After four days in London, Andy and I headed off into the countryside. We battled over the mode of transportation. Andy was pro-car. I was pro-train. Andy won with a quote from Hertz of approximately 25 pounds per day for a car rental.
The cheapest rental cars in England are manual transmission. And yes, that’s what was on our reservation.
I learned to drive on a stick shift. Andy did not. Andy learned to drive a stick shift on his Mustang Cobra when he was twenty-six, because that’s the car he really wanted and it doesn’t come in automatic.
Andy went through two transmissions and three clutches by the time we were married.
Andy’s night vision is also terrible. He refuses to admit this, but I’ve got three cyclists, two raccoons, one possum, a deer, and a feral cat who owe their lives to me screaming “Look out!” after 10 PM. Sadly, I wasn’t there to save the pole.
[Author’s Note: Andy insists that it’s not his fault if all eight of those creatures had death wishes. He would like you to know that the cyclists were riding without lights and reflective clothing. That is true. However, Andy’s wife would like you to know that the pole he hit was a LIGHT pole.]
So, yeah, I drove the UK rental car. (Our auto insurance rates can’t afford another pole.)
Here’s what I learned.
TIP #10: Spring for an automatic transmission. Yes, it’s twice as expensive. Yes, you may love driving a manual. But overriding years of experience and ignoring every single brain cell that screams “GET ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROAD BEFORE YOU DIE!” is hard enough without working a clutch, too.
TIP #9: If you MUST drive a manual in England, be left-handed. See, Americans were smart enough to realize that most people are right-handed. The clutch is on our right, and we can shift with our dominant hand. In England, the clutch is on the left. Good luck distinguishing between 1st and 3rd gear if you’re not a lefty. (I am not a lefty.)
TIP #8: Make sure you have an alert passenger ready to scream, “CURB!” when you invariably drift to the left. A calm passenger who does not mistake hitting a pothole for hitting the curb and freak out is a bonus.
TIP #7: Hit Costa or Starbucks coffee as soon as you get your rental car and buy your Curb Warner/ Navigator an espresso. Or five. Because if he falls asleep while you attempt to navigate as you drive on the wrong side of the road and shift with the wrong hand, you will make wrong turns. Possibly onto one-way or dead-end streets. You will then have to make embarrassing, illegal, 5-point turns to regain the correct direction.
TIP #6: If you collect an audience during your now 7-point turn, be sure and yell, “Ah, I am so veery sorry, mon ami!” in your best French accent. Italian, Russian, or German accents/ phrases are also okay. In a pinch, toss an “Eh?” on the end of each sentence and pretend you’re Canadian. Anything to avoid cementing the Stupid American Tourist stereotype. It’s your patriotic duty.
TIP #5: Prepare for the miniaturization. Everything is smaller in the UK. The cars. The lanes. The roundabouts. God, the roundabouts. They aren’t leisurely traffic circles like you find in New England. No, in Old England they are tiny. You won’t have much any time to figure out which exit is yours. Have your navigator check the map and see which cities/ towns you will next be driving toward before you get to the three-foot circle the UK grandly dubbed a roundabout.
TIP #4: Road signs and a physical map made in the UK are more reliable than Google. Yes, Google knows where streets are and can plot what looks like an efficient course. Unfortunately, Google does not always know which streets ARE ONE WAY. I told Google to do the anatomically impossible more than once on our trip. Usually in Spanish, if the window was open (see Tip #6). Pretty sure the locals were happy to misidentify me as Argentinian (no, they have not forgotten the Falkland Islands).
TIP #3: When in doubt, be a lemming. There are a lot of tourists in the UK.
Chances are, many of them are heading to Windsor Castle. Or Thornbury Castle. Or Alnwick Castle. Or any other thousands of castles. If you’re having trouble battling your instincts to be on the other side of the road, or you don’t know which way to go, just follow the car in front of you. Chances are, they’re going to the same place. They know how to make a turn while staying in the correct lane. Unless they are also Americans, that is.
TIP #2: Remember your rearview mirror. We’re used to flicking our eyes to the right to check on traffic behind us. There’s still a side-view mirror on the right, and I found myself using that instead of the rearview mirror. It takes a conscious effort to remember to check a mirror up and on the left. But it could save your life on the M4, where tailgating is a national pastime. Don’t believe me? The British government painted chevrons ON THE ROAD in a
fruitless valiant effort to remind drivers that a safe following distance is two seconds.
TIP #1: If you fill up your rental car before returning it, turn in your gas receipt to the rental agency. Because guess what? Rental companies don’t actually go by the fuel gauge, oh, no. There’s some fine print requiring the renter to provide their fuel receipt to the rental staff as proof that said renter filled up the tank. Of course if you do give away your fuel receipt, you won’t be able to take that receipt to the VAT office at the airport and get your VAT refund before you leave the UK. So you’re stuck either paying the VAT tax on the fuel or paying the maximum refueling price of approximately £3.077 per liter for the entire tank of gas (£169.23 or higher). It’s the pinnacle of British Bureaucracy. Unless you brought a portable copier, you’ll have to choose where you should surrender your receipt for fuel. Give it to the car rental company. VAT tax ON the fuel is way cheaper than ALL the fuel. Also, you will probably never find the VAT office anyway.
In the end, that £75 rental car cost us £273.92, what with the vehicle fee, the location fee, the fuel fee, the license fee, and the fee for the fees.
Which brings me to the Ultimate, Overriding Driving Tip For Americans Touring England.
Take the train.