Traffic moving like treacle, extortionate parking, and the congestion charge – why might a visitor to London even consider getting a rental car?
London car hire advice: Well if you are only ever staying within the central London zone one (note that these areas are defined by London public transport zones), then it should be pretty obvious that a car is going to be no practical use whatsoever.
However, many visitors from further afield might budget two weeks or more for a stay in the London area, and this might well include a reasonable amount of travel outside the London area, all this time outside the M25 zone, an area defined by London’s orbital motorway.
Why get a hire car when there are still plenty of trains available for heading out of London? This will naturally depend on the sort of places you want to see, and the advice here is aimed more at this sort of longer stay than at the weekend or short city break where a hire car is al but completely unnecessary.
- Start of the UK road trip.
- Expensive train fares, including morning peak fares to get OUT of London.
Going clockwise around:
- Norfolk and the fens.
- Kent – the garden of England.
- Sussex – the Downs and Brighton (Brighton alone is easy enough).
- Stonehenge and Downton Abbey (they might be contrasts but they are relatively close).
- The New Forest – see Bournemouth/Southampton, but also easy to do by train and hire bikes locally.
- Further afield – Devon and Cornwall.
- The Cotswolds.
- Shakespeare country.
- London transport icons – the tube, London taxis, London stations, London buses, Boris bikes.
- Museums and art galleries.
- Concerts and shows.
- Congestion charge – hire cars are not exempt – see TfL.
- Parking costs.
- Airport connections – despite having so many airports, they are all easily connected to central London by rail.
- Other UK cities by train – plan ahead for the best fares and be prepared to take an indirect routing.
- Travel from London by coach, such as with Megabus or National Express.
London is such a rich and diverse city that you will never run out of things to explore even just within Zone 1, let alone within the area enclosed by the M25 orbital motorway. Yet there are also many places to see within an easy day trip from London. For a few of these, a car is going to be more useful than relying on multiple train and bus connections, but in the main, this isn’t really the case.
The only reason why car hire in London might trump the train is the cost, especially for a group trip, but this can also be avoided by planning carefully around the peak fare restrictions, or using coaches some of the time.
A hire car is useful in places, but no more – the car or no car verdict for London is a firm no.
If you are coming to London for the first time, then there’s no doubt that you will want to spend a number of days visiting all of the famous sites which are in central London, an area that’s also often simply defined as tube zone one. There are also plenty of places that you might want to visit which are outside central London, but which are still within the Greater London area, and which are very easy to reach using public transport.
It’s highly unlikely that you’d want to come and visit the London area and not spend some time visiting places which are easily reached using local buses and trains. This would be even less likely if this is your first time visiting London, and this is what our #car or #nocar guides are primarily about.
However, the more time you have to spend here, the more likely you are to want to visit other locations outside London, and for this you may decide that it’s worth looking at renting a car.
This doesn’t mean that you need to rent a car in London, or anywhere else in southern England, because many of the places that you might want to visit are also still very easy to reach using public transport. In some cases, you might be happy with public transport in London, but you might want to rent a car for usage elsewhere in England (or Wales and Scotland).
For example, one popular itinerary for two weeks in the UK is to spend maybe 4 or 5 nights in London, and then to take the train up to Edinburgh and spend a weekend there, before hiring a car to explore the Scottish Highlands. If this is the sort of thing in mind, then you can simply hire a car at Edinburgh airport*, and return it there and fly home when you are done.
Car hire in London is generally good value, and the UK can actually be exceptionally good value during the summer season, when there isn’t the same kind of demand spike that you might expect in the south of France or on the Spanish costas. However, our experience has shown that the cheapest car hire in the UK tends to be in northern English cities like Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle or Manchester. It would be very easy to head to any of these destinations by train, to see everything that the city has to offer, and then to hire a car locally from there.
If you do feel that it’s still worth hiring a car in London for some of your stay, then you would be much better off finding a hotel around the edge of the city, where it’s much more likely that you will have free parking included. Ideally, try to find a hotel that is close to the M25 motorway, but also one that close to a railway station with fast access to central London.
Good places to look would include:
Edge of London (within M25)
- Watford (fast access to London Euston), Harrow, Wembley^
- West Ham, Barking or Upminster.
- Lewisham (New Cross v Catford).
- Redhill, Sutton, Croydon.
^Wembley has seen a huge increase in the number of hotels since the opening of the newly revamped Wembley stadium. Prices rise sharply when there is an event on at either the stadium or the adjacent arena, but then become very reasonable at other times. Parking is also usually not a problem when there are no events on. You also have a choice of three stations for fast access not just to London, but throughout the Chilterns and the south and West Midlands.
