Which are the best ways to travel around the United Kingdom without a car? This is what I hope to clarify for you in this blog post.
For various reasons, many people don’t have a car and rely on public transport when visiting a foreign country. Some people are not confident enough to drive somewhere new. Other people travel on a tight budget and find public transport much cheaper than car hire. A final category is represented by people trying to minimise their carbon footprint by using public transport as much as possible.
Whichever category you belong to, if you decide to visit the UK and are not sure which are the best ways to travel around this country without a car, then keep reading. I am about to suggest the best ways to travel around the UK without a car.
Luckily, for those of you thinking of visiting the UK without a car, this country offers plenty of options that can take you to some of the most remote corners of the United Kingdom. Let’s find out which ones are these and which are the advantages and disadvantages of each one of them.
Travelling by train is by far one of the best ways to travel around the United Kingdom without a car. How could you not use the train in the land where the railway locomotive was invented?
The UK railway network covers most of the tourist places in the country. Are you planning on visiting the Peak District or perhaps the Norfolk Coastline? Well, you can easily reach the two places by train.
The same applies if you plan to travel between cities. Most cities within the UK (especially the tourist ones) are accessible via train.
Interesting facts about the railway network in the UK
Until a few years ago, the train network in the UK was owned by the government (aka nationalised). However, a few years ago, the railway network was sold to different private companies also known as privatization.
This means that nowadays regional trains are owned by different private companies. For example, the company managing the trains in East Anglia is Greater Anglia. While the company managing the trains in the Midlands is West Midlands Trains.
There has been general discontent among the local population when the railway network was privatised. Many people complained that private companies increased the price of train tickets while the service quality dropped.
Nevertheless, across the country, many people still use the train to go to work or for inter-city travel. During peak hours, you cannot even be guaranteed a seat because carriages get so busy that there are not enough seats for everyone. This speaks volumes of how popular the train still is in the UK.
The Steam Train
Steam trains are not a thing of the past, and many European countries still have them in use (mainly for tourist purposes nowadays). When visiting the UK, make sure you take the steam train at least once. It is a very rewarding experience, more so because the route they cover is gorgeous.
I am sure we all know about Harry Potter. Well, why not take the Jacobite Steam Train from Fort William to Mallaig? It is probably one of the most popular steam trains in the UK. However, if you make it to the coast, make sure you check if steam trains cover your area. They usually do. There is one steam train covering the Norfolk Coast if you ever make it to this side of the country.
How to purchase a train ticket in the UK?
There are several ways to purchase train tickets in the UK. Let’s go through the most useful ways to buy train tickets online:
One of the best well-known websites to purchase train tickets in the UK is https://www.nationalrail.co.uk/
It does not matter where you travel to in the UK, you can always go on the National Rail website and purchase your train tickets.
The second option you have is Trainline UK. Although Trainline UK is an intermediary platform, sometimes it offers better deals than the national rail website. Once I managed to get a better deal for my Norwich to Bristol trip on Trainline than on National Rail. Therefore, it is best to check both websites before making a purchase.
The third option is to purchase the ticket on the regional train provider’s website. Let’s say you need to travel from London to Norwich. In this case, you can go on the Greater Anglia website and buy your train ticket directly from there.
Finally, Interrail is another great platform to purchase train tickets in the UK. The interrail pass is commonly used in Europe to travel by train. It comes in handy if you plan to use the train many times and want to avoid buying countless individual train tickets.
An interrail/Eurail pass can relieve you from the burden of having to purchase multiple train tickets. The pass works as a multi-day train ticket you can use either in one country or across several EU countries. Although the UK is not an EU member anymore, you can still use an interrail/Eurail pass to travel around the country.
A Eurail pass can be used by non-European citizens while an Interrail pass can only be used by European citizens.
Something else you need to be aware of is that you cannot use your Interrail pass in your country of residence. For example, if you reside in France (although you might be a citizen of another country), you cannot use an Interrail pass to travel around the country. But you can surely buy a pass and visit Belgium instead.
Back in the day, when I used Interrail to travel Europe by train, I temporarily resided in France, therefore I could only use my pass after I crossed the border into Switzerland. I had to purchase a regular train ticket to reach the French-Swizz border first.
Advantages of travelling by train in the UK
There is no doubt that travelling by train is one of the best ways to move around the UK without a car. There are many benefits of travelling by train in the UK, some of which I have summed up below so you can compare them to other ways of transportation in the UK.
