Low stress travel on the cheap

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I love to travel, but I don’t have much money. Although long-haul flights and luxury holi­days are out of my reach at the moment I’ve managed to see a fair bit of the world for not very much, and perhaps my budget limit­a­tions have meant that I’ve seen some inter­est­ing places I might have other­wise missed out on.

I find online budget travel tips not that great though. They seem to swing from “save money by only eating ityer­eal bars and sleep­ing on trains on your trip” to “cram in thirty museums in one day with this special tick­et” to “get this special Air Miles cred­it card only avail­able in Flor­ida, and book your flights at 3am on Thursdays Alaska time”. I want to eat nice food from the cuisine of the coun­try in ques­tion; sleep in a clean, safe and comfort­able hotel room in a conveni­ent loca­tion; and get a chance to explore and see things prop­erly, not treat­ing sights like a tick list to complete as quickly as possible. I don’t want to be cold, hungry, exhausted, or put myself in danger; this is supposed to be fun. I just don’t have a lot of money to spend.

Being on a tight budget also means you have to be smart with your money. If you can only afford one restaur­ant meal a day, you don’t want to waste it on bad food. You don’t want to buy a week’s travel pass, and then real­ise that the city is so small you just walk every­where. A bit of research can really save you a lot.

There is also the issue of safety. Unfor­tu­nately we don’t live in a soci­ety that treats people equally. There are lots of forms of adven­ture that are not avail­able to women, people of colour and people that are visibly not straight or not cis because of the much high­er risk of sexu­al assault and viol­ence that they have to deal with.

As in the famous Sylvia Plath quote: “Yes, my consum­ing desire is to mingle with road crews, sail­ors and soldiers, barroom regu­lars — to be a part of a scene, anonym­ous, listen­ing, record­ing — all this is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always supposedly in danger of assault and battery. My consum­ing interest in men and their lives is often miscon­strued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invit­a­tion to intim­acy. Yes, God, I want to talk to every­body as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night…”

So for me, tips like “oh you can sleep in the station for free” are just totally useless. It’s no good find­ing a really cheap hotel if it’s in such a sketchy area that you feel totally on edge and scan­ning for risk at all times. I have often trav­elled alone in breaks between work assign­ments abroad, and because I have often suddenly had time free from work when none of my friends were avail­able. I want to be safe and relaxed when I travel, but without spend­ing a lot of money.

In the past year I have been to Paris, Denmark (Copen­ha­gen, Roskilde and Helsingør), Sweden (Malmö and Lund), Italy (Lake Garda and Verona), Glas­gow and vari­ous trips to other cities in England on very low budgets (like £60-70 per day max). I managed to do a four day Paris trip for £150 last year includ­ing the hotel and restaur­ant food, and still had fun. I had a free cour­tesy tick­et from Eurostar to apolo­gise for prob­lems on a previ­ous trip, which I’d been saving. It was getting near the dead­line for using it though, and I was extremely under­em­ployed and broke, and being very care­ful with the small amount of money I had. I wasn’t starving or desper­ate to pay the rent, but I had no discre­tion­ary income to spend on luxur­ies like trips to Paris. In the end I decided to just use it and go the week­end before my birth­day, scraped up £60 from some Etsy sales, and asked for some cash in euros for birth­day presents from my family, and decided to see just how much fun I could have alone for no money in Paris (it turns out a lot).

Exper­i­ence I gained via work has really helped me here. I served my time work­ing on Tour­ist Inform­a­tion desks, and also book­ing accom­mod­a­tion and travel for myself and others to fit in with ungen­er­ous company budgets in other jobs. When I worked giving school work­shops in Contin­ent­al Europe, the company would book and pay for accom­mod­a­tion for the work­ing week. From Friday lunch­time to Sunday even­ing I would be free to do as I liked (as long as I turned up at the next destin­a­tion on time). I was given an envel­ope of cash for my per diems and travel expenses over the week­end, and was free to go anywhere I chose. As my work loca­tions from week to week were often hundreds of miles apart, I got good at squeez­ing in low cost sight­see­ing breaks between and after the work­shop book­ings. Having been given cash, it was also in my interest to keep the costs as low as possible while still having fun so I could take some home.

