When it comes to airports, cities can usually be divided into two camps — the simple ones which only have one airport and those that are served by two or more airports. East Midlands airport on the other hand is a completely different breed as it is an airport which serves three different cities — Nottingham, Derby and Leicester. Although for several years the airport did market itself as Nottingham East Midlands, this naturally drew deep resentment from Leicester and Derby, and eventually it reverted back to its original name.
Our East Midlands car hire advice looks at driving and public transport alternatives in each of these three cities, as well as at how easy it is to get between them and to reach other places of interest in the East Midlands region.
Naturally, there is some overlap with nearby Birmingham, especially as many people take flights to East Midlands as a cheaper alternative for reaching Birmingham and other cities.
Why hire a car at East Midlands airport?
Multi-city tour — Nottingham, Derby and Leicester all have their own places of interest, but neither of them has enough of a tourist draw to warrant spending a whole holiday in one place. Instead, you will at the very least want to travel between the cities, and more likely you will want to venture out into some of the very scenic countryside areas which surround them. Naturally, having a hire car is going to make this a great deal easier.
Limited rail network — just compare the vast network of regional and suburban railway lines around Birmingham with a small number of lines radiating out from Nottingham, Derby or Leicester, and you will see that the train is only useful for core trunk routes, and that if you want to visit any of the scenic rural areas, you will probably have to rely on buses.
Token tram — Nottingham does at least have sparkling new tram line, but that is all it is — one line with a split at the top, and the whole thing serves little purpose for visiting tourist sites.
No airport rail link — again, unlike Birmingham, there is no easy rail link between East Midlands airport and any of the cities it claims to serve. Worse still, just 4 miles away from East Midlands airport is the East Midlands Parkway railway station, which claims to serve the airport, but no longer has any fixed bus connection to it. There is also no taxi service based at East Midlands Parkway, so don’t head back that way on your return to the airport, unless you book an onward taxi well in advance.
Peak District — the real scenic gem of the East Midlands area is the Peak District National Park, which is one of the most popular in England, as it is so close to Derby, Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham. Although there are actually numerous ways to appreciate the Peak District without having a car (see below), a hire car will still give you all the usual flexibility.
Chatsworth is one of the finest stately homes anywhere in England, and is world famous not just the architecture of the house itself but also the stunning landscape setting it sits within and it’s curious mix of gardens and greenhouses. A hire car will give you much more flexibility, although you can reach Chatsworth by bus from either Sheffield or Matlock.
Belvoir Castle is another gem to the east of Nottingham, but this time, trying to get there by anything other than car is nigh on impossible, as buses must be booked ahead in advance – thus defeating the whole point of letting someone else do the driving.
Alton Towers — no visit to this part of the world is complete without spending a day at the Alton Towers theme park. As with other major attractions, you can get there by bus, you will have a lot more flexibility if you go by car, even if the car will just sit all day in the car park.
Robin Hood – for all things Robin Hood, apart from the centre of Nottingham itself, you will need a car to drive around at your own pace. Naturally, Mr Hood, being a man of the people, would be driving a small compact model, and he would, of course, be trying to get you to use the airport named after him!
Easy city connections — you will have no problem travelling between Nottingham, Derby and Leicester as there is a triangular network of trains running between them, with at least two trains each hour in any direction. It should take no more than half an hour to travel between any of the cities, and trains from Leicester to either Derby or Nottingham are generally of a good standard as they have originated in London.
Pedestrian friendly city centres — Nottingham in particular has an extensive network of pedestrianised streets, arcades and indoor shopping centres (but avoid Broadmarsh like the plague!), and Leicester and Derby also have pedestrianised streets. Within these central cores, which also include many of the key visitor attractions, it is far easier to get around on foot than by any other means. You could easily get in out of the city centres by bus or train, and even if you do have a hire car, it is often easier to leave it in one of the edge of city park-and-ride car parks.
Peak District at its peak — as mentioned above, a hire car will give you plenty of flexibility in the Peak District, but to appreciate this area at his best, you will want to leave the car behind and explore some of the following activity options:
Tissington and High Peak Trails — these two former railway lines have been converted into a traffic free cycleway network which branches in a Y-shape from Buxton to Ashbourne and Cromford (near Matlock). With their sweeping embankments and plant rich cuttings, these two trails are amongst the very best in the UK, and really are a must-do for any visitor. Although you can walk these trails, you will see far more if you go out by bike.
There are a number of places from where you can hire a bike, including Parsley Hay and Middleton Top, which are both on the trails.
However, note that these hire centres are some way from any railway stations, so you might be better off looking for bike hire in Matlock or Derby (see below). Note that the ride up from Cromford to Middleton top is extremely steep, but it is well worth the reward!
Heights of Abraham and Derwent Valley line — any fan of railway and cable technology will love the delightfully scenic Heights of Abraham, and the single track Derwent Valley railway line which you will use to get there. Trains run hourly north from Derby to Matlock.
Alight one stop before at Matlock Bath to the Heights of Abraham. Naturally, kids will be more interested in the experiences at the top, but there is no doubt plenty here for kids young and old to appreciate. You can also enjoy walking on the Cromford Canal which runs parallel to this route.
Melton Mowbray — foodies will love a visit to the quaint market town of Melton Mowbray, famous for its pork pies and stilton cheese. You can easily reach Melton Mowbray by train from either Leicester or Nottingham.
National Space Centre, Leicester — this is another attraction which is going to appeal to big and small kids. This is easy to get to from the centre of Leicester by bus – and even easier on a bike, if you can get hold of one!
Greenways (cycling) — the East Midlands has several high-quality and traffic free cycling routes, with each of the three major cities having one particularly good one.
In Leicester, you can take the former route to the Great Central railway south to get out the city, and from here you can easily explore a number of attractive villages. Nottingham has the “Big Track”, which is a 10 mile circuit taking in both the River Trent and the adjacent canal. This circuit loops around Beeston, and you can also continue further up the River Trent as far as Trentlock.
From Derby, you can head out to Worthington using the Derby canal path, or you can also head north out of the city towards the Peak District (see above).
