Book Early to Save Money – Don’t leave the booking of your hire car too late as you may find that the rental rate increases if a car is booked at short notice.
Automatic Transmission – Automatic cars are available to rent from most Car Hire companies, however, they are not a popular option in Scotland so you need to book early to make sure you get the automatic model of your choice.
Additional Insurance – Some car hire companies may try to sell you add-ons to your car insurance package. As a general rule, you get adequate cover with the standard car insurance policy and you don’t really need to take out a more expensive insurance policy unless you are very pessimistic about your driving skills.
Refuelling your car - Fuel becomes increasingly expensive in the more rural areas of Scotland so always try to refuel in the larger towns, and at supermarkets where you will usually get a better price on fuel. Our guides highlight where to find fuel stops in the more remote areas.
In Scotland, our fuel pump colour system is different to North America. Green pumps are for Unleaded and Black pumps are for Diesel. A potentially expensive mistake if you aren’t paying attention.
Drink Driving Limits – There is only one way to be sure that you are legal to drive in Scotland and that is to NOT drink. The limits for blood alcohol levels are so low that you can’t take any chances.
Navigating Roundabouts – If you are unfamiliar with European roads you may find that your first experiences of roundabouts are a little daunting. The Golden Rule is to go around them Clockwise (i.e. go left as you enter them) and to Give Way to traffic coming from the Right. Once on the roundabout, you have the right of way.
It is good practice to indicate left before the exit that you are taking, but many people don’t and just let you guess about what their intentions are.
Don’t worry, in the guides we give clear directions about which exit to take when you arrive at a roundabout.
Single Track Roads – Driving on single track roads is actually a very sociable experience and you’ll find that people are much more courteous and friendly on these little roads. Passing places are clearly marked so always look out for the next one so that you know where to pullover if another car is coming your way.
The Golden Rules of single track driving are;
Currency - In theory, you can use Euros in Scotland. However, they aren't readily accepted and won't be welcomed in B&Bs, pubs or restaurants. You can use your Credit / Debit card in almost every shop / restaurant and our Accommodation Guides tell you which B&Bs will accept Credit Cards.
ATMs / Cash Machines – Cash dispensing machines are available in most villages. Even if there isn’t a bank, you often find cash dispensers inside the village stores.
So using your bank card to withdraw money should not be a problem, BUT if you are visiting from abroad, we would recommend that you notify your bank that you will being making cash withdrawals in Scotland. This ensures that your account is not blocked due to “irregular activity”.
Paying by Debit / Credit card – Almost every restaurant or shop you visit will be able to take payment by card. Smaller businesses in remote areas may not have this facility so don’t expect to be able to pay by card when shopping in a craft shop in the Highlands.
If staying in B&B accommodation, you will find that some do take credit / debit card payment and some don’t. Our accommodation guides detail if the B&Bs have this facility or not.
American Express credit cards are less widely accepted than other brands, so don’t rely on making payment with an American Express card.
Scottish Money – Scottish banks can issue their own bank notes so you may get some “notes” issued by the Bank of Scotland, Royal Bank of Scotland or Clydesdale Bank. The money is completely legitimate, but if you travel to England and offer a Scottish bank note you might get a derisory response and a refusal to accept the money. Scots are used to this reaction, but you may want to avoid it by using up your Scottish notes before leaving the country.
To help you find the best places we have visited Bed and Breakfasts, Guesthouses and small Hotels all over Scotland. We are very selective with our recommendations and only list places where we would wish to stay ourselves.
We don’t book the accommodation as the internet makes it easy for you to do this direct.
Instead, we provide you with all the information to choose the accommodation that best suits your needs and budget. You then reserve the accommodation directly by email, or by online booking system. The B&B owners prefer this as they can discuss details with you AND it means that you save money because there is no hidden charge for commission.
When to book accommodation – The simple answer is as early as possible. If you are travelling in the peak summer months, around June / July / August, you will find that accommodation books up very early. Some places are especially busy and finding a place to stay on the Isle of Skye is always a challenge.
You also need to be aware of the dates of popular local events such as Highland Games, because demand for accommodation is always higher around these dates and will book up early.