Here are my tips to have a good time while spend­ing very little money and caus­ing your­self as little anxi­ety as possible (although a lot of it comes down to doing a little research before you go). Some of the tips are about spend­ing money, but quite a lot of them are about using a little smart prepar­a­tion to have a smooth and enjoy­able time while you’re away. (When you already do these things they seem like the most basic common sense, of course).

Cheap flights and long distance train tick­ets

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Using price compar­is­on websites and open­ing book­ing sites in a private window to stop track­ing works, but actu­ally I find my best deals have come from sign­ing up to the compan­ies’ mail­ing lists. That’s how I’ve got things like £20 return train tick­ets to Glas­gow. I also find it’s often cheap­er to fly and return on differ­ent airlines, esp as that means you have a bigger selec­tion of times. If it’s afford­able, I always choose to fly short-haul at lunch­time, it’s so much more civil­ised. You don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn and worry about first trains or taxis being reli­able, and you arrive at your destin­a­tion with time to spare and don’t have to worry about late night trans­port when you get there.

Trav­el­ling for work has also made me always arrive early at the airport. I would have been in trouble  with work if I’d missed the flight, and when I pay for it myself I can’t afford anoth­er flight. So, touch wood, I’ve never missed a flight yet. Being early gives you a chance to check in and board at your leis­ure without feel­ing flustered or rushed. It’s easy to waste time cheaply with a coffee or read­ing a book.

Figure out what you actu­ally want from your holi­day, and who you enjoy trav­el­ling with

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If what you really like deep down is relax­ing on a beach with an all-inclus­ive bar, then forcing your­self to go on a hiking trip isn’t going to be much fun even if your part­ner or friends are really into it. People like differ­ent things when trav­el­ling, and some people you other­wise get on with great are just a bad match for holi­days. It’s no fun if there’s rows or pass­ive-aggress­ive conflict or it feels like someone’s going along doing things they don’t enjoy all day to keep the peace.

For instance, I love aimless wander­ing and look­ing at things, and cheer­fully walk 15 miles in a day. If you hate walk­ing or just can’t walk that much, you’d have a miser­able time going away with me. I’d get really frus­trated with the people who want to go to every big attrac­tion, take some snaps, and then get to the next big destin­a­tion with as little fuss between as possible. I’d be all “no, look! let’s see what’s down that little side alley. Let’s wander down to the canal just to see what’s there”.

Pack well, and be organ­ised


A hangover from my work travel days is that I always put my pass­port, any tick­ets, medic­al travel insur­ance/E1-11 card, details of trans­port, a prin­tout of the hotel book­ing, and a map prin­tout of the hotel loca­tion in a plastic wallet at the top of my bag. Then I know where everything is, and have info to help me if I get lost, have some kind of prob­lem or can’t remem­ber inform­a­tion.

Call up your bank and phone company before hand to remind them that you’ve gone abroad, so they don’t think it’s fraud. The phone company will often offer you special priced bundles for things like 4g data abroad too.

Look at non-obvi­ous destin­a­tions


You can often have a really great trip to surprise destin­a­tions you chose for reas­ons such as it was on the airline’s special offer list or you could go there for free with your job. They are usually never places you would imme­di­ately have thought of for a holi­day before, but are often a lot cheap­er and less crowded than the big destin­a­tions, and still a lot of fun. For example I was sent to Dresden for work, and I loved it and would gladly go back. I prob­ably never would have gone other­wise, it’s not perceived as a top tour­ist destin­a­tion, but it’s a great city with lots of amaz­ing build­ings and fun things to do.

Of course you still need to research these places so you don’t end up spend­ing four days on an indus­tri­al estate in the middle of nowhere.

