Driving through the United Kingdom (UK) and Ireland in a campervan is one of those classic adventures that offers more delights than you bargained for. You expect the charming thatched-roof cottages of the English Cotswolds, but not the scores of swooning swans on the glassy Avon. You’ve heard about the mysterious lochs and mist-shrouded peaks of the Scottish Highlands, but not the rainbows that appear over aubergine moors. You are excited by the fabled Giant’s Causeway, but didn’t know about the dramatic cliff-top roads that skim the edge of the moody sea. And while you knew the Welsh national parks would be something to behold, you were surprised to find ponies and waterfalls at every turn.
My recent 30 day road trip through England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales was a dream adventure with the perfect mix of spontaneity and sight-seeing, nature and culture. Although I look back at it now with rosy eyes, there are a few tips I would’ve valued at the start. So, I’ve put together a list of lessons from the road about how to travel the UK and Ireland in a campervan.
This guide covers a lot, so I’ve broken it into categories for easy reference:
- The route
- Preparation – packing, road rules, maps
- Camping / wild camping
- Power and techy stuff
- Other practical things – money, ferries, borders, entrance fees
Our 30 day, 4356 mile road trip all started and ended at the Wicked Campers depot in London’s Waterloo. We left the city by crossing the River Thames, driving past Big Ben, through some typical London traffic and onto the M40, towards the manicured lawns of Oxford and the Shakespeare-themed Stratford-Upon-Avon. Then, through the quaint villages of the Cotswolds, we headed north to see the Peaks District, the walled city of York, the famously beautiful Lake District, Hadrian’s Wall country and into Scotland. After a few days in the artsy and historical Edinburgh, it was up to Isle of Skye, via Stirling Castle, then down through the Scottish Highlands, past Loch Lomond and into Glasgow before taking a car ferry to Belfast, Northern Ireland.
From Belfast, Northern Ireland showed us the gorgeous Causeway Coast to Derry. Then it was into the Republic of Ireland to see the west coast delights of Achill Island, Westport, Doolough Valley, Galway and Cliffs of Moher, before skipping across to Dublin and down the east coast to our next car ferry to Wales. The final leg took us east across Wales, via the Pembrokeshire and Brecon Beacons national parks, and back into London.
Although we’d done our homework before the road trip and picked key place we wanted to see, much of the route was determined by how we felt on the day (big/fast road vs. little/slow road) and what unexpected delights we encountered (by chance or by poor navigating).
In the grand scheme of holiday preparation, a campervan road trip is pretty light on. That said, there are a couple of things you can do before you go to maximise your driving / sightseeing time.
If you’re hiring a van from a company such as Wicked Campers, your ride should come decked out with the essentials like a gas burner, mattress, esky, bottle opener, sink and kitchen stuff. You will need to pack bedding, buy food to put in the under-bed storage boxes and come with a plan to get out of London.
I also suggest packing:
- Wet wipes (a.k.a shower from a packet – for those wild camping days).
- Butane gas canisters for the gas cooker. We used about seven canisters in 30 days. I suggest buying them from stores like Poundland in London before you go. While you can find them in similar stores in big cities, or some hardware stores and fuel stations in smaller towns, but we didn’t come across them often, and when we did they were often double or triple the price.
- A torch with batteries (and a candle and lighter for back up).
- A deck of cards.
- If you’re travelling in winter, pack thermal underwear, thick socks, waterproofs, a comfy wear-all-the-time-jumper and a couple of layers of bedding (we had a sleeping bag each with a double duvet over the top).
Learning the road rules and norms
Foreign drivers are always in for an adventure on a trip like this. You can read up about UK road rules here and Irish road rules here. While the rules are fairly similar to Australian road rules, and both the UK and Ireland drive on the left side of the road, there are some weird things that happen on UK and Irish roads, such as:
- roundabouts that have two/three lanes on entry and one on exit.
- roundabouts that have multiple sets of traffic lights and inside lanes that appear from nowhere.
- roundabouts that force a left or right turn for certain lanes but don’t indicate which lane does what until you’re a few metres from entry. (There doesn’t seem to be much consistency, just look for the big signs on the left as you come up to the intersection).
- workers picking up litter from the roadside with a single sign to warn you of their presence.
- construction vehicles pulling in and out of traffic with no lollipop men / lights – just keep an eye out.
