Photo: James Whitesmith/Alamy
In the middle of winter, in the midst of the cost of living crisis, I bring good news. That ultra-budget vacation you’re giving up on this year? Add a little creativity and everything will turn out much better than you think.
As an author who spent most of his adult life starving in an attic, I almost always had to choose a cheap and cheerful vacation. In my experience, not only are they on par with those that have more toppings, but very often they are much more enjoyable and satisfying. Let me explain.
To begin with, some of the best memories are of meeting the local people and experiencing kindness, whether at home or abroad. On the other hand, luxury usually insulates you from such encounters. For example, inspired by Shakespeare’s many walks between Stratford-upon-Avon and London, I decided to celebrate the completion of a book (writing one, not just reading it) by taking a walk from my flat in East London to my sister’s house near the Suffolk/Norfolk border . I threw a few things into my backpack, walked along the River Lea and arrived at a rural campsite late in the evening. This was when the disaster happened – it turned out to shut down unexpectedly. There were no other campsites for miles around, and no practical wild camp anywhere. Ten minutes later I was in the pub explaining my predicament to the landlady who was pouring me a beer. My story was overheard and a local family immediately offered me a free bed. I was even given breakfast and was driven back to the pub the next morning to continue my walk. Thanks, Bill.
I was woken up by a muntjac deer under the flap of my tent and even had a visit from a hedgehog to help myself with my snacks
Camping is of course the obvious choice for travelers on a budget. My investment in camping equipment (there are many inexpensive options available today) has paid off many times over on my bike and hiking trips. Campsite facilities have improved immeasurably since the start of the UK camping boom in the early 2000s. And while there has also been a commensurate increase in prices, there are still plenty of perfectly good sites with everything you need for less than ten zlotys a night.
Of course, the cheapest camping of all is wild camping, which is perfectly legal in parts of Dartmoor (for now) and throughout Scotland (with common sense caveats) – although I admit it’s not for everyone. Rest assured I pitch late, camp early and leave no traces – and never had a problem. Moreover, wild camping allowed me to stay in some lovely off-the-beaten-path places – mountains, cliffs, lakes and lakes – and gave me many unique moments of contact with wildlife. I went to bed with the badgers roaming around me; woke up to deer muntjac on my tent flap; and even had a sneaky hedgehog (when’s the last time you saw one of these?) who paid a visit to have my snacks.
But if that’s a bit too much for you or you don’t have a tent, how about both or a camping barn? Simple but sturdy shelters, often with fireplaces, offer a place to spread out a sleeping bag and perhaps exchange candlelight stories with other hikers. Joining the Scottish Mountain Bothies Association gives you free access to around 100 shelters, many of which are in stunning locations.
Hostels and barracks provide the next step in comfort while remaining economical. I spent many intimate evenings in hostels run by YHA and in independent ones. I once spent an unforgettable week cycling along the Western Isles, staying in barracks converted from traditional black houses. The camaraderie between my roommates was contagious. One night, after a very wet day in the saddle, two young women took pity on the “poor, soaked creature” I had become and cooked me dinner.
It was exciting to watch the dawn as I burst into each new country
The general lack of funds did not stop me from crossing the English Channel either. The Interrail ticket is one of Europe’s greatest attractions and has been specifically designed to offer troubled youth an affordable way to explore the continent. On my first Interrail odyssey some 30 years ago, I saved even more money by forgoing conventional accommodation and taking the sleeper train to my next destination every night. Unable to afford a cabin, I became an expert in getting maximum comfort out of carriage seats. And on those occasions when it was hard to sleep, it was exciting to watch the dawn as I burst into each new country. I saw nine nations in two weeks and contracted the travel bug incurably. (Many of the sleeper trains I used to ride no longer exist, but luckily new sleeper trains are opening up again across Europe.) I repeated this experience in 2019 on a trip that took place in Athens, Budapest, Venice and elsewhere.
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 only want to explore one nation. Regardless of which pass you buy, children under 12 enter completely free, which is the best cheap form.
Even on expensive British railways there are bargains – if you are not determined. Rover tickets offer some of the best value for money – there are now over 80, covering most regions from Cornwall to the Highlands. Using the North Country Rover, I had a very enjoyable budget trip that covered the Lake District, Hadrian’s Wall and the North Yorkshire coast. In Scarborough, I hunted down the cheapest guesthouse in town and not only was it clean and cheerful, but the room also had a canopy bed.
Likewise, rover buses are allies for travelers on a budget – they are offered by most large and a few smaller bus companies. I once spent 45 days on a cheap trip around the entire UK mainland using only local buses (and a tent), but I’m sure shorter trips can be fun too.
You may be wondering at this point why I didn’t mention cheap flights. Well, without wanting to climb the pulpit, that’s because they’re a little confusing: they may cost very little now, but the damage they do means you (and everyone else) will continue to pay the bill for them until the end of the future . Besides, who wants to start and end their vacation treated like cattle?
It all boils down to the basic question: why travel? If it’s meant to be a mind-expanding experience that’s also fun and likely to provide you with memories to savor in a rocking chair, I’d venture that a budget vacation is more likely to give you that than its more expensive conventional counterpart. While money can certainly keep you comfortable while traveling, it won’t make you happy. And thinking creatively about traveling means you’re much more likely to have an adventure. And no bankruptcy which is always a bonus.
Tips for doing more with less
For rail travel within the UK, use one of the many split-ticket sites. They bury themselves in the dark heart of the country’s rail fare system to find the cheapest possible fares. I use ticketysplit.co.uk. Buy early: Advance train tickets offer huge savings and are on sale up to three months in advance. They get more expensive as supplies run low and can be replaced for a fee but are non-refundable. To purchase rail rover and ranger tickets, visit railrover.org. Train cards can pay off in one or two trips. Combined ferry/train tickets (search for ‘sail rail Europe’) are usually cheaper than separate fares. Join the mailing lists to receive news about special offers: this saved me a lot on Eurostar, Interrail and LNER.
Search for “bus rover ranger ticket” and the region you are traveling to. For example, an MCard in West Yorkshire or a 1bws ticket in North Wales give you unlimited bus trips in a day for very little.
Try the Youth Hostel Association, independent hostels, the Independent Hostel Guide, the Gatliff Trust and the Mountain Bothies Association.
My favorite site is ukcampsite.co.uk which has thousands of UK and European sites and has good filters. For £45 a year, the Camping & Caravanning Club provides access to 1,200 (usually very cheap) members-only sites.