in the USA, they run $40,000+ which is a bit much for a four door car that’s not a mini-van. Very much a ‘luxury’ vehicle.
We logged a few thousand miles with the car – we certainly got our use out of it. It was very handy while we stayed in the countryside because you can’t exactly walk everywhere.
Our Audi had a diesel engine – most cars in Britain use Diesel instead of ‘unleaded’. Honestly, I love the sounds of a diesel engine, whenever I hear one it transports me back to England because you just don’t hear them that often here.
Fueling up at Gas Station is a little different from back home in the States. First, they’re called petrol stations or services. They don’t call them gas stations. Second, usually when you fill up at the pump you can prepay using your debit card, but as American banks don’t use Chip & Pin yet, you have to go in to pay. This brings out the biggest difference – they’ll let you pump first and then pay. Here in the USA, at least around where we live, you have to pay before you pump because of a rash of gas theft in the last few years. It was rather nice to be trusted that we would come in and pay.
And this brings up what’s usually the most talked about topic about driving in the UK – the cost of fuel. Fuel is eye-wateringly expensive in the UK. It’s not a stereotype, it’s true. There are many reasons for this – but mostly it’s the taxes crammed into the price of fuel that fund roads and transport. Here at home I’ll spend about $50 to fill up the gas tank in my mini-van. It cost about $130 to fill the gas tank in the Audi A4, which probably has a smaller tank.
That being said – the mileage on the car was fantastic – we probably got 50 miles to the gallon and we only had to fill the gas tank up completely twice – once while traveling and once more before we returned it (we topped it up several times as well when it suited). So, while the gas was substantially more expensive, it lasted much longer than it would back home.
We did not have the best weather while we on our trip – something we’ll write about in more detail in another article. There was torrential rain on some days and gale force winds on other days. This made of challenging driving. Thankfully though, since most country lanes are surrounded by hedges, you don’t really get affected by the wind much.
The car handled the rain very well – except when we had to go uphill. This car did not like inclines and rain – sometimes you really had to gun the engine to get it to cooperate. I chalk it down to the fact that the car doesn’t really have tires designed for winter driving.
The car was very safe – another favorite feature was the car had a radar system – it would tell you when you were too close to something, which was very useful for parallel parking – a task difficult enough here back home – but made more difficult when everything is backwards.
There was a surprising lack of drive-throughs at fast food restaurants and I’m sure there’s a large number of people happy about this. But drive-throughs made it easy to feed the toddler while on the road without stopping. It’s rather bizarre for all the drive-throughs to be essentially backwards and to do everything on the right. It’s different enough to be fun at first. Before you leave a comment chastising us for eating fast food – don’t worry we did it rarely and will write about all the great places we ate soon enough.
One of our favorite days out was when we ventured over the Wales from our cottage in the Cotswolds. It was not a far drive at all and we got the pleasure of driving over the two bridges the cross the Bristol Channel into Wales (one on the way and the other on the way back). We had a slight issue with the toll booth going over to Wales. The ATM at the services before the bridge didn’t work so we didn’t have cash for the toll both. We figured we could pay with a credit card. The toll booths do take credit cards but only the Chip & Pin kind. The toll booth attendant didn’t think he could swipe a credit card, he hemmed and hawed, gave us a hard time asked us if we had any American money to pay with. It very much looked like he was going to turn us back and we would not get to visit Wales. Eventually he just tried to swipe the card and it worked. A huge pain in the butt – so when you plan to cross into Wales, be sure to have cash for the toll booth.
I made sure to get cash while in Wales for the drive back over the other bridge and we were surprised to see that when you return from Wales on the Severn Bridge – you don’t have to pay a toll. OK then!
We love driving on the Motorways in Britain. They’re wide and move at a nice pace. They’re serious about speed limits in Britain. There are speed cameras everywhere. People still speed but mostly people just go along at the same pace and it’s rather relaxing. There is one lane for passing – and only passing – you do not cruise in the lane. If someone comes up behind you, you HAVE to get out of their way. It’s supposed to be like this on the US Interstates, but it’s not. Under no circumstances do you pass on left. The far right lane is for passing only.
I’ll have a much more comprehensive guide to driving in Britain on a later date – this article is more about our adventures with the car.
The biggest difference between driving here in the USA and the UK is that in the UK it will always take longer to go somewhere than you think. While the map will say something is only 15 miles away – it will take you half an hour or more to get there. The roads in Britain rarely go straight and this leads to long and roundabout ways to get places, which adds time. When we were staying in Dorset, I had to venture into Bath a few times and while it was only about 30 miles away from where we were staying, it took almost an hour to get there.
But let me tell you – it’s the most beautiful drive I’ve ever taken and honestly, it can take as long as it wants!
And finally a word about Radio Stations. British Radio is simply amazing. First, you have the BBC radio stations – which are excellent and have no commercials. They’re focuses on playing music. They have great DJ’s that explore the history and meaning behind the music rather than just playing the top 40 songs on repeat. By far my favorite radio station is Classic FM – which is a commercial station dedicated to classical music. While the music can tends towards more ‘popular’ classical music – they always play my favorites, keep you updates with the news and traffic conditions.
Speeding through the English countryside with Classic FM on, the kids snoozing in the back and enjoying a nice conversation with Mrs. Anglotopia is quite possibly my favorite memories of traveling on our last trip.
Have you ever driven in the UK? What fun experiences did you have?