- roads too narrow for two lanes of traffic, meaning you either have to wait in a designated area if you see oncoming traffic or reverse to a side bay if you come to a head on situation… it gets interesting.
In Ireland, we found many of the main roads had very wide shoulders that were used by local drivers to allow faster cars to pass. The customary ‘thank you’ for this consideration is a couple of flashes from the hazard lights.
It’s also good to understand the road types:
- ‘M’ roads are freeways / motorways that avoid towns and are usually upwards of 70m/h or 110km/h.
- ‘A’ roads vary from single-lane mountain roads to duel-carriageway roads that go in and out of towns. These tend to be a bit slow-going but are usually the scenic drives, as well as the best place to find petrol. Speed limits are commonly between 40-60m/h.
- ‘B’ roads are small, single lane roads connecting small towns / parts of towns. Speed advisories for these roads are often pretty ambitious as we often averaged between 20-40m/h.
- White roads on the AA maps are tiny little roads that tend to loop around ‘B’ and ‘A’ roads.
I’m a firm believer in the romance and adventure of using a paper map, rather than GSP, especially when travelling in rural places. The trusty AA road atlas for the UK and Ireland got us the whole 4356 miles (with only a handful of hiccups on the way). It was particularly good for noting attractions, tolls, campsites, national parks and ferry routes, as well as categorising roads, and can be picked up for £2-5 in most service stations, book stores and news stands.
However, I would also suggest you either have data on your smartphone, a wi-fi hub for your laptop/phone or GPS to get you in and around cities, which aren’t represented in detail in the road atlas.
Travelling on a day-by-day itinerary with a general ‘wing it’ approach, choosing a campsite was almost a daily task. We alternated between wild camping (i.e. pulling up on the side of a road, in a nature reserve or in a carpark for the night), paying for a pitch at a campground and parking the van in a city carpark and staying in a hostel.
Some of our best nights were spent wild camping in picturesque locations, where we could wake to views and breakfast in the great outdoors. But there are a few key questions you need to ask when considering a wild camping location:
Is it safe? Your gut instinct will always be the best guide when considering safety, but it also helps to choose spots that are either well lit in towns or secluded and out of the way in rural areas.
Does it have somewhere you can pee in the dark and in the daylight? Travelling in a small campervan without a toilet means that the logistics of a mid-night pee was always a consideration. Look for a good bush loo, away from passing eyes, or somewhere that has an open public toilet, pub or similar nearby. Trust me, when you’re busting to go at 6am and there is nowhere nearby, the last thing you want to do is drive to find a toilet!
Is it out of the way of traffic? Avoid areas designed for passing traffic on smaller roads and make sure you are at least a couple of metres from the side of the road. Many of the roads through the UK and Ireland are single-track and windy.
Is it allowed? Now, this is a tricky one… Technically speaking, you’re not meant to camp on public or private land in the UK, but wild camping is a bit of a national sport and you’ll see vans pulled up all over the place. Just keep in mind that the police have the right to ask you to move on.
You should be okay if you’re not trespassing (don’t pull into a driveway or park in a paddock without the owner’s permission), not disturbing anyone (keep an eye out for the nosy neighbour or concerned shop keeper who doesn’t like loitering) or parking where the signs say ‘no overnight parking’ or ‘no camping’ (don’t go looking for trouble).
In Scotland, they are particularly accommodating of campers; their laws allow tents to pitch almost anywhere when in need of shelter, as long as they follow the code and are not breaking any byelaws (like those in Loch Lomond). Sadly, this doesn’t extend to vehicles, such as campervans, but the general feeling we got in Scotland was ‘ enjoy and respect the outdoors’, so apply the same approach as in the rest of the UK.
When you’re thinking of wild camping trying looking for:
- Park and Ride carparks that allow overnight camping
- Well lit carparks in town (usually for a minimum fee overnight) that have a public toilet (often one of those automated ones that you need change for).
- Wide, out-of-the-way areas on the side of the road that are flat (so you don’t roll to the side all night) and that won’t flood / bog if it rains.
- Smaller roads with plenty of pull-over room (B roads or the smaller white roads on the map are generally a good bet).