Near London (outside M25)
- Milton Keynes*
- Ebbsfleet or Ashford
- High Wycombe
- Didcot, Bedford, Luton
*These places are new towns where you can often find very good value hotels with free parking and easy access to central London by non stop (or very limited stop) fast train. However, they will only usually have a fairly limited choice of car hire options, so your best bet will usually be to pick up a rental car when you arrive at the airport, and then to drive it direct to your hotel and keep it there during your stay. Even if you end up having a couple of days when you don’t use your car, this will probably still be much better value than hiring a car in the town, or in the London area.
Is it worth renting a car in London even for backpackers, students and other travellers who are on an extremely tight budget?
Yes, because the UK rail network can be so expensive for visitors to use, you might well find that it is cheaper to hire a car to get to certain places, especially if there are 3 or 4 of you travelling together so you can fill the car.
Almost all of your motoring costs are going to be the same, regardless of how many people are travelling, whereas public transport fares will almost always be charged on an individual basis. At best, if there are 3 or more of you travelling together, you may get a 1/3 discount with some rail companies. Petrol in the UK is relatively expensive compared to most other European countries, but the overall cost of travelling by car can actually be quite reasonable, because you will rarely have to pay for road tolls, and in most places there are relatively few parking restrictions.
However, if you are mainly looking for a way to get to other major UK cities outside London, then this will usually be far cheaper by bus, rather than train. Coach services in and out of London usually use Victoria coach station, with some services, such as the Oxford tube, running as often as every 10 minutes. Most coach services will also offer free Wi-Fi and other conveniences, but generally they are very slow compared to the train, because of the amount of time it takes to get between central London and the motorway network.
Absolutely not! The closer you get to central London, the better the public transport gets, and the harder you’ll find it to park. There really is no reason to want to drive into the congestion zone, unless you really do need to have a car for some very specific reason.
No, absolutely not – public transport in London is very good by global standards, whereas London’s roads are amongst the most congested in Europe.
The two major downsides of using public transport in the London area are the cost and the inconvenience of having to use so many different railway stations to get to different places, since there is no central station in London.
If you are wanting to visit several different destinations on day trips from London, then it’s best to stay near a tube station that is well connected to all of the major London stations. If you can’t actually stay around one of the major termini (there are tons of hotels around Paddington or around Victoria or King’s Cross), then tube stations like Baker Street, Earls Court or Stratford International are exceptionally well connected to most of the major stations.
The best way to reduce the cost of train travel to other cities outside London is simply to wait until a little bit later in the morning and take an off-peak train. Cheaper train fares are usually available after around 10 AM. Sometimes your best bet will to buy a cheap day return ticket (sometimes labelled off-peak), or in some cases it will be better to book in advance ticket. These are usually a better option for places which are slightly further away, such as Bristol or Birmingham.
Actually, you just might!
London has so much to offer for people who are interested in engineering heritage, and the tube, the taxis, the red buses and the rail termini themselves are all a huge part of everything London has to offer.
There are also a huge number of film, literary and musical connections related to London stations, from Paddington (Bear) through to Sherlock Holmes and Baker Street and then more recently to Harry Potter at King’s Cross.
The one thing you won’t find within the London area is a heritage steam railway. This is hardly surprising, because very few of the railway lines around the capital have ever been closed off, and the few that have been have generally been turned into greenways.
The U.K.’s longest heritage railway is the Severn Valley line, which starts from Kidderminster in Worcestershire. You can easily make a day trip of this, and you can get direct trains to the start of the line from London Marylebone. You can sometimes take a faster connection by taking Virgin Trains to Birmingham and then changing there.
There are also some truly amazing heritage railway experiences in West Wales. For these, you’ll need to take a fast train to Birmingham International first, and then change for regional services there. However, in some of these cases, you might find that getting to these heritage railways by train can actually be quite slow. If you want to leave London early in the morning on a weekday, it can be very expensive.
In this kind of situation, and if you also want to experience some of the amazing countryside that you’ll find around the places where these railways are operating, then you might, and we would stress you might just want to consider hiring a car beforehand.
For more information on heritage railways, please see a few more suggestions on our car hire advice pages for Birmingham (Severn Valley and West Wales), Liverpool (North Wales) and Leeds (Settle and Carlisle, North Yorks Moors line).
I usually like driving if I can – so should i hire a car in London?
In London, no; elsewhere – yes.
