Why is it that friends are full of sound advice – except for the practical advice that you could actually use? Take for instance, the advice I received before my first trip to Scotland and Ireland where I would be driving on the other side of the road. Most of my experienced predecessors simply said, “It’s just like driving in the U.S.–except it’s on the other side.”
I am here to tell you, from a bevy of unpleasant experiences and close calls with cliffs and double-decker busses — the advice I received was not helpful at all.
So, let me set the record straight and fill in the blanks: Driving in the UK (specifically, Scotland and Ireland) is NOTHING like driving in the U.S.
If you go—–here’s MY advice:
Get a GPS! Don’t walk out of the rental car office without a GPS. A map just doesn’t cut it while you try to navigate everything around you. There are no intersections. Instead, they use roundabouts (I’ll get to this next..) and streets are not clearly labeled so you will waste a lot of time getting lost with only a map.
Watch out for that roundabout! And, the next one and the next one and the next one! The plus side to the eternal roundabout systems that exist in Scotland and Ireland is that traffic never stops. The down side to them, is traffic never stops.
Let me paint this picture for you: you’re driving on the right side of the car, on the left side of the road, looking right for traffic as you turn left (not right) into the 3 lane swirling roundabout. Then, you have to read the signs quickly and dump out in the correct lane where you are suddenly launched into another roundabout.
Some roundabouts are so large that it is easy to forget you are still in one. Some have center structures and gardens. Other roundabouts are so small they are literally around one pole. No matter where you are driving, you can plan to funnel through back to back roundabouts.
2-lane roads. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it does take awhile to adjust to the spacial perspective when driving on the other side of the car and opposite side of the road. Headlights coming toward you on small roads feel like a head-on collisions in progress. Nighttime driving is especially challenging since you simply see fewer things. Add to that, wet roads on many days and icy roads in the Scottish Highlands and it truly requires a lot of concentration to drive.
I did find that the highways in both Scotland and Ireland were very well marked with signage making long distance travel out of the main cities fairly comfortable. Ireland has many double-lane highways in each direction whereas Scotland has mostly two lanes for all traffic.
OOPS, the car doesn’t take diesel! This is one of those tips that would’ve been really helpful to have before I left home. Late at night driving in Ireland, and almost out of gas, I veered into a gas station and had a critical decision to make: Unleaded or Diesel?
The rental car company (Dan Dooley rental cars) never explained anything on the rental, namely what kind of fuel to use. Instead, they handed us the keys and said have a good time. There were no signs on the car ,or inside the car explaining what kind of fuel to use. The sticker inside the gas tank door had so much garble on it–we still couldn’t tell for sure.
A local woman, in an attempt to be helpful, said it would take diesel. As my friend filled the tank, I finally remembered to check the owners manual. To my horror —it said ONLY use unleaded!!!! With a tank full of diesel -we now had a BIG problem and one that was not covered by our car insurance. A fuel pump company had to come out–siphon the tank — and then we had to refill the tank with the proper fuel. This resulted in a $500 problem that was completely avoidable.
I was told by Dan Dooley rental cars that it was my fault for not asking questions despite their rushed service rep who just handed over the keys.
Heed this advice: do not leave the rental car company until you fully understand your vehicle. Do not allow the person handing you the keys to walk away because they are in a hurry. If anything happens (which cost me a lot of money to find out) it’s YOUR problem. Needless to say, I will not be using Dan Dooley rental cars during my next visit there as there are other companies available. While the mistake was ours, I believe rental car companies bear a responsibility for the safety of their clients to make sure they are comfortable and ready for the road in a foreign country. It is bad practice and bad customer service to treat stranded clients so poorly and offer nothing more than a “sucks to be you and it’s your own fault” response to a call for help.
On the contrary, I had a much different experience with Enterprise rental car in Edinburgh, Scotland. Enterprise had an associate in the car with me as I practiced navigating turns, roundabouts, lanes and unfamiliar lights and signs on the car lot and side roads. They made sure I was comfortable with the laws and driving before they ever cut me loose on the roads. THAT’s how is should be done.
Coming home. Here’s something else that would’ve been actual helpful advice — be careful when you return home and drive. Eventually, you learn to adjust to driving on the opposite side of the road in the UK so that every mile isn’t a white-knuckle experience. But, just when you get comfortable, you come home.
I recommend doing a few short neighborhood drives just to remind your brain of spacial references and to readjust. It sounds silly, but I wish someone had told me that before I jumped back into my normal routine at home. It might have saved me from the mirror I peeled off of my car on someone’s trash can.
You live and learn, right? If nothing else, my tough lessons on the road in Scotland and Ireland have provided me with actual sound advice to pass along to the next person beyond “it’s just like driving in the U.S. except on the other side.”