If you’re planning to spend some time in Scotland, renting a car is a great option. Not only does it give you the freedom and flexibility to travel how and when you want, but also allows you to visit parts of this fantastic country that are difficult to reach any other way than on an organized tour.
The stunning panoramas that are seen so frequently in Scotland make driving in Scotland an enjoyable experience, as does the ability to stop off at small but incredibly gorgeous towns right around the country. But what do you need to know if you’re thinking of renting a car in Scotland? We reveal all after driving around on an epic road trip for almost three weeks!
What do you need to rent a car in Scotland?
Actually, the answer to ‘what do you need to rent a car in Scotland’ is – surprisingly – very little! As long as you hold a standard latin driving license, you can drive the same type of vehicle in Scotland without much other paperwork for up to a year. If your license is not in English, have a translation just in case. You also should be prepared to hand over your passport. Most of the time you do not need to apply for an international driving license or have a special permit.
You are also required to have insurance, something that can be organized by the rental agency, or with a US credit card (more on that later). There will be various options available to you so you’ll have to decide what you want to add on. If more than one person intends to share the driving, you’ll need that as an add-on too.
Legally speaking, that’s it, although most Scotland car rental companies will have a few additional rules you’ll have to agree to. For instance, most companies limit their rentals to those over the age of 21, with people aged between 21 and 24 required to pay a surcharge (due to the increased likelihood of an incident). Likewise, those over the age of 75 might face a surcharge for the same reason.
Car Rental Insurance
As mentioned above, if you have a US credit card, it’s possible you already have CDW insurance for rental car coverage and don’t know it! It’s worth it to check your documentation and call your credit card to find out. It’s even worth considering signing up to a new credit card that does offer this.
Bringing me to my next point – credit cards with primary rental insurance. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is my favorite travel credit card for many reasons, but the primary rental insurance is one of its best perks (including Priority Pass membership). When you put your car hire on your Chase Sapphire Reserve card you get primary rental car coverage around the world up to $75,000.
That works out great for us since we are nomadic and don’t have a car or home. Car rental companies in Scotland and around the world love to scare customers and upsell all their insurance packages. You need to make sure if you need it or not before falling victim to their trap. Call your credit card company and always find out before you get to Scotland.
If you don’t have a credit card that covers rental car insurance, it may be worth adding it on to your package. That way if there is an accident you won’t be stuck paying for a car hire out of pocket.
The cost of renting a car in Scotland
It’s now so easy to compare rental car prices online, you’ll find most of the big rental car companies have rates that end up being pretty close to one another; they keep an eye on the competitor’s prices, so they remain competitive themselves. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do a little shopping around.
Be careful when looking online, as rental companies have the tendency to use tricks to make prices look lower than they actually are. The main way they do this is by using a ‘from’ price, with the actual amount you’ll pay only revealed when you’re further into the booking process and they reckon you won’t bother giving up and going elsewhere. Another trick they have is to show the price excluding tax, which means you’ll have something in the region of a further 20% to add to the headline price on show.
Needless to say, the cost of a smaller car will be lower than renting a larger one. The fewer add-ons (extra drivers, GPS, etc.) you require, the cheaper it will be too. We talk more about this later in this article.
We traveled around Scotland for two weeks and paid about $300 for a car rental in Scotland, which was a pretty decent deal in my opinion! I generally like to check comparison sites so I can get the best prices. My favorites to look at are:
- RentalCars.com: Provides comparisons for car rentals in Scotland.
- AutoEurope: I can often find deals here for car rentals in Europe.
- Discover Car Hire: Searches rental car prices around the globe.
Booking a rental car in Scotland
These days, it’s really easy to book a rental car in Scotland before you arrive in the country. We think the benefits of doing this are huge. Not only are you ‘guaranteed’ the vehicle you’ve opted for, reducing stress levels, but you’ll be charged less for renting that same vehicle simply because you’ve pre-booked. Walking up and trying to book a car is one of the worst things you can do for your wallet.
If, for whatever reason, you are unable to pre-book, don’t worry! Rental agencies rarely run out of vehicles (and if they do, you can just pop next door to a competitor). However, it might mean there’s less choice – something worth bearing in mind if you have specific requirements, such as an automatic. You’ll also be charged a higher rate for exactly the same vehicle, and you’ll end up spending more time at the desk of the rental company rather than enjoying the start of your vacation. I always warn people to book at least 24 hours in advance for a car rental. You can see all my additional tips on renting a car abroad here.
Expect a hold charge on your credit card for your car hire
Every single one of our forty or so rental cars has put a hold on our credit card for the rental period. Holds can range anywhere from a few hundred bucks to $1000+ in some countries. The “excess charge” as it is called is typically stated in your reservation details, but it is easy to miss.
We are aware that they must put this hold on our card, but it can be a huge shocker if you are unsuspecting and end up over your credit limit on your credit card. These excess charges are for scenarios where you disappear with the car and are never seen again, or get in a crash and refuse to pay. Stuff like that.