Considering that East Midlands airport serves three very different cities, the natural instinct is to think towards getting a hire car to travel around and between them. However, with a little bit of planning, it is clear that there is plenty to see and do without needing one, and that there are also a number of very high quality attractions involving other forms of transport, especially the bike. For these reasons, we think you can get by without a hire car, especially if you are interested in going around on two wheels instead of four.
For bike hire in and around the Peak District, try Peak Tours, who also will deliver bikes to nearby cities.
If you are thinking about bringing your bike with you by plane, please read the guide on our sister website Flightmapping.com. However, for travel within the UK, it is just as easy to get to the East Midlands by train. Derby in particular is on the main Cross-Country route between Devon / Cornwall and North East England / Edinburgh.
Tiny St Martin is one of the smallest divided islands in the world, although there are no border controls between the larger Dutch side (Sint Maarten) and the smaller French side (Saint-Martin). Technically, the usage of the Anglicised name St Martin would imply a reference to the island of the whole, and English is widely spoken throughout the island anyway.
Given the compact size of St Martin, and given that many people visiting the island are just passing through on their way to a cruise ship or between connecting flights, is there any reason to hire a car there?
Why hire a car in St Martin?
Variable public transport — if you’re just trying to get between places on the major roads, then you should be able to flag down a bus quite easily, and one should pass every few minutes, but there are no formal bus stops, therefore there aren’t any published timetables or on-street indicators.
Instead, you just hope the bus will turn up sooner or later, and take what comes. If you want to transfer from one bus to another, you will pay again.
In some cases, bus routes end abruptly, and you will have to walk to continue onwards — for example there is no bus between Cupecoy Bay and Mullet Beach.
No French airport connection — to travel between the main Princess Juliana airport (SXM) and Phillipsburg, which is capital of the Dutch side, you should have no problem going by bus, although they run along the adjacent Airport Road, and don’t actually call at the terminal.
However, there is no direct bus to Marigot, the capital of the French side. Instead, you will have the change in Cole Bay. Plenty of taxis are also available, and they can operate islandwide.
Freedom and flexibility – a hire car will let you explore the island in your own time, at your own pace.
Getting away from it — given its compact size, St Martin is one of the most overdeveloped islands in the Caribbean, and a lot of the time, this development has not been sympathetic to the local environment, especially on the Dutch side. The buses tend to run between the developed areas, so to find a more secluded beach, a hire car can be extremely useful.
No-go for cyclists – you might have thought that an island with a shared Dutch and French heritage would be able to combine the very best of Dutch cycling infrastructure and French passion for cycle touring, but alas, this is sadly not the case. In fact, just as with anywhere else in the Caribbean, there is no designated cycling infrastructure whatsoever on St Martin, and when this is combined with the generally unsympathetic attitude of local drivers, St Martin is actually a very unpleasant place in which to ride a bike.
Walk at your peril — many of the roads have no pavements (sidewalks), especially if you are trying to walk between, rather than within, the built-up areas.
French chic — the French side of the island is generally more sympathetically developed than the Dutch side, but it is easier to get there, and then to get around, if you have a hire car.
No train – Unsurprisingly, there is no form of train, tram, or any other kind of fixed rail link on St Martin.
Why not? Visiting St Martin without a car:
Maho Beach — if there is one unique and enduring image of St Martin which sets it apart from any other Caribbean island, it is that of arriving heavy jets landing over the world famous Maho beach, situated at the western end of the runway at Princess Juliana airport. Many aviation buffs come to St Martin just to get so up close and personal with these huge metal beasts, and videos of landings are a perennial Youtube favourite. Maho Beach is a short (but not particularly pleasant) walk from the airport terminal.
Accessing remote beaches — a hire car might take you closer to some beaches than a bus will, but ultimately to reach some of the more inaccessible beaches, such as Back Bay or Geneve Bay to the east of Phillipsburg, you will still need to walk the last few miles.
Traffic — travelling around St Martin can mean sitting in a virtually endless queue of traffic, so you might prefer to let someone else do the driving.
Walking in St Martin — St Martin has some excellent walking trails, affording stunning views of the island itself and of some of the nearby islands. Make sure you arm yourself with a good map, plenty of water, repellant and long clothes to minimise the risk of getting stung by some of the vicious wasps which inhabit these areas.
Excursions by air — St Martin is an ideal base for some of the most hair -aising flights in the world.
The most famous is the short hop over to nearby Saba, which has the shortest runway in the world for a commercial airport. The approach into Saba runs under some very dramatic cliffs, and if you get the chance to sit at the front, you will see the airport appear like a tiny postage stamp above the sea.
Another famous approach is into St Barts, where pilots have to navigate their way past a steep hill before diving down to the runway. These islands, together with Anguilla, can be visited on a day trip from St Martin, as there are multiple flights.
Of course, there are numerous other delightful islands which can be reached by excursion from St Martin, although you will usually have to stay at least one night, as most of these flights only operate once each day.
Excursions by sea – there are three ports on the island offering departures to nearby islands — Oyster Pond and Pelican Key, which both offer boat trips to Saba and St Barts; and Marigot, which offers boat trips to St Barts and Anguilla.
Easy transfers — you should have no problem transferring by bus between Juliana Airport and Phillipsburg, from where cruise ships depart.
Conclusion — given that St Martin is so heavily developed, it is hardly surprising that you can get around between the main communities on the island by bus, but it really isn’t a particularly easy system to get used to, especially if you’re only here for a day or two. As most of the development is on the Dutch side, and as the island is a generally unpleasant place to get around on foot or by bike, a hire car becomes the best option by default.
Verdict — yes
The official currency on French St Martin is the euro, whereas Dutch St Martin uses the Netherlands Antillian Guilder, which is set to transfer to the Caribbean Guilder dollar in 2013.
In reality, the US dollar is widely used on both sides of the island, but especially on the Dutch side. Avoid paying in euros in Dutch St Martin, as you will usually be given a very poor exchange rate of 1 to 1 against the US dollar.
French St Martin is treated as French territory, with a status similar to that of Corsica. However, if you fly into Princess Juliana airport from Paris or any other French territory, you will still have to go through brief immigration and customs checks, as the Dutch side of St Martin is administered separately, and neither part of the island is within the Schengen zone.
