Planning a Trip to Scotland; Tips and Resources

A few years ago, we visited Scotland for a little over a week and loved our time there so much we returned for an even longer two-week trip the following summer. I spent a lot of time researching and planning and want to share those tips and resources for planning a trip to Scotland here. All links are current as of late 2020.

Over the course of those two trips, we visited the two largest cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, explored the Western Highlands and the Isle of Mull, drove the sparsely populated but absolutely gorgeous North Coast 500, tasted whiskey in Speyside, roamed through ancient stone circles, and saw more castles than we could count in Aberdeenshire.

We took an overnight sleeper car train from London to Inverness, a first-class train ride from Glasgow to London, took car ferries and boat trips, and drove over 1000 miles in a rental car and stayed in castles, quaint B&Bs, gorgeous manor houses, and big hotels.

The food was spectacular; we ate haggis, black pudding, all manner of smoked and fresh salmon, lots of lamb and fish, and tasted a different distilleries’ whiskey and gin every day. 

We loved Every. Minute. Of. It.

To get started reading about the places we visited, go here to our main Scotland page. There you will find links to all the posts from Scotland.

Below are links to websites to use as a resource, tips, and recommendations for things I found helpful both in general and for specific places we visited. We barely scratched the surface and there’s so much more out there, but hopefully, this will give you a starting point. 

For more posts on Scotland, make sure to check out my Scotland Destination Page.

Now, on to the tips and resources for planning your own trip to Scotland!

Planning a trip to Scotland; Castle Ruins on the NC500
Castle Ruins on the NC500

General Scotland Resources

www.visitscotland.com This is a good starting point for all things Scotland, as it’s the site of the National Tourism Board. They also have an active community message board.

Castles: Interested in castles? Check out the Castle Hunter. And if you’re not interested in castles, then…(sadly shaking my head) I can’t help you…

Hiking: Want to do some hiking or hill walking? Start with the Walk Highlands website.

North Coast 500: Want to explore the far northern reaches of Scotland and the route known as the North Coast 500? Go to the official NC500 website. We did this route on our second trip and it was absolutely fabulous. I keep trying to figure out how we can go back and do it again, perhaps in the opposite direction. There’s also a very active Facebook Group for the NC500.

Sightseeing Passes in Scotland

If you’re going to be spending more than a couple of days in Scotland, it might be worth it to invest in one of the sightseeing passes available. They each cover different things, for different amounts of time, and at different costs. It all depends on what you plan to see if it’s cost effective for you.

On our first trip, I bought the Explorer Pass for us and on the second trip I joined the US National Trust which has a reciprocal agreement with the National Trust for Scotland. Both options worked well for us as each covered different things.

Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle, one of the many sights available with the Explorer Pass.

Explorer PassThis is what we chose to buy on our first trip. Currently (late 2020), it looks like the cost and the sites open have been reduced, but it is still an excellent value. I would expect as things change in the world, more sites will open. Current cost, 26.5 BP for 7 days.

Historic Scotland Membership This would be good for someone traveling for longer than a week. Family memberships are also available. Free admission to more than 20 sites and other discounts. Starting at 58 BP for an Adult Annual Membership.

National Trust for Scotland –Membership gives access to all National Trust places (many castles!) but is only available to UK residents.

US National Trust: Before leaving on our second trip, I joined the US National Trust for Historic Preservation and bought a family membership for $30. The organization has reciprocal agreements with several other National Trust organizations around the world including the National Trust for Scotland.

With our membership cards, we were able to get free admission to four NTS sites which saved us a ton of money considering each place had admission prices of 11-13 GP per person. This may be a new benefit because while most of the sites were familiar with it, it wasn’t hardcoded into their computer system yet. Still, we were given the benefit in each place.

Transportation Tips:

Auto

If you are planning to drive in Scotland, especially if you are coming from the US or another country where you drive on the right side of the road, I highly recommend you watch this cute, funny, and informative 4-minute video on driving in Scotland. Keep in mind that many parts of Scotland have single track roads and you will need to pull over in a “lay-by” to allow someone to pass. There are rules about this, watch the video. Becuse these roads are slow going, plan on it taking much longer than you expect to drive from point A to point B.

Also, there are sheep. In the roads.

Sheep on the way to the ferry in Lochaline
Sheep on the single track road on the way to the ferry in Lochaline.