- Travelling by train in the UK is much faster than by bus/coach. For example, a train journey from Norwich to London takes 2h30 minutes while the same journey with the National Express coach takes 3h20 minutes. The difference is quite significant if you have a tight schedule
- Travelling by train is less expensive than a car hire
- It is more environmentally friendly
- Trains get you pretty much everywhere. I am not exaggerating when saying this. The UK has an extended railway network that connects even the most remote corners of the country. There are train links to the most popular tourist attractions so whenever I visited the UK, I never felt I missed out on anything
- The journey is usually more beautiful than by coach. Again, this is not an exaggeration. Some train routes are simply gorgeous. For example, if you ever take the train from England to Scotland, the view is simply stunning
- Train stations are well located, usually in the heart of the city and/or close by. If you worry the train station might be far away, forget about it. Most train stations are located right in the heart of the city or nearby. So, it is more practical to take the train than struggle to find a car park in the city centre. Plus, car parks in the UK tend to be pricey and quite limited as well because local authorities are trying to push people to make use of local transport more
- Trains in the UK are designed to easily accommodate wheelchair persons and have enough space to store individual luggage as well as bikes, accompanying pets and baby strollers. For limits and local rules, make sure you check with the local train provider directly before travelling
- In London, trains have good links with the Tube Network (or Metro/Subway as it is known somewhere else). Most major train and tube stations in London are in fact located in the same building. Liverpool Station is such an example where you can hop off the train and hop on the tube in a matter of minutes.
- This is a personal preference, but I find trains to be way more comfortable than the bus/coach
- Most train carriages have Wi-Fi and plugs nowadays, especially those connecting big cities and covering airport routes. And let me tell you a secret, the Wi-Fi on the train is decent. This is a bonus for nomads as they can carry on working while enjoying the view. Plus, you can opt for a quiet carriage if you cannot focus with noise around, although there isn’t much noise in regular carriages either
- Trains in the UK are faster and more reliable compared to Eastern Europe and other parts of the world (Latin America etc.). There are differences between Western and Eastern Europe when it comes to trains. In the West, trains are faster, better looked after and more modern. They are also significantly more expensive. However, they are more reliable and get you somewhere quicker than trains in Eastern Europe.
- The compensation programme is good, and you get your money back if your train gets cancelled or delayed (in the UK, you are entitled to compensation if your train is delayed for more than 15 minutes). There have been a few times when my train got cancelled. However, I did get a full refund for the trip. Also, if trains get cancelled, there are usually bus replacements which help if you really need to get somewhere on that same day
- The UK railway network is quite updated when it comes to technological advancements. Things like e-tickets, cashless options on the train, and purchasing beverages/food on the train are available almost on every train (certainly on long-journey trains). However, if you don’t feel confident using the technology, every train station in the UK still has a physical office where staff can help you with purchasing paper train tickets etc. They don’t speak other languages, so be aware that you should have a good command of the English language or use translation apps to communicate with them.
- When purchasing a train ticket in the UK, you can travel 1st or 2nd class. I travelled both, and I cannot tell I saw an obvious difference. There was more legroom, and I got free food, but I did not feel the need to travel 1st class again. However, it is a good experience if you need a bit more comfort
Taking the train is without a doubt one of the best ways to travel around the United Kingdom without a car. And it does not have to be that expensive either if you consider some of my tips below:
Tips on saving money while travelling by train in the UK
These are some of the tips I used myself when I visited the UK and found that made a difference in my budget.
- Travel on a weekday. It might be obvious, but travelling on a weekday can make a difference. You will find that ticket prices are more affordable and train carriages are less crowded.
- Book off-peak tickets. Do not travel at peak times if you can (morning and afternoon during the weekday, there are no peak times during the weekends) because that’s when ticket prices are the most expensive. If you can travel off-peak, you will realise how much you can save because the differences are quite significant.
- Book in advance. This is yet another way to save up money while travelling by train in the UK. The farther in advance, you buy the ticket, the cheaper it is. According to the National Rail website, you can buy your train tickets 12 weeks ahead of travel.
