Know Before You Go: Renting a Car in Scotland

by Keith Savage · 37 comments


A rental car in Shetland

At this point in my travels, driving is my favorite activity in Scotland. Nothing beats the feeling of the open road, of exploring tiny farm tracks winding through glens and along windswept beaches to far-flung ruins. Having the opportunity to pull over and appreciate a breath-taking view for as long as you want is priceless. Traveling by car slows down trips, opens them up to serendipity, and allows you to move where you want, when you want. Intrigued by a sign? Follow it. Curious where that tiny gravel road leads? Follow it. Intent on exploring the coast? Follow it. These are things you simply cannot do without a car.

I do not mean to denigrate other forms of travel. Scotland’s public transportation system is quite good (and growing!), but using it has inherent limitations: You must adhere to the timetables and you can only go where they go. For some visitors, this rigidity isn’t an issue. Their destinations lie along public transit routes, and they’re happy to be free of the worry of finding their own way. However, there will come a time during that trip where you’ll wish you could just get a little further into the mountains or toward the coast or to that distillery.

Have I sold you on the idea of driving yet? I’ll put it plainly: I recommend renting a car in Scotland. Now let’s talk about some of the nitty-gritty.

The “Wrong” Side of the Road

Many first-time visitors to Scotland are intimidated by the idea of driving on the “wrong” side of the road and the “wrong” side of the car, and I felt the same way on my first visit to the British Isles. That’s normal and good. A little anxiety at the beginning makes you a sharp and defensive driver. The truth is that it’s really the first 15 minutes of driving that’s scary. After that, your subconscious adjusts to the flow of traffic and you won’t even consider turning right into a roundabout. By the end of that first day with the car you’ve got it and it’s no longer a worry. By the end of the trip? You won’t know how you would’ve lived without it.

Driving Requirements

There are some limitations for renting a car. First, you must be at least 23 years old and have held a valid driver’s license in your home country for at least 12 months. If you are 23 or 24, you may be restricted to renting certain cars and may incur a small surcharge, depending on the agency you choose. If you’re older than 75, agencies may require a recent doctor’s note stating that you are fit to drive.

A driver’s license is the other requirement. You do not need an international driver’s license. For non-EU visitors, your domestic driver’s license allows you to drive in Scotland for up to a year provided it is in English or has an English translation. You must also have a valid passport. If an English translation is not available then an international driving permit suffices. EU visitors need only their domestic driver’s license and a passport or ID card.

Automatic vs. Manual Transmission

This is personal preference. However, automatic transmission cars always cost more and there are generally fewer of them in any given agency’s fleet. What you get for that extra cost is one less thing to worry about — shifting with your left hand. Before you get too worried, while you are driving from the right side of the car and shifting with your left hand, the shifting pattern is not reversed. The good news is that most of Scotland’s roads are not busy, which provides you the time and breathing room to get accustomed to driving a manual.

GPS vs. Maps

This is tricky. You see, I’ve never used GPS (anywhere, really) and I’ve heard it can be unreliable up in the highlands. You can purchase GPS with your rental, but it is an added expense. I use a really good paper map, a Collins Britain Road Atlas I got in Scotland, that has four miles to every inch. The night before a drive I use Google Maps to sketch out my route, make some notes on my phone, and just get a feel for where I’m going. While I’m on the road I use the road atlas. I’ve never gotten lost and this system works well for me.

Excess…?

When you rent a car the contract will mention an ‘excess,’ meaning deductible, that you must pay in the event the car is damaged or stolen. In my experience, this number is usually between £500-£1000. So, for example, if you have a fender bender that resulted in £1500 in repairs, and your excess was £750, you pay £750 and the remainder is covered by the rental company. Most agencies try to sell you on the excess waiver, meaning they waive the excess, dropping what you would pay in the event of an accident to £0, at the cost of an extra daily charge. I choose not to purchase the excess waiver mainly to save money but also because I’ve never had an accident (the one time my car was damaged was on my first trip to Europe – the wind in Ireland slammed my car door into a metal post). However, purchasing the excess waiver may give you peace of mind, and that is important too.

