Whether you’re visiting the UK or you’re in the process of relocating, it can be tricky to get your head around the different modes of transport and how they work. In this article we will try to give you an overview of the best ways to travel in the UK, how you can buy tickets, and which parts of the country they are available in. Please note, each area of the UK has its own services and systems in place and so they may vary slightly from place to place.
Buses are a commonly used form of public transport in the UK and are estimated to account for 59% of public transport journeys. Most locations will have a bus service, making it easy to travel by bus. City buses tend to be more frequent and often provide services to more distant locations as well as around the immediate area. Services in smaller locations may be less frequent, but they will usually still provide a few routes. Buses are popular as they allow people to travel cheaply, though the cost of tickets will vary depending on the region, the general consensus is that travel by bus is one of the cheaper options available. Buses in the UK are also very accessible as there is usually space for wheelchairs and pushchairs on board.
Most companies will offer a range of tickets depending on your needs. You can usually buy a ticket for a single journey that will allow you to travel to a single destination on a particular service, or a return ticket, which will allow you to travel to your destination and back on the same service. Most companies will offer a day ticket that allows you to travel multiple times on the same service or on multiple services in the area. Many locations also offer weekly, monthly and even yearly passes for people who use the service often. These long-term tickets usually allow you to travel on multiple bus services as well. Family tickets and discounted tickets for children and the elderly are also available.
Many buses allow you to pay for paper tickets onboard using cash, or in cities and some towns, you can use contactless debit cards and Apple pay. It is worth noting that many bus companies in the UK are attempting to phase out paper tickets to reduce boarding times and aid environmental change. Some services require you to have purchased your ticket before you board the bus, either from machines at the bus stop, or on apps or travel cards. Again, this will depend on the area, so it is good to research the place you’re travelling to beforehand to find out what the bus company expects passengers to do. You can often find this information online and can sometimes purchase the relevant tickets on a company’s website or on a relevant app.
Bus stops in the UK will have timetables displayed, and some will even have electronic timetables informing you when the next bus is due. You can also check timetables online and plan your journey on websites such as Traveline. On Traveline, you can enter the location you’re travelling from, your destination, and the time you’d like to leave, and it will tell you which stop the relevant bus is departing from, at what time, and if there are any additional buses you will need to catch.
Some bus companies offer free WiFi and USB charging ports on their buses, though smaller services will not include these features, so we wouldn’t recommend relying on it to charge your devices, and they cannot be used for laptops.
The downside to buses is that they can be slower than trains as they must contend with traffic. Services in rural areas can be less frequent. Finally, long term tickets such as weekly, monthly or yearly tickets can be quite expensive, though still cheaper than other modes of transport.
For long distance journeys, there are also coach services, these mostly link cities, and the buses themselves are built for long distance journeys, often having toilets, charging outlets for laptops and phones and places to store suitcases and hand luggage. The seating also tends to be more comfortable on coaches than on standard buses. They mostly pick up and drop off at bus stations rather than smaller bus stops, but it depends on the service and route. If you’re interested in travelling by coach, you can use the websites below to plan your journey.
Trains are another popular means of transport, cities will have train stations, as will many smaller regions, making them another great way to travel around the country. Train services usually offer transportation around an area, as well as to destinations further away. Inner town and city transport can be more limited than with buses as there are less train stations than there are bus stops. That said, they are an excellent way to travel if you want to go further afield.
Trains are usually faster than buses as they don’t have to compete with traffic, and there is usually less stops for a train as well. What also decreases travel time is that you can either buy your train tickets beforehand or buy them from a conductor on the train. Even if you must change trains during your journey, a conductor on any train will be able to sell you tickets for the entirety of your journey. They will usually accept cash and debit card payments.
When buying tickets, many stations in the UK will have booths or machines where you can purchase your train tickets beforehand. Booths will usually be run by a staff member who will accept cash or card payments, while machines are self-service and will generally only accept payment by credit or debit card. Many train services now have apps where you can buy paperless M-tickets beforehand as well. A notable difference with train tickets is that the price for the same journey will differ throughout the day and on different days of the week. With trains, you can purchase off-peak and super-off-peak tickets. Peak times are the times of day when a train service is at its busiest, so in the early mornings and late afternoons and evenings during the week when people will be commuting to and from work and school. Weekends are generally considered to be off-peak and will be cheaper than standard tickets. However, you will not be able to travel at peak times with an off-peak ticket and may have to pay for another ticket if you try to board a train at peak times with one of these. You can, however, travel at any time with a ticket that isn’t classed as off-peak. Super off-peak tickets will vary, but they will be cheaper than off-peak tickets, and will cover the least busy times of day. Again, you will not be able to use a super off-peak ticket to travel on a train at peak hours, or even during off-peak hours, so while they are cheaper, they will be more restrictive than standard or off-peak tickets.