One night Bookings - If staying on any of the Scottish Islands you really need to book for a 2 night stay. This is because the B&B owners will try to avoid 1 night bookings, but you really need to allocate at least 2 nights on an island to make a visit worthwhile.
Naturally, Friday & Saturday nights are always busy so a 1 night booking on a Friday and Saturday will be harder to get than on a Sunday – Thursday.
What is a Scottish Bed & Breakfast like? – The term “Bed & Breakfast” seems to conjur up different images in different countries. The B&B accommodation that we recommend has en-suite bathrooms attached to the bedrooms, or private bathrooms located adjacent to the bedrooms if not adjoined.
The B&B’s recommended in the Secret Scotland accommodation have been selected by us because they are professionally run. You need not find yourself staying in a house where you feel that you are intruding into someone’s home, but we do have some properties where the owners will go out of the way to make you feel like you are part of the family.
Do you list Hotels / Hostels? – We have listed a few small hotels in the guides that we have selected because they have a special feeling of intimacy and offer very good cuisine. However, we don’t focus on the hotel sector as we are interested in finding places where the personality of the owners makes the difference to the quality of your stay and hotels are a less personal experience.
We do list a few hostels when we find places that offer an exceptional level of service at a budget price. If you want to know more about this type of accommodation in Scotland you can read our Blog from November 2016.
Saving money on attractions - Historic Environment Scotland and The National Trust for Scotland are 2 organisations that maintain most castles, gardens and estates in the country. Included amongst these sites are Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle, Crathes Castle, Inverewe Gardens and many more that will most certainly feature on your list of "Must Sees".
The properties managed by the National Trust for Scotland are generally castles and country houses which are still complete and furnished. Historic Environment has a broader remit and its properties include ancient monuments, ruined castles, protected wildlife habitats and some of the iconic attractions such as Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle and Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness.
Historic Environment Scotland offers both annual membership, or short term Explorer Passes for a 5 or 14 day period. In addition to these countrywide passes, they have more localised passes that can be good value if you are basing yourself in one area for a few days.
The National Trust for Scotland is not so visitor friendly and only offers annual membership packages which, in most cases, would not save you much money unless you planned on visiting more than 5 of their properties.
Opening Times – Outside of the cities and larger towns, most of the tourist attractions will close around 5pm or at least have last admission at 5pm. We endeavour to keep our Attraction information pages as up to date as possible with opening times and admission prices, but the attractions don’t notify us when they make changes so it is wise to check their websites as well.
Visiting in Winter – The tourist season in Scotland runs from Easter to the end of October. During this period the majority of tourist attractions will be open (Please note that Balmoral Castle closes at the end of July when the royal family arrive to start their annual armed assault on the local wildlife).
Between November and March you will find that most of the tourist attractions will be closed, although attractions in the cities and larger towns will still be open.
As a general rule, the properties run by Historic Scotland will stay open all year (albeit with reduced opening times), but after October the properties run by National Trust for Scotland will almost all be closed, or just the grounds of castles will be open.
Almost all of the distilleries will be open, although some may not be doing tours and they will be closed over the Christmas & New Year holiday period.
During December / January, it will be getting dark at around 3:30 – 4 pm. The shorter winter days will constrain what type of sightseeing you can do and how much you can accomplish in a day.
Leaving a Tip - Tipping is not such a big thing in Scotland as it seems to be in North America. In a restaurant, it is customary to leave a 10% tip. Bar staff in Pubs will not expect a tip, but won't refuse it either. If you want to show thanks to barstaff you can offer to buy them a drink instead.
Pubs - In the vast majority of Scottish pubs there is no table service and you are expected to buy your drinks at the bar. Bar staff will not expect to be tipped, but they will certainly welcome it. Smoking in Scottish public places is now banned so smokers are expected to go outdoors.
Children in Pubs - The rules on this vary widely and there is no “one fit” rule that covers all. In most cases, pubs that serve food will accept children in the bar so long as food is still being served. In more rural areas the rules are more relaxed and you should be able to gauge for yourself if the pub is a suitable venue for a child to be in. If in doubt, just ask the staff.
Restaurants - As a general rule of thumb, if you see a menu featuring lasagne, curry and fish & chips you are not going to get the best Scottish culinary experience. There are exceptions, but not many.