We found particularly good (scenic and safe) wild camping spots in:
- Swans Nest carpark, Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
- Buxton Traveller’s rest, Peaks District, England
- The Highlands and Isle of Skye, Scotland
- Loch Lomond, Scotland
- Along the Causeway Coastal Route, Northern Ireland
- Newport, Ireland
- Llandovery, Wales
Disclaimer – this advice is based on my own experiences and research; you should read the rules before you go and decide what is best for you.
Camping at a touring park
There are heaps of caravan / camping / touring parks throughout the UK and Ireland to book a pitch, hook up to power and access shower and laundry facilities. However the standard of the parks varies a lot from park to park and many are not open in winter / low season, which is generally from October-November to March-April.
We found ourselves paying for a pitch about every third night. Winter campervan rates for a powered site (including two people only) were about £15-20 per night in the UK and about €20-25 per night in Ireland. Most of these parks had free wi-fi, a coin operated laundry and free showers, and some even had cafes, pubs and recreational rooms. Sadly though, some parks charged extra for the basics (like a shower) as well as other strange things (like awnings and extra vehicles), so check the specifics in each place.
In winter it’s advisable to book at least a day (or even half a day) in advance by phone (some have online booking but not many). In summer, I imagine you will need to book days to weeks in advance for popular holidaying areas (e.g. Lake District, cities, national parks in Wales).
We found the most useful online directory for campsites in the UK to be www.ukcampsite.co.uk , which has a great review system to let you know what the park is really like. Other online directories include ww.pitchup.com,www.alanrogers.com, and www.camperstar.com.
Camping in cities is a bit tricker. Some cities, like Glasgow, Derry and Galway, didn’t offer much in the way of campsites near the city (that were open in winter) or safe wild camping options. Unwilling to miss these great places, we chose to stay in hostels and park the van in secure parking discounted by the hostel. Other options would be parking in the yard of a friend or couchsurfing host, or just driving into the city for the day and wild camping a fair way into the countryside at night. Other cities, like York and Edinburgh, offered great camping options with parks near the ring road and buses to/from the park/city centre.
- Our two seater camper took 50 litres of unleaded petrol.
- We would try to fill up after using about 3/4 tank, leaving 1/4 tank in case we didn’t come across a pump for a while. This meant that most refills cost about £50ish / €60ish.
- On average we would refuel every second day, making petrol the most expensive component of an otherwise budget-friendly adventure. We drove an average of 145 miles / 233km per day.
- As a rule of thumb, you will have less fuel economy on small, windy, hilly roads than on flat, straight freeways. We did more of the former, and it was worth it for the views.
- Fuel stations were pretty easy to find on main roads, near freeway exits and at the edge of towns, but they are a little less frequent in the Scottish Highlands. We also found that Sunday afternoons are not a great time to be looking for open pumps in rural regions.
- Both Cairnryan port in Scotland and Rosslare port in Ireland had automated, 24/7 pumps, which is handy if you’re taking a late/early ferry.
Park and Rides (P&Rs) are your friend. You can find them on the ring road in most major cities and online details will be on the local council website. They provide cheap, long-term parking, fairly clean toilets, surveillance and regular buses into the city centre. Most importantly though, they allow you to avoid the one-way streets and hunt for parking spaces. Check the conditions of each lot; we found some were free, some allowed overnight parking, some had late night buses and all of them charged a separate fee for the bus ride (usually a couple of pounds).
Be aware of your van height. Panda van was 1.8 metres high and we found most carparks allowed anything under 2-2.3 metres (meaning motorhomes and many pop-tops are out).
Most towns through the UK and Ireland had a pay and display system in place, with varying time limits. Our parking costs averaged out to about £2-3 per day, but we avoided paid parking whenever possible. I recommend keeping some small change in the car (coins between 20 pence and £2) for parking and automated toilets in carparks.
Free parking was usually a fair way from main attractions and town centres, and is not widely available in most cities. Many pubs in smaller towns have their own free carpark for patrons (so it may be worth buying a pint and asking the publican if you can leave the van there while you wander about).
City carparks are expensive, costing anywhere from £1-5 pounds for an hour or two, to £20-30 pounds for a day. If you are using a carpark attached to a shopping centre, cinema or hotel, ask about validating your ticket for a cheaper rate. We did this in Glasgow and Galway when we stayed in hostels (due to lack of open camp grounds).
