We don’t generally talk about the costs we incur through travel here on the blog, but boy howdy do I have a surprise for you! Here’s a post with numbers that I didn’t even make up! (Although I did convert them to US dollars for your convenience.) During our trip to Scotland we traveled by land for the most part. This involves renting a car and this post is going to tell you how much that costs and why you need to just suck it up and pay it if you want to see the wild Scotland. Just going to Edinburgh, or any other city? Don’t bother with a car. It will be a nuisance and an inconvenience. Public transport and the ever-popular Uber is the way to go. But if you want to see the country, get a car.
If you are like the majority of U.S. travelers, you’re going to reserve your car in advance on a discount website such as Expedia. Go ahead and do that because, why not? On the website it’s going to tell you that for 21 days of rental, you’re going to pay less than $500 for the car. That will give you good feelings as you read the part about your costs differing when you pick up the car. Don’t worry. They will differ. A lot. And you’ll pay it because you want to see the country you are visiting and this is the best way to do it.
I reserved an automatic, mid sized vehicle on Expedia through Europcar. Fortunately for me, this was not my first car-rental-rodeo in Scotland so I already knew the drill. You reserve the auto of your choice, then you cross your fingers and spit three times while spinning as you wish fervently for an automatic transmission. That’s because you’ll find that even if the website says one is available, which it won’t as a rule, you will know not to count on that. Why do you want an automatic? We’ll get into that later.
When you get to the airport, you will confirm with the nice man behind the counter that you have reserved an automatic, at which point he will frown sadly and tell you that alas, your car is a 6 speed. All the cars are 6 speed in Scotland. Except the automatics, which are few. You will politely point out that this is not what you reserved, reflect on your quickly aging knees, and ask worriedly if there is anything else available at the same cost, since you actually called Europcar’s international number to be sure that you did, in fact, have an automatic on hold. Then he will offer you a Mercedes 22S Estate wagon that was ‘just turned in’. He will give you all the discounts and you will say yes to paying what you think is $19.31/day for the use of that car, smiling broadly.
Once you have your car, you will be presented with all the insurance choices. This is where the rubber meets that old proverbial road you’ll be driving on, the one with only one lane and ancient rock walls on each side where the posted speed limit is 60 mph. (Yes, they use MPH in Scotland. But they sell their fuel in liters to confuse us and obfuscate the fact that you’ll pay about $6/gallon for diesel fuel.)
Your insurance choices will be grim. A cool extra $32.18/day (!!) will allow you to walk away from the vehicle Scot free, as it were, should any little thing happen. Hmmm. I’ve driven extensively in Scotland. So far, in spite of other North American drivers on the road, I’ve turned all the cars in unscathed. I think I’m a good risk. That highest covered amount also comes with roadside assistance should we get a flat tire or whatever. It was tempting but our wallet protested and we know how to change a tire.
Due to our basic faith in our own abilities to handle situations and to drive carefully, we chose the lowest insurance option of $21.45/day. This got us a $1673.49 deductible. Gone are the days when we would just fork over the extra $225 for the best and easiest insurance and be done with it. Le sigh.
If you’ve kept up with the math here, so far we are paying $405 and change for the vehicle, and adding on $450 ish for the insurance. Our bill should be $860, right? HAHAHAHAHA! In your dreams, sweetie.
Now you must add in $346 for the basic rental fee. I think this must cover just your basic 6 speed tiny car. It’s also a little annoying because, as referenced above, I understood that we were paying $19.31/day for the vehicle. In fact, that was what we were paying for the upgrade, which I had already reserved and thought I had the cost nailed down. I chalk this failure to understand up to our being exhausted after about 24 hours of travel, and the sales person’s strong Glaswegian accent, of which I could understand about 1/3. Oh well. We would have had to pay it anyhow. Now our bill is up to about $1206.00. But wait! There’s more!
You’ll pay 20% VAT on that ‘purchase’ as well. Plus a license and fees charge, plus a ‘premium station surcharge’ that tacked on an additional $112. That must be for the convenience of picking up the car at the airport. All in with all the taxes, fees, etc, the bill came to $1630.00.
We put about 1400 miles on the car, so that’s a little more than 1$/mile we paid just for the privilege of driving, not including fuel. It’s a steep cost, I’ll tell you, especially when there are no more fat paychecks coming in and you have a date with a guy in a boatyard coming up. But we wouldn’t do it any other way in Scotland. There are just too many narrow roads to go down where taking public transport will hold you back. This is the price of freedom, of spontaneity. It ain’t free, you know.
And just a word about that VAT. It’s easy to get your United States knickers in a twist about a tax that high. But look at it this way: if you travel in Scotland you will never lack for a place to use the potty. These people are great with their clean, well appointed public rest rooms at the center of every town, no matter how small. Also their roads are in pretty good shape considering. Even the small roads are easy on the car, with very few exceptions. They also have excellent signage, even on the tiny roads. I’m not actually going to complain about that tax. Roads and bathrooms cost money.
Now that you have the car, you’ll want to understand the road system. There are three common levels of ‘highway’ roads in Scotland: M, A, and B. It’s easy to know that M stands for ‘main and most convenient road’, the M8 for instance. A stands for ‘alternative and possibly more scenic route that reasonable people can take’. We drove on a ton of A roads as they go through all the small towns and the countryside. A nice A road is a pleasant experience.
The ones to be aware of are the B roads. B, as used here, stands for ‘Scares the Bejezus out of you’. These are narrow, one lane roads that are widely used and can have speed limits of up to 60 miles per hour, which some people think is an appropriate speed at which to approach a blind curve with rock walls on either side. These roads are fraught with blind curves, blind summits, and Scots who have been driving them for hundreds of years. It’s in their blood to drive these roads, but it’s not in yours, or, at least, if it is it’s well watered down. Take extra care and keep the brake pedal handy. These are the roads where you will bless that automatic transmission because it gives you one less thing to think about. Also your knees will not get tired from the constant shifting. I know this because the first trip I had to Scotland, I drove a 6 speed. The fun wears off quickly.
These roads have ‘passing places’ where people pull over to allow others to get by, at least when they are following the rules. You will learn very quickly to look as far ahead on the road as possible on these roads; about 20 feet or less generally. They give your adrenal system a good workout as cars approach from the opposite direction across a narrow bridge, at speed. These are the roads you should keep in mind as you choose your car. The smaller the car the more pleasant that B road driving experience is going to be. But I never saw a really small car that was an automatic. You’ll have to choose your poison.
The final consideration will be the roundabouts. They are extensive. They can be huge, with many lanes, encompassing large territory and multiple exits. They are, simply put, heart stopping. On the other hand, they are generally clearly marked. Even on the actual road, in each lane there will be signage indicating which exit that lane is for. They do the best they can. The rest is up to you. Stay in your lane. Use your signal. Watch out for other drivers from almost literally everywhere else in the world where they drive on the right. If you are so inclined, pray. If not, feel free to curse. And remember, if you miss your exit you can always go around again. The other drivers will hate you, but it can be done.
Renting a car allowed us to see some of the most beautiful countryside in the world at our leisure on our own time schedule. It’s kind of like having a boat. It’s a damned expensive way to travel, but we wouldn’t do it differently.
Oh yeah, we turned that car in unscathed.
And guess what, guys? We left the dock today. See you out there!