Find­ing cheap hotels


I don’t use AirB­nB. A couple of years ago they froze my account right before I was going on a trip and refused to explain why. I had no way of cancel­ling or chan­ging my book­ing, and it was unclear wheth­er my host would actu­ally get my money (luck­ily she was a sweet­heart, and said I could stay even if she never got the money, as it wasn’t my fault- she did get it in the end thank­fully). If the host had turned me away, I don’t know if I would even have been able to get my money back. The custom­er service was terrible, and they imme­di­ately acted like I was some kind of crim­in­al and had done some­thing really bad but wouldn’t tell me why. It was all a bit Kafkaesque. Even if they had react­iv­ated my account, I wouldn’t have used them again. From an ethic­al point of view, I also dislike the way they’ve turned from a way for people to rent out their spare room to an industry of dodgy land­lords turn­ing resid­en­tial prop­er­ties into unli­cenced and unreg­u­lated hotels that negat­ively affect neigh­bour­hoods and contrib­ute to hous­ing crises. Hotels are regu­lated for a reas­on.

My usual website I use is booking.com. The site is reli­able and easy to use, and has both hostels and hotels, and I can usually find a decent hotel for £30 a night. (Obvi­ously a dorm in a hostel is cheap­er, but I’m in my 30s and feel like my days of regu­larly bunk­ing with 12 snor­ing strangers are over).  It also gives you plenty of inform­a­tion about the hotel and its loca­tion so you can check it out else­where. I’ve also found good deals via lastminute.com. I avoid sites I’ve never heard of before, because I’m wary of them being a scam.

On cheap hotels, you want some­where that’s clean, safe, and in a conveni­ent loca­tion. Places in far-flung suburbs often turn out to be incred­ibly incon­veni­ent for actu­ally seeing any of the city you’ve come to visit, and often turn out to be in places like indus­tri­al estates or next to airports. A dirty hotel is miser­able, of course. You’re not going to get luxury, but there are plenty of decent, clean, no frills budget hotels. Check out reviews of the hotel on other sites, research the name of the neigh­bour­hood and look at the street on Google Street View to check that you’ll feel safe there. This is an area where a little bit of research and paying atten­tion to your gut feel­ing really pays off.

Never change money at the airport

It’s a ripoff. Find out what the fees and exchange rates are like with your bank. If they are good (mine with the Co-op Bank are), and you have a stand­ard chip & pin Visa or Master­card debit card, just use your card abroad in cash machines and shops (don’t forget to noti­fy your bank before you travel so it doesn’t get flagged as fraud). If the rates are bad, or your card is an old-fash­ioned magnet­ic swipe (here’s look­ing at you USA) or a card network specif­ic to your coun­try, then of course don’t.

Pre-paid Visa travel cards can vary dramat­ic­ally in how good a deal they are, so you need to check them really care­fully before buying. With cash it’s often a better deal to pre-book travel cash rather than walk in to an exchange. When order­ing travel cash research what the cheapest deal is in your coun­try, because it can really vary dramat­ic­ally from exchange to exchange. Places like your bank or insur­ance company often have special deals for their own custom­ers. In the UK, the Post Office are often a good deal- they will have Euros and US Dollars to hand, and can order other curren­cies in for deliv­ery in a couple of days.

Find out what times and days things oper­ate in your destin­a­tion


Every coun­try oper­ates on differ­ent timetables, and trav­el­ling and stick­ing to your home country’s times can cause you immense frus­tra­tion or lead to you miss­ing out on some­thing you wanted to do because it’s closed. Trying to get lunch at 2pm in Denmark, have a good dinner at 7pm in Spain or find an open shop in France at lunch­time is not going to work out well.

It’s also useful to find out what times and days are considered normal, but off-peak times for doing things in that coun­try, as there are often signi­fic­ant discounts or special offers avail­able. For example in the UK there are often gener­ous special deals in bars and restaur­ants on Monday nights. Coun­tries that charge for museum entry often have free Sundays on certain dates.