Another thing to note about UK trains is that they have two different types of carriages, first class and standard, there tends to be one or two first class carriages, and then the rest will be standard. You can only sit in first class if you have purchased a first class ticket, as they are more expensive. The benefit of travelling first class is that the carriages are generally more spacious, the seating will be more comfortable and there is complimentary food and drinks, as well as free WiFi and newspapers.
Perhaps more often than with buses, you may need to change trains during your journey, most trains are travelling a long distance and won’t always stop at your desired location, so you will need to make sure you are aware of which station you need to change at and what time your connecting train will leave.
Like buses, you can check timetables at train stations, but they are also available online. You can plan a journey on Traveline, or look on Trainline or National Express. These sites will inform you if you need to change to a different train at any point in your journey, which station and platform your next train will leave from, as well as the time it will leave. Sometimes, if your train is running late, you may miss your connection. If this happens you can usually ask one of the conductors when the next train will be.
Most trains will have toilets, luggage and bike racks, small tables, free WiFi and electrical outlets allowing you to charge laptops and other devices. These facilities will vary between services, but they tend to be more comfortable than travelling by bus.
The main downside of travel by train is the cost, it can be quite expensive to travel long distance, so many opt to travel by coach instead.
Most people in the UK travel by car. The benefit of driving is that you have the freedom to go wherever you like whenever you like. It’s also an excellent mode of transport if you live in a more rural area where buses and trains aren’t frequent or easily accessible.
Some may consider driving a cheaper option as they don’t have to pay for regular bus or train tickets however others may dispute that the cost of petrol, parking, insuring and running a car makes it the more expensive option. It’s very dependent on an individual’s circumstances, and what you want out of your journey when travelling around the UK. We have a full article explaining the cost of running a car in the UK to give you a better idea of the cost in comparison to other modes of transport.
In order to legally drive in the UK, you will need a full, valid driving license and will need to be seventeen years of age or older. If your driving license was issued in the UK, EU, or in a European Economic Area (EEA), you will be able to drive any vehicle stated on your driving license. If you have a license from a designated country (Andorra, Australia, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Falkland Islands, Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Guernsey, Hong Kong, Isle of Man, Japan, Jersey, Monaco, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland and Zimbabwe) you will legally be allowed to drive in the UK on your full, valid driving license for 12 months when you become a resident, but after that you must exchange your license for a UK license. If it isn’t from one of the designated countries, you will be allowed to drive with it, as long as it is a full, valid license, and you will be allowed to do this for 12 months from when you became a resident, after that, you will need to apply for a provisional UK driving license and pass the theory and practical driving tests to obtain a UK license. You can learn more about acquiring a driving license in this article. These rules apply whether you are just visiting or if you are relocating. We would advise having a look at the direct.gov website about the restrictions on driving in the UK though, and which vehicles you will be allowed to drive.
If you are visiting, or if you have not yet decided if you want to purchase a car, you can rent one for the duration of your visit or for a journey. The rules for renting a car in the UK can vary between rental companies, but generally you will need your passport and a full driving license. Some will only hire out to you if you have had your license for a certain amount of time, usually between 1 and 5 years, and often you will need to be over 25 years of age. If you have a non-EU or UK driving license you will also need an international driving permit (IDP). IDPs are valid for 12 months, and you should try to secure one three months before coming to the UK. Sometimes, you will need to provide proof of address. If you’re only in the UK on a short-term basis, you may also be asked to provide proof of travel dates to and from the UK in the form of flight tickets or hotel bookings.
Car rental companies will also charge a deposit fee which you will get back once you return the car at the end of the rental period, providing there is no damage to the vehicle.
If you are interested in renting a car, these are a few companies you can look at to get an idea of the requirements and potential costs:
A disadvantage of driving is that it can be tricky if you are not accustomed to UK roads, we drive on the left-hand side of the road, which is different to most other countries. It takes time to get used to, but it can be off-putting to some, and is something to consider if you’re not a confident driver.