Cost

The perceived cost of renting a car is often what turns visitors to public transportation. Renting a car is usually not the cheapest option, but you will be surprised how comparable it is to purchasing train tickets and train passes. The class and transmission of the car is the primary determinant of cost, and I always get the smallest car possible to keep costs low. Petrol (read: gas) is significantly more expensive in Scotland than America, and they also sell it by the liter rather than the gallon. However, cars have much better gas mileage than their American counterparts, you have shorter distances to drive in general, and the overall cost of petrol winds up being similar to a trip within the USA. It won’t break the bank. What you end paying for over public transportation is the freedom and serendipity I mentioned above.

Driving in Scotland is a pleasure. By and large, the roads are good, the drivers are good (far better than most American drivers), and the signs are good. Rent a car for your next trip to Scotland.

I’ve used Celtic Legend for my car rentals for 10 years and have no complaints. If you contact them for a car, please tell them Traveling Savage sent you. Disclosure: I receive a commission from Celtic Legend for each rental.


SheilaNo Gravatar February 6, 2017 at 2:57 PM

Thank you, Keith
I will look into Celtic Legend,
Sheila

SheilaNo Gravatar February 5, 2017 at 5:54 PM

Hi Keith
My husband and I are visiting the UK in May. We want to hire a car at Waverley station, Edinburgh and drop it off in Berwick-on-Tweed but my attempts to find out if this is feasible have proved fruitless. Failing Berwick, we could drop it off in Dumfries. Would you know either of these options can be done or would we have to return to Edinburgh to return the car?
We are from Australia so used to driving on the left and we have visited Scotland and driven around it before.
Thanks in advance,
Sheila

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 6, 2017 at 9:06 AM

Hi Sheila. It depends on the rental agency and where they have offices. A place like Celtic Legend would accommodate dropping off the car in Dumfries. I think you’ll be hard pressed to find a company with drop-off in Berwick-on-Tweed.

KatieNo Gravatar February 1, 2017 at 6:53 PM

Hi Keith,

I’m going to be travelling to Scotland in a few weeks and am hesitant about driving, after hearing about the single-track roads. What has your experience been with these types of roads?

Cheers,
Katie

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 2, 2017 at 8:26 AM

You will find single-track roads in many places throughout the highlands. Thankfully, Scotland’s backroads aren’t teeming with hordes of drivers. These single-track roads have little pull-off places in regular intervals so if you find yourself coming head-to-head with another car one of you can pull over. Flash your headlights to let the other driver know they can proceed. It’s generally not an issue because Scottish drivers are, by and large, very good and courteous. Nothing to fear!

Jeanette HillisNo Gravatar January 18, 2017 at 2:25 PM

Hi Keith . Every time I read your posts we find another place we want to visit !!! We will have 22 days 10 of which will be spent on the outer Hebrides . and 2 in Edinburgh leaving us 10 days to choose places to visit we are thinking 5 days to go from Ed. to Invernes , over to Skye taking the ferry from Uig to N. Uist thon return from the Hebrides spend 3 days on Skye leaving 2 days to get back to Ed. do. you have any suggestions for routes and stops to Inverness should we do a night by night or choose a central spot and do day trips also on our last 2 days would we have time to drive down to Mul and back to Ed if too far how about a stop around Glencoe for a day < we thought we had a nice chunk of time but keep finding new places would we have time to drive to Mul and back to Ed in two days or too hectic what about spending a day around Glencoe ? we like history /walking/hiking meeting people bird watching and my husband is a scotch drinker so want to tour a couple of distilleries The time on The Hebrides will be searching for Ancestors and exploring the home land of my Grandparents Maybe we are spending a couple days too long there ? We will be renting a car . from other sites I have visited it seems it will be ok to book our B & Bs a day or two ahead except Ed or very popular places any suggestions will be welcomed

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 18, 2017 at 3:37 PM

Hi Jeanette,

I do like spending the two days from Skye to Edinburgh in the western highlands (aka Lochaber). Lots of great hiking and natural beauty in the region.

AlisonNo Gravatar January 14, 2017 at 11:34 AM

How is the company with picking up in one location and dropping off in another? We would likely start out in Inverness, do the Orkneys and east coast and end up in Edinburgh.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 15, 2017 at 8:15 AM

If you’re talking about Celtic Legend, they are completely amenable to picking up the car in one location and dropping it off in another. There’s a list of pick-up/drop-off locations on their site. Note that there is a small charge to do this.

