Most places in England are accessible by train or bus. However, public transport costs are among the highest in Europe: travel can eat up a large part of your budget. It pays to investigate all the special deals and passes, some of which are only available outside England – and for some journeys it may be worth flying. It’s often cheaper to drive yourself around the country, though fuel and car rental are expensive – and traffic congestion can be very bad.
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Despite some poor infrastructure and a tiresomely London-centric network, trains are still the best, most scenic and most pleasurable way to get around England. Overall reliability remains fairly good. Mainline routes into and out of London have fast and frequent services – the 200-mile journeys to York or Exeter, for instance, are covered in two hours – but travelling between other cities, or trying to go east–west across the country, can be a lengthy business, often involving numerous connections. The essential first call for information on routes, timetables, fares and special offers is National Rail Enquiries (t: 0845/748 4950, wwww.nationalrail.co.uk). The key to getting the best fares is to book early and bear in mind that your best bet may well be to go for a rail pass (see below). Point-to-point tickets, in general, offer the least flexibility and the highest prices.
Several rail passes are targeted specifically at visitors, led by the BritRail pass (wwww
.britrail.com). This comes in many different varieties, covering various areas and validity periods: for England alone, go for the BritRail England pass, which is valid for 4, 8, 15, 22 or 30 consecutive days of travel or as a flexi-pass (3, 4, 8 or 15 days of travel in any two months). These currently cost US$285 for eight consecutive days, or US$369 for any eight days in two months. Numerous discounts are available, including for young people (under 26), seniors (over 60), parties (with discounts for more than two people travelling together), and so on. A free Family Pass add-on gives free travel to one child (under 15) for each adult in a family group. Note that you must buy your BritRail pass outside the UK before you arrive. Any good travel agent or tour operator can supply up-to-date information; see opposite for a list of rail contacts.
Eurail passes (wwww.eurail.com) are not valid in the UK, though they do provide discounts on Eurostar trains to England and some ferry routes. If you’ve been resident in Europe for at least six months, you can buy an InterRail Great Britain Pass (wwww
.interrailnet.com), which provides unlimited train travel (plus discounts on Eurostar and some ferries) for 3, 4, 6 or 8 days within one month. Discounted passes are available for children (under 11) and youth (under 26).
Otherwise, numerous options exist for locals and visitors to cut the cost of rail travel – all are detailed in full on the National Rail website. There are dozens of “Ranger” and “Rover” regional passes, covering travel on specified lines for varying periods – anything from two weeks on the entire national network down to, for example, the Cotswold Line Railcard, which gives one-third off the standard fare between six named stations near Oxford. For discounts off fares nationwide, people aged between 16 and 25 (and full-time students of any age) qualify for the 16-25 Railcard; people over 60 can get a Senior Railcard; groups of up to four adults and four children travelling together (they don’t have to be related) can get a Family & Friends Railcard. Each of these passes costs £26 per year, and there are more available. Check restrictions and validity carefully on the National Rail website, where you can also buy online.
Individual point-to-point fares vary wildly. Each train operating company offers its own ticketing options, broadly grouped under three titles. Cheapest are “advance” fares: these cannot be bought on the day of travel and come with several restrictions (most notably that you must travel only on the train specified on the ticket: miss it, and you pay a surcharge). Advance fares sell out quickly: book as far ahead as possible. “Off-peak” fares can be bought in advance or on the day of travel, but are only valid for travel at quieter times, which vary depending on the location (generally after 9.30am Mon-Fri, all day at weekends). Most expensive are “anytime” tickets, which permit travel on any train. Expect extraordinary price variations: from London to Manchester, for instance, an advance fare is £11, an off-peak fare £65 and an anytime ticket £131.
A seat reservation is usually included with the ticket – these are essential, since most inter-city trains are crowded, especially on Fridays, weekends and public holidays. Many train companies let you upgrade your ticket by buying a first-class supplement for around £15, either in advance or on board – worth it if you’re facing a long journey on a popular route.
For any journey, you can buy a ticket in person at any station, or by phone or online from Trainline.com or any train operator. These are listed on the National Rail Enquiries website, which also offers direct links from its journey planner for purchasing specific fares.
If the ticket office at your departure station is closed or there is no ticket machine, you can buy your ticket on the train. Otherwise, boarding without a ticket will render you liable to paying the full fare plus, possibly, a surcharge.
Megatrain (wwww.megatrain.com) offers a limited number of budget fares on certain routes around the country. If you accept the restrictions (specified off-peak trains only, no changes, no amendments, and so on), you could travel from London to Birmingham, for instance, for only £3. Check the website for details.
By bus and coach
Travel by bus (or, to use the more common term for long-distance bus services, “coach”) is generally much cheaper than by train. Though some coach services duplicate rail journeys, many others follow routes that would otherwise be tortuous or impossible by rail.
The biggest coach operator is National Express (t0871/781 8181, wwww.national
express.com), with an extensive nationwide network. On busy routes, and on any route at weekends and during holidays, it’s advisable to book ahead, rather than just turn up. Fares are very reasonable, with big discounts for under-26s, over-60s and families, while advance-purchase fares and special deals are common – “FunFares” from £1, for example. Non-UK passport holders can buy a Brit Xplorer pass, which comes in 7-, 14- or 28-day versions. Megabus (wwww
.megabus.com) also operates low-budget coaches around England for very low prices, though restrictions apply and services can be infrequent. Rather more comfortable services are run by Greyhound (wwww.greyhounduk
.com), who operate luxury-style buses (with free wi-fi) on a regular timetable from London to various towns on the south coast – including an economical bus-and-ferry deal to the Isle of Wight.