Why you shouldn’t hire a car in central London
It doesn’t matter how much you like driving, it’s really not worth hiring a car for visiting anywhere in the Greater London area. Even though you’ll see that there is still plenty of traffic in London, and there are still a lot of people who will still drive in the city, even with the congestion charge, it’s much more likely that locals will still continue to drive when they’ve already got a car and probably at least somewhere at home to park it.
Hiring a car and driving it in central London just means endless hassle – it’s a hassle to pick it up, it’s a hassle to drive it, and then it’s a hassle to park it. London has some of the worst congestion levels in Europe, and this congestion typically extends right out to and beyond the M25 motorway, often colloquially known as Europe’s largest car park!
Why it’s still worth driving outside London
Once you start looking outside London or outside the area enclosed within the M25 motorway, then the rest of south-east England is by no means any kind of driving nirvana, but there are still some great places to go for a spin.
Popular places to visit within range of a day trip from London include the Cotswolds region to the north-west or the South Downs National Park to the south. However, the U.K.’s best driving roads are some way beyond London. If you want to experience the Lake District or any of the other national parks in northern England, then you might well be much better off taking a fast train out to somewhere like Oxenholme or Carlisle and then hiring a car there. You might want to visit cities like Liverpool or Manchester first, and then to pop out to any of the airports in northern England and hire a car there. This is where you’ll generally find the cheapest UK car hire deals.
You may also find that for the ultimate driving experience in the UK, you actually want to head up to the Highlands of Scotland, in which case your best bet would be to fly up to Inverness.
See also our respective city guides for Edinburgh and Glasgow for a few more ideas about driving in Scotland.
I am mainly interested in architecture and urban/cultural attractions – should I still hire a car in London?
No, not at all – even if you are interested in visiting architectural and cultural places of interest which are in suburban London, for example Kew Gardens or Kenwood House, then in nearly all cases, your find they’ll be much quicker to visit these places by tube.
Possibly, but this will depend on how far away from London you are looking to travel. The nearest major National Park to London is the South Downs, an area where it canbe useful to have a car, but you can still manage without one.
If you want to go hiking along any of the coastlines around London, and especially if you want to walk in areas around the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head, which is between the town of Seaford and Eastbourne, or if you want to walk around the White Cliffs of Dover, then these locations are actually very accessible by train. However, you may simply prefer the convenience of having a car to go here, especially as you will also have a much wider choice of places to go hiking.
If you are interested in landscapes which are much further from London, but which can still be reached within the range of an extended day trip from the capital, then having a hire car is probably going to be very useful. In particular, your find that it’s much easier to appreciate any of the Welsh landscapes or anywhere around western England or the south-west if you have a hire car, and it’s also generally the best bet for visiting the Peak District National Park.
However, in virtually all cases, you’ll still find that you will be able to find some decent hiking routes if you visit these places by train, for example if you take a fast train to Derby and then a local train on the Derwent Valley line towards Matlock, there are plenty of hiking opportunities from there.
2 – if you are in a situation where you are comparing hiring a car in London with heading out of the city by train, and in particular if you want to leave London reasonably early in the morning, then you might well find that even with just 2 people in the car, it could still be much better value than going by train.
Generally, the roads in the UK are very safe by international standards, and recent statistics have shown that the UK is 2nd only to Sweden in terms of overall road fatalities per kilometre travelled. However, this seemingly admirable safety record does not extend to pedestrians or cyclists, who get a very raw deal when compared to Scandinavia or the Netherlands.
Irrespective of safety, we would just generally advise anyone to avoid driving in London if they possibly can, simply because of the high levels of traffic and because of the costs and hassles of paying the congestion charge and for parking.
However, when it comes to driving in the “home counties” outside central London, driving here is similar to driving anywhere else in the UK. Compared to many other continental European countries, it’s probably fair to say that you won’t have the same problems with aggressive tailgating, but driving here is generally more aggressive then you might expect in North America.
Rental cars in the UK will have manual transmission by default, but you should still have no problem finding an automatic car. These are usually slightly higher performance models, so you can end up paying much more than you would for a simple economy rental.
Generally, roadside services and facilities in the UK are extremely good.
Do I need a rental car if I am flying into London airport but staying in another destination outside London?
Possibly, but this will really depend not just on where you are staying, but also on which London airport you are flying into.
With 6 different London airports each having their own different public transport access, it’s very difficult to generalise about whether or not you need a car if you are flying into London but then actually staying in another destination.
(Going around clockwise from Cambridge)
Cambridge – this city has a very high standard of public transport and it’s also the U.K.’s leading cycling city, and it’s a pain to drive here. You’ll find decent direct coach services to Stansted, Luton and Heathrow airports, otherwise look at train connections for other airports or arrival points.