Public holi­days are of course differ­ent in every coun­try, and also need to be checked. Is it the fun kind of public holi­day with parades and free events, or is it the boring kind where everything is shut?

Find out about discount cards, their avail­ab­il­ity, and wheth­er they’re worth­while


There are lots of special passes and discount cards avail­able for purchase by tour­ists, a bewil­der­ing array some­times. Some of them are great, some have very niche uses, and some are a rip-off. There’s such a huge vari­ety.

There can also be surpris­ing ways to save money- like for instance you see a chocol­ate bar in the super­mar­ket that has a tick­et promo­tion on it. A less­er-known one in London is the train tick­et 2-for-1 entry to tour­ism attrac­tions deal- you bring a leaf­let from the train station, and a Nation­al Rail tick­et for that day, and you get an attrac­tion tick­et free.

Some­times the way to save money defies logic. For instance, in London, if you want to visit both the Tower of London and Hamp­ton Court Palace, it’s cheap­er to buy a member’s card that lasts for a year and includes unlim­ited entry, than it is to buy two indi­vidu­al tick­ets.

If you want to take advant­age of the special offers, find out where you can buy the cards. Some are heav­ily promoted and avail­able in lots of places, and some are quite obscure. Some tour­ist discount cards can only be bought outside the destin­a­tion coun­try, so you need to order them before the trip.

The all-inclus­ive passes to cities need to be care­fully weighed up, as their value for money varies dramat­ic­ally. They can also make you feel like you have to chase round and give every attrac­tion a curs­ory visit to get your money’s worth, when actu­ally you would have enjoyed just visit­ing one of the places prop­erly.

In the end though, although it’s worth seeing if you can save money on the things you want to see, don’t waste a vast amount of time research­ing these endless deals, because it can turn into a huge time waster.

Get to grips with trans­port before you arrive

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This kind of budget travel doesn’t really cover hiring a car (and a car is a hindrance in lots of the cities you might go on a short break to), so you’re going to be deal­ing with local public trans­port. It will save you a massive amount of hassle and stress if you find out about the trans­port before you arrive.

Figure out your route from the airport or station to the hotel or hostel and write it down. Have a look at the map, and famil­i­ar­ise your­self with how it relates to real­ity. Some cities use a real map and just add the stations, and some places like London use a diagram­mat­ic map unre­lated to distance to show you the connec­tions more clearly.

Find out about the tick­ets before you arrive, so you know what kind of prices to expect, and what the arrange­ments are. Is it paper tick­ets or contact­less cards? Can you use the same tick­ets or cards on multiple forms of trans­port? Where do you buy the tick­ets? Are there geograph­ic­al zones for tick­ets, or is it done on travel time? How much are you going to be using the trans­port? What is the cheapest deal for you and how do you get it? Is there any kind of special cheap tick­et for tour­ists or students? Is it worth your while buying any of the discount cards for regu­lar trav­el­lers? If you have disab­il­it­ies, is the trans­port access­ible? Here are some examples of how dramat­ic­ally things can vary:

Italy– you buy undated tick­ets before board­ing (bus tick­ets come from cafes or news­pa­per shops with a sign in the window), and stamp them in a machine on the train plat­form or on the bus. The local tick­ets are valid for so many hours rather than a certain destin­a­tion. Tick­et inspect­ors will give you a hefty fine if you didn’t stamp your tick­et, no excuses accep­ted.

UK- In London buses do not take cash, you need an Oyster card with funds loaded, or a bank card that works with the contact­less read­er. Buying a paper tick­et for the Tube works out much more expens­ive than getting an Oyster card. If you are stay­ing for a week, it’s much cheap­er to load a week’s pass onto your Oyster card. The very centre of the city is compact, but as you get further out, everything gets more and more spread out. The Under­ground dates from the Victori­an era, and the older stations are terrible for access­ib­il­ity issues.