Local buses within individual regions are run by a huge array of companies. In many cases, timetables and routes are well integrated, though some firms duplicate the busiest routes and leave the more remote spots neglected. As a rule, the further away from urban areas you get, the less frequent and more expensive bus services become.
The impartial official service Traveline (t0871/200 2233, wwww.traveline.org.uk) has full details and timetable information for every bus route in the country.
If time is short and you want to cross the country quickly (Brighton/Gatwick to Newcastle, for instance, or Manchester to Newquay), you might consider flying. Leading airlines include Ryanair, easyJet, Flybe, bmibaby and British Airways, though routes and carriers can (and do) change. Often, though, if you calculate total journey time door to door, going by train can be just as quick and – if you book in advance – considerably cheaper.
By car or motorbike
Driving yourself around England brings the convenience of personal transport – but it can be both expensive and time-consuming.
In England you drive on the left. Motorways – “M” roads – and main “A” roads may have up to four lanes in each direction, but even these can get very congested, with long tailbacks a regular occurrence, especially at peak travel times and on public holidays. In the country, on “B” roads and minor roads, there might only be one lane (single track) for both directions. Keep your speed down, and be prepared for abrupt encounters with tractors, sheep, ponies and other hazards in remote spots.
Don’t underestimate the weather: driving conditions can deteriorate quickly during rain, snow, ice, fog and high winds – on motorways as much as in rural areas. BBC Radio Five Live (693 or 909 AM nationwide) and local stations feature regularly updated traffic bulletins, as does the Highways Agency website.
Fuel is pricey: at more than £1.15 a litre, unleaded petrol (gasoline) and diesel are three times more expensive than in the US. The cheapest places to fill up are out-of-town supermarkets.
Rules of the road
Drive on the left. You must have your current full driving licence with you to show on demand: an international licence is not necessary. If you’re bringing your own vehicle into the country you should also carry your vehicle registration, ownership and insurance documents. Left-hand-drive cars require minor adjustments to the headlights. Seat belts must be worn by everybody in the vehicle, in front and back. Motorcyclists and their passengers must wear a helmet.
Speed limits are clearly marked: 20 miles per hour in residential streets, 30 or 40mph in built-up areas, 60mph on out-of-town single carriageway roads (often signed by a white circle with a black diagonal stripe), 70mph on dual carriageways and motorways. The last two are reduced to 50 and 60mph if you’re towing a caravan or trailer. Assume that in any area with street lighting the speed limit is 30mph unless otherwise stated.
The AA (wwww.theaa.com), RAC (wwww
.rac.co.uk) and Green Flag (wwww.greenflag
.co.uk) all operate 24-hour emergency breakdown services, and offer useful online route planners. You may be entitled to free assistance through a reciprocal arrangement with a motoring organization in your home country – check before setting out. You can make use of these emergency services if you are not a member of the organization, but you will need to become a member at the roadside and will also incur a hefty surcharge.
Parking in towns, cities and popular tourist spots can be limited and is often very expensive. A painted yellow line beside the kerb indicates time restrictions on parking; there will be a sign nearby (often attached to a lamp post) detailing exactly what they are. Two yellow stripes (a “double yellow line”) means parking is prohibited at all times, though you can stop briefly to unload or pick up. A red line means no stopping at all. Do not park on the white zigzag lines painted near pedestrian crossings. Fines for parking trangressions are high – often more than £50 – and if you are wheel-clamped, expect to pay £200 or more to be released.
If you’re in a tourist city for a day, look out for park-and-ride (P&R) options (wwww
.parkandride.net), whereby you park on the outskirts and take a cheap or free bus to the centre. Urban car parks (parking lots) often use a “pay and display” system: put your money into the machine, take the ticket and display it on your dashboard. A few are ticketless, requiring you to key in your registration (license plate) rather than take a ticket. All these will be cheaper than using on-street meters, which often restrict parking time to one or two hours maximum. Some towns operate free disc-zone parking, which allows limited parking in designated areas: if that’s what roadside signs indicate, you need to pick up a cardboard disc from any local shop and display it on your dashboard.
Car rental is usually cheaper arranged in advance from home through one of the global chains or through your tour operator as part of a fly-drive package.
If you rent a car locally, expect to pay around £30 per day, £50 for a weekend or from £120 per week. You can sometimes find deals under £20 per day, though you’ll need to book well in advance for the cheapest rates and be prepared for surcharges for extras like damage excess waiver (CDW) and an additional driver. Small local agencies often undercut the major chains. Few companies will rent to drivers with less than one year’s experience and most will only rent to people between 21 and 75 years of age. Rental cars will be manual (stick shift) unless you specify otherwise.
Just Go (t01582/842888, wwww.justgo
.uk.com) can rent quality motorhomes sleeping four to six people, equipped with full bathrooms, kitchenette and bike racks, for £300–1000 per week, depending on the season.
No one would choose to get around England by cycling on the main “A” roads – there’s simply too much traffic. It’s far better to stick to the quieter “B” roads and country lanes – or, best of all, follow one of the traffic-free trails of the extensive National Cycle Network.
Cycle helmets are not compulsory – but if you’re planning on tackling the congestion, pollution and aggression of city traffic, you’re well advised to wear one. You do have to have a rear reflector and front and back lights when riding at night, and you’re not allowed to carry children without a special child seat. It is also illegal to cycle on pavements and in most public parks. Off-road cyclists must stick to bridleways and byways designated for their use.
Bike rental is available at cycle shops in most large towns, and at villages within national parks and other scenic areas. Expect to pay around £10–15 per day, with discounts for longer periods; you may need to provide credit card details, or leave a passport as a deposit.