British Travels: Adventures With a British Hire Car (American Translation: A Rental Car)

This was our Rental Car from Hertz - An Audi A4 Estate. It was a great car!

This was our Rental Car from Hertz – An Audi A4 Estate. It was a great car!

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.

It was a challenge to get all our luggage and kid gear into the car but we managed.

It was a challenge to get all our luggage and kid gear into the car but we managed.

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?


Comments

  1. avatarSteve DeMoss says

    I had the pleasure of driving in the U.K. when we spent a couple of weeks there last year. After spending our first three nights in London, we took a train to Edinburgh. After a two-day stay in Edinburgh, we picked up our hire car at the Thrifty agency and headed south. We received an upgrade to a Volvo SUV, an XC60. It was brand new, which made me a bit nervous, but it was a wonderful car with SatNav and all the extras. I put over 1,200 miles on it while we were there, eventually winding up in Brighton before heading back to London to turn it in the night before we departed for home.

    I loved the highway system in the U.K., but the car parks were sometimes a bit difficult to navigate in the SUV. In Brighton, our hotel’s car park was at the rear of the building and was accessed by driving down a very narrow alley between the hotel and a privacy wall next door. We had to fold down the side mirrors to make certain we wouldn’t scrape the walls, and the first time we tried to park there were no spaces!

    I too enjoyed the British radio stations. The sound quality rivaled or exceeded that of U.S. satellite radio, and I enjoyed the DJs as well.

    “Eye-wateringly expensive” is an apt way to describe British fuel prices. I worked out that the diesel fuel we purchased at our last stop cost us $7.97/gallon (once I changed liters to gallons and pounds to dollars). However, the XC60 also got great mileage, which made it a little easier to tolerate the high price of fuel.

    Having a car made our trip so much more enjoyable. We weren’t at the mercy of train or bus schedules, and we wound up seeing things that we wouldn’t have seen on public transport. I will definitely hire a car on our next trip, although perhaps something a bit smaller. I don’t care to repeat the experience of trying to navigate an SUV down some of the narrow British streets we encountered on our last trip!

    Thanks for a wonderful website! I really appreciate all you do.

    • avatar says

      In regards to car parks in the UK, they can be really cramped, even the newer one. I’ve been in some that appear to have been designed by someone that has never been in a car park.

      • avatarSara Hood says

        I’m a British ex pat living in Australia and we bewail the minuscule parking spaces the British seem to think are normal! They’re about the size of a 1960s Mini. No wonder they have to have special parking spaces for ‘mothers with children’ at the supermarket. We also got the Volvo upgrade recently and we ended up pretending we had children so we could park in the bigger spaces .. otherwise you could get the car into the space, but then you couldn’t get out of the car! Apparently the spaces haven’t been made larger because developers have to provide x no of spaces per development, so if the spaces were larger they’d have to build smaller buildings and bigger car parks (or buy more land)… which they don’t want to do. Hence tiny car parking spaces continue.

        • avatarMartin Evans says

          Yeah, the UK standard parking bay is 4.8m long by 2.4m wide (with an additional 1.2m wide strip either side for disabled bays) these dimensions have been in use since the 1960′s when cars as a whole were generally smaller than they are today. I’m all for increasing the bay size, about 5m by 3m would be better IMO. I design car parks for a living (I know, it shows doesn’t it!)

  2. avatar says

    I’ve driven several times while in the UK. 15 years ago I spent a month touring Scotland and about 14 months ago 14 days (London for one week, to Glastonbury for three days then Hampton Court for the remainder!). I wish we had a SatNav – didn’t know how to go about getting one and they were out at the rental shop. I also wasn’t able to rent the car outside of London…had to pick it up DOWNTOWN! I was quite nervous but came through unscathed! I can’t wait to go back and do another rental. It’s the best way to find so many different things/places that you would never have known existed!