SimNo Gravatar January 2, 2017 at 3:11 PM

Great article. I was looking at some small cheap cars to rent, but I am worried that they have small engines and driving in the hilly Highlands will be problematic. Do you have experience with this?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 2, 2017 at 3:37 PM

I generally get the smallest car that fits the group I’m traveling with. I’ve had quite small cars and never encountered any problems with getting around the highlands. There are very few truly high passes with crazy slopes in Scotland. Perhaps that’s a credit to Scottish civil engineering.

CoreyNo Gravatar January 9, 2017 at 1:35 PM

Hello Keith, Celtic Legend rentals seem great, however we are starting our road trip to Scotland from Gatwick… any great car rental to get us up through Scotland and back with a big smile and not crazy damage to our wallets?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 9, 2017 at 2:06 PM

Hi Corey. Unfortunately I don’t have a favorite recommendation other than to check out Arnold Clark. Perhaps others might chime in.

CoreyNo Gravatar January 10, 2017 at 7:22 AM

Thanks Keith, will do. We are planning on driving up from England and all around Argyll and Bute…anything you would say definitely don’t miss? 🙂 Cheers.

WendyNo Gravatar October 7, 2016 at 9:57 AM

Hi Keith!
Back in 2010 I reserved a rental car, and pre-paid for it. I wanted to be sure to get an automatic. When we arrived to pick it up, we were charged huge fees – it was like paying for the car twice. I’ll be going back next month and expect to use a rental car for much of our 2-week stay. This time we won’t need an automatic, which I understand will be less expensive. What advice do you have regarding reserving and pre-paying for cars vs. getting a car while we are there? Do we need to worry about availability? What should I know about fees ahead of time?
Thank you for your help!
-Wendy

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 7, 2016 at 11:28 PM

Hi Wendy. My advice is to book through Celtic Legend. I’ve used them for 10 years now and never had a problem like the one you’ve described. Willie is great to work with!

daryl craigNo Gravatar October 27, 2016 at 3:03 PM

Hi Keith,

FYI Just to inform your readers that Celtic Legend car rental no longer as of October 2016, will let you take cars from Scotland to Northern Ireland, do to their insurance carrier having new restrictions. This is a bummer for us because we always visit both sides. Hope this helps some of your customers that want to visit Northern Ireland.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 28, 2016 at 8:37 AM

Thanks a ton for sharing that information here, Daryl!!

LisaNo Gravatar July 10, 2016 at 3:50 PM

Keith- researching a trip to Scotland, trying to decide how long to stay and came across your site. Parts 1,2,3,4 all great reading. I pulled out my Europe road atlas so I could follow along while reading. Right now, I am planning on visiting end of August 2017 through early September to hit the very end of the Edinburgh Tattoo for a couple days before heading out to the highlands in a rented car, ending up back in Edinburgh for several days without the crowds before heading home.

I came across an article on the BBC about the North Coast 500 (https://www.northcoast500.com/home.aspx) and plan on that as it sounds fantastic. If you’ve done this (or similar) would be interested in how long you’d plan for this drive with stops. I hadn’t thought about the Orkney Islands but after reading your recommendations, I hope I can fit this in while completing this road trip.

I was just going to plan two weeks but now thinking I am going to plan for three. Your details are going to be a great help. Thanks for the excellent write up.

I was going to focus on the area north of Edinburgh, you mention the lowlands but other than saying you hadn’t spent a lot of time here, was wondering if there is anything “must see”. I’ve thought about going down to see Hadrian’s Wall but most comments I see on other sites say really not worth the time.

Thanks again, Keith.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 11, 2016 at 6:52 PM

Hi Lisa,

I just did the North Coast 500 last month. I had incredible weather and the scenery was mind-blowing. How fast you can do the NC500 depends on your travel style. The drive has a very good website with itineraries, one of which has you completing it in just 5 days! Now that seems a bit fast for my tastes. I recommend 1-2 weeks. Focus your time on Wester Ross and the coasts of Sutherland.

To the south of Edinburgh you’ll find the Scottish Borders and Dumfries & Galloway. Both amazing, under-touristed regions. I like the Border Abbeys around Melrose/Kelso/Jedburgh. Lovely places. Sweetheart Abbey, Caerlaverock Castle, Threave Castle, and Kirkcudbright are just a few places in D&G worth visiting.