Scottish seafood is amongst the best that you’ll find anywhere in the world. After all, you can get never much more than 50 miles from the coast in Scotland.
For an evening meal main course in a restaurant, expect the prices to start at around £12. A glass of wine or pint of beer will be around £3.50 to £4.00.
Smoking in Public Places - Smoking indoors in a public place is banned. As a result, you will see a few miserable shivering individuals stood in little huddles outside pub doors.
Clothing - Scotland is on the receiving end of the North Atlantic weather systems so the only thing you can really guarantee about the weather is that it can change quickly. So the best way to cope with the weather is to wear layers that you can pull on / off as the conditions change.
So wear a T shirt base layer and then have a couple of different weights of pullover / jumper / fleece to throw on top. A waterproof jacket is necessary, but you shouldn’t need anything heavy weight in spring / summer, unless you are planning on doing some hill walking.
Hill Walking equipment - The same basic rules apply, but don’t underestimate the wind chill factor on the hill tops and pack a pair of waterproof leggings as well. Needless to say stout and waterproof footwear is required if you are planning on doing any serious hill walking. Many of the more popular climbs (e.g. Ben Nevis, Ben Lomond, Ben Lawers) have well defined and professionally built footpaths, but you still need water proof boots with good ankle support.
Midge Repellent - Personally, we never bother with the stuff and seldom find that midges are so bad that we need it. Despite what you may have heard, midges do not roam around Scotland like some Biblically sized plague of locusts. They favour swampy places so you are only likely to be annoyed by them when you are out in the country. If it is a windy day you’ll be fine as anything much stronger than a 5mph breeze and the midges are "grounded".
Midges tend to be at their most active around dusk. Like mini vampires, they don’t seem to like intense sunlight (one of the reasons why the Scottish climate suits them). And for some strange reason they are more attracted to dark clothing.
So what can you do to fend them off? Well nothing is really 100% effective, but Avon “Skin so soft” is meant to be one of the few things that will deter them… a bit.
Plugs / Power Adaptors - Scotland has 3-pin plugs as shown in the pictures below, so you will need 1 or 2 adaptors which you can get at most, if not all, airports. Most of the experienced B&B owners will have some that they can lend you, but don’t count on this.
Mobile Phones - If you need to buy a SIM card for your mobile phone, the company that tends to give you the best signal coverage in Scotland is Vodafone, but there isn’t much to pick between it and the network coverage of EE and O2.
Wi-Fi - Almost every B&B offers Free Wi-Fi. A few older properties may not be able to provide Wi-Fi in bedrooms as thick stone walls impede the reception, but Wi-Fi is really quite a standard feature now.
Getting a 3G signal when you are roaming around the Highlands is not easy as the terrain creates its challenges. Most cafes will offer free Wi-Fi so if you do need to get online you can combine it with a coffee stop.
Learn how to say "Edinburgh" - We are constantly amazed by the number of different ways people find to spell the word "Edinburgh". We’ve seen all manner of variations from Edenbro to Edinborough. This maybe also explains why some people really struggle to pronounce it. The common mistake that most visitors make is that they try to insert too many syllables so it comes out sounding like "Ed-in-bor-row".
Here’s the secret. Just say it like "Edin-bra" and say it fast with the emphasis on the "brr" sound.
Ordering a drink - Scots appreciate it when people know their whisky. If you want a single malt whisky, ask for it by name and don’t call it "Scotch". Unless you are feeling confident and know your whisky, you are probably best to stick to asking for one of the easier to pronounce ones like "Macallan", "Oban", "Talisker", "Glenlivet" or "Bowmore".
If you want a beer you should either ask for a pint or half pint of "Lager" (for a blonde beer) or "Heavy"(if you want a dark and less gassy ale). In a lot of bars you’ll see beer taps marked "70 Shillings" or "80 shillings". These are both types of dark ("heavy") ales. There’s history behind the naming system, but we’ll not go into that all here. In simple terms, the higher the number the stronger the beer!
Wearing a Kilt / Tartan - If you want to stand out from the locals, wear a kilt, or lots of tartan. The majority of Scots will only put on a kilt for a special occasion such as a wedding or a sporting event. Turning up for dinner in full Highland regalia is going to make you stand out as a tourist.