Power & techy stuff
Being a gen-Y-er (and a web-centric travel writer) I was naturally concerned about having music, charge for my laptop and internet while on the road. I needn’t have worried as there are logical solutions to provide all of the above.
One of the most important ingredients in any good road trip is good music, preferably playing loudly with the windows down. The Wicked campervan we hired had a great little radio and CD player. We also took along a 1 metre audio cable with a 3.5mm audio jack at each end to connect the car stereo to our mp3 players / smartphones.
Charging phones, laptops, cameras etc.
Most of us now travel with a handful of electronic devices that are a little needy in the power department. Luckily, Wicked Campers hooked us up with a little power pack that plugs into the cigarette lighter to charge small devices, like a phone or camera, while you’re driving. You will need to request one of these as they don’t come automatically with van hire.
Unfortunately though, the little pack was not enough to charge our netbooks, so we invested in a special campsite power lead (referred to as a ‘power hook-up’)to use at paid campsites. To make the matter a little complicated, these leads are not just an extension cord (like the leads used in Australia); the plug for the campsite power pole is round and adaptors to fit are not widely available. You can hire the lead from Wicked Campers, or buy one from a big caravanning store or ebay for anywhere between £40-£80. Trying to find while travelling proved to be quite time consuming, so look into it before you go.
Knowing I would be needing regular and reliable internet access to work from the road, my in-camper IT guy (a.k.a Dave) hooked us up with a pre-paid ‘3’ wi-fi dongle (3G) for the month. It’s basically a little palm-sized wi-fi modem that you can switch on and off as you need and that will allow you to connect multiple devices (phone, laptops etc.) to the world wide webs. You can get them from most major phone network providers. The downside was that the dongle only worked in the UK (and not in the Republic of Ireland).
Other wi-fi options include:
- your smartphone plan if you already have one (some of which allow you to tether the internet onto a laptop etc. as well).
- Cafes, pubs and restaurants with free wi-fi. There is usually at least one in most medium-sized towns, so just look for the little wireless symbol. We didn’t find many free public hot spots on our travels.
- MacDonalds – always a reliable source of free wi-fi.
- Many campsites now have free wi-fi throughout the park as well. Just check the specifics because the few we encountered that charge extra for internet were really expensive. Also, ask for a pitch that is in range.
Other practical things
Ferries between Scotland / Ireland / Wales
Something you will need to make a full-circle UK/Ireland road trip is two car ferry trips. We travelled from Cairnryan, Scotland into Belfast, N.Ireland and then from Rosslare, Ireland to Fishguard, Wales, but there are other ports that connect the countries.
The most important things you need to do are book early and budget for the trips. As soon as you know your travel dates, go online to book your ticket for a car and the number of passengers you will be carrying. It’s cheaper the earlier you book and places do fill up. The two main operators are P&O and Stenaline.
In total, the two car ferry trips cost us £260 and we booked them about two weeks in advance.
National Trust membership
The National Trust manages many of the main tourist / historical attractions in the UK, such as Hadrian’s Wall and the Giant’s Causeway. Their website has opening times, history, costs, parking info and lots of other useful bits. While you’re on the site, you may want to consider signing up for membership, which can give you free/discounted access to sites across the UK and possibly save you quite a bit. We wish we had thought of doing that before paying so many entrance fees.
Money and borders
All pound sterling notes and coins are accepted within the UK, even though the different countries have different versions of the notes. Just be prepared for a funny look from a store attendant who hasn’t seen the neighbouring country’s note before.
When you cross the border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland, you’ll notice the change from miles/hour to kilometres/hour and the petrol prices change from pounds to euros. Otherwise, the border is open, with no security or procedure. This goes for inter-island car ferries as well.
Handy links to resources
As you can imagine, I’ve read stacks of websites along the road trip to inform our travels. I’ve collated a heap of the most useful resources on my Pinterest board titled ‘Resources to help your UK / Ireland road trip’.
If you’re interested in information for more specific areas, just have a read of ‘useful info’ section at the bottom of my place-specific posts. Also, check out photo albums from the road trip on my facebook page. If you still have questions, feel free to contact me – firstname.lastname@example.org
A big final thanks to Wicked Campers UK for the awesome van (Panda) and for making this trip possible. It was such a blast and you’ve made me a Wicked fan for life!