Getting Around Scottish Highlands
The best way to get around the Scottish Highlands is by car. Many of the region's top attractions and desirable destinations are spread far apart from one another and could take a long time to reach via public transportation. And with all the outdoor activities you'll no doubt be enjoying, you might want to take the Highlands at your own pace. However, if you aren't comfortable driving on the left side of the road, or willing to fork over the exorbitant fees for renting a car, stick to trains and buses. Another way to avoid having to navigate on your own is by signing up for a guided tour of the Scottish Highlands.
Luckily, Scotland has a well-connected railway that services gateway Highlands cities, including Fort William, Aviemore and Inverness. Buses also service these cities and can be cheaper in comparison to traveling via train. While buses and trains will no doubt save you some pounds in the long run, it's important to know that routes start to become fewer and farther between in more remote areas, specifically the northwest tip of the country. The best way to reach the Scottish Highlands is to fly into either Glasgow (GLA) or Edinburgh (EDI) international airports and then rent a car or take the train or bus to get into the Highlands.
Renting a car is the best way to get around the Scottish Highlands. Large rental car retailers, such as Avis, Hertz, Enterprise and Alamo, operate in Scotland. It's important to note that gas (or petrol) is more expensive in the U.K. than in the U.S. It's also important to know that the farther you are from big cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow, the fewer gas stations you'll encounter. Not only that, but remote gas stations are known to have reduced hours (in comparison to big cities) and are usually closed on Sundays. On the upside, all you'll need to rent a car in Scotland is your driver's license (no international driving permit is required). Plus, the country is home to a bevy of scenic highways. There are actually 12 designated National Tourist Routes that show off the best of Scotland's natural scenery, stretching along coasts and weaving through mountains. For more information about these routes, as well as regional rules of the road, visit the Scotland tourism board's website.
For such a rural area, the Scottish Highlands region is pretty accessible via train. There are multiple train companies that service Scotland, but the only one visitors really need to know about is ScotRail. ScotRail hits major Highlands gateway cities, including Inverness (13 miles north of Loch Ness), Fort William (8 miles northwest of Ben Nevis) and Aviemore (located in Cairngorms National Park), as well as many towns and cities in between. Routes also take visitors to the ferries that go to the Isle of Skye, as well as Thurso, where you can find ferries to the northernmost Orkney Islands. Costs for a one-way train ticket vary greatly depending on the time of day and destination. For a single journey ticket from Glasgow to Inverness, fares range from 22.30 to 67.70 pounds (around $28.80 to $87.30).
If you're planning on covering multiple destinations over the course of a few days in the Scottish Highlands, it may be easier to get a Highland Rover Pass than to purchase multiple single-fare tickets. The Highland Rover Pass costs 81.50 pounds (about $105) and covers travel by train, bus and ferry for four days of unlimited travel over an eight-day consecutive period. However, if you book your fares enough in advance, you can get cheap standard single tickets that may add up less than the cost of your Highland Rover Pass (fares from Inverness to Thurso can be as little as 9.20 pounds, or $11.90). For more information on scenic train routes in Scotland, visit Scotland tourism board's website.
Traveling via bus, or "coach" as the locals call it, is the cheapest option for getting around the Scottish Highlands. There are multiple bus companies to choose from, including National Express, Stagecoach and Scottish Citylink, but you should only concern yourself with the latter two. Scottish Citylink services popular Highlands destinations including Inverness, Skye and Oban (situated 35 miles northwest of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park) while Stagecoach services more remote Highlands destinations. Prices vary by route, but tend to be more fixed compared to train fares. Tickets from Glasgow to Inverness from Citylink are about 18.70 pounds, or $24, and from Inverness to Thurso cost 19.80 pounds (around $25).
If you want to travel to one of the Highlands' many island clusters (with the exception of the Isle of Skye), you'll need to take a ferry. There are various ferry services that go to each of the groups of islands, including the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland islands. If you purchase the Highland Rover Pass from ScotRail, you'll have ferries to Skye, Mull (part of Inner Hebrides), Stromness and Kirkwall (part of Orkney) and Lerwick (part of Shetland) covered. If you aren't interested in the Highland Rover Pass, CalMac Ferries covers the Inner and Outer Hebrides while Northlink Ferries services select cities in both the Orkney Islands and Shetland. However, Northlink Ferries leave out of Aberdeen only. Both ferries can hold cars. Prices vary by destination. If you aren't planning on traveling to Aberdeen, you can catch the Pentland Ferry to the Orkney's from Gills Bay, situated in the northeastern point of Scotland.
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