How to get around in Scotland: find the best transportation for your trip

An amazing landscape on the Isle of Skye in Scotland
These are the transportation options for getting around in Scotland © elxeneize / Shutterstock

Transportation in Scotland can be expensive compared to the rest of Europe. Through a combination of train, bus, and ferry, it is possible to travel around Scotland without a car. However, having your own wheels will give the greatest flexibility on your journey, allowing you to visit more remote regions at your own pace.

There is an extensive rail network and frequent departures in central Scotland, but only a few lines in the northern Highlands and southern Scotland. Buses are cheaper and slower than trains, but useful for more remote places. A network of car ferries links the mainland with the islands of western and northern Scotland, and domestic airlines serve some of the islands too. Traveline Scotland is a good source of information and up-to-date timetables on all forms of transit. 

Train crossing a stone bridge over water on a frosty, snowy day
There are some incredible scenic stretches of rail in Scotland © Paul McGee / Getty Images

Train is great for travel between major towns and cities

Scotland's train network extends to all major cities and towns, but the railway map has a lot of large, blank areas in the Highlands and the Southern Uplands where you'll need to switch to road transport. The West Highland line from Glasgow to Fort William and Mallaig, and the Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh line, offer two of the world's most scenic rail journeys. ScotRail operates most train services in Scotland and is a good source of further information on routes and timetables.

The bus network is extensive

Scotland is served by an extensive bus network that covers most of the country. In remote rural areas, however, services are geared to the needs of locals, for example getting to school or the shops in the nearest large town, and may not be conveniently timed for visitors. Several different bus companies operate here. Scottish Citylink runs a network of comfy, reliable buses to main towns. Away from main roads, you'll need to switch to local services. First and Stagecoach are the main local bus route providers.


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An aerial shot of a road weaving through a hilly green landscape near a lake, with mist coming down off the hilltops
Driving the B roads can make for a much more interesting road trip © Daniel Alford / Lonely Planet

Drive your own car or motorcycle for maximum flexibility

Scotland's roads are generally good and are far less busy than those in England, making driving more enjoyable. A non-UK licence is valid in Britain for up to 12 months from time of entry into the country. If bringing a car from Europe, make sure you're adequately insured, and always drive on the left.

Motorways (designated "M") are toll-free dual carriageways, limited mainly to central Scotland. Main roads ("A") are dual or single carriageways and are sometimes clogged with slow-moving trucks and caravans; the A9 from Perth to Inverness is notoriously busy. Life on the road is more relaxed and interesting on the secondary roads (designated "B") and minor roads (undesignated), though in the Highlands and islands there's the added hazard of sheep wandering onto the road (be particularly wary of lambs in spring).

Petrol is more expensive than in countries such as the US or Australia, but roughly in line with the rest of Western Europe. Prices tend to rise as you get further from the main centers and can be more than 10% higher in remote areas, where petrol stations are widely spaced and sometimes closed on Sundays.

The minimum legal age for driving is 17, but to rent a car, drivers must usually be aged 23 to 65 – outside these limits special conditions or insurance requirements may apply. Car hire in the UK is competitively priced by European standards, and shopping around online can unearth some great deals, which can drop to as low as £20 per day for an extended hire period. Hit comparison sites such as Kayak to find some of the best prices.

Tip for renting a car: If planning to visit the Outer Hebrides or Shetland, it'll often prove cheaper to hire a car on the islands rather than paying to take a hire car across on the ferry.

A large ferry leaving a picturesque harbor
CalMac is the main ferry provider for the west coast of Scotland and the islands © travellight / Shutterstock

Ferries service the islands

Ferries run by Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) serve the west coast and islands, and a comprehensive timetable is available online. Services are reduced in winter. Island Hopscotch tickets are a convenient way of making multiple ferry journeys within a month. Northlink Ferries travel from Aberdeen and Scrabster (near Thurso) to Orkney, from Orkney to Shetland, and from Aberdeen to Shetland.

Tips for traveling by ferry: Bikes travel free with foot passengers. Children under 5 travel for free; kids aged 5-15 pay half the adult rate.

Domestic flights link up remote island communities

Most domestic air services in Scotland are geared to business needs, or are lifelines for remote island communities. Flying is a pricey way to cover relatively short distances, but it's certainly worth considering if you're short of time and want to visit the Outer Hebrides, Orkney or Shetland.

The main domestic airline in Scotland is Loganair, with flights from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness to many smaller destinations across Scotland. It also operates inter-island flights in Orkney. Hebridean Air Services flies from Connel airfield near Oban to the islands of Coll, Tiree, Colonsay, and Islay.

Two cyclists ride their bikes along a path near a body of water
Cycling in Scotland is one of the best ways to explore, if you have the time © Will Salter / Lonely Planet

Cycling is ideal for exploring the islands

Scotland is a compact country, and traveling around by bicycle is a perfectly feasible proposition if you have the time. Indeed, for touring the islands a bicycle is both cheaper than driving (for ferry fares) and more suited to the islands' small sizes and leisurely pace of life. VisitScotland has good information about bike hire, and Sustrans details the routes on the National Cycle Network across the UK. 

Accessible transportation in Scotland is mixed

Travelers with disabilities will find a strange mix of accessibility and inaccessibility in Scotland. Newer buses have steps that lower for easier access, but it's wise to check before setting out. Older train stations are being upgraded to ensure they are accessible. The Disabled Persons Railcard offers discounts on rail travel for eligible travelers and a friend. Ferries offer boarding assistance at staffed ports for disabled travelers, and, depending on the size of the boat, have accessible toilets and cabins.

Tourist attractions usually reserve parking spaces near the entrance for drivers with disabilities. Many places, such as ticket offices, are fitted with hearing loops to assist the hearing-impaired; look for a posted symbol of a large ear. Some nature trails are wheelchair accessible. VisitScotland has information on accessible transportation and accommodations, along with information on beach wheelchair hire. Lonely Planet's Accessible Travel guide can be downloaded for free

Introducing Scotland
This article was first published on May 19, 2021 and updated on November 26, 2021

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