Should visitors rent a car in London?

Answers from Our Experts (5)

Jo Caird
  • Jo Caird

  • Correspondent

  • London, England, UK

The short answer is: no, absolutely not.

You might think that because London is so sprawling, driving would be a good way to get around, as it in some of the major US cities. But you'd be wrong, because while the city is enormous, the majority of its top hotels and attractions are very centrally located. You can explore a a great deal of the centre on foot and public transportation is almost always the best way of reaching the more out-of-the-way places too (see What is public transportation like in London? for more information).

Traffic in the capital is better than it used to be, since the introduction of the Congestion Charge (drivers entering the 'Congestion Charge zone' between the hours of 7am and 6pm Monday to Friday must pay a daily £10 fee), but driving is still usually the slowest way of getting around. Parking can also be a challenge, particularly in the daytime, when eagle-eyed traffic wardens lie in wait for unsuspecting drivers.

The only reason I would consider renting a car in London would be for trips out of the city. But even then, nine times out of ten, I'd recommend taking the train.

Joseph Reaney

Absolutely not. Although public transportation in London may not be especially cheap, when you compare it to the combined rates for car rental, gas (now in excess of $2 per liter) and the Congestion Charge (which can cost up to $15.50 a day), it doesn't make any economical sense to drive in the city. In fact, it doesn't make any sense however you look at it. Driving is one of the slowest ways to get around London — you'll often find yourself overtaken by bicycles, which can easily bypass the inevitable city traffic and take shortcuts through small streets and alleys — and it is without a doubt one of the most infuriating experiences, with strict speed limits and a series of one-way systems guaranteed to make you regret your decision. The British capital has an extensive and reliable public transport system, so why make life difficult for yourself?

The only justifiable reason to rent a car in London is to take day trips away from it. Yet, with all the major tourist towns and cities (such as Oxford, Bath and Brighton) accessible by train, and tour companies offering easy access to more remote sites (such as Hampton Court Palace and Stonehenge), I would still recommend leaving your driver's license at home.

Helen Ochyra

The short answer to this is simply: no. With its ancient street pattern, narrow roads and heavy traffic, London is not a driver's city and it has one of the best public transport systems in the world because of this. Driving in the centre of London is usually far slower – not to mention far more stressful – than taking the tube, but if you want to go directly from A to B, you can flag down one of London's plentiful and very professional black cabs pretty much anywhere. There is also an excellent bike hire service with drop off points around the city.
For short visits, staying in the city centre, your best bet is to arm yourself with an Oyster card and take the tube. You can pick up a map of the system at any station and there are further maps on all trains. The different lines are colour-coded so it's easy to use, and outside of rush hour it is a far more pleasant experience than you have probably been led to believe!

Gabrielle Sander

With the Underground, Overground, 24-hour bus network, an abundance of cabs to flag down or pre-book, and the Barclays Cycle Hire stations to hop on and off at – not forgetting the pedestrian-friendly, mainly flat terrain to walk on – there really is no need to hire a car while staying in London. In fact, traffic can get so busy over weekends and peak times during the week, I suggest you avoid that option altogether, unless you don't mind wasting your precious time in a long, slow-moving queue.

If you’re planning to venture out of the city for the day, or are hooked on the idea of driving while you’re here, a pay-as-you-go car hire company such as the City Car Club is a good flexible option; starting at an hourly rate of around £5 ($8).

Be aware that Monday through Friday, 7am to 8pm, in a bid to reduce traffic, a congestion fee is charged in central, red-lined, zones at £8 a day ($12). Failure to pay this within 24 hours results in a much higher penalty, so be sure to read up and register here before you set off.

Donald Strachan

The only person I could ever imagine answering "yes" to this question would be the owner of a chain of car rental businesses. It would be madness to rent a car — or "hire a car," as we say over here — in London. The streets are narrow, and follow no real pattern save for the historical whimsy of various medieval landowners; the jams are legendary, especially between 7 and 9 a.m. and again between 4 and 7 p.m.; there's a daily levy for private road users known as the Congestion Charge; the one-way system is mind-boggling — miss one turn and you could be 10 minutes away from finding your way back. I could go on ... but I imagine you get the idea.

London's public transportation network is pretty good, and very comprehensive. Use the TfL website for general advice, and the journey planner for plotting a specific route. Also, download a couple of good London transport apps to help you navigate the city's various networks.

If you intend to combine a trip to London with visiting the English countryside, then do the London segment at the start or at the end. Collect your car from the airport and drop it off there. Main hubs Heathrow and Gatwick have countless auto rental options. You should use a metasearch engine such as CarRentals.co.uk or CompareCarHire.co.uk to select the provider best suited to your needs.

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