Car

Many visitors find driving in Britain challenging, considering that people drive on the left side of the often disconcertingly narrow roads, many rental cars have standard transmissions, and the gearshift is on the "wrong" side entirely.

There's no reason to rent a car for a stay in London because the city and its suburbs are well served by public transportation and traffic is desperately congested. Here and in other major cities it's best to rely on public transportation.

Outside the cities, a car can be very handy. Many sights aren’t easily reached without one—castles, for example, are rarely connected to any public transportation system. Small villages might have only one or two buses a day pass through them. If you’re comfortable on the road, driving between the tall hedgerows on a country road is a truly English experience.

Your own driver's license is acceptable in England. However, you may choose to get an International Driving Permit (IDP), which can only be used in conjunction with a valid driver's license and is valid in 175 countries. Check the Automobile Association of America website for more info as well as to apply for an IDP ($20). These permits are universally recognized, and having one in your wallet may save you a problem with the local authorities.

Gasoline

Gasoline is called petrol in England and is sold by the liter. The price you see posted at a petrol station is the price of a liter, and there are about 4 liters in a U.S. gallon. Petrol is expensive; it was around £1.27 per liter, or $2 per liter, at the time of this writing. Supermarket pumps just outside city centers frequently offer the best prices. Premium and superpremium are the two varieties, and most cars run on premium. Diesel has been widely used although it is now being phased out; be sure not to use it by mistake. Electric charging stations are still few and far between outside of cities, but the infrastructure is being boosted. Along busy motorways, most large stations are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In rural areas, hours can vary. Most service stations accept major credit cards, and most are self-service.

Parking

Parking regulations are strictly enforced, and fines are high. If there are no signs on a street, you can park there, but be sure to check carefully—signs may be far from the actual space. Some streets still have centralized "pay and display" machines, in which you deposit the required money and get a ticket allowing you to park for a set period of time, although these are increasingly being replaced by a pay-by-phone plan, enabling you to pay by cell phone if you've preregistered. In town centers your best bet is to park in a public lot marked with a square blue sign with a white "P" in the center.

If you park on the street, follow these basic rules: Do not park within 15 yards of an intersection. Never park in bus lanes or on double yellow lines, and do not park on single yellow lines when parking meters are in effect. On busy roads with red lines painted on the street you cannot park or stop to let a passenger out of the car.

Rentals

Rental rates are generally reasonable, and insurance costs are lower than in the United States. If you are renting the car for a trip to the countryside, consider picking up outside London. Rates are cheaper, and you avoid having to navigate London's notoriously complex road system. Rental rates vary widely, beginning at £44 a day and £82 a week for a midsize car, usually with manual transmission. As in the United States, prices rise in summer and during holidays. Car seats for children cost £8 per day, and GPS is usually around £10 per day. You can also arrange for cell phone hire or a portable Wi-Fi hot spot with your rental.

Major car-rental agencies are much the same in Britain as in the United States: Alamo, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz, Thrifty, and Dollar all have offices in Britain. Europcar and Sixt are other large companies. Companies may not rent cars to people who are under 23. Some have an upper age limit of 75.

Road Conditions

There's a good network of major highways (motorways) and divided highways (dual carriageways) throughout most of England. Motorways (with the prefix "M"), shown in blue on most maps, are mainly two or three lanes in each direction. Other major roads (with the prefix "A") are shown on maps in green and red. Sections of fast dual carriageways (with black-edged, thick outlines on maps) have both traffic lights and traffic circles. Turnoffs are often marked by highway exit numbers, rather than place names. An exit is called a junction in Britain.

The vast network of lesser roads, for the most part old coach and turnpike roads, might make your trip twice as long but show you twice as much. Minor roads are drawn in yellow or white on maps, the former prefixed by "B," the latter unlettered and unnumbered. Should you take one of these, be prepared to back up into a passing place if you meet an oncoming car.

Roadside Emergencies

If you run into trouble, contact your car-rental company or call the police. You can also call the British Automobile Association (AA) toll-free. You can join and receive assistance from the AA on the spot, but the charge is higher than a simple membership fee. If you’re a member of the American Automobile Association, check before you travel; reciprocal agreements may give you free roadside aid.

Some British highways are experimenting with a concept called "smart motorways" where the hard shoulder is used as an extra driving lane to absorb traffic and which can supposedly be closed off as soon as CCTV cameras notice a car stopped on one. If you break down on the motorway, you should try to get to an emergency area equipped with a free SOS phone and call for help. If you can't make it to an emergency area, stop on the hard shoulder but be aware it may be a working lane, so move away from the vehicle and call emergency services immediately. The experiment has not been a success and the policy is under review. If you have to stop on a mixed-use hard shoulder, use extreme caution.

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