Perpignan benefitted quite early from the low-cost flights revolution, although it has since seen several routes scaled back. Depending on whether your local airport offers flights to Perpignan, this advice could be considered in conjunction with our Carcassonne or Toulouse car hire guides, or alternatively with our suggestions about whether or not to hire a car from Barcelona in neighbouring Spain.
The natural assumption would be that as Perpignan is relatively small and out of the way, a hire car would be the most obvious option, but is it as straightforward as that?
Why hire a car in Perpignan?
Carcassonne — the walled city of Carcassonne makes a great day excursion from Perpignan, and it is extremely easy to reach using the A9 and then A61 autoroutes.
You can also get there by train, but you will have to change in Narbonne for a connection, taking around 1 1/2 hours, and you will also have to reserve seats on any services operated by the TGV. See our Carcassonne car hire advice page for more details.
Gorges Galmus — head directly west to St-Paul-de-Fenouille and then through the delightful Gorges Galmus, from where you can drive in a loop around the Rialsesse forest. However, you can also get to St Paul by train and then walk up the gorge from there.
Canigou — drive west as far as Prades, and then head down to Vernet-les-Bains and the impressive Massif and Pic du Canigou. There are also a number of high-quality walking trails in this area, and these can be accessed by train from Prades.
Slow trains — although TGV services call into Perpignan, the fast line from Paris slows down to conventional pace just before Nimes. Trains from here aren’t going to be as fast as they might be elsewhere in France. For exploring the local area though, this really isn’t a problem. Note that there is a fast link to the edge of Figueres (45 mins) in Spain, but you have to change to continue to Barcelona (2h30), or take a slightly slower direct train (2h 50).
Why not? Perpignan without a car:
Beaches — you can easily take a bus out of Perpignan to Canet-Plage and other surrounding villages to enjoy the Mediterranean coastline, or some of the lakes which sit just behind. However, a hire car will naturally let you explore a bit further.
Vermilion coast — as you approach the Spanish border at Cerbere / Portbou, the railway line takes a superb scenic route along the Vermilion Coast. You can also drive the route, and then loop back through the Alberes via le Perthus.
Yellow train — you can take the train to Villefrance-de-Conflent, from where you can board the spectacular “Yellow Train” to Latour-de-Carol. From here you can continue on to Toulouse.
Catalan connections — from Perpignan, you can head south into neighbouring Spain, and through to the Dali hometown of Figueres, and then onto Girona and the Catalan capital Barcelona.
Dali painting and decorating – the station in Perpignan has been uniquely featured in a Dali painting (currently hanging in Cologne) and has also been partly decorated by him.
Pedestrian friendly centre — although most people flying into Perpignan are more interested in the surrounding country, the city of Perpignan in itself is relatively compact and walkable, centred around the pedestrianised Le Castillet. The city also has a six sided citadel, featuring the Palais Des Rois De Majorque.
Conclusion — Perpignan has previously had railway routes heading out in various different directions, but now it only has three. What it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality, but this is still more of an option for rail buffs than it is a workable system for everyone else. So a hire car is still the best idea for visiting the area around Perpignan.
Most people know that the city of dreaming spires is also one of the U.K.’s least accessible cities to motorists in private cars, whilst also being second only to Cambridge when it comes to the volume of cyclists. Yet Oxford is also home to Inspector Morse and his legendary red Jaguar, and even if the city itself is not very car friendly, there is plenty of great driving country beyond its boundaries.
As there are only limited flights to Oxford airport, most people visiting the city will either arrive by train or coach, and be considering picking up a car from the city centre, or they will travel up from one of the London’s airports.
Why rent a car in Oxford?
Cotswolds — arguably home to the finest villages in England, the Cotswolds is one of the most visited scenic areas in the UK, and is easily accessed by car to the west of Oxford. Try and avoid summer weekends, when many villages become too overcrowded and parking is impossible. The smaller villages are just as delightful as their more famous larger cousins! As with anywhere, a car is going to give you far more flexibility to explore the Cotswolds at your own pace. Although local bus services do exist (see below), they need careful planning, and they aren’t much use for providing connections to the many houses, gardens, and other attractions within the Cotswolds area.
Blenheim Palace — the world-famous Blenheim Palace sits on the edge of the Cotswolds near the village of Woodstock, to the north-west of Oxford.
Morse Country – a hire car is ideal for visiting the many haunts frequented by Morse in his various murder investigations in and around Oxford.
Bicester Village — shopaholics will want to head for Bicester Village, just beyond junction 9 of the M40. This massive outlet shopping park is adjacent to Bicester Town railway station, which is served by trains from Oxford. However, if you are travelling out from London, you will arrive at Bicester North Station, from where a shuttle bus is available to get to Bicester Village. If you are laid down with heavy shopping, it always tends to be much easier to load up the boot of a car.
Milton Keynes — for a complete contrast to the dreaming spires of Oxford, visit the spotlessly efficient new town of Milton Keynes, home to a virtually infinite number of roundabouts and the longest shopping centre in the UK.
Chiltern Hills — the scenic beauty around Oxford is by no means restricted to venturing west. Drive for just 20 minutes to the south-east of Oxford, and you will hit the Chiltern Hills, home to many stunningly beautiful villages, which don’t have quite the same tourist hordes at the Cotswolds.
Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare country — although the town of Stratford upon Avon itself has a railway station, it is much more cumbersome to get there by train than it should be, as the more direct route has long since closed.
Instead, you’ll need to change in Banbury or Royal Leamington Spa, only to loop back on yourself to end up in Stratford. With a hire car, you can explore many of the wonderful Warwickshire lanes on your way.
Even Warwick Castle, with its limited parking is still a quick sprint up the M40, rather than an indirect train journey, although if you like walking, you can go along the banks of either the River Avon or the Grand Union Canal to reach Warwick directly from Leamington station.
Vale of the White Horse — head south from Oxford on the A34, and just beyond Abingdon you will find the start of the Vale of White Horse, which contains numerous examples of these huge equine carvings. This trail will take you south of Swindon and up to the start of Salisbury Plain.
Downton Abbey — just south of Newbury is Highclere Castle, made famous by the multiple award-winning period drama Downton Abbey.
