Planning travel is so fun! However, it can also be very overwhelming especially when you’re scheduling internationally. Don’t let this scare you off from dreaming of your family trip to Scotland. There will be bumps in the road, but it’s totally worth it. Let me simplify it for you. Or at least try!
If this is your first trip to Scotland, you’re going to have to be realistic. You will not be able to see every castle or every Harry Potter filming location or every Outlander set site. Stick to the big cities and towns which are easily accessed from train. Unless you’re feeling very adventurous – and trying to make your trip unnecessarily complicated – pick five or six amazing places to visit.
Now we can start the fun part. If you’re looking for info on some of these places, check out my soon-to-come post about our top five experiences in Scotland. This will help you narrow down your list of towns to visit. I know you want to “see it all”, but you just can’t.
Make sure you also check out Five Must-See Outdoor Experiences in Scotland!
Our Family’s Scotland Itinerary
As homeschoolers, we were blessed with the ability to travel at the end of April. While the weather was still a bit chilly, it seemed to be a great time to travel. The goal was to be gone about three weeks and to make a circle of Scotland, finishing with several days in London.
I planned and priced plane tickets for the longest time. There were so many decisions, and I didn’t have anyone with experience in Scotland to talk to. Instead of flying out of Atlanta, my family drove to Orlando and saved $200 per ticket. However, don’t automatically think flying from a distant airport is always the best idea. I didn’t take into account how jet-lagged we would be. For safety after landing, we ended up staying in a hotel for the night instead of driving exhausted. Make sure this method actually saves you money.
We relied mostly on trains to make a clockwise loop with an eight day train pass (more info below in “trains”).
- We drove to Orlando to fly to Glasgow. And spent the night in a Walmart parking lot in the car instead of paying for five hours in a hotel. 😂
- Train Day 1 took us through the Scottish moors from Glasgow to Fort William.
- Train Day 2 was Fort William over the famous Harry Potter bridge to Mallaig where the train tickets also covered for the ferry ride over to Skye, arriving at Armadale.
- Our rented car met us when we landed at Skye where we spent several days exploring from our rented house.
- The train loop continued as we drove the car to Inverness and had an amazing seal boat trip in the way. This was one of our favorite wildlife excursions in Scotland.
- A day trip from Inverness to Aviemore allowed us to meet the reindeer herd before heading back again to drop off the car. Reindeer!
- Train Day 3 (which was day 8 from the start of our pass) took us through Stirling to land in Edinburgh.
- We stayed in Edinburgh for five days – which still wasn’t enough! – before taking the train south to London for the rest of our trip and the flight back home.
Exploring Scottish towns on foot is one of the best parts of the trip. Glasgow has a bus and subway system. Edinburgh is made for walking… lots of it! The kids became train experts to get around the countryside, and all-in-all, transportation turned out being easy… once the at-home planning was done. Ready to go yet?
The plane tickets to Europe will definitely be the most expensive part of your family trip, but with a bit of planning, you can save quite a bit of money. Figure out how many days you can be away from home., subtract one day on each end for plane travel, and base the itinerary on the number of days in-country. Then look at it and figure out how to squeeze in a couple more vacation days for good measure.
- Use the flexible date options on Kayak. Changing departure or arrival days earlier or later may be a cheaper option.
- Set an alert on Kayak on your phone for the dates you can fly. It will tell you if the price has dropped.
- Compare different airlines for possible cheaper options. This is another feature Kayak can do.
- Fly out midweek. Wednesday and Thursday are the cheapest for international travel, but for obvious reasons, this isn’t doable for many people.
- Purchase the tickets on the correct day of the week. “Buy a ticket on Tuesday” is what I was told to save money. Expedia says Sunday is the cheapest day.
- Clear out your browser before buying tickets. It’s sounds so sneaky, but the websites keep cookies and may increase the price based on your search history.
- Look at nearby airports. Driving a couple of hours may save you hundreds especially when the savings are multiplied by everyone in the family.
- Book a multi-city trip. Having different arrival and departure airports may be cheaper than a round trip ticket. Not to mention, you don’t have to spend a day getting back to your start.
