The kids are out of school, many businesses in Europe are closed, flights are packed in elbow-to-elbow. Ah, it must be August. I arrived in the United Kingdom in the late summer, and this is a rough time of year. Although it’s a beautiful time to visit, it’s also stressful for budget backpacking. Because my yearlong trip was only lightly planned, I learned the hard way that you have to be on your game if you plan travel around the country on a backpacker budget.
It’s possible, but it’s a lot of work!
You see, tourists from the United States and from all over Europe head to Scotland from July through September; cheap accommodation is booked up quickly and tours and food are all at a premium. And although I had my trusty UK Lonely Planet, which had the budget tips, it only halfway works when you’re backpacking quickly during high season. Things like most of the sites in London and elsewhere are free. You can visit all the museums, and you can hike in the Lake District without spending a penny. But the accommodation and transport prices are brutal if you’re not prepared.
There are the five key points I wish I had known before planning a trip to the UK during the summer months. These ones helped me not only save money, but made it possible to find transport and affordable food everyday and somewhere to sleep every night.
1. Book Ahead.
I’m definitely a fan of spontaneous travel and arely do I fully book my trips advance. When I land in a new place, my MO is usually to book the first two nights of hostels. The rest? I leave that up to whim, luck, and the advice of other travels. For traveling the U.K. during high season, that style of travel is extremely difficult. Budget accommodation is booked up, particularly on the weekends.
What’s more, even the cheapie beds are expensive. Some hostels in London raise the prices on the weekends. The only way you will find the affordable hostels is a bit of advance planning. For me, as an American, every price is then exchanged from my home currency into the dominating pounds sterling. If you’re traveling on a low budget, the difference of a few pounds extra stacks up quickly. When I first arrived in the U.K., lack of pre-booking meant I ate up a three-day budget in one heartbeat. All because I had to float myself for a few days until the hostel had openings.
All of the usual hostel sites work for pre-booking. I usually use Hostelworld or Agoda. Also consider local listing like the Scottish Independent Hostels site — it has heaps of highly tailored local information, as well as local accommodation. Using sites like Couchsurfing take a whole lot of time to make work, but if you are willing to invest the time into searching and requesting, you can find free couches too. If you still want to be spontaneous, consider just booking your accommodation for Friday and Saturday nights. For traveling families, hostels are still a great choice by the way. Independent hostels especially are family-friendly. Staying in a private room as a family not only costs less for the room, but your family saves money by cooking occasional meals (making breakfast at the hostel is one of the best ways to save money in your food budget!).
2. Take the Bus!
Trains are faster to be sure, but buses are the way to go in both England and Scotland if you have the time. The UK train system is both extensive and expensive. Seriously expensive. Buses, on the other hand, offer rock-bottom seats if you book in advance, as low as 1 GBP between cities. I never booked months in advance, so my seats were around 10 GBP.
The United Kingdom has a lot of bus options. Megabus is the cheapest by far. It’s also perfectly good if it run betweens the cities you’re visiting. But note that Megabus has has limited routes and runs mostly between the UK’s major cities. CityLink is more expensive but still cheaper than the trains. I found Traveline Scotland incredibly helpful in planning a route from one city to another. The site gives precise directions and timetables for taking public transport, and you can even select whether you want to include walking, buses, trains, and metro.
If you have the budget, or if you simply prefer the trains, use the National Rail site to plan out your train travel. It’s imperative that you book online, however, and book a month in advance if possible. If you don’t, the peak pricing can cost double or triple at the ticket counter.
And if you’re really going to do it right, then a rental car would probably be most ideal. This is actually a cost-effective option if you are traveling with friends. The cost of splitting a rental will equal out when split among you. If you’re solo, you can get that same experience in part by booking one of the hop-on, hop-off buses that run around Scotland.