Stonehenge — just to the north of Salisbury, on the southern edge of the Salisbury Plain is the World Heritage site of Stonehenge.
Poor airport access – unless you are flying into Heathrow or Birmingham (see below), Oxford is not that well connected to London’s vast array of airports. It may well be easier to drive here, and then to use the hire car for the rest of your trip.
Why not? — Oxford without a car:
City of Oxford — needless to say, as already mentioned above, there is no point in hiring a car just to drive up to the city of Oxford, as, much to the disgust of Oxfordshire motormouth Jeremy Clarkson, the city is largely designed to keep the private car out, and parking is notoriously expensive.
Many people visiting the city use the park and ride facilities instead, and Oxford has no less than five of these, covering all the main access roads.
There is little point in getting a hire car just to end up taking a bus into the city centre –you might as well arrive by train or coach, as the rail and bus stations are much more central.
Cycling city — needless to say, Oxford is one of the best places in the UK in which to ride a bike. If you can brave it past the ring of tarmac that surrounds the city, then a good bike will give you almost as much flexibility as a hire car will, and during those hot summer weekends, it can access those parts of the Cotswolds that cars sometimes cannot reach.
Blenheim Palace by bus — Blenheim Palace is one of those attractions where you will either want to spend several hours inside marvelling at the historic grandeur of the building itself, or you will want to go walking around the Capability Brown – designed landscape. In either case, you would just have to pay through the nose again for parking, so why bother? Plenty of local bus services are available to and from the village of Woodstock, which is adjacent to the palace entrance.
Cotswolds by train and bus — you can head deep into the Cotswolds by train, heading out of Oxford towards Evesham and Worcester. Alternatively, take the train down to Didcot, from where connections are available through the South West Cotswolds to Stroud and then Gloucester. Plenty of bus routes are available to reach other towns and villages in the Cotswolds. Although a hire car will give you more flexibility, during the busy summer months, Cotswolds villages like Burton on the Water, Broadway, Snowshill or Stow on the Wold can be absolutely overrun by cars trying to park, so you might find it isn’t worth the hassle.
Swindon — Swindon might not be everybody’s idea of a must see town, but if you have an interest in industrial history, this was the site of the Great Western Railway’s main engineering centre, and it was also a pioneering example of Victorian paternalistic town planning. Naturally, Swindon is best visited by train, but you would need to change at Didcot to get here.
Airport Access – the Oxford tube offers a very regular coach service to and from Heathrow Airport. Coaches are also available direct to Luton Airport. Another option is to look for flights to Birmingham, and to take the train direct to Oxford from there (hourly, approx. 1 hour journey). However, other London airports are not so easy to get to from Oxford.
Conclusion — of course, there is no need to get a hire car just to visit Oxford itself, but that was obvious from the start. To explore outside the city, a hire car really is the best option to get the most of this region, as so many places which are worth visiting are well outside the reach of scheduled bus and train services.
Toulouse is best known as a gateway to the Pyrenees and also as the hub for Europe’s aerospace industry. Anyone flying in for a ski holiday should easily be able to take a coach transfer, but what about visiting elsewhere, or hitting the Pyrenees outside the ski season?
Why hire a car in Toulouse?
Limitations of public transport — Toulouse only has a relatively small metro system, and a few major railway lines heading out of the city. Although you can take the TGV to Toulouse from Paris or from Perpignan, services are relatively slow compared to the fast dedicated lines which are available elsewhere. Once outside the edge of the city, the landscape becomes rural very quickly, and it is much easier to get around with a car.
Scenic drives – there is plenty of good scenery heading out in just about any direction from Toulouse, especially to the southwest, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Take the local road out to Rieumes for the start of a great scenic drive.
Pyrenees — Toulouse is naturally a great start for a road trip through the Pyrenees Mountains.
Languedoc — Toulouse isn’t just about the Pyrenees. Head due east to Castres for the start of the Languedoc Natural Park for some superb lakes and mountain scenery. This area also makes for excellent cycling and walking. Although it is much easier to access this region in a hire car, you can take also the train to Castres or Mazamet.
Andorra — together with Barcelona, Toulouse has traditionally been one of the main gateways to the mountainous principality of Andorra, which doesn’t have any airport of its own. Whilst coach transfers are available to the major ski resorts, a hire car is a much better idea for having the flexibility to drive during the summer months. However, as there is only one major road running through Andorra, and because of its duty-free status, prepare for long tailbacks.
Why not? Toulouse without a car:
Metro — as with most other major French cities, Toulouse has a small two line metro system covering the busiest parts of the city, run by Tisseo. This is supplemented by an RER regional rail network and one tram line which runs near to the airport. A shuttle bus service is also available to the airport from the station and city centre.
Carcassonne — the superb walled city of Carcassonne is an easy day trip by train from Toulouse. You should reserve seats in advance for any of the TGV services, which take around 40 minutes, as do the regional trains. The local stopping services take just over an hour, but watch for a large gap in service (all trains) between mid-morning and late afternoon. See our Carcassonne car hire advice page for more details.
Ski transfers — plenty of transfers are available to the major Pyrenees ski resorts during the winter.
Andorra and the Pyrenees by train. Although services are by no means frequent or fast, there are a couple of superb train routes heading west of Toulouse towards the Pyrenees.
You can head to L’Hospitalet pres-l-Andorre (approx 2 1/2 hours) for the solitary bus connections into Andorra, whereas train buffs might appreciate travelling to Latour-de-Carol (approx. 3 hours, every 2 hours), a station with three scenic railway routes heading out in different directions, each with its own gauge.
Little Yellow Train – one of Europe’s great rail routes is the Little Yellow train on the Cerdagne line which continues from Latour down to Villefranche-de-Conflent. This 40km narrow guage route takes nearly four hours, but is one of the most treasured in France. From here you can continue back to Toulouse (aprox. 4 hours) via Perpignan and Narbonne.
To continue onward to Barcelona, use “La Tor de Querol-Enveig” to search Renfe Cercanias trains – there are around 6 each day, usually taking just under 3 hours.
Conclusion — there are more than enough options for visiting Toulouse without a car, either through staying within the city itself, or through using some of the great scenic railway lines which venture into the Pyrenees.
