The transport infrastructure in Scotland is generally good, with many services operating across borders to make travel from the rest of the U.K., as well as the rest of the world, easy. Airports are modern and well equipped, and trains and buses offer a wide network to most cities and towns. To get to some of Scotland’s more remote areas, though, you may need to rent a car.
Here are a few practical ways of getting around Scotland, as well as tips on what to expect from Scotland transportation.
Scotland by Plane
Scotland has four main airports: Aberdeen, Glasgow, Glasgow Prestwick and Edinburgh. Airlines including Virgin Atlantic, United and Icelandair fly direct from North America, while others offer connecting service. There are also regular links with European airports.
Scotland is not a huge place, so internal flights are not necessarily the best way to get around — they can be expensive compared to train and bus service without saving you much time. However, flights may be your best bet to reach more remote places such as the Hebrides and the Orkney and Shetland Islands.
Eastern Airways, Loganair and Flybe all provide domestic service within Scotland and also connect Scottish airports with other destinations within the U.K.
Renting a Car in Scotland
While public transportation serves most major cities and towns, travelers looking to explore Scotland’s countryside may wish to rent a car. As in the rest of the U.K., Scots drive on the left side of the road, and the steering wheel is on the right. Most rental cars will be manual unless you request otherwise when making your booking.
Before going anywhere, visitors will need to make sure they have a valid driving license. Those with licenses issued in the United States can drive small vehicles for up to 12 months after they’ve entered the U.K.; an international driving permit is not necessary.
Insurance can be bought at the car rental desks in most U.K. airports; however, you may want to do so in advance online when booking to save time.
Fuel can be expensive in Scotland, especially in the more rural parts of the country. While cities like Dundee have reasonable petrol prices, more northerly areas, like Stornoway, have traditionally seen much higher prices than other parts of the U.K. Be sure to fill up before departing for remote areas.
The Scottish road network is fairly extensive, with a concentration of motorways in the country’s “Central Belt” between the Highlands and the Southern Uplands. The rest of the country is well connected with large “trunk” or “A” roads.
Navigating can be tricky. The larger roads, motorways and cities have signage that corresponds to international standards, but if you’re headed to more rural areas, we recommend investing in a GPS device, a decent map or both.
Taking the Train in Scotland
One of the best ways to get around Scotland quickly and cheaply is by train. Passengers can enjoy the rugged Scottish scenery from their seats, taking in sights like the Glenfinnan Viaduct and the lochs and glens visible from classic routes such as the West Highland Line.
Scotland’s rails cover most of the country, especially in the Central Belt region. Main cities like Edinburgh are well connected; Scotland’s capital is only about four or five hours from London.
A number of train companies run services to Scotland. East Coast, Virgin Trains, ScotRail and Cross Country Trains all connect Scotland with the rest of the U.K. ScotRail’s Caledonian Sleeper service provides an excellent overnight link between London and various Scottish cities.
Within Scotland itself, ScotRail operates all domestic passenger trains. You can buy tickets online in advance (often at a discount), at most stations or on the trains themselves.
Passengers who will be making multiple train trips in Scotland and/or the U.K. may save money by purchasing a rail pass. The BritRail Freedom of Scotland Pass is good for travel anywhere in Scotland, while the Central Scotland Pass focuses on trips in the Glasgow and Edinburgh areas, and the BritRail Pass casts a wider net to include travel within Scotland, England and Wales. Discounts are available for children between 5 and 15 years of age, while children under 5 travel for free. Discounts may be available to seniors or disabled travelers; ask in advance.
While in Glasgow, visitors can avail themselves of Scotland’s only underground train network. The Glasgow Subway, which is the third oldest metro system in the world after those of London and Budapest, provides a convenient way of getting around the city. One-way, roundtrip, daily and seven-day tickets can be bought from machines and offices at Subway stations.
Taking the Bus in Scotland
Hopping on a bus will help with getting around Scotland’s busy cities, while more comfortable coaches are a good alternative to catching the train when getting around the country. Buses are often substantially cheaper than other modes of transport and offer a good opportunity to see the country at a relaxed pace.
Many companies serve Scotland’s cities, with a number of intercity and cross-country routes available. Stagecoach, National Express, Megabus and Scottish Citylink run the majority of city-to-city routes. Within cities, services are regular, with tickets available to buy either on the bus or, for longer journeys, at the bus station or online from the particular provider’s website.
Traveline Scotland offers timetables and prices on all services in and around Scotland’s towns and cities. Many bus companies offer discounts for seniors over 60.
If you’re planning to take the bus often, it is worth investing in an Explorer Pass from Citylink, which allows passengers unlimited travel on Scottish Citylink buses over a set number of travel days. Stagecoach’s Megarider ticket offers similar value if you’re spending time in a particular region of the country.
Passengers who are considering visiting other parts of the U.K. could benefit from a National Express Brit Xplorer Pass, which offers unlimited access to National Express coaches around the U.K.
–written by Josh Thomas