Trains

On our trips, we took the train from Glasgow to London and the Caledonian Sleeper overnight from London to Inverness. Both were great experiences. The Caledonian Sleeper cars have undergone a massive renovation since we took them and look absolutely lovely now. Make sure you check out the Man in Seat 61 site for more on the sleeper trains (and really for all things trains, anywhere.

Make sure to check out the rail passes offered if you plan to travel by train. We purchased a “Two-Together” pass which gave us 30% off tickets, but there are also rail passes for families, for seniors, and for youths.

Caledonian Sleeper Train
Caledonian Sleeper Train

Ferries

If you plan to travel to any of Scotland’s islands, you’ll likely need to take a ferry. The Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry website is what will give you all the info you need about car ferries, timetables, etc.

TIP: book tickets ahead for car ferries in the busy summer months. We did this for the ferry for Mull to Oban and we were glad we did because it was sold out when we arrived.

The Oban to Mull ferry.
The Oban to Mull ferry.

Resources-Apps For Your Phone:

A good travel app on your phone can be worth it’s weight in gold. Below are the ones I find most useful on every trip.

Tripit.com I love Tripit for organizing our itinerary. You can forward them your reservations from airlines, car rentals, hotel chains, restaurant reservations, etc and it will upload. Then go in and amend with other details. I enter into “notes” sightseeing info and possible restaurants to try.

Open Table great for making restaurant reservations in larger cities like Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Inverness.

Airlines– I always download the apps for whatever airline I’m flying to get a mobile boarding pass, flight alerts, and check-in.

Oanda currency converter check the current currency rates. Read my post about how to avoid ATMs with predatory fees by knowing the current conversion rate..

Evernotesave notes and pages from web sites into Evernote to take with you.

Scottish B&B Tips:

As I said above, we stayed in all manner of accommodations (to be detailed in later posts), but I wanted to give some specific tips about staying in Scottish Bed and Breakfasts (not self-catering Airbnb).

In almost all of the places we stayed, the rooms had the following; coffee maker and/or kettle, instant coffee or pods, tea, cookies, sometimes complimentary alcohol, and bottled water (though tap water is safe).

Bathrooms came with soap, sometimes shampoo, and often “body wash”, but never hair conditioner. Many bathrooms have heated towel racks, which not only provide cozy towels but also a place to dry something you’ve washed out in the sink.

Ben Loyal Hotel Room
Ben Loyal Hotel Room

In places with a tub/shower combo there seems to be a basic misunderstanding of where water splashes when coming from a shower. There is an aversion to the concept of a shower curtain (I understand this and loathe them as well) but also to suitable glass partitions. Subsequently, water tends to get everywhere.

The hairdryer is never in the bathroom (against building and safety codes, see water splashing everywhere above) and there will be nowhere to plug one in in the bathroom. Look for it in a desk or vanity in the room or in a drawer or wardrobe.

By and large, the beds (meaning the mattresses) were not super comfortable and the pillows were uniformly foam and hard. Without fail, in every place we stayed, the mattresses were absolutely awful; they were sagging, or lumpy, or had squeaky springs and sometimes all three. This did not improve with the cost of the room. I really wish that the proprietors would spend the night in their rooms to experience what their guests do. (/rant). All that said, I would stay in most of the places again, I just wish they had better beds.

All of the B&Bs came with decent breakfasts that included cooked to order food (eggs, salmon, haddock, porridge, full Scottish, etc). Many made their own breads and pastries as well.

For more posts on Scotland, make sure to check out my Scotland Destination Page.

Have you ever planned a trip to Scotland? Thinking of doing it?
Want to know anything else?
Leave me a comment or question at the bottom and make my day!

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Scotland Tips and Resources

NOTE: Everything on this trip was paid for by us. Nothing was complimentary or given in exchange for reviews or promotions.

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. suewherewhywhat says:

    I went to Scotland for a proper exploration (beyond the odd weekend or work trip) & loved it too! I just managed the Highlands & Islands in the 10 days I was there but was blown away by the beauty of the landscapes & friendliness of the locals. This is a great guide for anyone coming from overseas & I’m looking forward to reading more. I can’t wait to get back (once they allow us in again!)

    1. Thank you! I really love it too and am planning on going back to explore more as soon as things open up again.

  2. I would absolutely love to visit Scotland some day and really enjoyed reading about your trip and tips. I had never heard of the US National Trust Pass before, but I’m will definitely look into that.

    1. Thanks! Scotland is truly spectacular. I hope you get a chance to go someday.

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