Amsterdam city centre has a reuptation as a cyclists’ paradise and a driver’s nightmare, but is that still the case for the area around the city, and for the rest of the Netherlands?
Amsterdam is also world-famous as a party city, with its infamous red light district and coffee shops. We presume that you already know this, so there is no point in us simply regurgitating the obvious, and that is that for a short stay in the centre of Amsterdam, there is absolutely no point whatsoever in even considering hiring a car.
So, when we look at Amsterdam car hire, we’re looking at a slightly longer trip, and using Amsterdam as a base or a start point for exploring not just the local area, but the significant hinterland beyond.
Why hire a car in Amsterdam?
Get out: This isn’t just about the city centre of Amsterdam — Schiphol airport is a gateway for a vast hinterland beyond Amsterdam itself, as there are so many flight routes operating here that aren’t available at many of the other nearby airports, or even at major neighbouring cities like Brussels or Dusseldorf.
Good roads: Whilst it is true that many more journeys in the Netherlands are made by bike than they are in the UK or the USA, the quality of the roads is still very high. Because public transport is also of a very high standard, there is less congestion, and therefore more space on the roads for those people who do want to drive. The Netherlands also has three times as many miles of motorway per capita as the UK does, so it is easy to get around by any means.
Cost of trains: We (in the UK or the USA) might look to the Netherlands as having a high standard of public transport, but the trains are still relatively pricey on a per mile basis, and there are no off-peak or advance purchase discounts. Bring over a family, and a hire car easily works out as better value than going by train.
Architecture: Architecture buffs will find that the Netherlands is full of all kinds of interesting historic and modern buildings. These are sometimes in small towns or in the suburbs — even bland industrial units in the Netherlands can often be meticulously put together. The best way to conduct a self-guided architectural tour is to have the flexibility of a car. Of particular note are the unique self built houses in the new city of Almere, the cube houses in Rotterdam, the Dudok trail in Hilversum and the three bridges designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava in Hoofddorp, near Schiphol Airport. However, the places above are in urban locations, so they are relatively near a station – and Hilversum in particular is a nightmare to drive around for the uninitiated.
Engineering Polders: The Netherlands has an impressive system of holding back the sea, a feat regarded by many engineers as one of the most impressive pieces of civil engineering in the 20th century. You will find a car useful to drive across Ijsselmeer using the N302 or the A7 Afsluitdijk — although even though this is a motorway crossing, a slow (and cycling) lane is still available – if you can tolerate the wind!
Rivers & Islands: To explore the many mouths of the Rhine or the relatively deserted islands of the Waddenzee, a car is essential.
Dutch landscapes: A hire car is best to appreciate the typical Dutch springtime landscape of tulips, canals and windmills – but a bike will do aswell.
Obvious isn’t it? Cities in Netherlands are tightly packed — easy to get between, and even easier to get around. Public transport is excellent, who needs to even consider a rental car?
Nationwide Travelcard: To use the public transport network, users can purchase an OV-Chipkaart, which is similar to the Oystercard system on London Transport, except that it works nationwide. The cost is €7.50 for a pay as you go card.
High Speed Trains: The FYRA train takes you direct from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport to Rotterdam in just 27 minutes, whilst Thalys provides rapid connections to Antwerp and Brussels. Heading in the other direction, regular fast German ICE train services provide links to Duisburg, Dusseldorf, Cologne and beyond. Note that the dedicated FYRA trains have been cancelled due to endless technical problems, and a traditional locomotive hauled service currently operates, taking a minute or two longer. FYRA is still fast because it makes very few stops.
Bike it: Cycle hire facilities are widely available at Amsterdam Centraal and most major NS railway stations, no pre-booking required. For more information about the cycling culture in Amsterdam (it really is a passion, not just a mode of transport), visit Amsterdamize.
Canals: Amsterdam is a city of canals, surely the best way of getting around is to take a boat trip?
Cost: Amsterdam car hire is quite expensive – with a guide price from £130 per week – almost three times as much as car hire in Malaga - and Dutch fuel isn’t cheap either.
Verdict: For longer stays with more flexibility for travelling between Dutch cities and enjoying the Dutch landscape, a hire car is certainly useful, but by no means essential.
Surely, when it comes to considering whether or not to get a hire car, it doesn’t get more obvious than Venice?
Well, actually, we happen to think that getting a hire car in Venice is an extremely good idea.
Why get a hire car in Venice?
Dolomites — quite simply there is so much more beyond Venice than canals and gondolas, and the Dolomites in particular are absolutely stunning. Whether you want to go hiking, skiing or climbing, a hire car is going to make everything much easier.
If you head up the A27 autopista to Ponte nelle Alpi, you will then find the Dolomiti Bellunesi national park on your left and the Dolomiti Friulane national park on your right. Further to the northwest, you can also visit the Pale di San Martino natural park.
Slovenia – with a hire car, you can easily pop across into neighbouring Slovenia and explore the Triglav National Park. Given how bad public transport is at the top end of the Adriatic, continuing in to Croatia isn’t such a bad idea either – although one-way rentals will cost you.
City tour — architecture pundits will also want to visit cities like Padua and Mantua. Mantua in particular has notable works by Alberti, and is rated as one of the most “liveable” cities in Italy.
Although these can be done by train, a car gives the flexibility to enjoy the cities and landscapes and villages between them.
Beaches — there are plenty of great beaches around Venice, and a hire car is good for getting around here to.
Easy hire car access — Venice Marco Polo airport is a short ferry journey from the city, so it is easy to combine a trip into Venice itself with getting a hire car for the rest of your stay. Alternatively, hire cars are also available near to Santa Lucia station, or at Mestre station, the first mainland stop.
Check about picking up in one place and dropping off somewhere else, it may well just be cheaper to pickup and drop-off your hire car at the airport.
Plan B – Venice is one of those cities that everyone should visit at least once, but at the wrong time of year it can be quite literally overloaded with people, or sometimes Venice quite literally stinks! Whilst Venice is too good to miss, even if you are then heading on somewhere else, it is worth having other options available in case you get fed up after being there for a couple of days. In this respect, it is at least worth having a hire car as an option.
