Travelling can be expensive, there’s no bones about it.
The good news is that this doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of ways to make sure you’re getting the best value for money.
Being able to travel often is a balance of finding ways to get away that don’t cost the earth and being willing to explore off the beaten track. A budget trip doesn’t mean going without, rather it’s all about trying new things, getting out of your comfort zone and learning what the locals love. Some of my best travel memories come from discoveries we’ve made over the years that we might have missed if we’d opted for the easy (and more expensive) option.
As it’s always better to share, I thought I’d put pen to paper and offer my favourite ways to make the most of travelling on a budget. Here’s my top eight;
1. Be flexible with travel times
Think outside the box when it comes to when you want to travel. My other half is a teacher, so we’re often limited to school holidays – which can be pricier, especially when it comes to getting away to the sun. Our solution? Make the most of less popular times of year to travel. We love visiting northern Europe in the autumn half term, which usually falls at the end of October. Flights are cheap, cities are less crowded and you can enjoy the stunning displays of copper-coloured foliage that this time of year brings.
Make the most of off-season prices in June and September and delight in exploring without the crowds if you want to head to southern Europe. April and May are fantastic for city breaks as you can spend all day on your feet without sweltering or needing to pack your thermals. And try to book well in advance to make sure you get the best prices.
2. Bag a bottle
Something that stacks up pretty quick when you’re away? Bottled water. A few Euro here and there on every trip soon adds up. If you’re happy with tap water, grab yourself a travel bottle and top up for free in hotels and airports to save a pretty penny (that I like to consider a contribution to my beer and pastry fund). I’m obsessed with my Platypus bottle that has traipsed around Europe with me for the past couple of years. It folds completely flat and rolls up to squeeze in a handbag or pocket when empty, but can hold enough to keep me hydrated on a day’s hiking.
3. Ah, the Easyjet cheap flight finder
Not limited exclusively to Easyjet – most budget airlines have online tools to help you find their best value flights. If you know when you want to travel, use a cheap flight finder to pick your travel dates and set your departure airport – then let it suggest the best value for money flights available at that time.
It’s a novel way to solve the age old problem of “where should we go next?” and can throw up some suggestions you might never have otherwise thought of.
4. Don’t pay for baggage!! (unless you can help it)
Max out your hand luggage, and carry everything with you if you can. It might not work for everyone, or for longer trips, but you might surprise yourself with how much can be carried in your hand luggage allowance (check with your airline first, as this can vary).
If you need to take more, consider buddying up with your travel companions (easier, admittedly, with a partner than with mates) to share the allowance for checked in bags. Share a suitcase half and half – and remember that for most airlines you can carry up to 20kg, which coupled with your hand baggage allowance might be more than enough.
5. Plan your whole journey
I love an irresistibly cheap flight. But before you get overexcited and grab your wallet, take a few minutes to plan your whole journey, including the cost of travel to the airport and parking if necessary.
It might cost more to fly from your local airport, but if you can get there by public transport, or get a lift (and offer lifts in return to your kindly lift-giver) you might find your travel costs far less overall.
Don’t forget to consider alternative travel options too – Eurostar, long-distance coaches, and road trips by boat or Eurotunnel can be amazingly good value. And slow travel can be a fantastic way to soak up the atmosphere and see more of the world as you travel along at ground level.
6. The best things in life are free
I know, it sounds cliché. But it’s so true. Exploring the streets of Paris? Free. Watching the sun set over the Mediterranean in Korcula? Free. Meandering around the canals of Bruges? Free. I could go on.
I love to walk and get a feel for a place more than checking into museums and attractions. But if that’s more your cup of tea than mine, it pays to do your research. Many museums and galleries in London are free, the Prado in Madrid is free provided you arrive after 6pm, or 5pm Sunday (it’s a great way to spend an hour or two before seeking out drinks and tapas) and if you’re under 26 or a student (it’s always worth carrying your student card with you) you’ll find you’re entitled to a discount in most continental galleries and museums. Check prices and opening hours in advance and work out how to squeeze in a visit at the right time.
7. Don’t dismiss hostels
The budget travellers friend, hostels often can’t be beaten if you’re looking for a bed for a bargain price.
But don’t underestimate them if you don’t fancy spending your trips in a packed dorm full of snoring Australian’s on a gap year.
Some of the larger hostel chains, such as Generator, now offer high-quality accommodation in locations that can’t be beaten. There’s dorms if that’s your thing, larger private rooms that are ideal if you’re travelling with a group of friends or private, ensuite double rooms that are great for couples or families. I like the laid back atmosphere, the friendly staff and no-fuss approach of hostels which feels perfect for shorter trips.
My favourites? Generator in Paris can’t be beaten for quality, no-frills accommodation in a city where the hotel market is decidedly dicey. And for tapas lovers, the Oasis Hostal Toledo, Spain, has a secret roof terrace with stunning views, lovely cafe next door and beautiful double rooms with French windows opening onto the cobbled street outside.
Find out more in my guide to 24 hours in Toledo.
8. Branch out for breakfast
If you’re booking hotels through a comparison site, such as booking.com, chances are you’ll be able to choose whether or not to include breakfast in your booking.
Now, if you’re staying in a more expensive location, and can manage three plates of food before 9am, book the breakfast! Fill yourself up and save on snacks later. My personal record: four full plates in the Comfort Hotel Malmö, a stunning hotel in Sweden’s glorious third city, that included hot options and hot waffles.
But, if you’re in southern Europe, think twice before you click ‘add’. For the 5 or 6 Euro it’ll cost for a hotel buffet, you could enjoy a coffee sitting on a sun-drenched cafe terrace watching the local market set up, and follow it with an irresistible buttery pastry from the bakery down the road. It’ll probably cost you less too.
If you’re visiting central and eastern Europe, supermarkets tend to be considerably cheaper than at home and we’ve enjoyed going to town on juices, granola and fruit for little more than a euro or two a day. It’s a great choice if you’re staying in an airbnb, and even better if you’ve got a terrace you can eat it on.
Rookie error: Don’t carry a bag of granola around Croatia for a week. You’ll be finding bits of granola in your clothes for weeks to come. I learned the hard way…
So there’s my eight top tips for making the most of travelling on a budget. What are your suggestions? Have you found any fantastic things to do for free, or can recommend any great budget options?