Planning a family trip to Scotland is exciting, but it can also be a daunting task if you’re not sure where to begin! We’ve put together some of our key tips to help you get started on planning your Scotland family travels.
Best time to visit Scotland
One of the first hurdles of planning your Scotland family trip is deciding when to go! While Scotland has a reputation for being wet and cold (which is, at times, deserved) it is a year-round destination. You’ll just need to adapt your itinerary and your packing to the time of year you’ll be here. (See our packing tips below).
As Billy Connolly, one of Scotland’s most famous son’s, said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather – only the wrong clothes.”
Having said that, the shoulder seasons of April-June and September/October are our favourite time to travel.
This is when the weather is usually warmer but you don’t get the summer crowds. All the major attractions are open but they’re not as busy and you’ll find more accommodation affordable or at least available.
It’s also lighter, as the daylight hours reduce to anywhere between 9 am until 4 pm in the middle of winter, depending on where exactly in the country you are.
Where to go
Scotland may seem small on the map but there’s a lot to see and do across the country. Driving distances can also be deceiving, thanks to some of the smaller roads. This means trips can need a little more planning than you’d expect. Especially if you have young children in tow!
The best way to start planning your Scotland itinerary is to think about the type of things you want to see. Start broad with things like castles, beaches, islands, mountains, and then choose a few focal points and specific sites. You’ll then be able to see what’s close by to those, and from there start looking for a few spots to base yourself allowing you to thoroughly explore the area.
Travelling with young children means you may not want to be uprooting them to new accommodation every night or having long driving times in between places to see. This means choosing some “home bases” along your route is the best option. The joy of this is that you can explore without disrupting schedules so everyone gets to enjoy their time in Scotland.
When you’re actually mapping out your ideal sites you might find some places are simply too far from everything else you want to see or don’t fit your timeframe but there are often other closer options.
For example, the Isle of Skye is quite a journey if you only have a few days in the country, and it’s a large island with a lot to see. You may be better going to the Isle of Arran, known as “Scotland in Miniature”, which is more accessible from Glasgow and Edinburgh and has its own fantastic sites to see.
How long to visit
You won’t be able to tick off everything you want to see in Scotland in one trip unless you’re coming for a few months! There’s simply too much to experience and too much ground to cover.
Prioritise what’s important to you, and also work out what’s realistic within your given time frame, especially with children in tow. The worst thing we’ve done on our travels is to try to squeeze too much into too short a time. It leads to added stress and sometimes sleepless nights.
If you’re really stuck, we would recommend a minimum of 2 or 3 days in Edinburgh, with the third day giving you a chance for a day trip if you’d like to explore somewhere close by.
If you have another few days then exploring Fife, Loch Lomond, Stirling, Glencoe, the Borders, or Glasgow are great options. For destinations further afield in the Highlands and Islands we would recommend at least 7 days.
Check out our destinations page for ideas on what to see in each area and how long you might want to stay.
Getting to Scotland
Scotland has five international airports:
- Prestwick (south of Glasgow)
While Edinburgh or Glasgow may seem the obvious choices, if you’re planning to explore the Highlands then Aberdeen or Inverness may work just as well for you. Prestwick services other European destinations so may be worth looking at if you’re travelling to/from elsewhere in Europe.
Wherever you fly to, you can travel a loop around Scotland and back so check out all of them when booking flights and different airlines will fly different routes so you can choose the most cost-effective option.
It’s also possible to fly into a hub like Manchester, or even London, and get the train or an internal flight to Scotland. In this instance, you’ll need to weigh the cost of time and money to see whether it’s worth it for you.
Edinburgh and Glasgow both have major train stations that are well-connected to locations in England. The train from central London to Edinburgh takes approximately five hours and it’s possible to book in advance to secure seats and take your luggage on the train.
This can be a commuter train so look into when you can travel to avoid the busiest times. A busy station in any country can be hard work to move a family through.
There are several ways that you can get around Scotland on a family trip.
Driving gives you the most freedom in terms of choosing where to go and, of course, when to stop. If you need to hire a car you can do so at many locations around the country including all of the major airports but also smaller places within cities and towns too.
We wouldn’t recommend hiring a car while you’re in Edinburgh or Glasgow due to limited parking and the fact that both cities are easy to explore, even with a pushchair, on public transport. Wait until you are ready to leave the city and move further afield to reduce the cost of your car hire.
Driving on the left can be a little daunting for those who are used to the right-hand side of the road, but you’ll quickly get the hang of it as all major roads are clearly marked and you’ll be able to follow other cars along.
Top Tip – if you’re very unsure make sure your partner knows to help you and you can add a marker to the dashboard to remind you.
When travelling on smaller country roads there may not be a central median line so just stick towards the left and using the passing places on the left to pause to allow other cars to pass on the other side when necessary.
If you need a car seat or booster seat these can be hired from most car hire companies, or you can bring your own.
It is possible to plan your entire trip around Scotland on public transport. There are trains, bus services, and ferries to most major destinations and if you book accommodation in villages and towns then you’ll have no problem.
It does mean you won’t be able to stop between Point A and B but watching the beautiful scenery pass by from the train or bus without any stress of driving can be a major plus.
