Rail vacations in the UK

The railway arrived in the UK in the 1840s and changed everything. With it came the creation of the day trip and of seaside resorts, the idea of leisure time and vacations. Our relationship with trains today is more complicated. British people love to complain about ticket prices and delays – yet taking the train remains something of a national pastime. Brits still get misty-eyed over the Victorian era of steam engines and kids continue to love Thomas the Tank Engine, a children’s show so quintessentially British that it was originally narrated by one of The Beatles.

The UK rail network is the oldest in the world, and the fifth-busiest. When they arrived, trains brought standardised time to Britain and fresh fish inland for the first time. The train connected towns and cities, and remains one of the easiest ways to see some of Britain’s best sights. What’s more, as people become conscious of their carbon footprint, it’s an increasingly popular way to travel.
It’s one of the most relied-upon rail networks in the world. For tourists hoping to tour the UK, using the train is a real no-brainer.
If you’re looking to do a UK vacation by rail, you can safely ignore anyone who whinges about the timetable – they are commuter complaints. For visitors looking for a car-free vacation, using the islands’ extensive rail network is a no-brainer.
“It really gives people the opportunity to see the country without having to think about travel: just get on the train and that takes you to the destination,” explains Emma Greer, from our UK rail travel expert McKinlay Kidd. “It’s really relaxing. If you’re a couple, neither of you needs to think about maps and sat nav.”
York is just two hours from London, and Edinburgh under three hours from York via the scenic East Coast Line. You don’t have to worry about roundabouts and route planning; you can just sit back and let the scenery scroll by.

What route should I take?

Lots of visitors might start in London, but you don’t have to. There are, after all, 2,500 stations in the UK, making the isles pretty well-connected. Responsible tour companies care about making trips as car-free as possible, and will offer tailor made trips that can be adapted to work around you.

A popular way to tour England and Scotland involves starting in London, heading west to Bath, then up to Chester and the Lake District, before crossing into Scotland to see the Scottish Highlands. Returning south, you’d stop in Edinburgh before crossing back into England and finishing in York. If you want to cross into Wales, popular routes go from Liverpool or Manchester to Llandudno on the northern coast, before continuing round to the gorgeous Pembrokeshire coastline and on to Cardiff.
If you want to tour Scotland, many trips start in Glasgow or Edinburgh, before heading north. There are several unmissable routes – the West Highland Line from Glasgow to Mallaig has the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct en route, as well as lochs, mountains and misty wilderness. “Rannoch Moor is really popular,” Emma from McKinlay Kidd explains. “It’s wild scenery, going through some of the areas where there were the Highland Clearances. It’s essentially a wasteland; it’s really stark.”
You could also see Northern Ireland, taking the train from Belfast to Derry in Northern Ireland via the popular Antrim Coast. “The part from Coleraine onwards is really scenic,” Emma says. “I used to commute for a job I had before university – and that train route is what got me through the long days.” The route skirts the sea, passing through quiet villages and under piles of green hillside. In bad weather the hills vanish into the mist; in good, the grass sparkles in the sun.

Our top UK Vacation

Scotland by railway vacation

Scotland by railway vacation

Experience authentic Scotland independently and car-free

From £1135 to £1195 8 days ex flights
Tailor made:
This trip can be tailor made from April to the end of October.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about UK or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

UK highlights by train

Bath

Bath is a pretty university city in South West England with a long history. Thanks to hot springs in the river valley, the Romans built a bath complex and temple here, and was again a popular spa town in the 18th century. Today, it retains much of its history – both Roman and Georgian, unspoilt by modern developments. From the streets of its elegant center, you can see the surrounding hillside peering over – a reminder that the Cotswolds are not far away.

Edinburgh

Sleeper trains arrive at Edinburgh Waverley Station from London, their passengers jolted awake to find themselves in the heart of Scotland’s elegant capital. The castle-topped Old Town is full of cobblestoned streets and crooked pubs; the elegant New Town has wide streets and classy townhouses. There are good restaurants everywhere – it’s worth ducking off the main tourist drags to find the best ones.