Why not? Venice without a car:
Obvious isn’t it? Venice is a city of canals and narrow back streets. It goes without saying that as there is no room in Venice for cars, then if you are only planning on staying within the city itself, there is of course no need to even contemplate getting one.
Getting around – Although a gondola ride will set you back a good few euros (haggle hard), getting around Venice is actually surprisingly easy, whether by water bus (vaporetto) or simply on foot. If it is gimmicks that you are after, you can evn take a ride on the Venice People Mover, which connects Tronchetto Island with Piazzale Roma.
Lido – Venice isn’t just about the Grand Canal and St Mark’s Square, you may also want to get out and explore around the Lido. Many of these islands are also car free, so you are still best off without one.
Central Train – any visitors arriving in Venice by train will appreciate that they are already in the heart of the city when they disembark at Santa Lucia station. Simply walk through the station concourse and you exit straight onto the Grand Canal. It doesn’t get better than that! For anyone with an interest in modern aswell as classical architecture, take a brief detour to the right and there you will see the highly controversial Constitution Bridge. This was designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, altough its simple arch structure is a lot less flamboyant than many of this other works.
Tour by train — you can easily visit nearby towns and cities by train, and you can also combine a visit to Venice with other major northern Italian city such as Milan and Florence. Those three cities make a nice triangle.
Adriatic by boat or bus – you can take ferries to various points in Croatia from Venice, or you can take bus connections via Trieste. Although these are nothing like as convenient as having a hire car, you can at least travel along the coast in one direction, so you might get to see a lot more. Depending on your itinerary, you could head towards fantastic Dubrovnik via Split, or perhaps end up in the stunning Plitvice Lakes, and head out via the Croatian capital Zagreb.
Conclusion — to enjoy the numerous attractions which are within the hinterland of Venice itself, a hire car is an extremely good idea.
Verdict — yes
Note — although Venice is not a major intercontinental hub airport, a good network of flights to Venice is available from across Europe. Some budget flights will use Venice Treviso airport, which is around 30 km to the north. If you are getting a hire car anyway, it won’t make that much difference which airport you are using, but for a short break in Venice itself without getting a hire car, it is much easier to use Marco Polo airport
Birmingham sits at the heart of the English Midlands, with a strong mix of both industrial and traditional tourist attractions. Like any reasonable sized European city, there’s no need to hire a car in Birmingham if you are just visiting the centre, but the chances are that you are almost certainly going to want to travel beyond this area, so what is the best way of getting around?
Why hire a car in Birmingham?
Flexibility – as with anywhere else, having a hire car will give you many more options for getting around, especially if you want to explore the many rural areas which are right on Birmingham’s doorstep.
Shopping. In the centre of Birmingham you have the new Bullring, but elsewhere you have the very suburban Merry Hill, or the hugely impressive Touchwood centre in Solihull. Although Touchwood is a short walk from Solihull station, a car boot tends to come in handy for all those shopping bags.
Country lanes — Birmingham might sit in the centre of what is known as the West Midlands conurbation, but that does not mean that the whole area is built up. In fact, many parts of the West Midlands are nothing of the sort — and as a local I can certainly say that you can be on superb country lanes within literary just a few minutes of picking up a hire car at Birmingham airport.
Warwickshire in particular has many great back-roads and associated villages, but so do any of the counties surrounding Birmingham. Just take your pick and get in gear!
Shakespeare country by road — as it is a bit of a tight squeeze to do the world famous Warwick Castle and then Shakespeare’s town of Stratford Upon Avon within the same day by public transport, we suggest either dividing them up into two separate trips, or going by car in order to have a bit more flexibility.
Cotswolds — the Cotswolds is one of the most attractive areas of England, especially due to the numerous postcard-perfect villages. The Cotswold region sits in between major towns and cities such as Cheltenham, Bristol, Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon, and the closest major airport to this area is Birmingham.
Naturally, with so many villages to explore, this area is much easier to see in a hire car. Considering that the main railway line which runs through the Cotswolds runs diagonally between Cheltenham and Oxford, there is no direct way to reach the Cotswolds from Birmingham by public transport anyway, and to travel along this route in a circuit would mean buying two entirely separate rail tickets, so the train really doesn’t offer good value to this part of the world.
For more suggestions on driving in the Cotswolds v. getting around the Cotswolds without a car, please see Oxford.
Ironbridge – this World Heritage site might be one of the most famous icons of the Industrial Revolution, but it has no direct connection with that other icon, the railway. to get there you will either need to drive, or take a bus from nearby Telford.
Birmingham New Street – this dismal disaster of a station is enough reason on its own never to set foot on any form of public transport in the Midlands region. Prepare to feel your mood levels dive down a couple of notches when you step down into the bowels of this dreadfully outdated facility, which is the main station serving the region. Fortunately, a “New” New St is set to re-open around 2015, casting some long overdue light into these shadowy depths.
Why not? Visiting Birmingham without a car:
Rail hub — Birmingham sits right at the centre of the British rail network, and in particular Birmingham New Street is a major interchange between intercity cross-country services heading towards the South West via Cheltenham and Bristol; the South Coast via Oxford and Reading; the North West and Glasgow via Wolverhampton; and the North East, Edinburgh and beyond via Derby and Sheffield.
Birmingham also has three fast trains each hour to London, heading via Birmingham Airport and Coventry; whereas the regional rail network stretches as far as Pwllheli and Aberystwyth in West Wales, Cardiff and Newport in South Wales and Chester and Liverpool in the North West. This makes it easy to reach Birmingham from just about anywhere else in the UK, and it also makes it extremely easy to explore in any direction using central Birmingham as a base. Other local and regional trains depart from Birmingham Moor Street and Snow Hill stations, reaching as far as the cathedral city of Worcester and the Malverns to the west or Stratford Upon Avon to the south and Warwick to the south-east, before continuing on towards London Marleybone.
Airport and NEC complex — passengers taking flights to Birmingham airport can make a swift transfer into the city centre by jumping aboard one of the fast and frequent trains which run to Birmingham New Street and beyond. The journey can take as little as 10 minutes, and there are usually around seven trains each hour.
