Getting around Scotland without a car in 2023 – all you need to know

When planning a Scotland trip and dreaming about far off, remote parts of the country, you might be wondering how on earth you get there without the added hassle and expense of renting a car.

Getting around Scotland doesn’t have to be hard and you can still get yourself to some pretty remote places using trains, buses and ferries.

I’ve used almost all of these modes of transport over the years to get around Scotland. Having a car definitely helps to get out of the way, but for anyone who doesn’t have one, don’t fret! There’s still a lot you can see and experience.

A note from the writer: Hey! I’m Kirsty and I’m a UK travel expert – while I grew up in Scotland, as an adult I now return to visit almost every year – there’s so much to see! Shout (or comment below) if you have any questions about your next trip and I’ll get back to you ASAP.

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Let’s take a look at what you can use to travel in Scotland without a car:

Useful Links for planning getting around Scotland without driving:

  • Rabbies – find tours all around Scotland
  • Trainline – best place to book your trains
  • Calmac – ferries to most islands

For trip planning:

  • Google Maps – enter your start and end point and toggle to get public transport options. You’ll find out operators, bus numbers and times.
  • Traveline Scotland – plan journeys with public transport

Car Rental:

  • Discover Cars – just in case you want to see what car rental prices are like!

Do you need a car to explore Scotland?

If you’re just visiting Scotland’s cities then, no you don’t need a car. If you want to explore more of the countryside then having a car does help, but you can still do a surprising amount without one.

Travelling around Scotland without a car might take a little bit more planning but can be done. It helps to check what your must see sights are and then figure out if it’s doable with public transport.

For example, getting to Loch Ness from Inverness is easy without a car with plenty of buses and inexpensive tours going that way. Exploring some more out of the way sights like John o’Groats or Eilean Donan Castle might be harder so a car can be advisable if you have lots of sights to tick off!

Tip – You might only need to rent a car in Inverness and explore the Highlands though – maybe you could stick to public transport between the cities since that’s super easy!

Even if your ideal sights to see are not easily doable without a car, don’t worry. You may be able to join a small tour group visiting some sights – it’s actually a really good way to see some more remote landmarks that are on your bucket list if you don’t want to rent a car. You can even get to Skye from Edinburgh with group tours – no driving needed (by you at least!)

Options for getting around Scotland without a car:

Here are some of the options for you and your Scotland trip if you don’t want to rent a car.

Harry Potter train in Scotland going over viaduct
Not all trains look like this in Scotland, but definitely go on this one if you can!

Trains

Trains are great to get you into the heart of a new area of Scotland. You can get between all the big cities by train and even into some areas of the Highlands too. The best journey is probably heading over the Glenfinnan Viaduct though – Harry Potter train anyone?

If you’re traveling from or onwards to London trains can be a good way to get that done easily and with the added advantage of being able to see the British countryside go by on your journey.

There are a few different operators of trains, but the majority of trains are run by Scotrail.

Trains are not all about just getting to your destination – some are amazing to just enjoy by their own right! Here are some scenic rail lines that you might like to add to your trip just for the sake of it!

West Highland Line

Going from Glasgow this line takes you either to Oban (so great to get to Mull or some other islands) or further into the Highlands for Fort William or Mallaig.

The Mallaig section is the one you want if you want to do a regular train over the Harry Potter viaduct – it’s also good for getting the Small Isles Ferry to Rum, Canna, Muck or Eigg. You can also get to Skye from there too.

The West Highland Line is thought of as one of the most picturesque railway lines in Scotland so if you want to get out of the cities this is the one to try!

Kyle Line

The Kyle Line is another train line that takes you deep into the Highlands of Scotland. This time it starts in Inverness and takes you all the way across to the west coast to the Kyle of Lochalsh.

From here you’re just a stones throw from the Skye Bridge over to the island. You can get a bus or a taxi to take you to Portree, the main town on Skye.

Far North Line

As the name suggests, this railway line takes you to the Far North of Scotland. Wick or Thurso to be exact. You’ll head through some of the most wild and remote Scottish scenery on this line.

While not the most northerly tip of the country this line will get you close to there and you can get buses to take you further on.

Borders Railway Line

If you’re looking to head south into the Scottish Borders then this 1 hour journey from Edinburgh to Tweedbank is for you.

This train gets you into the heart of the borders where you can catch buses to many of the small towns and villages around. I’m a big fan of the Borders and love the towns of Melrose, Jedburgh and their Border abbeys!

Stranraer Line

This line goes from Glasgow and will be of interest for anyone wanting to go to Rabbie Burns country as this is where he’s from (you’ll want to get off in Ayr).

This is also the line you might like to take if you’re heading over to Northern Ireland as the ferries depart from here.

Carlisle Line

Finally we have the Carlisle line which takes you south from Glasgow and through some of the picturesque Dumfries and Galloway area before heading into the Lake District in England.

Getting train tickets:

I find that Trainline is the best online place to get tickets and I use them all the time. They are great to check times and see all your options. E-tickets can be purchased and added to your phone so you don’t lose them. Paper tickets can also be picked up from most stations if you prefer that or you can buy tickets from most stations too. Some stations aren’t manned and will only have ticket machines.

Eurail and Interail rickets can also be used in Scotland (and throughout Great Britain) and may be a cost effective way of getting around.

Tip: trains can be expensive, especially if you buy tickets close to your travel date. If you know where you’re going and when buying in advance can work out cheaper. You can buy from around 12 weeks in advance on Trainline.