- Consider an intentional layover. If you’re flying into Glasgow but have a flight up from London, why not make it a 23 hour stop and have a day to explore the city. I’ve heard this will still be considered one flight, but I’ve never done it personally.
Once you get your plane ticket arranged, start trying to tackle your train plan. When our family traveled around Scotland, we made a big, one-direction circle. The train system is so easy that, if you want to continue your trip down into England, it’s still the same transit system and very easy to combine.
Train travel throughout Scotland is so simple once you figure out the basics. While you can just get same-day tickets at the stations, do a bit of math ahead of time and work out the different price options. There are several different discounts available if you’re traveling with kids. Search for the prices of individual tickets, add these up to the total trip itinerary, and compare it to the price to just get a pass. It may save you money to buy a pass.
Many of these longer travel tickets are for a certain number of travel days that have to be used within a set number of days. For our family Scotland vacation, we ended up getting the Spirit of Scotland passes which gave four days of travel across eight consecutive days. This means that within eight days of our first day of travel, we could use it four times with unlimited travel during that day.
These up-to-date trains go all over the country, are comfortable and easy, and save you extra car rental money! Not to mention, you get to see more of the land. If you’ve already gotten your plane ticket, you know how long you can be gone. Plan to finish the trip up with at least three days in Edinburgh and work backward to figure out your train schedule.
Don’t use the pass for shorter trips within the city as in Edinburgh. Get a separate, cheaper day pass; don’t waste one of your bigger travel days. You may just qualify for the discounted Kids for a Quid program where the kids ride with you for practically free.
Consider using the train to allow you to see a town as you pass through. Leave early enough to get to your mid-journey stop in the morning. After storing your luggage at the train station, you can explore the town for a couple of hours. This saves on an extra hotel cost and lets you see more of the country. We did this in Stirling on our way to Edinburgh.
Special note for Harry Potter fans
If your little Harry Potter loving child would love to take the Hogwarts Express over the aqueduct as in the movie, make this a priority. It’s called the Jacobite Steam Train. Starting in Fort William, you ride the steam engine west to Mallaig. Consider though that a regular train ride will ride the same tracks, and you’ll see the same aqueduct. It’s soooo much cheaper; you just don’t get to ride the steam engine. However, if this full experience is your number one reason for visiting Scotland, book this first and plan around it. Don’t mention it to the kids until you know for sure, and they won’t know the difference.
Scotland can easily be explored by train or by food. You don’t need a car unless you’re planning on going to the Isle of Skye. Let me rephrase. If you’re going to Skye, keep reading because a car will be a requirement. Car rental was by far our biggest extra expense even though it was for the shortest amount of time. If you plan to stay in one of the bigger towns like Portree on the Isle of Skye, there are some local busses, but they won’t take you around the whole island.
Approaching Skye from Inverness in the north, the mainland is connected by a highway. This allows you to rent a car at the bigger town and drive it across to Skye. You could also join a day tour in Inverness, but your exploring time will be limited to just that day. However, Skye was all of our favorite part of the trip to relax and explore on our own. Plan to stay at least a couple of days…. driving around in your car.
If you come in to Skye’s south coast (as those riding the famous Harry Potter train), you will arrive by ferry from the south in Armadale as we did. While we did have to pay extra for the car to be brought to us at the ferry landing on Skye, my Harry Potter loving kids would say the ability to ride across the Hogwarts Express (on a regular train) was worth the extra expense. Don’t forget to book the ferry ahead of time!
Car rental also cost more for our family because we don’t know how to drive a standard transmission (stupid Americans), we have too many children, and we paid extra for the rental agency to deliver the car to us at the Armadale ferry. Consider learning to drive manual transmission car – aka “stick shift” – while planning your trip. Unprepared as my husband and I were, finding an automatic car for a large family was one of the main challenges — but we did manage. Do not wait for mountainous, narrow roads of Skye to figure out how to shift gears. Start now. Hopefully, you will have more luck, but I had to send out many emails to car companies until I finally got one to with with us.
I hope this helps you and takes away a bit of your groundwork. Don’t hesitate to drop me a line and ask away. It has been a few years, but I’ll love to help make your Scottish dreams come true!