IIn the depths of winter, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, I bring good news. That super budget holiday you’re giving up on this year? Add a splash of creativity and you’ll be even better than you think.
As an author who has spent most of his life starving in a cubicle, I’ve always had to opt for cheap, cheerful vacations. And my experience is that they are not only on par with those that come with more trimmings, they are often more interesting and satisfying. Let me explain.
For a start, some of the best memories are made from meeting the locals and experiencing their kindness, both at home and abroad. On the other hand, luxury tends to isolate you from such encounters. For example, inspired by Shakespeare’s many walking trips between Stratford-upon-Avon and London, I decided to celebrate finishing a book (writing a book, not just reading one) by taking a leisurely walk from my flat in East London to my sister’s house nearby. Suffolk/Norfolk border. I threw some things into my backpack, headed along the Lea River, and arrived at a country camp late in the evening. This was when disaster struck – I found it unexpectedly closed. There were no other campsites for miles and no practical place for a wild camper. Ten minutes later I was in a tavern explaining my predicament to the landlady and she poured me a pint. My story was heard and a local family immediately offered me a free bed. I even got my breakfast and went up to the bar the next morning to continue my walk. Thanks Bill.
Camping is of course the obvious choice for the budget traveler. My investment in a little camping gear (there are plenty of low-priced options nowadays) has paid itself off many times over, on biking and hiking trips. Facilities at camps have improved immeasurably since the British camping period began in the early 2000s. And while there has been a commensurate increase in prices, there are still plenty of perfectly good spots out there that have everything you need in less than one night.
Of course, the cheapest camping is wild camping, which is perfectly legal in parts of Dartmoor (for now) and all over Scotland (with common sense caveats) – though I admit it’s not for everyone. I guarantee I’ll be late, hit camp early and leave no trace – and I’ve never had a problem. On top of that, wild camping has allowed me to stay in some off-the-beaten-track places—high in mountains, on cliff tops, lakes and lakes—and has given me many private moments of contact with wildlife. I went to sleep with the badgers scurrying about me; I awoke to the muntjac stag on the flap of my tent; He even had a sneaky hedgehog (when did you last see one of those?) pay a visit to help himself to my snacks.
But if that’s a bit too much for you, or you don’t have a tent, how about a camping or camping coop? Basic but intact shelters, often with a fireplace, provide a place to put a sleeping bag down and perhaps exchange candlelit stories with other hikers. Joining the Mountain Bothies Association in Scotland gives you free access to around 100 shelters, many of which are in stunning locations.
Inns and maisonettes provide a step further in comfort while remaining economical. I’ve spent many relaxing evenings in hostels run by YHA and in independent lodges. I once spent an unforgettable week cycling along the Western Isles, staying in caravans converted from traditional homes. The camaraderie between my fellow hosts was infectious. And one night, after a very wet day in the saddle, two women took pity on the ‘poor comfy thing’ I had become and cooked me supper.
The general lack of funds did not prevent me from crossing the channel either. The Interrail pass is one of the glories of Europe and was created expressly to give seasoned youngsters an affordable way to see the continent. On my first Interrail trip, 30 years ago, I saved even more money by eschewing traditional lodging and taking a sleeper train every night to my next destination. Unable to afford the cabin, I became an expert at getting the most comfort out of transport seats. And on those occasions when sleep was hard, it was thrilling to watch the dawn break as I wandered into each new country. I saw nine countries in two weeks and got incurable from the travel bug. (Many of the sleeper trains I’ve taken no longer exist, but fortunately, new sleeper services are opening up across Europe again.) I repeated the experience in 2019 on a trip that took Athens, Budapest, Venice, and more.
Now available to travelers of all ages, Interrail tickets covering 33 countries start at £212 (£159 for under-28s). Cheaper single-country passes are great for those who want to explore just one country. And no matter which card you buy, kids under 12 get in absolutely free, and it’s the best cheap kind.
There are deals to be made even on very expensive British Rail – when they’re not interfering. Rover tickets offer some of the best value for money – there are currently over 80, covering most areas from Cornwall to the Highlands. Using the North Country Rover I had a very pleasant economy ride in the Lake District, Hadrian’s Wall and the North Yorkshire coast. In Scarborough I looked for the cheapest B&B in town and not only was it clean and pleasant, the room had a four poster bed.
Tour buses are similarly friendly to the budget traveler – they are offered by most of the major bus companies and some of the smaller bus companies. I spent 45 days on a low cost trip around the entire British mainland coast using only local buses (and tent) but I’m sure short trips can be fun too.
You might be wondering at this point why cheap flights weren’t mentioned. Well, without wanting to step up to the pulpit, it’s because it’s a bit of a misnomer: They may cost very little now but the harm they cause means you (and everyone else) will continue to foot their bill well into the future. And besides, who wants to start and end their vacation and be treated like cattle?
All of this goes to the heart of a fundamental question: Why travel? If a horizon-expanding experience is also fun and likely to provide you with memories to savor in your rocking chair, I would venture that a budget vacation is more likely to give you just that than its more expensive traditional counterpart. Although money can certainly give you comfort on your travels, it cannot give you happiness. And having to think creatively about travel means you’re more likely to end up having an adventure. And without bankrupting yourself, which is always a bonus.
Tips on doing more with less
For rail travel in Britain, use one of the many sites to split tickets. These dig into the dark heart of the country’s rail pricing system to find the cheapest possible fares. I use Ticketysplit.co.uk. BUY EARLY: Advance train tickets offer huge savings and will be on sale for up to the next three months. They become more expensive as inventory dwindles, and can be changed for a fee, but are not refundable. For railrover and railer tickets, visit railrover.org. Railcards can pay for one or two trips. Combined ferry/train tickets (search for ‘sail rail Europe’) are usually cheaper than separate fares. Join mailing lists for news of special offers: This has saved me a lot on Eurostar, Interrail and LNER.
Look for ‘Rover Bus Ticket’ and the area you are traveling to. For example, a West Yorkshire MCard or a North Wales 1bws ticket gives you an unlimited daily bus ride for very little.
Try the Youth Hostel Association, Independent Youth Hostels, Independent Youth Hostel Directory, Gatliff Trust and Mountain Bothies Association.
My favorite site is ukcampsite.co.uk, which lists thousands of sites in the UK and Europe and has good filters. For £45 a year, the Camping & Caravanning Club gives access to 1,200 sites (usually very cheap) to members only.