Railcards are recommended to purchase if you’re traveling extensively by train – there are a few on offer whether you’re young or are travelling with another person or with kids. If you’re not sure whether it will save you money, check out fares with and without a railcard on Trainline – you’ll see the difference.

Buses

Buses run all over Scotland and are the best way of getting to all of the small towns and villages around. If you’re in cities they can be great to get you around and to different areas too.

Don’t discount buses for getting you between different cities of Scotland as well – they may be a little slower than the train but they can be a cheaper option if saving money is important for you!

Buses can be run by different companies in different areas of Scotland so it’s worth checking which one you need before heading out to the bus stop. Often tickets are specific to each company too.

Always check the timetable for your return journey before heading out, especially if you’re off somewhere remote, sometimes there’s only a couple of buses a day.

Links for some of Scotland’s bus companies:

tram in Edinburgh
Tram system in Edinburgh

Trams / Subway

If you’re looking to get around Edinburgh you’ll be pleased to know that it has a new tram system that is great for easily getting about.

Glasgow also has a subway system. Both can be good for getting to different areas of the cities.

Edinburgh’s tram can also get you easily from the airport to the centre of town so if you’re landing there it’s super easy.

Taxis

If you don’t have a car then taxis can be a good way to get yourself, your luggage and your companions to your hotel without the hassle of public transport. You can even use them to get to different parts of Scotland – be aware that it may be quite costly to do it this way.

You’ll find local taxi firms all over Scotland. The best thing to do is to google ‘Taxi company’ for where you need them and you should get a list of local firms. You can then get in contact with them to get a quote for where you need to go.

Some taxi services can even provide guided tours of the area! Again, perfect if there’s a few of you and you want a more private option than some of the organised tours (below).

2 children passengers on Scottish Island ferry
Heading off on an island adventure!

Ferries

Scotland’s ferry company, Calmac, runs services to almost all of the islands around Scotland so if you’re planning to do some island hopping then getting familiar with them is a good idea. They are government subsidised so it means they tend to be inexpensive.

If you want to go north to see Orkney or Shetland you’ll need to check out NorthLink Ferries.

These ferry services always allow foot passengers and generally it can be an cheap way to get around although of course it can add up!

Timetables change when travelling in late Autumn or Winter months so be aware that what can be doable in Summer might not be all year round. Also check the timetable for return services as not everywhere can be visited as a day trip.

Guided Tours

If you have your heart set on visiting some of Scotland’s sights but are a little bit tight on time, or you just don’t fancy getting to grips with public transport, then a guided tour is a great way to see some of the country without the hassle.

You can explore castles, lochs, distilleries and so much more. Some trips will even take you to the islands as well.

I recommend checking out the following if this appeals to you:

  • Rabbies – local company that provides lots of Scotland tours
  • Get Your Guide – lots of guided tours by many operators
  • Viator – lots of guided tours, owned by Trip Advisor
Flight over Barra Island in Scotland
One way to get to some remote parts of Scotland are the small regional flights

Flights

Scotland is a small country but there are still quite a lot of smaller airports that can be useful to fly to if you’re tight on time and want to get a little bit further afield.

If you’re flying into Scotland from elsewhere it can be sensible to get a connecting flight, especially if you’re planning on going to some islands or even the Highlands.

LoganAir is the main airline that will take you to the regional airports so it’s worth checking out what they have on offer. Normally services are less over the winter months.

Walking / Hiking

Finally, it would be a little bit remiss of me to not mention walking as a way of getting around. Ok, you probably don’t want to explore the whole of Scotland by foot but perhaps you might be interested in doing some of the long distance walks around.

The West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way are two of the most popular trails and will provide some amazing locations to hike. I’ll be honest, I’ve not done them myself (yet) but I’ve heard fantastic things about them.

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🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 Scotland Travel FAQ 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

Do I need insurance for traveling to Scotland?

YES! I always recommend people take travel insurance when exploring the world!

Check Travel Insurance Master for quote comparisons from different providers.

Do I need a car for visiting Scotland?

YES – If you’re wanting to explore Scotland fully then a car is worthwhile. It will get you to all the best sights and on your own timetable

I recommend DiscoverCars to compare car rental prices in Scotland

How to book accommodation in Scotland?

For hotels I recommend Booking.com

For apartments and cottages check out VRBO

Will my phone work in Scotland?

Perhaps – it depends if you have roaming enabled and beware this can be an expensive way to use your phone.

If you need a SIM for use in Scotland I recommend GiffGaff which you can get and set up before traveling.

What to pack for Scotland

Keep yourself dry be prepared for any weather is my motto for Scotland! A rain jacket and comfy shoes are a must.

See my post about what to pack for Scotland

Do I need midge spray for Scotland?

YES – if you’re traveling in the summer months to any of the west coast, highlands, islands or lochs it’s recommended.

Locals swear by Avon’s Skin So Soft!

If you’re sticking to the cities or traveling in winter, early spring or late fall then you likely won’t need it.

What’s the best guidebook for Scotland?

I really like the Lonely Planet Guidebooks

Where to get flights for Scotland

Skyscanner is my first port of call for finding cheap flights to Scotland.

Do I need a visa for Scotland?

Many countries don’t need a visa for visiting Scotland as tourists (USA, Canada, Aus, NZ and Europe) – it’s always best to check first though.

Photo of author

Kirsty Bartholomew

Kirsty Bartholomew is a travel expert and has been getting lost around the world for over 30 years and writing about it for over 10 of those. She loves to help people explore her favourite places in Scotland, England and beyond. She cannot stay away from historical sites.

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