Northern Ireland

Game of Thrones is what kick-started tourism in Northern Ireland – but it’s still picking up and it’s nice that it’s not super popular yet,” says Emma. It’s still a remarkably quiet corner of the British Isles to explore. The train line from Belfast to Derry takes in some of the Antrim Coast – famous for the Giant’s Causeway, but wild, green and beautiful along all its length. It’s easy to cross into the Republic of Ireland whilst you’re at it, tacking Dublin and Galway onto your trip.

Pembrokeshire

Voted one of the world’s prettiest coastlines, the Pembrokeshire Coast resembles a remote tropical island in the sun – and a dramatic film set in the rain. The Cambrian line, a portion of which runs along the coast between Portmeirion and Aberystwyth, has some of the prettiest sections of railway in Britain. To get there by train, you can go via North Wales, or come from the south, after a visit to Cardiff and Swansea.

West Highland Line

The backbone of many a Scotland rail vacation is the West Highland Line, which connects Glasgow with the Highlands. Skirting Loch Lomond and going on to pass through wild Highland scenery, its most famous stretch is across the curved Glenfinnan Viaduct. The Isle of Skye is a short ferry ride on from Mallaig, the tiny port at the northern end of the line, whilst the Isle of Mull is best reached from Oban.

York

Hosting the Railway Museum, where you can see Stephenson’s Rocket, the locomotive that set Britain’s rail industry into motion, York is historically fascinating and almost ridiculously pretty. Its medieval center includes the Shambles – an iconic street – and the old city walls. York Minster, its spiky gothic towers standing tall over the city, is a fitting cathedral for such a historic city. It was completed in 1472 and has wonderful stained glass throughout.

What do UK by rail vacations entail?

Tailor made or small group?

Go with a responsible vacation company and they’ll ensure that your trip is as convenient and car free as possible – tailor made tours can be adapted to start at your most convenient station, for example. If you travel solo, you’ll get detailed guidance for your trip before you go in a handy app which you can consult whenever you like en route for travel tips, maps and insider info.

Group tours mean that you’ll get a guide. Emma from McKinlay Kidd explains the benefit: “They’re with the group throughout on every train, they take them to accommodation, they’re there at meals, telling people stories and helping them get the most out of the experience. When you pass by something of interest on the train, they’ll tell you a story about it.” Going on an escorted rail vacation can really enliven and inform your trip.

Where will I stay?

With only a couple of sleeper trains operating in the UK, most of the time you’ll be sleeping stationary, rather than between stations. The UK has a long tradition of pubs, bed and breakfasts, inns and historic hotels – and a good vacation company will find the perfect one for you, usually complete with a cosy fireplace.

What should I bring?

A good book is a solid companion for train travel, as is a waterproof coat, a pair of sturdy shoes, and luggage you can carry on and off the trains yourself. Some, but not all, trains have a buffet service. A Thermos flask will be the envy of your fellow passengers.

Best time to go on a UK rail vacation

The season runs from March to November, but the majority of visitors come to the UK in summer, when the days are longest. Emma is happy to see people traveling more and more out of the peak season: “Traditionally [the peak time] was April to the end of the September, but last year there were quite a few travelers in March and October. It was really nice to see people traveling.”
March and October might have shorter days, with less settled weather – but spring daffodils on the banks and lambs in the fields are a big pull in spring, whilst late autumn has lovely changing colours and longer views as the trees lose their leaves, unveiling the scenery behind.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Jeremy Segrott] [By Rail: Pillip Capper] [West Highland Way: Phil Richards] [Bath: Pedro Szekely] [Northern Ireland: Dimitry Anikin] [York: katarina_dzurekova] [Book: Will Tarpey] [Glenfinnan Viaduct: Adam Gavlak]
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