The whole driving in another country thing can set off waves of panic in some people.
As a personal travel planner I always ask my clients if they want to drive and are comfortable driving in another country. Some folks are and some are not.
Add in driving on the other side of the road — for us Americans who are used to the right side that means driving on the left side — and a full on panic attack can come on.
But I always say “Driving is driving” because it really is.
So I want to offer up some tips for driving in Ireland and Scotland.
And this advice can carry over into other parts of the UK. I just haven’t driven in England or Wales (but I did in Northern Ireland).
General tips on car rental
Rent the smallest car possible.
And this means you need to watch how much you pack if you’re traveling with other people.
I can’t stress this enough.
Most folks have fairly small cars in all of Europe. Although I have seen more SUV-type vehicles in the past few years.
Roads tend to be smaller (we’ll get to this) and parking areas are not as large. So rent a small car — and pack light.
I had some clients upgrade to a larger car once in Italy. They ended up with an SUV.
And they regretted it.
It was simply too big of a vehicle for the small town they were staying in and the little roads they were driving around. And they felt pretty conspicuous.
A small car not only means you’ll spend less on the car hire itself, but it also means you’ll get better fuel economy.
And petrol (gasoline) is more expensive in Ireland and Scotland (and all of Europe).
So your wallet will thank you for the small car too.
Rent a manual transmission if possible.
If you know how to drive a manual or standard transmission — a stick shift — then rent a standard versus an automatic.
First of all, this will help on that fuel economy and save you money at the gas pump.
Secondly, it is cheaper to rent a standard transmission. Automatic transmission cars are more expensive to rent.
If you rent a car with a manual transmission know that you will be shifting with your left hand. The feet are the same.
I’m very right handed, but manage to do just fine. Well, after a few times of putting the car into the wrong gear. But it’s not that difficult once you get going.
But if you are not comfortable driving a manual or don’t know how, then pay the extra for the automatic.
It will be money well spent to give you that peace of mind.
A note: Ireland is one of the more expensive places to rent a car. Why? I’m not 100% sure — although I think it has something to do with the insurance. But be prepared to pay a bit to hire a car here — both manual and automatic.
Be sure to have the rental car folks show you how to work some features on the car.
I have found that the car rental personnel do a pretty good job of showing you the basics on how to operate the car in both Ireland and Scotland. Italy is another story!
But if they don’t then simply ask them to show you things like how to put the car in reverse (for manual transmissions), where the lights are, where the windshield wipers are and how to get the key out of the ignition. Because sometimes there’s a hidden button.
Also ask where the fuel tank is and how to access it. Sometimes there’s a key or some other trick.
Ask the car rental folks if there is anything quirky about driving this particular car.
It’s their job so don’t be afraid to ask.
And if need be, sit in the parking spot for a while to find out where everything is on the car. I did this in Scotland as the car had more on it than I was used to. Don’t be in a rush.
Tips on driving in Ireland and Scotland
Remember to stay left.
This is a no brainer once you get there, but it’s helpful to simply keep saying to yourself, “Left, left, left.”
The car I rented in Ireland from Enterprise actually had a sticker in the upper right-hand corner of the windshield that said, “Stay left.” There was even a picture.
You are sitting on the right side of the car so you, as the driver, are still on that center line.
And while it’s a bit disconcerting at first — once you are out on the road — you will get used to it.
Just watch out when you are in parking lots and other more “free style” places.
Left, left, left!
Proceed with caution through roundabouts.
Some drivers are not used to roundabouts or traffic circles.
And if you’re not, then I promise you will be by the time you return from your trip.
These are widely used in Ireland, Scotland and many other parts of Europe.
I personally think they are a fabulous way to keep traffic moving. But some folks get a little anxious driving into them.
Here’s a tip: as you approach the roundabout there will most likely be a sign showing which way you’ll need to go. Know where you are headed (see below) so you know which exit to take.
And if you are using a GPS it will say something like, “At the roundabout take the second exit for Galway.”
So as you enter that roundabout think about exit numbers and not going left or straight or right. Think in terms of exits and which number it is. Sometimes the first exit will be left and sometimes it will be straight.
Know where you are going.
Let me explain.
Yes you might be driving from Doolin near the Cliffs of Moher to Dingle Town on the Dingle Peninsula.
But there might be a few ways to get there.
So knowing which route you want to take and the towns in between will be super helpful. Because you might end up on a different route that is either much longer or less scenic.
Know the route numbers you want to be on and look for those as you are driving — especially as you come to those traffic circles.
And if you want to get a bit lost — or take an unplanned detour as I like to say — then go ahead and do so.
You’ll find your way.
And if you can’t, then stop and ask a local. The Irish and the Scots are some of the nicest people on the planet!
