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Congestion charging zone in London, England. Drivers face fees for driving across central London during weekdays. (Daniel Berehulak/Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
Congestion charging zone in London, England. Drivers face fees for driving across central London during weekdays. (Daniel Berehulak/Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Ask Joanne

Tips for tourists driving in Britain Add to ...

I'm touring around the U.K. this summer, and I'm thinking about renting a car. Besides the obvious, is there anything I should know about the difference between driving over there and driving in Canada? - Janet in Oakville, Ont.

What's obvious to some is not always obvious to others, but most of us know that our British cousins drive on the opposite side of the road, that the steering wheel is on the other side, and that fuel is much more expensive.

Here are a few extra pointers before you hit the road on Her Majesty's soil.

To put your mind at ease, you won't need a special licence to drive in Britain. As long as you're at least 17, you can drive on your Canadian licence for up to one year.

As with renting a vehicle at home, you should always investigate the extent of the insurance coverage being offered by the rental company, and perhaps add more. If you normally rely on your credit card for extra coverage, check the details before leaving home as the offer may not apply when you're overseas.

A couple of key differences are the volume of traffic on the roads, and the proximity of other motorists.

"There are 60 million people squished on this tiny island, so everything is an awful lot denser. Heavy traffic in Canada would be nothing here; and I've driven through Montreal and Toronto," says Andrew Howard, director of road safety for the British Automobile Association.

"There is an awful lot of congestion over here. You can easily end up discovering that you've been stopped on one of our motorways for 20-40 minutes. If you're going for a flight, allow a fair amount more time, because you can get held up with incredible delays," says Howard.

The distances may look short on the map but the journey can take a lot longer than you'd expect. In addition to congestion, you'll have to contend with the winding roads when you're not on the major routes. "When our roads were built, they were made to go around the edge of field boundaries rather than cut across them. So whereas in Canada you could have straight roads with the occasional 90-degree turn, ours go wiggly-wobbly all the way," says Howard.

Instead of the traffic lights we're used to, the U.K. has roundabouts to equalize traffic flow at intersections. These can appear daunting at first, but the rule to remember is that you must give way to traffic coming from the right. If you miss your exit, the good news is you can catch it on the second go-round.

In some towns - and in many rural areas - two-way traffic runs on extremely narrow roads. Be prepared to yield to oncoming traffic, pull to the side, and wait your turn.

It's always a good idea to use a route planner to check how long your journey is likely to take. There are free planners online, such as those available on AA.com and VisitBritain.com. A GPS is also recommended. Beyond directing you to your destination, it can notify you if you're exceeding the speed limit.

Speed restrictions are heavily enforced by cameras in the U.K. The limits are not so different to Canada; 60 mph (96 km/h) on single highways (carriageways), 70 mph (112 km/h) on divided highways and freeways (motorways), and 30 mph (48 km/h) most everywhere else, unless otherwise posted. If you're towing a camper, remember to subtract 10 mph from the highway and freeway speed limits.

A London taxi makes its way around the Seven Dials roundabout at Covent Garden in London. Commonly found throughout Europe, the roundabout, also known as a traffic circle, is becoming more common throughout the United States. British drivers argue that roundabouts are safer and far more efficient than traffic lights.

And what about when you pull into town for a tea break? Parking is usually at a premium. Aside from marked spaces and parking lots, there are yellow and red lines on the edges of the roads to show where you can and can't park - or even stop - at certain times. If you're uncertain, play it safe.

"A warning: we have a fairly manic wheel-clamping arrangement here on private land, so be incredibly careful where you park. Lots of them will employ a contractor who will charge you exorbitant rates to get your car back. Do keep an eye on it, because that's the sort of thing that could punch a really expensive hole in your holiday," says Howard.

Remember to watch your speed and where you park, and note that there is a daily congestion charge in effect if you drive across central London Monday through Friday, between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. The rental car company can, and likely will, chase you for any fines you incur.

If after all of this you still feel up to the challenge, you'll enjoy exploring areas that the trains and coach holidays don't reach.

E-Mail Ask Joanne at globedrive@globeandmail.com

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