Getting around

[Scotland has a reasonable rail network but it doesn't serve many rural areas - trains no longer run on this old line to Peebles in the Scottish Borders]

This page gives a general overview of transport options when visiting Scotland, aimed (mostly) at people visiting from abroad. Google Maps is also good for checking how to get between two points by public transport, though you should also check timetables directly with the transport company.

Overview

Hiring a car is definitely the best way to explore most of Scotland - a country with a sparse population and lots of open space. You don't have to worry about timetables or tickets, and all parts of mainland Scotland are directly accessible to you. Many tourist attractions aren't well served by public transport; the Highlands in particular is a sparsely populated region with lots of open space. At least two of Scotland's star players, its distilleries and its ruined castles, tend to be situated away from major population centres, often making visits tricky without a car.

If you don't drive, or don't fancy getting behind the wheel, tour companies are an excellent alternative. A myriad of companies offer day and multi-day tours from the main cities, with a range of itineraries packing in the popular sights and plenty of photo stops.

Ferries are the most practical way to reach most of Scotland's major islands, though Skye is connected to the mainland by a road bridge. A plane might be better for far-flung Shetland, Orkney or the Western Isles, especially if you're heading there directly from Glasgow or Edinburgh.

Move from the remote and rural to towns and villages, and public transport starts to become more feasible. Train journeys and long-distance buses are reasonably inexpensive and often scenic, serving all the large mainland towns and a number of smaller places. Most other settlements are reachable by local buses, although services aren't always frequent - see below.

A city break is the main scenario where hiring a car wouldn't make sense. Neither Glasgow nor Edinburgh are particularly car-friendly (parking in the city centres is extortionate during the day!), but the centres of both are small enough to explore on foot. Trains and buses are the best ways to get to the attractions in the suburbs, and can be used for day trips to nearby towns. All of SOBT's pages about attractions in Glasgow include public transport info.

[The A93 Cairnwell Pass accesses some of eastern Scotland's best scenery, but you need a car to reach it]

By car

Hiring a car is the best way to explore almost all of Scotland apart from Edinburgh and Glasgow. The road network is good, though there are no motorways (the fastest roads) in the Highlands. A-roads are the next best bet, followed by B-roads, and finally unclassified roads (no letter) which in rural areas can be little more than surfaced tracks. Petrol in the UK is expensive, but there are no tolls in Scotland. Traffic jams are rare away from the cities. VisitScotland has a useful video here with tips for driving in Scotland for the first time, including speed limits (which often aren't safely achievable, especially on minor roads). Journey time estimates by Google Maps are generally accurate if you know the roads, but allow extra time for traffic, photo breaks and if driving an unfamiliar car!

[The A821 at Duke's Pass is a winding but beautiful drive through spectacular scenery]

By guided tour

Too much to see and too little time? Guided tours by coach or minibus offer a no-stress way to tick off Scotland's most popular attractions. Edinburgh and Glasgow in particular are well served by dozens of tour companies providing everything from the ever-popular day trips to Loch Ness and the Highlands to multi-day tours of Skye and everything in between. Prices can be surprisingly reasonable (especially when you factor in savings on car hire, petrol and public transport costs) and many operators provide a running commentary. The downsides: itineraries are inflexible (unless you book a private tour) and you'll spend a lot of time on the road. We had an excellent day trip with Rabbie's Tours in May 2017 - see here for the review.

[Rabbie's minibus on their "Oban, Glencoe, Highland Lochs & Castles" day tour]

By air

Edinburgh or Glasgow are likely to be your entry points if you fly into Scotland. Once here, flying around the country makes little sense owing to the fairly short distances and high prices. There are a few potential exceptions, particularly if visiting the islands. In particular, flying is a good option for reaching the far-flung Shetland Islands (by flying to Sumburgh from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen or Inverness) - the alternative is an overnight ferry crossing. Flying in to Barra, a tiny island in the Outer Hebrides, has the unique selling point of a sandy beach for a runway. The interactive map below has details of each airport's websites and destinations.



Useful links: Try Skyscanner to compare flight costs and times.

By train

Scotland's rail network, operated by ScotRail, covers a fraction of the area it did prior to the 1960's, but it's a good way to get around so long as you don't want to stray far from the cities and towns. Longer distance train journeys are often roughly comparable in time to driving, and very good value if booked well in advance. Local journeys have fixed prices: Edinburgh and especially Glasgow have comprehensive suburban rail networks, handy for exploring the immediate area. Edinburgh has a newish tram line linking the New Town with the airport; Glasgow has a circular subway, mainly serving the city centre and West End.

[Scottish rail map - local services in the Central Belt aren't shown here. Source: Scotrail]

Useful links: Find times, prices and book tickets through National Rail Enquiries, which covers all of the United Kingdom.

By bus

Citylink provides most of Scotland's long-distance bus network. Their coaches are comfortable, generally punctual and increasingly with WiFi. Cheaper than rail travel, they also cover large areas not served by train, including the Isle of Skye and large swathes of the Highlands. If you're planning to use them a lot, a Citylink Explorer Pass might save you money. Other providers fill in some of the gaps, including smaller settlements, as well as covering regular services within the cities. Services can be infrequent (a few times each day or worse) for small villages or isolated regions. A few villages are served by the quirky Postbus service operated by Royal Mail: they deliver mail and you at the same time!

[Scotland's cities all have comprehensive local bus networks - this is Aberdeen]

Useful links: Traveline Scotland is the exhaustive (and exhausting) go-to website for working out bus times and routes (it covers other public transport too). For long-distance bus travel, it's usually best to book directly with Citylink.

By ferry

If you intend to visit many of Scotland's scores of inhabited islands, you'll need to get familiar with the ferry network. Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) operates the majority. Most ferry routes carry cars as well as foot passengers, and thanks to the recent introduction of RET (road equivalent tariff), many vehicle fares have been drastically lowered in the last few years. Crossing times vary from under half an hour (several routes in western Scotland) to overnight crossings (to reach the Shetland Isles). Sailings are prone to disruption in poor weather conditions, especially in winter.

[Scottish ferry map - some local passenger routes aren't shown here. Source: Wikipedia]

Useful links: CalMac run most west coast routes; NorthLink Ferries sail from Aberdeen. There are several other operators.

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