Stagecoach, Scottish Citylink, National Express and Megabus are some of the major bus companies in Scotland, and there are also many smaller local services. Some of these allow children under 5 who sit on your lap on for free (one per adult) or have discounted children’s fares.
Larger destinations like Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Inverness will have day tours available that will allow you to see more of the area, or you’ll need to investigate local bus routes.
Children under 5 travel free on Scotrail (the national service provider) train services, and those aged between 5-15 are £1 per child per return journey.
Ferry services run between the mainland and many of Scotland’s islands in the west and to the north. Adding an island or two to your Scotland itinerary is highly recommended! The islands bring a whole new aspect to your Scotland family trip as each has its own character.
You can board ferries as a passenger or drive on with a car if that service is available.
Group tours can be a fantastic way to see Scotland and learn from an experienced guide at the same time.
Unfortunately, many organised tour operators won’t take children under 5 on group tours, but if your children are older then a group tour could be a possibility.
Group tours include long days with lots of stops but can also have lots of driving time so you’ll need to decide if it’s something that will suit your family. Talk to the tour operator about what group tours are best suited to children as well.
There are companies that also offer private tours which may be more suited to a family as you’ll have control over the itinerary. These will come at a higher cost than other modes of travel but you’ll have the benefit of an experienced tour guide who can impart all sorts of knowledge about Scotland, past and present.
There are plenty of family-friendly accommodation options in Scotland. Depending on your needs you can choose from hotels, apartments, or even B&B’s and hostels. Picking the right accommodation for your family can be a little tricky if you’re not sure what to look for.
Read more in our guide to family-friendly accommodation in Scotland here.
Scotland is known for not having settled weather and for being a bit wet. Having said that, we do get some fantastically sunny days! The temperatures may not necessarily be warm to match, however.
Our biggest tip when you’re packing for Scotland is to bring layers. It’s impossible to predict what the weather will be like, even a week or a few days ahead. Having layers means you can adapt to the situation.
Always bring a waterproof outer layer as there’s a chance of rain year-round. Waterproof shoes are also recommended.
Information for international travellers
Depending on your country of origin you may or may not need a visa to visit Scotland.
Travellers from the EEA (European Economic Area) or Switzerland can travel on a national identity card or a passport, all other nationalities will require a passport.
EU citizens can currently enter Scotland without a visa. Brexit means that things are changing and it’s not certain exactly how yet. But don’t let that put you off! Scotland is a welcoming country and we want to see you here!
For those outside of the EU, you’ll need to check your individual country requirements.
Citizens of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, along with many others, can enter the country for 6 months as a tourist, or for 3 months if they enter through the Republic of Ireland. This means you and your family have plenty of time to explore!
Other citizens will need an Electronic Waiver or a Visitor Visa.
You can check your citizenship here.
When you enter Scotland or the UK you may be asked to show your return ticket or proof of funds for your trip.
The Pound is the legal currency in Scotland. The Bank of Scotland and Clydesdale Bank print Scottish Pound notes, but you can also use English notes or Northern Irish notes in Scotland. So don’t panic if you get English notes if change any money before your trip!
The best way to pay for things is either cash, debit card, or credit card. Some smaller shops may not take debit or credit cards or may have a minimum amount to charge so it’s always worth asking before you order anything to make sure smaller places take your card.
Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted but AMEX is not always. We do have contactless payments in Scotland so it’s also possible to use Apple Pay at many locations where debit or credit cards are accepted.
The UK uses a three-pin plug that is different from the one used by the rest of the EU, so if you’re travelling to both areas you’ll need different plug converters.
The voltage is 230 V which means you will need a converter if you’re coming from somewhere with different voltage and want to use an appliance that isn’t dual voltage.
However, even with a converter or dual voltage appliance, we’ve had problems using things like a hairdryer. Many accommodation providers will have these, or you can pick them up cheaply from a high street store like Boots or Superdrug so we would recommend not bringing them.
There are no specific vaccinations required for Scotland. If you need to bring your own medication you should do so in original packaging with labels. There are plenty of pharmacies where basic medications are available or if you need access to the health system it will be possible.
However, we always recommend having travel insurance that covers everything you plan to be doing and everything you plan to take.
Some insurance doesn’t cover electronics and some won’t cover the more adventurous activities, so check before you buy!
If you have travel insurance through your credit card then check the policy to see what’s covered and decide whether you need to purchase any additional insurance.
Scotland has three official languages: English, Scots, and Scottish Gaelic.
English is spoken by 99% of the population, Scots by 30%, and Scottish Gaelic by 1%.
You may find people referring to “Scottish English” as there are distinct words and phrases used that may not be elsewhere.
“Scots” refers to either a dialect or slang, depending on who you ask. It’s likely you may be able to decipher some Scots that is close to English but some are definitely not discernible to the non-native speaker!
Scottish Gaelic is the founding language of Scotland thought to derive from Ireland, although it is now different to Irish Gaelic. It’s what you will see on street signs in the northern area of the country and is a separate language, but never fear there is always the English place name too.
Scottish Gaelic is still spoken in some areas of the Highlands and Islands, particularly the Outer Hebrides and if you’re lucky enough to hear it, it’s a beautiful flowing language that lends itself perfectly to the folk songs and poetry.