Where to pick up your rental car in Scotland
If you’re flying straight into Scotland on a direct flight (rather than crossing the border overland from England, for example) the best place to pick up your rental car is at the airport.
Both Edinburgh and Glasgow Airports (those with direct flights from the US to Scotland) have good rental car facilities, with all the main companies represented. This is by far the best place to pick up your vehicle because it saves you the time and expense of having to get into the city center without your own transport (and probably some heavy luggage too). Even if there is an airport surcharge from the rental agency, I still generally find it worth it to rent from there.
However, should you need them (such as if you’ve traveled up from London by the Caledonian Express sleeper train), most of the main rental car companies also have offices in the city centers.
These city center offices are also a good option if you want to explore Scotland on a self-drive vacation before continuing your tour of the UK (Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) by other means. Just be aware that picking up your vehicle from one location and dropping it off at another (even in the same city) will likely end up costing you more.
Choosing the right rental car in Scotland for you
You’re going to want to opt for a smaller car when renting a car in Scotland. Why’s that? For one thing, depending on where you’ll be coming from you could be driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road – on the left-hand side of the road rather than the right, like in North America. That means the steering wheel is on the other side of the vehicle to what you may be used to, with the gear shift (in manual transmission vehicles) and parking brake on the opposite side to you as well.
So, the smaller the vehicle you have to control the better! That said, the pedals are in the same order as in the US, with the clutch on the left (for manual vehicles), foot brake in the middle, and gas pedal on the right.
The second reason to choose a smaller car when driving in Scotland as a visitor is because some of Scotland’s roads are pretty narrow! Away from the highways (called motorways and denoted by an ‘M’ designation) you’ll be surprised how quickly roads become rural, meaning a smaller vehicle is definitely better.
In some places (such as some of Scotland’s many islands and the North Coast 500 route), routes even narrow down to a single lane for both directions of traffic. In this case, you’ll find ‘passing places’ in which to pass each other.
Another thing you should consider when deciding on what rental car type to opt for is how many people and how much luggage you’ll have. Nippy two-door cars are great for getting about (and really easy to park) but don’t offer much leg room in the back if those seats are going to be used, and obviously also have less space in the trunk (called the boot in Scotland) for luggage.
Finally, you’ll have the option of a manual or automatic transmission vehicle. Manuals are by far the most common vehicles driven in Scotland, which means you’ll have a more extensive choice if you’re happy to drive one.
They also tend to be slighter cheaper to rent as a result. However, if you’re not happy driving a manual transmission and shifting gears yourself, automatics are available too. Just make sure you make this preference absolutely clear when booking.
Fuel choices in Scotland
Fuel choice shouldn’t be a significant factor in deciding what vehicle to rent in Scotland. Unlike in the US, diesel is just as easy to find as gas (called petrol). All gas stations (petrol stations) sell diesel as well as gas.
You’ll find prices between the two pretty similar as well (and a lot more than what you’ll pay in the US). At the time of writing it’s about £1.28/liter. So, unless you’re going to be driving vast distances (when a diesel vehicle becomes a little more economical, but something that is pretty difficult to do in Scotland in any case) there’s no real reason to choose one over the other.
At gas stations, gas is denoted by green pump handles. All gas in Scotland is now unleaded, meaning one less thing to worry about. Diesel is indicated by black pump handles. In cities and on the highways, gas stations are pretty easy to find and look similar to those in the US. You’ll pay more for the same amount of fuel at a highway gas station than elsewhere. The more rural your journey becomes, the harder it will be to find a gas station, so fill up when you see one.
Both gas and diesel are sold by the liter, and gas stations are generally self-service. Simply pull up beside a pump and begin filling up your vehicle to the approximate cost/volume you require (there’s no automatic cut-off). Payment comes afterward. To pay, you’ll need to pop into the on-site shop (they also sell snacks and drinks) and tell the cashier the pump number. You can pay by credit card, debit card, or cash (British pounds sterling only).
If you don’t return your rental vehicle with a full tank of fuel or where it was given to you at, you will be charged to fill it up. Rental car companies charge a premium to fill up the tank for you which makes it well worth stopping off at a gas station before returning it.
Opt for navigation
GPS is brilliant for when you’re driving along unknown roads, there’s no doubt about it in our opinion. Having a GPS kit (generally referred to as Satellite Navigation or SatNav) focus on the navigation means you can concentrate on driving without having to read every road sign you pass.
Navigation systems are also useful because they can provide alternative routes, should they be needed, to take you around congestion hotspots. The most modern versions will give you some indication of the road’s speed limit too – measured in miles per hour just like in the US.
That’s not to say you need to get the GPS add-on with a rental car. If you have a cell phone with a local SIM contract, you’ll be able to access the data network, which means you can use smartphone navigation apps such as Google Maps.
