The best car rental strategy for England

The lovely Stainforth to Malham road in Malhamdale in England's Yorkshire Dales (Photo courtesy of
The lovely Stainforth to Malham road in Malhamdale in England's Yorkshire Dales

How to get the most out of renting a car in the U.K. with the lowest cost and least hassle

Say your two-week trip starts in London, and you’re wondering why I’m giving you advice you can’t use (do no rent a car) since your heart is set on having that car in order to explore Stonehenge and the other ancient sites of the Salisbury Plain, tour the Cotswolds, make a pilgrimage to Canterbury, stop by Stratford-upon-Avon, bathe in Bath, and visit the dreaming spires of Oxford.

Actually, it’s simple to avoid London traffic, Bath's lack of parking, and Oxford's maddening system of one-way streets on this trip—and save yourself not only many days of driving but also save several hundred dollars in rental costs, parking fees, airport surcharges, and petrol in the process.

The trick is to rent a car only for the bit of you British vacation for which you'll be needing it—which means not in the cities or larger towns. Just save the vehicle for exploring the countryside and smaller towns. 

So maybe you realized you didn't need a car in London, and were only going to rent one for the second week to go beyond London. Thing is, you don't need a car in Bath or Oxford, either—so you don't need a full week's rental.

(The itinerary bellow assumes you are willing to give the countryside and other destinations a full week to themselves; another option is just to stay in London and take a bunch of escorted daytrips—like the Stonehenge, Windsor Castle, Bath, Including Pub Lunch in Medieval Village of Lacock and the Oxford, Stratford Upon Avon and Cotswolds Touror even a multi-day tour that covers what you want to see.)

The itinerary

First, fly into London, take public transit downtown, and spend most of the first week there, blissfully car-free.

At some point during the week in London, take a day trip to Canterbury (either on your own by train, or on an escorted daytrip tour, which will likely also include a visit to Leeds Castle and/or the White Cliffs of Dover).

Once you are done with your week in London, take the train to Bath (90 min.), check into your lodging for two nights, and spend the next day and a half seeing the ancient Roman baths, enjoying afternoon tea in the Pump Room, marveling at the Georgian architecture and Gothic Bath Abbey, and perhaps taking the waters at the modern Bath spa.

NOW you pick up a rental car, in Bath, and use it to swoop through the Salisbury Plain to visit the stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury (lunch there).

Loop back around and into the Cotswolds countryside, wending your way through the hills, having tea in the twee little village of Whatever-upon-water, touring Blenheim Palace, and spending one night.

On the second Cotswolds day, make your leisurely way up to Stratford-upon-Avon, pay your respects to the Bard, maybe take in a play, and spend another night.

From Stratford, head on down to Oxford, where your first order of business after dropping your bags at your B&B is to drop off the rental car. You will not be needing it anymore. 

Spend two days wandering the City of Dreaming Spires, touring the Harry Potteresque college greens and buildings, marveling at the Ashmolean Museum, and punting the Cherwell.

From Oxford, you can take an airport bus directly to Heathrow (80–90 min.) or Gatwick (2–2.5 hr.)—no need to return to London at all (unless you wish to).

Suddenly, a two-week car rental ($390) has turned into a 3-day car rental ($115)—and saved you loads of money and aggravation.

This is advice so basic it boggles my mind that more people don’t realize it. I’m sure you do, but I’ve gotten letters from folks thanking me for this tidbit and gushing about how it saved them $400 before they even left on their vacation. They never seem to include, say, a check for a 10% cut of those savings by way of showing their gratitude, but I’m not complaining.

(Caveat: If you have, say, four people, you might consider picking up the car in London for the to drive to Bath, since the train ride costs around £25 per person, or $125 total, which begins to outweigh the car rental savings. You'd still drop it off in Oxford. This five-day would run around $185. Add to that the London congestion charge and $40 for gas, and you about break even on the price difference with four train tickets, but gives you the freedom of having the car for two more days—so maybe you do Stonehenge and Avebury on the way to Bath. Anyway, a consideration.)