Naturally, when the airport is so well connected to the city centre, it always makes it much easier to continue the rest of your trip by train. However, the Birmingham airport site doesn’t just feature as a major transport hub. Adjacent to Birmingham International station is the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) complex, which includes the LG Arena, which is often used for concert tours. Trains are available after any performance at the LG Arena, although they do tend to be a bit of a tight squeeze!
Concerts and shows — aside from the NEC complex, a huge variety of entertainment options is available within the city centre itself, and this includes the city’s other major arena, the NIA (National Indoor Arena), together with numerous theatres and smaller entertainment venues. Birmingham is home to the world famous City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), who play in the Symphony Hall, which is part of the National Convention Centre.
All of these other venues are within an easy walk of the main city centre stations.
Villages by rail — although you will naturally have far more flexibility and a hire car, there are still many attractive villages which can easily be reached within a few minutes’ train travel from one of the major Birmingham stations. A personal favourite between Birmingham and Coventry would be Hampton-in-Arden, which has a quiet village pub just a few hundred yards from the station, together with a number of country walks. You can easily take a scenic walk from here to the next stop at Berkswell. I would also highly recommend the village of Tanworth-in-Arden, with the tree-lined route into Umberslade Farm. This sits between Danzey and Wood End stations.
Conclusion – Birmingham has one of the most comprehensive public transport networks of any UK city outside London, and even if this is largely used by commuters heading in to the city, it is just as useful for tourists wanting to head out of Birmingham to see places like Worcester, Stratford Upon Avon or Warwick.
However, it would be a lie to pretend that the real delights of Birmingham are to be found in the city centre. Whilst this is still very much a city on the ascendant, Birmingham was just a village until the industrial revolution picked up steam, and today it is still surrounded by too many post-war eyesores to be a truly pleasant city to visit. Instead, you will be much better off picking up a hire car at Birmingham airport, and basing yourself somewhere outside the city. By all means, dip in and out of Birmingham on the train for an evening show, but keep the car for exploring the many beautiful towns and villages which the Midlands has to offer.
Verdict — yes
Note — this advice is based around flying into Birmingham airport (BHX). East Midlands is an alternative airport for the area, and some of our advice for this airport overlaps with Birmingham.
Athens might have famously tried to reduce its horrendous traffic problems by only allowing either order or even number plated cars to drive on any given day of the week, and the city also invested heavily in a metro system in the run-up to the 2004 Olympic Games. So is this somewhere that you even need to consider getting a hire car?
This Athens car hire guide looks at whether or not to get a car either for a short break or for a slightly longer holiday involving travelling around between different places. For visitors from elsewhere in Europe, it can be just as easy to fly to one of the Greek islands and then to either stay locally or island hop without needing to get a car, whereas travellers from further afield will almost certainly head through or to Athens International airport.
Why get a hire car in Athens?
Meteora – the stunning monasteries of the Meteora region should be the highlight of any trip to Greece, and if you need a preview, just watch the closing scenes of the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only. Naturally, given how these monasteries perched high on top of rocky promontories, this is a place to go hiking to take advantage of the rudimentary lift systems that operate in some of the monasteries. Yet there is still the small question of getting to Meteora.
The train ride from Athens to Kalambaka goes through some pretty impressive scenery and over one or two great bridges, but there are only three trains each day, and only one of these is direct. So for even a brief excursion to Meteora by train, you will probably have to spend two nights there, whereas you could visit this area as part of a long day excursion in a hire car.
Peloponnese – there are lots of great driving opportunities around the Peloponnese peninsula, including the Corinth canal and the engineering marvel of the Rio-Antirio bridge to complement the natural splendours.
I’d like to say that this is also a great area to explore by train, but sadly, the narrow gauge Peloponnese railways have fallen victim to Greek austerity cuts, and there is little chance of them being reopened any time soon. You can at least take the train as far as Kiato, but from there you’d have to go to Patra and beyond by bus.
Corinth canal – if there’s one particular piece of engineering which demonstrates Greek maritime prowess it must surely be the Corinth canal. Perhaps not as famous as its sticky Panamanian brother, nor anything like as timesaving, the Corinth canal still looks far more impressive than any other as it has been cut into its own deep but narrow canyon, without the need for any locks. Although there are hourly trains, and plenty of coach tours from Athens which will give you a view of the canal, visiting this location in a hire car will let you see things in your own time, and you can also use the canal is the starting point for a driving tour around the Peloponnese.
Rio Antirio bridge – this should be the highlight of any tour around the Peloponnese, or possibly of a circuit including the Peloponnese and Delphi on the other side. You can walk or cycle across the bridge and you can also get buses to and from Patra, but the most obvious way to appreciate it is still to drive.
Island hopping – hopping between the different Greek islands in a hire car is always going to give you that little bit more flexibility than travelling as a foot passenger, although this flexibility does come at a cost. At the end of the day, the decision whether or not to pick up a hire car in Athens might boil down to which islands you want to visit – for an island the size of Crete, a hire car is extremely useful, but most visitors to this island would fly direct into Heraklion or channel here. For medium-sized islands like Zac in force (is anti-) or Lesbos, then a hire car can be a benefit, whereas for the smaller islands like Santorini, you may well find that a hire car is more trouble than it is worth.Note that despite the need for ferry connections, it can be possible to get one way car rental deals between Athens and other Greek islands – budget for around £100 on top of the hire cost for one week.
Rattling railways – Greece could never really claim to be one of Europe’s great Railway destinations, given that the population is relatively sparse and the terrain is unforgiving, yet even on those lines that do remain open following budget cuts, service is slow and sporadic. Unless you are someone who loves train travel, sticking to the roads is going to be the easiest option.
Central what? If you are going to travel from Athens by train, bear in mind that not all surface train services run through the main Athens station (often called Larissa station after its original name, and the name of the adjacent metro station), and there’s no metro connection from the airport to here either.Surface trains from the airport will take you to the new Athens Archarnes Railway Centre (SKA), which is being billed as a new “central” station, although it is out in the suburbs and has no metro station. Trains from the airport continue from here towards Kiato on the Peloponnese peninuslar, but the line goes nowhere near central Athens.
