Navigating Scotland as a First Time International Traveler

Planes, trains, and automobiles

The Queen’s castle in Edinburgh sits above a green hill

When God first told me to go to Scotland, I knew exactly two things about the country: scotch and Highland romance novels. While that’s not a bad foundation for a relationship with a person, it’s probably less than ideal for visiting a foreign country. This was my first experience with international travel, and I was going to a cold and rainy land I knew nothing about.

Navigating Scotland was an adventure complete with breathtaking views and rom-com worthy foibles. Consider this one part cautionary tale, one part how-I-spent-my-winter-vacation.

My flight plan was… unconventional. Traveling on a budget means you often have to make concessions and purchase flights individually. That’s how I ended up flying from Cleveland to Orlando, Orlando to Newark, New Jersey, Newark to Portugal, Portugal to London, and London to Edinburgh. If that sounds exhausting, that’s because it was.

When I travel domestically, I always try to get the shortest flight possible, because I’m a firm believer that travel time shouldn’t cut into vacation time. As crazy as my itinerary sounds, it was the shortest total travel time. Every other flight plan took three days and included overnight layovers, which seemed a waste of perfectly good vacation time.

Turns out, overnight layovers are a must-have for international travel. Spending a day or two in another city is much less stressful than rushing from airport to airport for twenty-eight hours.

Did I mention that Heathrow is the seventh circle of hell? Seriously. Worst. Airport. Ever. I have family in Atlanta, so I’m no stranger to large airports. Large is a woefully insufficient adjective for London Heathrow International (LHR) airport. Heathrow has a train that runs through the bottom level. Not a tram, an honest to goodness city train that runs between the international and domestic terminals.

Everyone except for me seemed to know exactly where to go, which might explain why LHR is light on signage. My faux mink lashes, jaunty hot pink beret, and air of confused frustration screamed ‘obnoxious American,’ which might explain why no one was the least bit helpful.

Domestic tickets don’t come with a gate number, just a terminal. Apparently, everyone knows to go to gate A15 to find out where their flight departs from. Finding my plane was no small feat, complete with hijinks involving tears and a very bitter airport security employee. Take my advice: a four-hour train ride is infinitely preferable to navigating Heathrow.

A sunset and green field seen through the train window
Wouldn’t you prefer this view over languishing in the world’s worst airport?

I arrived at Edinburgh International Airport (EDI) around 3:30 PM and dragged my sweaty, exhausted body over to the rental car agency. I can’t drive a stick, so I had to pay almost twice as much per day for an automatic vehicle. On top of that, I was paying twenty pounds a day for a dashboard wifi hotspot.

My rental attendant, who was also the only person in the entire rental car center, asked me why I needed wifi. I told him that I was staying in the country and needed it for navigation. I have a terrible sense of direction. The guy told me that the car came with Android Auto, and I could save almost 300 pounds if I took off the hotspot.

I should have kept the hotspot.

By the time I figured out that the UK Android Auto app was not going to sync with my US Android SIM card, Mr. Oh-so-helpful had gone home for the night. And it was night. By four o’clock, Scotland is covered in a midnight velvet blanket, punctuated by stars.

When I realized I was going to have to drive, at night, on the wrong side of the road, on the wrong side of the car, with spotty navigation, I burst into tears.

Eventually, I got the hang of driving in Scotland. Once you get over the roundabouts, narrow highways, confusing signage, and one-lane roads, it’s really not that bad. Okay, it is definitely that bad, but the daytime views of endless emerald fields dotted with chubby little sheep made it (almost) worth it.

Honestly, I drove as little as possible and always tried to make it home by three. Driving was my least favorite way of navigating Scotland. Walking was my favorite, which is good since Scots walk — a lot.

Much like New Orleans, the locals' definition of a short walk is much longer than my definition of a short walk. In Scotland, anything under a mile is considered a short walk, which makes sense considering I had to walk a mile to get off of the farm I stayed at for my quarantine period. I can honestly say I never struggled to get my 10,000 steps in.

The public transportation system is excellent, so if you don’t feel like walking chances are there’s a bus that will run you to the general vicinity, but the bus stop might be ‘a short walk’ away! In the country, walking comes with the risk of sharing the (extremely narrow) roads with reckless drivers. In the city, it presents different challenges.

Edinburgh streets are very narrow and tend to be on a sharp incline. It rained heavily almost every day that I was there, so walking in the rain was inevitable. Two words of advice: purchase a quality umbrella, and always walk as close to the inside part of the road as possible.

Scottish drivers are rude and reckless (although no more so than drivers in Detroit, Dallas, or New York City). They speed and make zero effort to avoid puddles. If you’re walking in the rain, prepare to get splashed. I learned this lesson the hard way, courtesy of a double-decker bus.

Take my advice — if it’s raining heavily, wait out the downpour before walking anywhere!

Long walks in cold, rainy weather must be followed by a finger or two of fine Scotch whisky (it’s a moral and cultural imperative), but my storied love affair with single-malt is a subject for another article.

All in all, the month I spent in Scotland was an unforgettable experience and I can’t think of a better maiden voyage for what I hope will be a lifetime of international jet setting. Traveling alone was intimidating, and I definitely made some mistakes along the way, but I’m proud of myself for going to a place where I didn’t know a soul, trusting that God had my back.

I’m hoping you learned a thing or two from my mistakes. I know I did. The next time I leave the country, I’ll be better prepared for navigating a foreign land. And there will be a next time. Because life is an adventure, and I’m just getting started.

World Changer. Social Thinker. Business Owner. #WEOC

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