Other cities don’t have integ­rated tick­et­ing in the same way, and might even have rival bus compan­ies in the same town.

For inter-city travel on the trains, it’s dramat­ic­ally cheap­er to book ahead of time on the website. There are also one year discount cards avail­able for under 25s, over 65s, couples, famil­ies and for certain regions that cost about £30 and give a 33% discount. If you use them more than once long distance they can pay for them­selves.

Germany– The tick­et vend­ing machine marks the time and date on your tick­et for you. There are no gates at the station, but a lot of plain clothes tick­et inspect­ors who can hand out hefty fines. Inter­city trains have sever­al differ­ent categor­ies of speed and luxury, and the prices can vary dramat­ic­ally depend­ing on what train type you take.

Paris– You can get a contac­less Navigo card for weekly passes, paper singles, or carnet books of single tick­ets, usable on the metro and buses. Paris (with­in the périphérique at least) is compact and walk­able, so I usually just get a carnet of 5 tick­ets or so to use as backup. The metro stations are all really close to each other.

Morocco– Trains have a stand­ard tick­et arrange­ment, and buses take cash on board. There are also the grand taxis, which are minibuses which follow set routes and can be hailed like a taxi. You share the ride with 4-6 other passen­gers, and the driver gives you a quote for your fare, which is paid in cash.

Find­ing places to visit


Every city has its obvi­ous places to visit. Some of them actu­ally aren’t all that much fun. Every student I taught at summer camp in the UK was desper­ate to go to the shops on Oxford Street and see Leicester Square, but a lot of people who live in London happily avoid them as much as they can because they’re crowded and stress­ful and have really bad air pollu­tion.

In terms of guide books, my choice is Lonely Plan­et, esp as they have the context section at the back telling you about the culture and history of the coun­try. There are plenty of decent travel guides around though.

Here’s some of the other ways I find other things to see:

Atlas Obscura – this is one of my favour­ite sites to browse anyway, hundreds and hundreds of inter­est­ing and unusu­al places around the world

Wall­pa­per guide apps– these are guide­books and phone apps produced by expens­ive life­style magazine Wall­pa­per. The restaur­ant and shop recom­mend­a­tions are often ludicrously expens­ive for me, but they have lots of other recom­mend­a­tions that are free like inter­est­ing build­ings to see or neigh­bour­hoods to wander

Art Fund map (UK only)– shows you museums, galler­ies and artworks large and small near your loca­tion

Happy Cow– helps you find local vegan and veget­ari­an restaur­ants

Local What’s On magazines- if you can under­stand some of the language, you can find out lots of great things from these. Bigger places might even have an English one.

Brush up on the language

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Know­ing useful phrases in the local language will save you so much stress, make the local people you meet like you much, much more, and can be achieved with a few study sessions. Here are some tips I wrote earli­er for learn­ing languages.

Essen­tials you need to know:

Hello & Good­bye
Yes & No
Thank you
I would like
How much is this
The bill, please
Can I pay by card
Just look­ing thank you
Numbers up to 100
Here you are or other little local polite phrases
Can you help me
Sorry, I don’t speak (language)
Can you speak (language)
I don’t under­stand
Names of food and drink (espe­cially any you strongly dislike or can’t eat for whatever reas­on)
Any medic­al issues or special diet­ary needs you have

If the coun­try you’re visit­ing doesn’t use the Roman alpha­bet like English (or the same alpha­bet as your native language), then learn­ing the letters (or some basic words like exit, entrance in the case of Chinese and Japan­ese) will make your life a million times easi­er, and also often turn mysti­fy­ing words into famil­i­ar ones. For example ресторан says “restor­an” in Russi­an and τρενο says “treno” in Greek and سِينِمَا says “sinima” in Arab­ic.