Cars can also be less helpful in cities, and if you are planning to visit or relocate to a city, we would recommend doing some research beforehand, as other means of transport such as buses and trains can actually be cheaper and easier to rely on. Due to congestion and pollution in many UK cities, particularly London, there are restrictions on certain roads, areas and times of day that you can drive a car. If you are planning on driving in a city, it’s important to check the rules and restrictions for that area, as you can be fined for breaking these rules even if you were unaware of them. The final disadvantage of using a car is the price of parking. It can often cost upwards of £10 a day to park in city car parks, and many instead choose to find alternate means of transport when travelling within a city, even if they own a car.
Taxis are another flexible form of transport if you want the freedom of a car but if perhaps you don’t have a license or would simply prefer not to drive yourself. Taxi drivers usually know the area very well or have a GPS so can usually get you to your destination more quickly than if you were trying to find it yourself.
Most places will have taxi companies. Depending on where you’re travelling from, you can either find a Taxi rank, or simply call a taxi company to pick you up from where you’re staying. You can also book taxis in advance with many companies. It’s also easy to search for local taxi companies online or find their numbers in local phone books.
In some areas, transport apps are now in use as well including Uber, Ola, Lyft and others. These apps are usually available on Apple and Android, and allow you to request a car, and input your current location and your destination, you can often pay through these apps too. A nearby driver can then accept your request and will pick you up. The benefit of apps like these are that you usually can track how far away your driver is and rate your journey and driver.
Some disadvantages of taxis are that they can be more expensive than public transport, particularly for long journeys, and some taxi companies will only travel a certain distance. Taxi rides will run on a timed meter, and if your cab gets stuck in traffic, the meter will continue to run, even if you’re not moving. It’s also important to make sure that any taxi company you travel with is legitimate and reputable as occasionally, people will pretend to be taxi drivers to try and make money. This is something to be particularly aware of if you’re travelling alone and at night. You can check before you get in a car if the driver has a taxi license. This will usually be displayed on the dashboard.
Bikes have become increasingly popular in the UK for both commuters and tourists. Unfortunately, they are not the best option for long distance journeys (unless you’re feeling ambitious!) but are excellent for sightseeing and travelling around a small area.
A reason bikes have become so popular in recent years is because it is better for the environment. Particularly in cities where air pollution and congestion are poor, many opt to cycle instead. It’s also the cheapest form of transport on this list. Once you’ve purchased a bike and the necessary accessories, the maintenance and upkeep will be considerably less than that of a car.
To improve the environment, many cities now have rental bikes that can be found at points all over the city. You can rent these bikes for a set amount of time for as little as £1, and if you want to use the bike for longer, you can simply pay more. A lot of cities have also implemented cycle lanes to make it easier for cyclists to navigate traffic and pedestrians.
Like cars, there are certain rules to cycling, particularly on roads. You can see the full list of requirements and rules here, but the main one is to familiarise yourself with the highway code as cyclists are expected to adhere to the rules of the road in the UK.
As well as being more environmentally friendly and healthier, cycling is faster than walking, you don’t have to pay for parking, petrol or for tickets, and it can be a scenic way to travel and acquaint yourself with an area.
The main disadvantages of cycling are that you can’t travel long distances, you will need more than one bike if you’re not travelling alone, if the weather is bad, which it can often be in the UK, particularly during the winter months, it’s not the most pleasant form of transport, and it can also be more dangerous, particularly if you are cycling on busy main roads.
The most well-known form of underground travel is the London Underground, a series of underground train lines that connects different areas of the city. The only other cities in the UK that run underground services are Glasgow, Newcastle and Liverpool.
Underground transport is incredibly popular, particularly in London, as it’s incredibly fast. It’s possible to get from one side of the city to another in a matter of minutes on the London Underground, something that would take much longer if you were driving, walking or taking a bus.
You can catch underground trains, (also referred to as tubes and subways) from underground stations which are well signposted. Focusing on London Underground in particular, it is divided into nine zones, and there are eleven tube lines. The cost of travel will depend on the zones you’re travelling between. This can seem confusing to anyone not familiar with them, but there are maps at every station and on the trains themselves to help you figure out where you need to go, they are also colour coded to make them slightly easier to navigate. The tube is also one of the most accessible forms of transport in London as lines run from 5am until midnight, and on Fridays and weekends some later night services run too.