- Make sure you consult alternative platforms before purchasing your train ticket. In the UK, people usually use the National Rail website to purchase train tickets. However, as I have already mentioned intermediary platforms like Trainline UK sometimes offer better deals than the National Rail website itself. Through Trainline UK, I was able to buy return train tickets (Norwich-Bristol) which were cheaper than on the National Rail website. So, it might be worth having a look before you press pay.
- If your stay in the UK is longer, let’s say a few months, it might be worth looking into purchasing a railcard. You would pay for it on top of the train ticket, but I can guarantee can help you save some serious money in the long run. I purchased a railcard one year ago and was able to lock in good deals when purchasing train tickets.
- You can get similar discounts if you purchase an Interrail/Eurail pass as well. Again, when I purchased by Interrail I benefited from a discount based on age, but they have quite a few options you can choose from which can help you spend less on train tickets. Plus, the pass also unlocks other benefits like further discounts on city tours and other activities.
By following some of the tips above, you should be able to save some money and perhaps use it to do extra things while on holiday in the UK.
Despite the obvious advantages of travelling by train in the UK, there are a few disadvantages I experienced too. Yet, these advantages are surpassed by the advantages already mentioned above.
- There are places the train won’t take you. Even if the train railway network covers most of the UK, there are still places the train might not entirely cover. Such an example is the Norfolk Coastline. There is a train that will take you to the main towns on the Norfolk Coastline, but to be able to explore the coast closer, you will need to take a bus.
- You don’t have total freedom and you still depend on the departure/arrival train times. Sometimes, you might purchase tickets with specific departure times, and you must stick to them, otherwise, your ticket because invalid and you might need to purchase a new one or pay a penalty fee. This sometimes restricts how you plan your day.
- Train maintenance works are usually scheduled on weekends and bank holidays. It is a bit of a shame because that’s when everyone travels more. Remember this when planning your train trip on a bank holiday as they might operate on a reduced scale.
Coaches & buses
According to Expatica, the local bus is the most common form of public transport in the UK.
This came as a surprise to me as I could have sworn people in the UK prefer trains over buses (but perhaps it is just me). Nevertheless, let’s stick to the data published by Expatica and find out more about coaches and buses in the UK.
For those who might not know this, in the UK a coach is essentially an intercity bus. As the name suggests, you can use them to travel between cities. Various coach companies are operating across the country. However, the most popular ones are National Express and Megabus. These companies also cover major airport routes in the UK.
I have often used both companies to either travel between cities or travel to the airport.
Shuttle buses are buses that always travel the same route. For example, you will have shuttle buses that only travel from Cambridge to Stanstead Airport. Almost every major city in the UK with access to a local airport has one. When shuttle buses aren’t available, these routes are usually covered by either Megabus or National Express.
There are also seasonal shuttle buses. For example, the Norfolk Coast shuttle bus only runs in summer since not many people visit the coast when the weather gets colder.
Local buses as the name suggests usually run locally and will help you move around a city. The red, double-decker London bus is probably the most well-known local bus.
Something I consider to be a bit of an inconvenience while travelling via local buses is that in some places, several bus companies are operating in the same city/town. Therefore, you will need to purchase different tickets to use them and can only use your one-day ticket with the bus company you bought it from.
Hop-on, hop-off bus
A hop-on, hop-off bus is a tourist bus that takes you around the city and drops you off near the main tourist attractions. Hop-on, hop-off buses usually come with a tour guide which is useful if you don’t know much about the place you are about to visit.
I used hop-on, hop-off buses before and I found them quite good because they are quite frequent. Also, you do have more freedom than with a booked trip as you don’t need to be with a group and your tour guide the entire time.
Booked day trips
If you book a trip, chances are that you will be driven around on a bus. I got to explore so many parts of the UK thanks to the booked trip. Booked trips are convenient, they are also relatively cheaper sometimes than if you had gone on your own and much fun. Especially if you are a solo traveller looking for some company.
Advantages of using the bus
Bus/coach journeys have quite a few advantages. Let’s have a look at the list I came up with after travelling extensively across the UK using their buses and coaches for the past few years.
Generally speaking, buses are a cheaper alternative to taxis and trains and are quite handy if you have luggage. In the UK, local buses allow people to transport plenty of luggage (especially coaches which allow up to 2 pieces of luggage per person).
- Most coaches have plugs and toilets available since they don’t stop for toilet breaks like it is customed in other countries
- Buses & Coaches can sometimes be the only option to travel to some places, therefore covering areas trains don’t have access to
- Bus pickup & drop off points are conveniently located close to city centres
- Bus companies have a good refund scheme in place. I had a coach cancellation in the past and the company refunded me in no time.