  3. avatarlaura Sibley says

    Thanks so much for the update on care hire in the UK. I haven’t rented a car there in the past 15 years (I’m from England – live in Fla) simply because it had become too difficult: expensive petrolwise and hard to get from A to B while looking at a map AND contending with the crowded roads/speed freaks. Nice to know that satnav is effective ( UK cities are NOT built on grid systems and are next to impossible to navigate alone with a map in a car.
    It will take an act of Congress to get me in a car in the UK again…..I love trains and buses and can pretty much get to anywhere I want to be with those, but your article has given me a bit more confidence to hire again of I need to especially since they can be delivered closer to the vaation destination than a pickup at the airport. Driving out of Gatwick onto the M25 would be a baptism by fire by anyone who had never driven a stick, one the right of the car and on the left of the road!!
    As an aside, some English towns have care share schemes. Here is a link to one such club that allows a car for only a few hours as needed.
    http://www.transitiontownlewes.org/lewes_community_car.html

  4. avatarRichard Cole says

    Chip and Pin – until the inept USA credit card corporations catch up with the more advanced systems worldwide, US travelers will always have problems. That is not the fault of the rest of the host. “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 can only assume that the pain in the butt you refer to is the US issuing card company – because plainly it is not the fault of the Poll Booth Attendant.

  5. avatarRoxanne Stickler says

    We’ve rented a car on each of our trips to the UK; hubby swears every time that ‘the next time’ we’ll take train or bus transport, even if it’s not as convenient. I think the expense probably works out about the same.

    We had a Vauxhall Insignia saloon (similar-Chevy Impala sedan?) last trip, 09/2012 – could not get over the mileage – well over 600 miles before refueling; I kept asking, “Do we need to stop for gas?” We figured with mileage that good, the driving cost wasn’t quite as bad as we first thought. (But don’t quote me on that! =) ) This car was certainly large enough for the 2 of us; hubby’s 6’5″ tall & he had no shortage of leg room. It had comfortable seats; plenty of trunk space; good radio, wipers worked well – handy in one of the wettest years on record. ;) Seemed to handle well; I didn’t actually drive, as I’d managed to leave my drivers license at home – that’ll teach me to clean out my wallet b4 a trip!

    One of the reasons we like having a rental car is for the convenience of going when & where we want. As usual, at some point, we zigged when we should-a zagged & ended up taking an ‘alternate route’ from Ironbridge Gorge, spending the night in Much Wenlock, Shropshire, at an inn about 400 years old – (neat little town, too, with an ancient guildhall and ruins of a priory dating from the late 600s AD) With no particular itinerary, it was no big deal!

    By the way, Jonathan, the biggest difference between driving in the UK and the US is driving on the other side of the road from the other side of the car! =)

  6. avatarMichelle says

    A postcode is not unique to a person’s address unless you are the only house around. My postcode is shared with 64 other households, for example. Always a good idea to get an idea from person you are visiting whereabouts house is in the road if visiting in poor light as our house numbers / names can be hard to see from roadside.
    I drove endlessly through a large Yorkshire hamlet last spring trying to find exact cottage when using Satnav. But everyone I know still have cars that you turn the key to start so maybe your Satnav does take you right to the person’s front door.

    • avatarMartin Evans says

      Yes, the postcode refers to the street, not the individual address so it’s always a good idea to make a note of the individual house number if you have it to hand.

  7. avatarDiane Clement says

    I guess I am a real fraidy cat when it comes to driving in the UK. I know of two very bad fatal accidents in which British visitors to California looked the wrong way and pulled out directly in the path of traffic. Makes me shudder and realize that I could make that mistake in the UK even though I’ve never had an accident in my 69 years. Probably I am too old to rent a car anyway. Thus I am somewhat glad to hear it costs so much. I do absolutely love Brit public transportation. I’ve taken local buses, coaches and the train. I just love the train journey from Exeter to Penzance and the short tiny train ride into St. Ives. Like Amtrak on the California coast, the train sometimes goes to beautiful places no car can reach. I do love reading about your experiences on your recent visit and look forward to more. I hear chip and pin is finally coming to America in a big way. I felt embarrassed every time I have had to explain to a British cashier how to swipe my credit card but I was surprised to learn how many of them had no idea what that long slot on their registers does. I’m hoping that I have a chip and pin card for my next trip and that the Brits have the new iPad pay system.

