The United Kingdom can be quite a confusing place. Not only is it made up of four smaller countries -- England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales -- but each of these is made up of various counties, most with their own regional pride and sense of identity. All of this in a country less than half the size of Texas.
While a huge chunk of visitors to the UK never leave London, it is worth venturing outside the capital to discover all of the culture, history, and natural beauty this tiny grouping of islands has to offer. The best way to do this is by booking a tour to whisk you through the country's highlights.
The United Kingdom is the fifth most visited country in the world and contains many of the Western world’s most iconic cities, monuments, and historical sites. Given the relatively small size of the island, most tours take a “highlights” approach, but there are some smaller, specialist options.
Many of the general tours of the UK could be considered historical tours. After all, some of the most iconic sights in the country are its historical landmarks, from Stonehenge to the Tower of London, Canterbury Cathedral, or Edinburgh’s Old Town.
However, many tours are specifically geared for history buffs of a given era, focusing on areas like Victorian London, medieval cathedrals, or prehistoric sites of spiritual and archeological significance.
The UK may be better known for its culture and history, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of showstopping nature to see. From the beautiful Lake District to the rolling hills of Ireland and the rugged landscapes of the Scottish highlands, there is plenty to discover for hikers, mountain climbers, and wildlife lovers.
Festival and Special Event Tours
Whether you want to experience the world’s largest cultural festival at the Edinburgh Fringe, rub shoulders with celebrities at Glastonbury, or see the suns rise over Stonehenge during the summer solstice, there are plenty of UK tours focused around specific festivals and events.
The UK has birthed many of the world’s most famous writers and, subsequently, some of English Literature’s greatest novels, poems, and plays. There are Jane Austen tours, Dickens tours, Shakespeare tours...as well as several broader options covering various locations of literary interest throughout history.
Planning Your Trip
The UK is not a difficult place to travel. There is no language barrier, for one -- barring a few tricky regional accents. However, most people want to visit several locations across all four countries, which makes booking a planned tour the most convenient and cost-effective option.
Best Time to Visit the United Kingdom
The UK’s weather is famously fickle. As a general rule, the country experiences cold, wet winters and (mostly) warm, dry summers. Big cities like London can be enjoyed at any time of year, but if you are planning to head out into nature, the warmer months are preferable.
Peak season is July and August, with prices throughout the country spiking during these months. If you can, plan your trip for the late spring or early autumn to save money while still getting nice weather.
What to Look for in a Tour to the United Kingdom
If you have never visited the UK before, you will probably want to book a general highlights tour. Many of these combine a focus on London with one or two of the other countries (usually Scotland or Northern Ireland -- Wales is unfortunately often left out of itineraries).
The UK is also often included in broader Europe tours, and many UK tours also include the Republic of Ireland (which, unlike Northern Ireland, is a separate country entirely).
If, however, you have already done the basics, or if your interests are more specific, it is worth looking into something more niche. It will be harder to find tours that don’t spend at least a few days going through the London highlights, but they do exist.
Typical Tour Cost
The UK is not an especially cheap country to visit, and tour prices reflect this. London is particularly pricey, so tours that focus on the capital will be more expensive. Expect to pay at least $1,500 for a week-long trip, and up to $3,000 for a 10 to 14-day tour.
That said, budget tours are becoming increasingly common, so cheaper options are available.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
Pack for the season, bearing in mind that rain is likely to happen at any time of the year. If your tour covers a lot of the country, remember that the difference in temperatures between, say, London and Aberdeen can be pretty dramatic.
Unless you are doing a very specialized adventure tour (climbing Ben Nevis in winter, for example), you are unlikely to need any specific gear. Even then, materials like ice axes and crampons are usually included in the tour price.
Other Tips for Travel in the United Kingdom
US nationals do not need to apply for a visa to visit the UK (or the Republic of Ireland) for a period of up to six months. Visas are granted, for free, upon arrival. However, if you are planning to visit other European countries during your trip, you will need to apply for a separate Schengen Visa.
At the time of writing, the UK is still in the process of negotiating its exit from the European Union. The extent to which this will affect the visa process is currently unknown. That said, Brexit is more likely to affect EU nationals than visitors from overseas.
If you are doing a broader Europe tour (or one that includes the Republic of Ireland), remember that the UK has its own currency, the Pound Sterling, instead of the Euro.
Health & Safety
The UK presents very few challenges in terms of Health & Safety -- just make sure you have adequate health insurance.
The standard of care throughout the country is high. The National Health Service (NHS) provides healthcare free of charge for UK residents and EU citizens with an EHIC card. However, visitors from outside the EU usually have to pay for treatment, which can be expensive if you don't have insurance.
Generally speaking, the UK is a safe country. The biggest risk for tourists is pickpocketing, especially in Central London and during major festivals. The usual precautions apply: stay aware of your possessions at all times, don’t get distracted, and avoid flashing large amounts of cash.