Alternatively, if you don’t have a local SIM contract and don’t want to spend lots of cash on international roaming, you can download a Google Map to your phone when you are in WiFi. If you forget to do this, Edinburgh Airport has free (albeit slow) WiFi to download a map of Scotland to your phone, but make sure you have free space on your phone!
It is not permitted to use a cell phone when driving in Scotland to make calls or send/receive SMS text messages. You can use your smartphone for navigation purposes, but it must be hands-free only (such as safely stowed on the windscreen), and you must not program navigation while the vehicle’s engine is running. I recommend getting a phone holder for your car dashboard for your travels.
Accept the offer to be shown around the rental car
Often, the rental car agent will ask if you’d like them to show you around the vehicle or whether you’re happy to do it yourself. Always accept the offer of being shown around the vehicle, even if you feel a little silly doing so.
The agent will generally start with the outside of the vehicle, pointing out any bumps or scratches that already exist, make sure all the damages are noted. This will also assure you of the roadworthiness of the vehicle.
On the inside of the vehicle, make sure that before you leave the parking bay, you know how to operate the headlights, indicator lights, and hazard lights. You should also know the location of the windscreen wipers (an absolute must in Scotland), as well as the horn. Make sure you know how to alter the position of the driver’s seat, how the parking brake works (is it a traditional manual one you pull up, or a newer electronic one), and how to engage reverse gear (which often requires you to push a button of some sort first). They will also help you set up the GPS if you’ve opted for one.
Remember that if you’re not happy with anything you see, you should insist on an alternative vehicle. If you find cigarette burns, broken mirrors, or windshield cracks these need to be noted before you leave the parking lot. Otherwise, you could be charged for the damages once you return the rental.
Distances and speeds in Scotland
Distances and speeds are measured in miles, just like in the US. The speed limit is usually signposted on each new stretch of road or change in speed. Look out for round white signs with a red edge and a number in the center.
If in doubt about the speed of a particular stretch of road, you can use the following basic rules: motorways – the Scottish equivalent of highways – are denoted by an M. For instance, the M8 runs between Edinburgh and Glasgow. All motorways have a maximum speed limit of 70 mph, although over-road signage may reduce this given traffic or weather conditions. They are colored blue on maps and road signs.
The same speed limit is in force for dual carriageways (mini two-lane highways). Outside of built-up areas, the speed limit is generally 50 mph, while in more urban areas (anywhere with street lighting), the maximum speed is typically 30 mph – although around schools it can be as low as 20 mph.
Some rural roads may be single lane (and roads tend to be quite narrow compared to those in the US in any case). There will generally be passing places that allow cars to pull aside to allow vehicles coming in the opposite direction to pass. (Speaking of which, don’t park in passing places – only ever use dedicated parking spaces.)
Speed limits are limits, not targets; only drive as fast as feels safe. Try not to worry if locals who know the roads better than you pass you at a safe place on the road.
Forget any worries you had about renting a car in Scotland! We’ve given you the lowdown on everything you need to help you have an amazing self-drive vacation in the home of Braveheart’s William Wallace, the Queen’s castles in Edinburgh and Balmoral, and the Loch Ness monster!
What to Pack for Scotland
It should go without saying that the weather in Scotland can be a bit rainy, this is the most important item in your suitcase. You have two options for style of rain jackets. The first one we recommend is a classic outdoor rain jacket that is a solid choice for outdoor adventurers. The second option being a trench coat for those looking to maintain style while dodging puddles. One of the best raincoats for travel is the North Face Resolve.
The fleece sweater is a perfect layer when combined with an outer shell to keep you warm. We purchased wool sweaters from independent retailers in Scotland, and good ones were fairly easy to find for a decent price. For those with less time a little bit of online shopping for wool sweaters will suffice. Start here!
Hiking PantsTechnical pants like these are water resistant and dry quickly, not to mention they’re comfortable on long walks. These pants can be pretty ugly, but if you’re serious about exploring and hiking in Scotland I would suggest picking up a pair.
It’s wet in Scotland and you can expect a lot of boggy weather year round so packing a pair of good waterproof boots for hikes is crucial for protecting your feet. Good Boots or hiking shoes for Scotland are essential.
Travel Water Bottle
Plastic pollution is a problem everywhere so it’s best not to contribute to the problem by buying plastic water bottles everywhere – plus the water from the taps in Scotland is perfectly safe to drink.
We’ve shifted to using an insulated aluminum water bottle as it handles the hot sun well. However, we also love filtered water bottles in areas we’re uncertain of the water supply. Read more about favorite water bottles for travel in our post.
We don’t travel without travel insurance and neither should you. You never know what can happen in a foreign country and it’s best to be prepared. World Nomads provides good short term coverage.
Remember that Scotland uses the three-prong British plug. Make sure you have a universal travel adaptor like we have before landing!
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