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If you are visiting London, you may decide to hire a car so that you can add a level of flexibility and personal choice to your itinerary that you simply do not get with public transport. For anyone who hasn't driven in the UK's capital city before it can be something of an eye opener, even if you are used to the roads in other major urban conurbations around the country.
This is quite simply due to the size and scale of London. Apart from being the seat of the Government of the UK, a major international location and the biggest population centre in the country, London is also the most visited destination in the British Isles.
Getting around can be a daunting experience, especially for those who haven't driven in the city before. Whether you are arriving by air, train or coach, hiring a car is only the first step when it comes to working out how exactly you are going to navigate the capital's roads successfully in order to enjoy the various attractions on offer.
The first obstacle for many who arrive by air and hire a car is the M25. Many cities around the UK and abroad have orbital roads that act to 'by pass' traffic around the edges in order to cut congestion in the city centre. London's major motorway ring road is of another scale entirely and circles much of central and greater London.
The M25 is 117 miles (188 km) long and since the final section was opened in 1986, it has become one of the busiest roads in Europe. Making sure that you know your route around the circular road is an important first step, as travelling in the wrong direction could add hours to your journey and missing the right turnoff could be an added complication you really don't need.
As pollution from vehicle emissions becomes an ever more important topic, making sure you are familiar with the regulations of both the Congestion Charge and Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) regulations that apply in London is vital. Ignorance is no excuse for flouting the laws and number plate recognition systems mean that you will end up facing hefty fines and charges if you don't comply with the rules, even if you are driving a hired vehicle.
The Low Emission Zone (LEZ) was set up to try and make London's air cleaner by discouraging the most polluting heavy diesel vehicles from driving in the capital. It covers most of Greater London just within the boundaries of the M25 and is in operation 24 hours a day on every day of the year.
The scheme aims to reduce the tailpipe emissions of diesel-powered commercial vehicles by making them liable for an extra traffic pollution charge. There are several diversionary routes in operation which mean that non-compliant vehicles can avoid the charge and if you are hiring a car, it shouldn't necessarily be something that should be a concern.
Another thing to note is that the LEZ is a totally separate scheme from the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) which has been in place in central London from April 2019.
The Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) covers the same area as the Congestion Charge, which basically means all of central London where the majority of the main attractions are situated. If your vehicle doesn't meet the restriction criteria, you as the driver will be liable to pay a daily charge to drive within the zone. This is set at £12.50 for most vehicle types, including cars.
It is important to note that while the LEZ really only covers larger vans, minibuses, lorries, buses and coaches, the ULEZ has a much wider reach and even some relatively recent car models will fall foul of the restrictions. To ensure that you are not liable to pay any extra, check with your car hire provider and double check with the Transport for London website at tfl.gov.uk.
The London congestion charge operates in Central London between 07:00 and 18:00 on Mondays to Fridays but is not charged on weekends, public holidays or between Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Introduced in early 2003, it is still one of the largest congestion charge zones in the world.
The standard charge is £11.50 for each day and enforcement is based on automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technology. In its first ten years, the scheme raised a gross revenue of around £2.6 billion. The easiest way to pay the charge is by setting up an Auto Pay online. Note that there are various exemptions and discounts, so you should check to see if you need to pay. Some car hire firms may also include the charge for their vehicle within their pricing structure if they are based in or near to the zone.
Some of the major landmark attractions such as Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament can be approached by road and driven past. However, stopping off to have a good look around these central London tourist hotspots can be more difficult as parking is usually very restricted and the areas that are available are usually expensive.
Although hiring a car and driving around the main attraction locations can be a fun and enjoyable way to get an overview of the city, to really get a feel of things you might need to use public transport and explore on foot. The London Underground system is a world famous underground train system and is one of the most established in the world. Although some parts are well over one hundred years old, other additions are far more recent and overall, the trains and the technology used is highly efficient and extremely up to date.
The interconnecting network of different lines is easily navigated and covers the main areas where all of the important landmarks are situated. The system carries more than one billion passengers a year, and with the addition of the London Overground train network and the Docklands Light Railway, there are plenty of cost-effective services that run on fast and regular timetables that can get you where you want to go.
If you do intend to hire a car to visit London and its attractions, you’ll want to ensure that you have insurance to cover all eventualities. Car hire excess insurance can cover the excess that you would need to pay should your hire vehicle be damaged or stolen. Depending on the damage, this could amount to hundreds or even thousands of pounds, but a car hire excess policy could protect that. Be aware that you’ll need to pay the excess in the event of a claim, before then claiming it back via the policy.