LaurenNo Gravatar May 20, 2016 at 3:09 AM

I agree, a car rental for a multi-stop trip through Scotland’s highlands is key, but if you’re only in the country for a week and not headed into the back country, perhaps not. We rented a car for our 3 week trip last fall, and it was worth it; thankfully it was a new vehicle with built in gps. I found the gps worked well in the highlands, but not so much on the more secluded Isles, map & gps were the best combo!
Lastly, in my experience, Celtic Legend essentially equals Arnold Clark Car Rentals. I followed your advice on my first trip to Scotland, but in the future I would book with the source of where the vehicles actually come from. Booking with the later appeared to be an unnecessary step in the car rental process.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar May 20, 2016 at 8:33 AM

Good info. I like Celtic Legend because they usually have the best prices and I like supporting small businesses.

MariaNo Gravatar May 15, 2016 at 6:18 PM

I was told driving north of Inverness and up along the coast there are only one lane roads. Is this true? If so who has the right of way? I’m a fairly good driver but I’m concerned because I’ll be solo. I plan on traveling in the fall.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar May 15, 2016 at 6:28 PM

Hi Maria,

This is partially true. There are many single-lane roads up in the highlands, but there are little pull-over spots everywhere to allow traffic to go both ways. My rule of thumb is to pull over when I see a car coming toward me. If they do the same and flash their headlights, that means they’re waiting for me. It’s really not much of an issue, and there are surprisingly few blind turns. The main road leading north from Inverness is the A9 and that is most certainly *not* a single-lane road.

Susan DukesNo Gravatar April 27, 2016 at 4:45 PM

Hi, Keith. We booked through Willie at Celtic Legend (via Arnold Clarke) but I didn’t know of your connection with him! He seems very personable and has worked with me a lot (finding the biggest BOOT – LOL.) Additionally, I think it’s wonderful that all four of our travelers can be on the approved driving list at no extra cost!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 27, 2016 at 5:01 PM

He’s really great and super helpful. Often comments here, too!

Marianne AlsopNo Gravatar April 27, 2016 at 3:05 PM

We just returned from our 2 weeks in the Highlands…with a rented car. Absolutely no problems and agree with you about not taking the excess waiver…our credit card covered our insurance costs but it’s good to call your credit card provider and make sure. Best to let one person drive, that will save a lot of money…and don’t take the gas option!
We had a fabulous time thanks to your suggestions and help…can’t wait to go again!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 27, 2016 at 3:41 PM

Excellent points, Marianne. Thanks for sharing them and glad to hear your trip was wonderful!

AshleyNo Gravatar February 12, 2017 at 10:16 PM

I have been trying to figure out why you would need the excess waiver if your credit card company has an auto rental policy? our credit company has an auto rental collision damage waiver that covers physical damage and/or theft of the covered rental vehicle, valid loss of use charges imposed and substantiated by the rental company, reasonable and customary towing charges due to covered theft or damage to the nearest repair facility. It instructs you to waive the CDW at the auto rental facility. I’m not sure what more the excess would give you and have been really confused about whether I need the excess protection. Any insight? Thanks!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 13, 2017 at 8:13 AM

Hi Ashley. Sounds like your credit card has you covered and there’s no need to pay extra to reduce the deductible.

BrianNo Gravatar April 27, 2016 at 11:44 AM

Keith: While our planned 15-day trip to Scotland last year never panned out, I continue to enjoy your posts very much. Today’s, about whether to rent a car or use public transportation, was one that I had struggled with in my planning. The one issue you didn’t address that impacted my leanings was the limited, or no, ‘on site’ parking that is mentioned on so many of the B&B / house / cottage websites. Granted this was only in the inner town / cities, but it was an factor for me… not enough to change my mind about renting a car (which I would have done), but one that made me look closely at the B&B’s or cottages at which I hoped to stay. Did you ever run into ‘in town’ parking issues?

Thanks again. I have shared your blog with a friend who is heading to Scotland in August of this year and she is enjoying the wealth of information you share as well.
Brian

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 27, 2016 at 12:27 PM

That’s a great point, Brian. Parking and driving through cities and even small towns can be tight. This slipped my mind because I rarely stay in town, but it’s worth checking with your accommodation to verify they provide parking.

Thanks!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 10, 2017 at 8:39 AM

Argyll & Bute is a vast region, but some of my favorites include Kilmartin Glen, The Fairy Bridge of Glen Creran, the Isle of Mull and Staffa, and Islay for whisky.

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