Renting a Car from Heathrow Airport:
Many people will tell you not to rent a car while traveling throughout England because of the difficulties of driving on the opposite side of the road. I was just in England and Scotland for an 8 night trip (March 2009) with my wife and we rented a car from Heathrow International Airport
and drove through the countryside and up into Edinburgh. I must admit I completely avoided driving in London, we took the Tube and buses everywhere we needed to go. So yes, DO NOT try to drive in London unless you absolutely need to. It's too chaotic and not worth the stress especially since their public transportation is so good. As for driving outside of London as you head up through England and into Scotland, I would say renting a car is a good idea. Sure the train system is really efficient throughout the United Kingdom but having the freedom to start and stop whenever you want is really convenient. We rented a car through Hertz and had it for 5 days for about $300 (with gas included). Renting a car at Heathrow is just like anywhere else in the United States. The terminals all have signs pointing you to the rental car shuttles
that take you to the various rental car companies at Heathrow airport.
Hertz, Avis, National, Alamo, Budget, Enterprise and Europcar are the leading rental car companies at Heathrow (LHR). Keep in mind when searching for rental cars in England or Scotland, they refer to it as a "car hire". You'll find the shuttle buses come quite often to each terminal and pick you up. I arrived into Terminal 4 and it took about 7 minutes to get back out to Northern Perimeter Road where all the car hires are located. The biggest obstacle that many people from the United States have to overcome is driving on the other side of the road. Also, the drivers seat is on the right in their cars so it's definitely a different perspective. When you ask for a rental car either online or over the phone you will find that the vast majority are manuals (stick shifts) and very few automatics exist. You will also pay a handsome premium to rent an automatic rental car out of Heathrow. I think we paid an extra 40% to get an automatic but I feel like it was worth the extra $$ for the piece of mind. You can get more details on all the car hires available at LHR by going to their website at Heathrowairport.com. I booked my car online at Hertz but most travel websites like Expedia and Orbitz will let you do the same thing. You'll need your wits right away as getting out of the airport can be a little tough. The roundabouts are what get us tourists into trouble as you need to be in the right lane or else you are forced into turning somewhere you don't want to. The famous scene from the Chevy Chase movie European Vacation where he gets caught going in a circle at a roundabout is not an exaggeration as it can happen to those not used to them.
Lowest Rates on a Rental Car from LHR:
If you have coupon codes or promotional rates, we suggest going to the official website of the rental car company (their UK site if possible) to get the best rate. I searched online for "rental car coupons in the UK" on Google and found several useful promotion codes that saved me money for the week. Expedia sometimes offers specials on their website and it's worth checking the site out at least 2 to 3 times over a month or so to see what kind of rates are available. They show all the major car rental companies so you can quickly compare their rates and car types. Travelocity is another reputable travel website that lets you book rental cars in the UK. You will probably find that renting a car in Great Britain is not cheap and gas is also quite expensive. At about $1.45 for a liter, you will find that filling up a rental car in England will cost you well over $60 US. The best weekly rate I could find was at Hertz for a compact size car and you are still looking at $200+ for the week (maybe cheaper for a weekend). I rented from Monday to Friday and paid about $300. If you are used to a premium vehicle, expect to put out $400 or more for a 5 day period. Check online for rental car discounts either at the companies websites or at the travel websites. Joining an email newsletter for Hertz or Avis may be one way to get offers via email. Don't expect rates to budge that much - I watched rates for almost 4 months and they never moved up or down more than about $20. I feel like the rental car business in England is less competitive than throughout America. Another option at getting a lower rate is trying to get the rental car from an off site location. Don't go to Heathrow, try another location and see what they say.
Driving in London and around England:
As we said above, DO NOT attempt to drive your rental car in London. First, there's so much traffic you'll be stuck almost anywhere you go. Secondly, parking is a nightmare and streets are narrow. We spent 3 days in London without the rental car and it was relaxing and I never said to myself "gosh I wish I had a rental car". However, if you want to see the countryside and surrounding cities like Oxford or Bath, renting a car is not a bad idea. I picked up our rental at Heathrow and drove out towards Reading and into Newbury and then into Oxford. The driving was a little stressful as you have to keep reminding yourself that you turn left out of parking lots onto the road and you have to watch to your right (do not forget). Driving on the left became second nature after a few hours. My biggest trouble was going around the roundabouts and making sure I was in the correct lane as I head out the other side to the road I needed. I got honked at several times for taking up 2 lanes. Nevertheless, I didn't get hit or into an accident the entire 5 days I drove. Although a bit stressful around city centers and congested roadways, the driving in smaller areas was fun and just like what you would experience here in the States. I have now driven around England and Scotland twice in my life and I actually enjoy it. Once you get away from cities there is little car traffic and most of the time you have the roads all to yourself. One caveat to drivers, when you get on the major roadways in Britain (like the M1 or M6), they drive fast so don't get in the fast lane (farthest right) unless you plan on going at least 85 or 90 MPH. One other thing, I had a really good UK Road Atlas I bought years ago and it shows all the roads throughout the countries and gives you a good idea of where you are headed. I HIGHLY suggest buying something similar before attempting to drive yourself around the United Kingdom.
Returning your rental car to Heathrow:
One issue did arise when we returned the car to Heathrow. I wasn't paying attention when we originally rented the car and I forgot which terminal we left from with the car. When returning on the M25 and approaching the airport I saw all sorts of signs that said Terminals 1,2,and 3 or Terminal 4 or 5 but nothing referring to rental car return. I was literally yelling at my wife and a bit confused as it was getting dark and harder to see the signs. If you do rent from Hertz or Avis, or the other major rental car brands, you return the cars to Terminals 1, 2, or 3. I'm surprised the rental car companies don't tell those renting cars which terminal they need to return the car to but I guess they expect us to figure that one out. Heathrow is big and can be overwhelming so stay calm and look at a map before returning to the airport. There is a map online that shows Northern Perimeter Road with the roads that connect you there. Check it out HERE