    • avatar says

      To be fair to the American banks, none of my German credit cards use the pin part of “chip and pin” yet either – and the chip is quite a recent addition (the bank cash machine card/ debit card does). I always wait to see the reaction of the cashier in the UK when I present them with the card, and the display says signature required – especially as I’m British, with a British accent, they never suspect anything could be different!

  8. avatarPatricia says

    Had a fine experience with a rental car out of Exeter in 1998 to drive and explore around Cornwall. However, in 2009 had a different story. As before, we booked through Hertz here in the US before our trip. We were to pick up the car (compact, automatic) at the Hertz counter in a Vauxhall dealership in Oxford, in anticipation of a day’s outing through the Cotswold’s prettiest villages, as well as touring Blenheim Palace. So we checked in with Hertz and they had no record of us and we’d left the confirmation # in luggage at the B&B. Our wonderful lodging’s host was able and willing to sift through our luggage and locate the # to report to Hertz over the phone – God bless him! Somewhere, someone had dropped the ball and the reservation never got to that Hertz counter, and of course there was no car there for us (had low inventory of hire cars and NO automatic transmission). We lost about a half day while an employee drove to Heathrow and retrieved a car with auto trans, so we didn’t get to see much at all of Cotswold villages and countryside. The Hertz staff were super helpful and so sorry about the failure to have us a car that another employee drove us to Blenheim and dropped us off there and picked us up after a couple of hours (the dealership was only about 5 miles away). So, although it was an eye-opening experience – call ahead once you’re in the country to make sure they have your reservation and a car – the Hertz staff there made our situation the best it could be under the circumstances. Can’t wait to go back and do more driving. In fact, on that same trip later in Edinburgh, we had no problem at all with getting the car we’d reserved – but we did call the day before, just to make sure!

  9. avatar says

    I hired a car for two weeks of my six week stay in the UK. It was great little car from Hertz, but they didn’t show me how to find the reverse gear. This lead to an interesting little rendezvous with a local on the way from Edinburgh to York. Luckily he was kind enough to get in the car and eventually found the missing reverse gear (had to flick a switch on the gear stick) and disaster was averted! Totally agree with you about the Sat Nav, I bought one for forty pounds and gifted my sister-in-law with it when I returned home.

  10. avatarLaurie Sundstrom says

    We rented a car in Edinburgh and drove to London last year. Well, I enjoyed the scenery in the back seat while one daughter drove and the other daughter read signs and got us through the roundabouts. Satnav was very helpful, only led us astray when we went to Hadrians Wall, where we ended up on a very narrow lane. Driving daughter was terrified that we were going to encounter a lorry or flock of sheep around the next corner.

    Parking spaces were very tight for the 4 door Peugeout sedan we drove, but the car was very comfortable for 3 adults and our luggage.

  11. avatarkatie h says

    Hello Jonathan,
    You didn’t mention anything about any kind of special driving license or certificate needed to rent or drive in the UK? what about driving insurance? If you have a CA state issued driver’s license as I do, and have car insurance that actually covers me in the UK, is that enough? I haven’t looked into it, I thought visitors might have to take a class or something or get certified. Thanks for all your great blog updates, articles on the UK over the years. –katie

    • avatar says

      Hi Katie – This is something we were going to save for a later post. But to answer your question – you don’t need anything more than a valid US Driver’s License, which is good for up to 1 year’s worth of driving in the UK. If you’re car insurance covers you abroad, that’s great. Your standard rental policy will have insurance in it and you can always purchase the extra insurance they offer, but you usually don’t need it. Also, most credit cards offer coverage as well.

  12. avatarMJ says

    Check with your credit card issuer— I have a chip & pin card from American Express. Surely other charge card companies can do this, too. Ask well in advance of a trip. They are more secure and can be used in the US as well.

  13. avatar says

    Also a comment about the satnav trying to direct you down a flooded road from miles away – many should have an option to indicate that the road ahead is blocked, and it will then recalculate using other routes – normally this is useful in a jam on a motorway, so it is possible to follow back routes to the next junction, but would also be valid in your situation too

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