The Google Trans­late phone app is also great for under­stand­ing signs and read­ing pack­aging or menus- you can take a photo of text now, and it will trans­late it for you. It isn’t always perfect, but it can help you avoid some nasty surprises with things like food. I even use it at home some­times. I bought a bulk bag of (deli­cious, deli­cious) Korean pancake mix, but the instruc­tions were all in Korean, and it turned them into some­thing compre­hens­ible.


Those budget travel tips that say things like “fill up a huge plastic bag with bran, and just eat that the whole trip to save money” or “just eat at mcdon­alds to give you more time for sight­see­ing and avoid having to eat foreign food” just make me sad. I like good food, and one of my main reas­ons I like trav­el­ling is to eat and try new things. I’m veget­ari­an, and never really had much trouble anywhere I’ve been getting decent food. The worst place for me was surpris­ingly Denmark, but that’s not because they didn’t have meat free options, it’s just that they mostly had mayo on, which I hate. I still had some nice dinners there though. Happy Cow is a good site for find­ing vegan and veget­ari­an food.

In North Amer­ica, the cheapest way to eat is often chain fast food, but this isn’t true in a lot of other places. The best way to eat well cheaply is to find out what the most popu­lar discount meth­od for high qual­ity food is in that coun­try. In some places the set menu is the discount king, in other places it’s buffets, street stalls or eating at certain times. Lunch is often a lot cheap­er than dinner.

Before you go, famil­i­ar­ise your­self with the cuisine of that coun­try, so you know what to expect. It will also help you pick from menus because you have a better idea of what the dishes are and wheth­er you’ll like them or not (espe­cially if you have to follow a special diet). As I said in the language section, learn­ing the names of foods will also go a long way to avoid­ing nasty surprises. It’s also worth find­ing out if there’s any group that forms a signi­fic­ant minor­ity in the coun­try you’re visit­ing, who also have deli­cious food. For example Mexic­an chefs are thin on the ground in London, but there’s plenty of great Indi­an and Banglade­shi restaur­ants there.

It’s also worth look­ing at what the worst reviewed restaur­ants are for your destin­a­tion. Chances are a lot of them in more popu­lar cities will be located in expens­ive cent­ral loca­tions and rip off tour­ists with bad microwaved food. The Angus Steak House chain is a London group of restaur­ants that are a total joke with Brit­ish people because the food is famously terrible, and you don’t know anyone who goes there, yet they’re still in busi­ness in Cent­ral London, one of the most expens­ive places on earth. Then you meet people who’ve been on holi­day to London and complain about how bad the food was, and then it turns out they ate at the Angus Steak House and McDon­alds on Leicester Square.

Anoth­er way to save money is to go for the veget­ari­an option, even if you’re a meat eater. Often the meat-free option even at expens­ive restaur­ants is a lot, lot cheap­er. Buying bread, fruit and bakery items from the super­mar­ket to take with you in the day is also good way to save money and feed your­self while walk­ing round. When I’m trav­el­ling on a budget, I budget myself one good restaur­ant meal a day of around £15-20, either the free break­fast from the hotel (or if that isn’t included, super­mar­ket bits), and the other meal super­mar­ket bits.

The joy of wander­ing


If you are phys­ic­ally able to do it, wander­ing around is free, fun, good exer­cise and lets you see all sorts of inter­est­ing little bits of your destin­a­tion you would other­wise never have seen. Prob­ably my main holi­day activ­ity is wander­ing around, poking about a bit. Take some photos, do some draw­ings, have a think. Here’s a whole wiki­pe­dia article abut the joy of the flâneur and the dérive, the artist­ic wander. Over-plan­ning, and over-schedul­ing leaves no time for pleas­ant wander­ing.

Post­cards are a low budget pleas­ure

Send­ing post­cards costs very little, you can enjoy writ­ing them while drink­ing a coffee, and the people who receive them also get their mail­box brightened up. Winning all round, there. I send whole sheafs of post­cards any time I go anywhere.

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