Unlike over ground trains, you will not be able to buy tickets on the train. You can buy paper tickets from ticket machines at tube stations, these will usually accept credit or debit cards. Paper tickets can be slightly more expensive as cities are encouraging passengers to use contactless payment methods instead, however this is a good choice if you’re only planning on travelling on the underground service for a couple of stops, and don’t intend to plan your journey around it.
A more popular form of payment in tube stations is to use a contactless debit card. There are yellow touchpads on the turnstiles in underground stations where you can scan your debit card like you would scan a ticket, this will automatically charge the cost of your journey to your bank when you scan your card at the destination point of your journey. There is a daily cap as well, so you will only be charged a set amount a day, though this cap will vary depending on the zones you travel in.
If you don’t have a contactless debit card, you can get an Oyster card. You can either get a visitor Oyster card which you will need to order online before your journey, or a standard Oyster card. Oyster cards will work in the same way as a contactless debit card in the sense that you will scan them at the turnstiles when you enter and leave a tube station. The difference is that you must add money to the Oyster card in order to use it. You will pay a £5 deposit which will be refunded once you’ve returned the card, and then top up your Oyster card to pay for your journeys. You can order standard Oyster cards online if you are a UK resident, if not you can find them at Oyster Ticket stops in newsagents, at visitor centres or at the tube stations themselves. You can also top up your card at these locations. If you have a contactless debit card but aren’t sure whether to use it or get an Oyster card, it should be noted that it is the same price to travel with your debit card as it would be to use an oyster card, and you won’t have to pay a deposit to use your debit card. Another benefit of contactless and Oyster cards in London is that they can be used on other forms of transport including buses.
Like over ground trains, there are off-peak times, and if you are travelling during peak times the journey can cost more. However, if you’re using an Oyster or contactless card, you needn’t worry too much about this as the correct amount will be charged to your card anyway. You will need to be aware of this if you have a paper off-peak ticket, however.
In London, the tube runs every few minutes, so you don’t need to consult a timetable, but rather make sure you are travelling on the right line and in the right zone. If you plan to travel in London, we would recommend planning your route ahead of time if possible, and getting acquainted with a map of the underground.
Underground services in the other cities mentioned are similar as you can buy paper tickets or purchase a smartcard to allow you to travel more easily. They also offer tickets that cover different zones, and long-term tickets for a week’s worth of travel and a month’s worth of travel as well. This will vary from city to city though. The maps for Glasgow, Newcastle and Liverpool underground services are a lot simpler than the London underground map, but we would still recommend having a look ahead of time to gain a better understanding of how to navigate your way around the cities.
The disadvantages of using underground services, particularly in London is that you can’t travel to other parts of the country, you’re restricted to travelling within that city, it unfortunately isn’t a mode of transport that is widely available across the country, only in the four cities mentioned.
A less commonly used form of travel around the UK due to it being such a small country, most people opt to take the train or simply drive. There are a few situations where it may be beneficial to travel by plane though, in particular, travelling between England and Scotland.
There are airports in most major cities in the UK, and you can get direct flights from many of them to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness. A benefit of getting a flight to Scotland is that it can be considerably faster than a train, to give you an idea, it can take 4 hours 20 minutes to get to Edinburgh from London by train, and 1 hour 15 minutes by plane.
Several places in the UK have tramlines as it’s an environmentally friendly alternative to cars and buses, however tram locations are limited to Croydon, London’s docklands, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham and Blackpool.
Trams are a good means of transport for travelling a short distance within a city, they are faster than walking, and are better for the environment. They tend to have certain zones, and tickets will be priced according to zone. Like underground travel, you are often able to use contactless debit cards and mobile apps as tickets using smart readers at the tram stops, and you can pay for your journey as you travel. Generally, you will be charged the cost of a single journey, or if you’re travelling multiple times a day, the cost will be capped at a set price. There are also smart cards like the Oyster card mentioned previously in the article. You can order these cards online and add money to them. Many tram stops will have ticket machines where you can purchase the relevant tickets as well, or travel shops where you can go in and buy tickets.
Trains and buses tend to be faster than trams, however trams have more stops than trains, and are also cheaper than both trains and buses. If you are staying in a city that has trams, then it can be worth using them.
Overall, our best advice for travelling around the UK would be to research the area you’re going to ahead of time and plan your journey around how far you want to travel, which modes of transport are available within that area, and how much you’re willing to spend. Timetables and ticket prices are available for most areas online making it easy to plan your travel route. Whether you’re travelling first class or riding a bike, we hope that you enjoy your journey!
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