Odd and even Number plate rules – in 1982, Athens introduced a restriction banning cars from the city centre according to whether their number plates were odd or even. Since then, the number of cars in the city has grown fourfold, so the legislation has had little effect, especially as some houses have got round the legislation by owning two cars, one with an odd and another with an even plate.
If you rent a hire car in Athens, you will be exempt from the restrictions for 40 days, which should be more than enough to explore the city and the local area. Yet driving on congested Athens city centre is still a nightmare, and you still have to find somewhere to park. So as with any major city, we would always advise walking or using public transport to visit all the major sites within Athens.
Athens Metro – in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics, Athens invested heavily in an underground system, and this itself was halted many times due to archaeological digs along the route. This has resulted in many displays in the major city centre stations, making this sleek and modern transport network a destination in its own right as well is a way of getting around.
The underground network is also supplemented by a network of local trains and buses, including the train link down to the port of Piraeus, where a lot of budget accommodation is available.
There is no set centre of the metro network, with a number of stations being on two lines, but the natural social and cultural centre is the area around Syntagma Square, and its metro station is on lines 2 and 3. This is also where many urban bus routes congregate, and where the tram route from the coast terminates.
Ancient treasures – need we go say any more? Athens is one of the most historic cities in the world and beyond the indelible impression the Parthenon is going to leave you from its perch at the top of the Acropolis, there are plenty of other places waiting to be explored well within the city boundaries and easy to reach on foot.
Further afield, there are plenty of places which can be visited on historical tours, or on day excursions by scheduled bus. Delphi is certainly well worth a visit, and once you get there, you will be walking around the main points of interest anyway, so there’s little advantage in having a hire car.
Island hopping – a hire car might give you a little bit more flexibility when you arrive on each island, but it is a deadweigh just sitting on the ferry, and a very expensive deadweight at that.
Why fork out for the cost of a hire car and then for the cost of ferry passage on top, when you can just travel as a foot passenger on the ferry and use local buses for getting around each island? Even if you have to shell out for a few taxis, they are unlikely to break the bank on any of the smaller islands.
Conclusion – anyone simply thinking about taking a city break in Athens is very unlikely to even consider getting a hire car, but after a few days Athens can start to become quite overbearing on the novice visitor. So whether you get a hire car or not, there’s a good chance you’ll want to get out of the city, and unfortunately, public transport in Greece leaves a great deal to be desired.
For a country with such a rugged coastline and so many ancient treasures, there’s a good chance you’ll be happy to take things at a slower pace anyway. Yet getting a hire car in Athens is still going to take away a lot of the hassles of planning and executing a holiday when you are dealing with so many different transport companies, all of which operate from their own separate hubs in their own different ways.
So even though a hire car in Athens remains strictly optional, if you are already considering getting one, then you will probably find it beneficial.
Orlando is one of those popular family holiday spots where car hire is a natural addition to the flight purchase. So, is it possible to enjoy a week or so in Orlando without renting a car?
Why hire a car in Orlando?
Obvious isn’t it? This is the USA, and doesn’t everyone drive?
This isn’t just about Orlando. There are so many places that are within range of an easy day trip from Orlando, including Cape Canaveral, the Tampa Bay area, or even Miami at a push, although Miami is best done as an overnight trip at least.
Cost: Petrol is cheap, buses are nothing like as good as they are in Europe, and taxis can be expensive, especially as Orlando is a large sprawling city. Simples?
Competition: Orlando is one of the world’s largest car hire markets, so plenty of cheap car rental options are available.
Rail travel is virtually non-existent. For example, the train between Orlando and Miami is infrequent and takes forever. (Florida is one of the places in the USA which has been earmarked for high-speed rail. They are still talking. Chances are that by the time you return to Florida for the 10th time, they will still be talking).
Beaches – Orlando shares with Las Vegas the curious distinction of being one of the world’s major inland sunshine resort destinations. A car is best if you want to actually spend some time on a beach proper.
Safety: Even for locals, road accident rates in the USA are at least twice that of the UK. Getting off a long haul flight and straight into a hire car where road conditions take some getting used to is an additional challenge. International drive (I192) has a particularly poor reputation for accidents, as it has a wide road with so many turnings on and off.
Pointless parking: A car might be fine for travelling around different places, but if you’re planning on spending most of your time visiting theme parks, why bother? The car will just sit on tarmac all-day. It would be much easier to use local shuttle buses to get to and from the major theme parks.
Hotels: For the full Disney experience, stay on-site at one of the Disney hotels — they might cost a little more, but not hiring a car would help make up part of the difference.
Selective Shopping: A hire car should be a natural advantage for getting the best out of the outlet mall bargains that are available in this part of the world, but the easy temptation is to end up buying far more than your suitcases can hold, and then having to pay extortionate excess luggage charges. Using the readily available buses that ply up-and-down International Drive to get to and from the main outlet malls will make it much easier to keep your holiday purchases in check.
Resorts: The large resort hotels offer numerous activities on-site, so you will never run out of things to do whether or not you have a car.
Boring driving: This part of the USA is relatively flat and quite densely populated, so it is crisscrossed with concrete freeways adorned with the usual suburban sprawl chain outlets and advertising boards. So whilst the roads will take you where you want to go to, the experience is not particularly pleasant, and unlike Miami, where we do recommend getting a hire car, there are no particularly outstanding driving routes.
Bus travel – If you do intend to travel between Orlando and Miami, regular coach services are available, but you can also fly. Miami to Orlando flights are very frequent and incredibly cheap.
What would Walt do? Remember that Disney himself envisaged futuristic cities where the car was relegated to the edges. Not only are Disney theme Parks traffic free, but part of the Disneyworld resort experience is the monorail that connects them all together.
Verdict: Most people visiting Orlando will pick up a rental car for their trip, and it will make life easier. Whether or not it is essential will depend on where you are staying — rent a villa in suburban Kissimmee and you will be hard pushed to go anywhere without a car, whereas you are unlikely to miss having a car if you’re staying at one of the big resort hotels.
We’re not here to advise on whether or not a car is needed, as holidays are about dreams and desires, not need. The question is whether or not a car will significantly enhance your holiday? We think the answer to that question is no. If you beg to differ, comment below.