Brighton – the main resort area is actually very densely developed, and it’s also a quick one hour train ride from central London. Your best option here is to fly into Gatwick airport, which is halfway between London and Brighton, but there is little need to hire a car, and you’ll find that parking and congestion are comparible with suburban London.
Bournemouth/Southampton/Isle of Wight – a hire car can be very useful in the rural areas around the Solent region, but to appreciate the New Forest National Park, it’s actually better to hire a bicycle or to go hiking there. It’s very easy to get to many locations by train or bus, especially via Ringwood/Brockenhurst? Slow train connections to the south coast are available direct from Gatwick airport, whereas you can usually join trains from Waterloo with a bus connection from Heathrow to Woking.
Bristol/Bath – there is a huge amount to see in the cities by staying on foot, using local public transport or using some of the truly world-class cycling routes which are available from Bath. It’s also a very fast train link from Paddington, which is where you’ll also find the Heathrow airport express.
Cotswold region – generally, this is quite a rural part of England, so a hire car is extremely useful, but just bear in mind that everyone else thinks the same way in summer!
Oxford – as with Cambridge, there’s no point at all in hiring a car for staying in the city, but it’s useful if you also want to visit the Cotswolds. The Oxford tube express coach service also has regular fast and frequent direct links between Oxford and Heathrow airport, with many services also continuing to Gatwick airport.
Birmingham, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick Castle, Coventry and the Heart of England – all of the major point of interests can be reached by train, but public transport isn’t so good if you are trying to get between places. For example, Stratford-upon-Avon to Coventry is a very disjointed train connection typically taking an hour and 1/2, whereas the drive can be done in just over half an hour. A hire car is also extremely useful if you want to combine a visit to the Heart of England with the Cotswolds – especially with Stratford-upon-Avon being right on the edge of the Cotswolds. The standard of bus and train links to the West Midlands from London airports is really quite variable – see map below.
Nottingham/Derby/Leicester and the East Midlands – generally, public transport here is reasonable within the cities, but it’s quite poor in rural areas. For most of the Peak District National Park, you are going to be better off with a hire car, but the Derwent Valley line via Derby can be an extremely useful alternative.
Possibly, but this will depend a great deal on which places you have i mind to visit. Touring around some parts the UK by train will be good value if you can get a rover ticket, but these are rarely good value in south-east England, since the trains are usually very busy with commuters.
Although the UK rail network is heavily centred around London, cities like Brighton, Bristol, Exeter, Birmingham or Nottingham also have a good range of regional links which don’t involve going through London.
Absolutely – although it might not be the first thing on many people’s minds, London is actually a very good place from which to start a road trip around the UK. Generally, car hire in London isn’t bad value, especially if you hire a car at an airport location, rather than in central London.
Even though fuel prices in the UK are high by global standards, you will probably still find that you can do a road trip lasting a whole week, but without actually ever actually being more than a hundred miles or so from London. You’ll find that this is especially the case if you drive west towards Devon and Cornwall, or if you want to drive around the highly scenic but also very historic Cotswolds region.
I’m on a cruise ship which is docked at Southampton/Tilbury docks. I have one day to spend here – should I hire a car?
Almost certainly not – if you only have a very limited amount of time here, you might as well spend it by enjoying what you can in central London, so a hire car would be pointless. The train link from Tilbury to London Fenchurch is slow, but it’s still quicker than driving! you may simply prefer to take a coach tour.
Southampton docks are very close to the city centre and the main railway station, which has fast links to London. Neither Tilbury nor Southampton docks make for a good place to rent a car, as there just isn’t enough regular demand, but both have plenty of options nearby.
Possibly, but you might find that the one-way rental fee is expensive, relative to the actual distance you want to go. For example, let’s say that you are looking at whether it’s worth hiring a car in London but then dropping it off in Birmingham. If the one-way rental fee is £75, then you’ll probably find that it would be cheaper just to return it back to London and then to continue onwards to Birmingham by coach or train.
Yes! This might not be an option that many people would consider, especially given the fuel prices in the UK, but the extra costs of motoring associated with a camper can sometimes be offset by not having to worry about accommodation. However, this is really going to depend on where you have in mind to visit. If your idea of seeing the best of England includes visiting scenic locations like the Cotswolds or some of the attractions of Devon and Cornwall, then you might not be too worried about having a camper when you’re driving on the motorway, but you might seriously regret it once you have start driving around narrow country lanes.