3. Plan Your Food.
Nearly all hostels have kitchens — and they are often surprisingly well stocked! With that in mind, I highly recommend cooking your own dinner at least a couple of times a week. Head to the nearest Tesco Lotus (it’s the most reasonable of the UK’s grocery stores). I found the easiest options for a good mix of eating out and eating in was to cook breakfast and often lunch. Pick up some fruit, yogurt, and muesli. Then you could even do sandwiches for lunch, or plan to eat while you are out exploring and cook pasta and veggies for dinner.
It’s also possible to eat affordably in the UK. Head to the pubs for the daily special, this is a great option for lunch or dinner as the specials run at a time of day where you can often use the meal as either one. I used this tip from London to Edinburgh, and I always found something tasty and hearty. As a vegetarian, eating out is a bit harder. The pubs always have vegetarian options, but it sometimes lacks much imagination beyond glorified pasta. For this reason, I actually enjoyed cooking for myself, at least in the tiny towns I backpacked through.
Also look for ethnic restaurants. In London, there are many Asian and African restaurants where you can find a meal for perhaps 6 GBP. Or if you do meat, fish and chips and kebabs are plentiful.
4. Bring an Umbrella.
It rains, it pours, in short: the country is wet. You’re shrugging right now and thinking, “Huh, of course it’s wet, this girl is crazy to recommend this as a tip.” It’s even wetter than you imagine. Budget travelers need a poncho, a rain cover for their packs, and a rain jackets. As a budget travel tip, this comes into play because you will be out in the elements waiting for the public transport. Though the big cities will have covered spots, there’s little chance you will find covered bus stops in the Scottish highlands. I met some travelers who had to abandon their travel plans because they had spent hours standing in the rain and were either sick or just plain tired. Plan ahead and you’ll be much more flexible and happy as you crisscross the UK.
5. Plan to Spend More.
One of the beautiful things about exchange rates is that you just don’t know what’s going to happen. From the time that I started planning my RTW trip to the time I arrived, the exchange rate from the US dollar to Pounds Sterling fluctuated nearly 50 cents on the dollar. I a lot spent more money than I had initially anticipated. I also had a cushion in my RTW budget, and that meant that I was able to still enjoy my time and not spend the entire visit pinching pennies too closely. Plan for a budget trip, but then add in a cushion in case you go over-budget.
Think of it in terms of the range of fluctuation. In Asia, when the exchange rate fluctuates it makes on a tiny impact on the amount you end up spending on accommodation. In the UK though, a change of 20 cents easily mean $4 more a night just for accommodation. Stretch that change across several weeks and you could be grossly over budget going into the rest of your travels.
The United Kingdom is gorgeous — I do not regret for a second adding this place onto my itinerary for my round the world trip. It might have been, however, a poor choice as a budget traveler. I decided to visit the UK solely to attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I had visited during college and only remembered hemorrhaging money. I did better this time around, but I could have also stayed longer in other areas without the huge expenses associated with traveling the UK. It might have made more sense to save it as an isolated trip, rather than a part of my RTW trip. As an independent/shorter trip it would have been less of a financial strain. Without the worry about my budget holding out until the end, I might have more readily enjoyed a few more pints along the way. That being said, I learned a lot and will be back. Budget backpacking has a learning curve, but there are ways and resources and even budget backpacking books to help.
Inspiring UK Travel Reads
- Round Ireland with a Fridge: A very entertaining book about a guy named Tony and his adventures around Ireland, with a refrigerator.
- The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot: This is a fascinating and gripping read about one man’s journey. Robert shares his adventures as he walks from the chalk downs of England up to the Scottish northwest, as well as journeys in Palestine, Spain, and the Himalayas.
- Notes from a Small Island: In this book Bill Bryson writes about his life and adventures after moving to Britain in 1973. A fun read that will have you searching for flight deals to the UK.
- Lonely Planet Great Britain: Though I have tried all the guidebooks, I continue to use the Lonely Planet. I think it’s laid out the best and has the most thorough budget travel recommendations. Their transportation sections to and from cities are also what allowed me to visit the tiny towns in Scotland.