- Coach drivers are also flexible and allow passengers to take later buses as long as they are not fully booked. National Express did allow me to take later buses on a couple of occasions.
- Coach drivers are usually very friendly and will deal with your luggage all the time. People across the UK working with the public are extremely welcoming and hospitable. I found the UK to be one of the politest places I have been and British people one of the people who smile the most. This is a stereotype I can confirm is true about British people.
- Most local buses & coaches now have a dedicated app which you can use to buy tickets and show the ticket to the driver. Also, most buses now accept card payments, so you don’t need to worry about having change on you. The UK is pretty much a cashless country.
Although not too many, bus/coach journeys also have some disadvantages. Let’s see which ones I’ve experienced the most during my travels across the UK.
- I did say that in general, most buses and coaches in the UK accept card payment. The only time I was not able to pay by card when taking a bus was in Northern Ireland. However, they did have ticket machines I was asked to use and purchase the tickets. I have not had issues using my card to pay for bus tickets anywhere else in the UK (Master, Visa and to some extent, American Express are widely used in the UK).
- National Express advertises they have onboard Wi-Fi, but I was never able to connect so if you need Wi-Fi, I would not rely too much on that. Most local buses do not provide Wi-Fi on board. Coach companies in the UK do provide Wi-Fi, but as you’ve seen from my experience with National Express is not that reliable.
- Perhaps the main inconvenience bus/coach journeys have over train journeys is that they do take considerably longer to get you anywhere. The reason buses/coaches get longer is that they can get stuck in traffic, that’s why you always must allocate more time when taking the coach than when taking the train.
As you’ve already read, there are some inconveniences bus/coach trips have over train trips. Yet, there are also some obvious advantages. Ultimately, it is good to know that for those of you who don’t drive, taking the bus/coach is one of the best ways to travel around the UK.
The London Tube Network
As I already mentioned earlier, the tube is what people in the UK call the metro/subway. In fact, in the UK subways are underground passages.
London might be known for its back taxis or red double-decker buses, but the London Tube is one of the most popular ways of transportation in the city.
It is easy to use and can get you from one side of the city to your destination safely.
I like the London Tube because it accepts contactless payments (although they also have something called the Oyster card).
Nevertheless, travelling by tube in London can be overwhelming, especially at peak times. So be prepared to face the crowds if you make it to London and use the tube at peak time.
It might be helpful to know that other bigger cities in the UK don’t necessarily have a tube system. Most of them have trams and local buses which are useful too.
If you were born in a big city and used the tube before in your home country, I am sure you will find the London tube quite easy to use. If it is your first time in a big city, get ready to enjoy the ride as it is a good experience to move around London by tube.
Uber & Regular Taxis
Uber and regular Taxis are the most expensive options to move around the UK if you do not drive or don’t have access to a car.
Also, remember cars get stuck in traffic. So, if you need to be somewhere on time, I would rather use the tube or train.
Uber is widely used in the UK; however, you must be aware that certain places did ban Uber so your only option will be the local taxi companies.
My experience with Uber in the UK has been good. The service works well, the drivers are most of the time chatty and most importantly it is safe for both travellers and locals.
Something else I got to experience in the UK is that while Uber cars never seem to be fully booked local taxi companies do. Especially at peak times (Friday evenings, weekends, during a celebration etc.). Therefore, if you ever need to book a local taxi company, make sure you don’t leave it to the last minute. It is better if you pre-book it (even a day before) to be sure. Most of the time, you will have the option to pay in the car. And most probably you will be able to pay by card too.
Because Uber rides and local taxi companies are quite expensive, I only used them for short distances like coming back very late or when I had too much luggage. Otherwise, using taxis all the time can eat quite a big chunk of your travel budget.
You might be familiar with the BlaBla car. I must say that this service is not as popular as I found it to be in France for example. So, I would not rely on it that much while visiting the UK.
There are alternatives to travel around the UK without a car. The most common are the train, bus, tube, and Uber/taxi. Some of these alternatives can be more affordable than others. It is up to you and the allocated trip budget how much you end up spending on Uber rides as opposed to bus tickets. No matter what you choose, rest assured that you won’t enjoy less the UK without a car.