To me travel is a spice of life. Whether it’s a train journey to another UK city or a long weekend abroad, just being on the move gives me such a buzz that I’m often planning the next trip before I’ve even got back home! Although I usually travel with just a rucksack and happily choose local transport and modest (but clean and safe!) accommodation, even the little costs do add up. As I don’t have an unlimited budget or a job that would take me to exciting new places, I’ve needed to come up with ideas to both stretch my budget further and make the journeys often involving several modes of transport more comfortable.
Price-comparison websites, travel search engines, and discount airlines are a good starting point when you are looking for a deal; knowing the time of school and public holidays both at home and at your destination is even more crucial as that’s when the prices really rocket. (Last year I cleverly managed to plan a trip to Finland outside UK school holidays only to find out it coincided with the winter holiday week in Finland. Luckily it was not too late to change the dates and bag much cheaper flights a few weeks later.) However, there are also other small, sometimes quirky, factors to consider, most of them requiring only a little bit of legwork or simply awareness.
The BIG stuff: travel, accommodation, and insurance
Flights: I’ve become suspicious of super cheap flight offers – ‘what’s the catch?’ – and always calculate the total cost from door to door before booking. Discount airlines often use smaller, more distant airports to try to lower airport fees. Having to take a bus, train or taxi to get to your final destination can significantly bump up the total price and the travel time. I remember the feeling of resignation on the airport bus towards Frankfurt-Hahn, ‘only’ 120 km from Frankfurt, when we got stuck in traffic. The ticket may not have cost a lot but I’ll never get back the time I spent on that bus! The lowest air fares, especially on the budget carriers, are usually very early in the morning or late at night when the connections may be less frequent. Having to stay in a hotel before your journey because it’s the only way to catch that bargain flight before sunrise is definitely false economy.
Having said that, sometimes a flight from a quieter airport is not just the most affordable but also the most practical option. For example, a discounted train ticket from Oxford to Gatwick with a night in a hotel costs roughly the same as a full-price coach fare alone to Heathrow. A good night’s sleep vs getting up in the early hours to catch the coach – I’ll choose the former any time! Also, by choosing a hotel with a five-minute walk from the terminal instead of one right at the airport we have managed to halve the cost per night.
Travel insurance: For years hubby and I have gone for an annual travel insurance for couples, which is also valid if we travel separately. We never auto renew the policy when it expires but buy a new one (after price comparison) when the next trip is due. However, it’s useful to have a valid policy from your booking date rather than the travel date so that you are covered if something goes seriously wrong before your trip.
Car hire: We have occasionally had to hire a car for a holiday and although it’s always been an uncomplicated process, we could have easily paid over the odds without some research beforehand. The fuel policy has never caused any issues – we have always had a ‘take full, return full’ policy – but apart from the reasonably priced first rental, the excess insurance through the hire company would have been ridiculously high. In the end, we compared prices between standalone providers and bought an annual policy, which is the most economical and the most convenient option for us. Apparently the one we took would cover any excess with our car club membership too.
Accommodation: As most of my trips are short city breaks, I love staying in a central location to make the most of my time. Everything is within walking distance and I can pop out any time without having to worry about timetables or the cost of transport. In this instance, convenience overrides the price. However, although accommodation in the outskirts of a city or further away from the beach usually costs less, the difference becomes more marginal if you have to take a taxi back every evening. In popular tourist destinations, such as Venice or Monaco, staying outside the city is always likely to be the most affordable option.
I tend to choose a hotel with a good (buffet) breakfast that will keep me going until lunch time. If breakfast is not included in the price, I’ll find a nice café not aimed at tourists. Many eateries and even the more upmarket restaurants have special lunch or early-bird menus, which offer the same food as in the evening, just at a lower price. I also keep an eye on special meal deals and two-for-one offers on Mondays and Tuesdays, which are quiet days for restaurants. Despite a potential financial benefit, all-inclusive holidays have never appealed to me. I prefer to try to find places the locals go to and soak up the atmosphere sampling some of the local dishes.
Eating out on a daily basis is definitely not good for the budget, especially in many western cities, but luckily meals can be improvised. Lunch can easily be a few picnic items from a local grocery store or market, and you can always bring something back for later. The hotel mini bar, if there is one, is ideal for keeping your wine and cheese cool. (Yes, it has been tested.) If you are staying in a self-catering apartment, you can of course eat in every day if you wish.
Trains: Rail travel is fast and convenient but ticket purchasing can sometimes be a challenge in more ways than one: in addition to comparing ticket types and checking possible restrictions, it’s good to be aware of accepted payment methods. In The Netherlands, for example, you need either coins or a Dutch bank card to buy tickets from a self-service machine. It’s not a major problem at a big station with a ticket counter but if you have arrived at The Hook of Holland early in the morning without having bought a ticket on the ferry, the situation changes slightly…! (At that time I hopped on the train and got the ticket on-board although I was asked why I hadn’t bought it on the ferry. Yes, why hadn’t I?!) In the UK the rail fare system can be puzzling but once you are familiar with its basics, you can avoid paying too much unnecessarily. (I have listed a few tips in Unravelling the mysteries of UK rail fares.)
Finally, a couple of useful little things…
For a faster journey through security, choose a queue with business travellers in front of you as they tend to be the most prepared and go through without delays.
Instead of buying bottled water, always carry a reusable water bottle with you. It works out cheaper in the long run and is good for the environment too. You can take an empty bottle through airport security and refill it once you are on the airside.
Many airlines charge extra for hold luggage so if you are going away only for a couple of days, hand luggage should be sufficient. Of course, that means having to take travel-size toiletries, which have extortionate mark-ups if you buy them from a shop. As I have kept old mini bottles from previous hotel stays, I just refill them before the trip and take a toothpaste with ‘just enough’ left in it.
Upon arrival, it may be tempting to take a taxi or a special airport shuttle to the hotel but if you want to save money, choose the local bus or train service instead.
If your hotel doesn’t offer a free Wi-Fi, look for a café, library, or shopping centre that does. Even if you need to buy a coffee (as if that was a chore!), it’s still often cheaper than what the hotel may charge.
Do you have any savvy travel tips that you’d like to share? Is holiday a time when you want to forget about budgeting, or are you looking for ways to ‘beat the system’ and get more for your money? It would be interesting to hear your thoughts.