Know the rules of the road in that country.
Are you allowed to talk on your cell phone as you drive?
What are some of the basic speed limits?
There are sections in some guidebooks for this — for instance the Lonely Planet guide to Ireland has a page or 2 in the back of the book on driving in Ireland.
You’ll also find information online. Or you can check with your personal travel planner. She’s always ready to help!
But I’ll answer that first question. You are not allowed to use your mobile phone while driving in Ireland or the UK unless you use it hands free, so with a blue tooth type device. Ireland is particularly strict with texting and driving.
Also you do not need an international driver’s permit for Ireland or Scotland (all of the UK, actually). Your US and Canadian driver’s license will do the trick.
Avoid driving in the bigger cities.
Pretend that’s in all caps and extra bold. And has an exclamation point at the end.
The cities are difficult to drive in with so many one way streets, pedestrians, bikes and lights. It can be a nightmare.
And set off a full blown panic attack. We don’t want this.
So I highly recommend (!) NOT driving in the cities.
You don’t need a car in cities like Dublin or Cork or Edinburgh or Glasgow. You’ll be able to walk, use the public transportation or ride in a taxi.
If you have to drive through a city, try to drive around it. Typically there will be an outer belt that goes around the city. Dublin has the M50.
Now you may need to drive a bit in the city when you first pick up your car or when you drop it off.
My advice is to rent from an office that is as far to the outskirts of a city as possible.
Take the scenic route.
Yes there are highways — called motorways — in Ireland and Scotland and all through Europe. And they are great for quick trips when you really need to get from point A to point B quickly.
But the best part of driving in countries like Ireland and Scotland is to take in the stunning scenery and to drive through the small villages.
So take the scenic road.
Yes it may take longer so you’ll want to plan for that.
But it’s so worth it.
This is where you’ll have experiences that you’ll remember the rest of your life.
However this also means you might be on more rural or lesser roads … which leads me to the next tip.
Be prepared to drive on wee roads.
If you have any sense of adventure — and I hope you do if you are reading my blog posts — then you are going to be driving on wee roads.
Don’t be afraid.
Take your time.
You may end up on some single track lanes which are literally the width of one car but where you’ll find pull outs or passing areas. You’ll see the signs.
The best advice for driving these wee roads is to slow down and to pay attention.
You need to notice if someone is coming at you from the other direction and if there is a place for either you or them to pull off so the other can drive by. Notice if that person has pulled off already. If so then they are letting you pass.
It’s very important to simply be hyper observant on these little roads.
I drove lots of these in Scotland — in the Northwest (part of the North Coast 500) and on the Isle of Skye.
And while I was a bit nervous at first, I quickly got the hang of it.
But I didn’t drive these at night and I did my best to take my time and be hyper aware of the other cars. And yes, take in the gorgeous scenery!
Watch out for sheep, cows or goats on the road.
This comes with driving on wee roads that are often out in rural areas where there are farms.
You may actually be driving through grazing land.
Look for the signs. And pay attention.
If there are sheep or cows on the road, just honk a few times and slowly try to move them off the road. They’ll typically scatter to the sides so you can get through.
But sometimes they take their sweet time. So be patient.
You may also come up someone riding a horse along the road.
Again be patient and be considerate.
They will most likely move over to the side. But you may have to pass so be careful and give the horse and rider plenty of room.
And you will most definitely come up on some sort of farm machinery — such as a tractor — on the the road. It will be moving slower than a car so slow down and wait until it is allowed and it is safe to pass.
Driving in this type of environment can be very different from what you are used to so take your time and be respectful.
Remember — this is all part of the experience. So revel in it!
Take your time and enjoy yourself.
Don’t try to cover a lot of ground in either Scotland or Ireland.
Driving these wee roads can be tiring so try to keep the trips shorter than you would in the US or in Canada.
Take your time and make stops along the way.
Don’t try to drive the speed limit if you’re not comfortable. It’s okay to drive slower.
I got the best advice on driving in Ireland the first time I drove in that country from a B&B owner named Margaret. She told me, “Drive at a speed you’re comfortable with. If the person behind you wants to pass, then they’ll pass you.”
And I’ve adhered to that advice whenever I’ve driven in Ireland and have carried that advice to all other places I’ve driven in Europe.
Driving in both Ireland and Scotland is such a wonderful way to see these 2 beautiful countries at your pace.
So don’t be afraid to get behind the wheel and drive on the other side of the road.
Slow down and smell the heather, the peaty bogland and the salty sea air.
Don’t try to drive long distances in one day.
Take the scenic route.
Relish the unique experiences.
Pack your patience — and a small suitcase.
And take lots of photos.
I promise: you won’t regret it.