UNFORTUNATELY FOR THE budget traveler, Britain is also one of the world’s most expensive destinations.
The cost of living is considered unreasonably high by many of the British themselves, and when you factor in the exchange rate as well – sterling easily outweighs most other currencies – things can get pricey.
But don’t give up and head for South East Asia just yet. I spent last year studying in a tiny corner of England’s north east, and on weekends and holidays I made it to more than 40 cities, villages, and national parks – all on a student’s budget.
Here are a few pence-pinching tips I picked up along the way.
Location, Location, Location
Of course there are ways to save money in London.
But an even easier way to save money is to minimize your time there: prices drop substantially in other major cities like Newcastle, Glasgow, and Liverpool, and they plunge again if you leave the cities behind entirely.
Too many travelers zip from London to Manchester to Edinburgh before flying home. Try passing some time in a smaller town or village – you’ll not only save money, but you’ll experience Britain’s amazing diversity of accents, architecture, scenery, and local brews.
Narrowing your focus can also reduce costs. Pick a region or county that interests you, and stay for a week or more: base yourself in the main city and make day trips into the country, or just move slowly from town to town.
Either way, you’re saving on long-range transit costs, and if you make a home base for yourself you’ll also have more flexibility in your grocery shopping.
Trains, Planes, and Automobiles (er, Buses)
Think carefully before you buy the most expansive (and expensive) Britrail pass you can find.
Are you really going to be taking long-distance train rides every day of your trip? Divide the cost of your pass by the number of days it covers, then check out the National Rail fares for single tickets between the places you’re interested in.
How many of them are worth less than a day of your rail pass?
Rule of thumb: a ride of more than an hour is likely to be worth a day on your rail pass. Less than that, and you’re losing money.
Try one of the more flexible passes, with fewer travel days over a longer period of time, and use it strictly for long-haul trips. For day trips, always ask about a “Cheap Day Return” fare – these are discount tickets that must be bought and used on the day of travel.
If you’re under twenty-six and you’re in the country for awhile, a Young Person’s Railcard may also be a good investment: twenty pounds buys a year’s worth of discounts on most fares.
Remember to check airplane schedules carefully, to see if secondary airports or early-morning departures are going to add pricey taxi rides to your costs. For shorter distances – if you’re sticking to one or two counties – local bus companies cover a surprising amount of ground, including stops in flyspeck villages, and are almost always cheaper than the main bus carrier, National Express.
Room and Board
Britain has an incredible hostel network, including plenty in small towns and even some entirely away from civilization, at various points along the country’s many long-distance walking trails.
Independent hostels will tend to be cheaper than the YHA/HI options, as well as being friendlier, cozier, and far more likely to have self-catering kitchen facilities.
There are also more than 16,000 registered Couchsurfers in Britain, and tracking one down who’s willing to host you is a great way to save some money and meet a local.
The cheapest grocery chain for self-catering is Tesco, and if you’re not big on cooking Iceland has a huge selection of dirt-cheap frozen meals – think a large cheese pizza for Ã‚Â£1.50.
For breakfast or lunch on the go, try one of the ubiquitous “bakeries” – shops selling muffins, donuts, and traditional fare like sausage rolls or cheese pasties.
The most common chains are Gregg’s, Peter’s Bakery, or Baker’s Oven. These places all sell sandwiches to go as well, as do all major grocery chains, and unlike bland packaged sandwiches in North America the British variety tend to be fresh and tasty.
Pharmacy chain Boots has one of the best deals going: a sandwich, drink, and snack for just over three pounds.
You’re in town, fed, and housed – now what?
Many museums and galleries are free, especially in London, and most smaller churches (and a few remaining large cathedrals) are entirely open to the public, although donations are encouraged.
Even the larger, big-name cathedrals, like Canterbury or Westminster Abbey, are still free during services – but if you choose this option, do be respectful and don’t leave your seat to wander around taking pictures.
If castles and ruins are your thing, then look into an English Heritage pass: they have passes for short-term visits and longer memberships that will get you free admission for designated English Heritage properties, as well as half-price on Welsh and Scottish sites.
I paid off my twenty-pound, one-year student membership just by visiting Dover Castle, Stonehenge, and Edinburgh Castle – and made it to several more sites as well.
English Heritage properties and the Scottish and Welsh equivalents are worth checking out even if you don’t want a pass.
Many of their smaller sites are free, and often found in rural, low-tourism areas; in other words, exactly places you should be checking out if you want to get the most bang for your British buck.
Any budget travel tips for Britain that we missed? Share in the comments!