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How to save money traveling in the UK
The UK can be an expensive place to travel, but there are many ways to reduce costs and save money. Countries with large populations like Britain (65 million) and Germany (81 million) have many more opportunities for budgeting than other smaller wealthy nations such as Switzerland (8 million) and Norway (5 million). In countries like the UK and Germany, there are high numbers of local residents (literally millions) who need to get by without much money on a day to day basis, so there are facilities in place, like cheaper stores and widely available discounts that can be a huge benefit to budget travelers.
Often the trouble with such localized benefits is finding out about them in time, but that’s where this article will help you out. Here’s my local perspective on how to save money while you’re traveling in the UK.
Shop at the cheap stores
Large supermarkets sell everything, and often at a bargain price, with even homewares like toasters and kettles for $10 (£7.50). While you’re unlikely to need such things on a short trip, keep in mind that this is where local people buy everything. The real giant here is Tesco, with stores everywhere, from vast out-of-town “Extra” stores to the convenient small “Express” stores selling essentials, which are often located near stations or in city centers. Tesco is good for home and electronics and is your best bet for picking up a cheap phone, towel, cutlery, disposable barbecue, toothbrush etc. If you are staying long-term and renting a place you could pick up pretty much all your household goods here at reasonable prices.
Tesco is not the most competitively priced for food though, Morrisons are better, and the best of all are the German supermarkets Lidl and Aldi, which enjoy huge success in the UK. Although Aldi and Lidl stores are not as prevalent as Tesco, they are worth going a little out of your way to get to. Other supermarkets such as M&S, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Co-op you will find to be more expensive for most items.
Transport is one of the biggest potential rip-offs in the UK, with high prices for fuel and train fares that can seem insane at first glance. However, there are some ways around this… and in fact, because costs are so high it’s one of the places where you can potentially make the biggest savings and have the biggest impact on lowering costs for your trip overall.
There are some amazingly beautiful train rides available in the UK, from journeys through the Highlands from Edinburgh to Inverness, spectacular coastal journeys like those along the north Wales coast from Rhyl to Holyhead, along the south coast of England to Cornwall, and also via the Glenfinnan viaduct on the ‘Hogwarts Express’. If you don’t want to miss out on train travel in Britain, here are some tips to bear in mind.
Advance fares are cheaper, so make plans in advance if you can and buy your tickets a few months early. You can buy online directly from National Rail without paying a fee, or at any station. Avoid companies like thetrainline.com that charge a booking fee. Be wary of redirections to sites that charge a fee.
When you search for trains on National Rail’s site, sometimes the routes and prices that come up can be confusing and seem a higher price or longer journey than you expected. This is because on more complex routes their search engine can make choices that may be more expensive or less direct than another option. However, the search may only show this one route and ticket price option. It’s a good idea to use nationalrail.co.uk for research and then buy your ticket at a station, where you can speak to a person and check it’s the cheapest way and best route for your destination.
Some ticket deals can only be bought at stations. For example, for a day trip to London from Cambridge, you can buy a day travelcard at the station (which includes the normal railway plus Underground zones 1-6). For years I was wasting money buying the Cambridge to London train ticket online and paying separately for tube travel with an Oyster card.
Avoid peak time travel
On commuter routes, the AM and PM peak times have higher fares and can get extremely crowded. You can often get cheaper train travel by leaving after 9:30am and returning after 7:30pm.
Avoid the Heathrow Express
There is a Heathrow Express train that travels between the airport terminals and London Paddington. Advance tickets are cheap but if you’re buying nearer the time of travel they are much more expensive than taking the tube. The Piccadilly line runs direct from Heathrow through central London, so you can easily take the Underground instead.
Discounts & railcards – save over 30% on train fares
As well as the Interrail options, there are national train discounts available for a whole range of people, including under 26, over 60, disabled, two people traveling together, and families. Even if you don’t fall into any of these categories, you can still get other discount railcards such as the Network Railcard. Check which railcards you’re eligible for.
The Network Railcard covers most of the southeastern region and could be really handy if you’re going to be making journeys in this area. You can save one third on train travel in an area that includes London, Oxford, Cambridge and Brighton (but not Bath), as far west as Exeter and Worcester, east to Dover and north to the Norfolk coast (Kings Lynn is included but not Norwich). It costs £30, is valid for 12 months, and you get 1/3 off off-peak travel in the area the card covers. For more details of coverage and validity see the Network Railcard map.
There are also regional railcards available, like the £7.50 Cotswold Line Railcard giving a 34% discount. With any railcard, it’s important to calculate whether the one-off cost is going to make it a worthwhile investment for you and your trip.
The top way to really save on transport in Britain is to avoid railways and cars, and stick to buses. Bus travel can be incredibly cheap and if booked ahead can cost almost nothing to travel even long distances.
Two major companies are Megabus and National Express. A Megabus journey from London to Bath costs £1 booked two months in advance, and £7 booked two days in advance. Bus travel from London to Edinburgh costs £8 booked two months ahead of travel, and £15 booked two days ahead.
However, this option isn’t for everyone. Longer journeys tend to stop at many towns and cities along the route, and may not be that comfortable. Travelers who suffer from motion sickness may prefer to mix buses with trains. But it definitely is the surest way to avoid high transport costs.
A car is a massive advantage in rural Britain and will enable you to reach idyllic spots that are simply impossible to get to by public transport. Rental companies are of course available, but aren’t cheap. They may be an option to consider if you just want a car for a couple of days. The cheapest of the big car rental agencies is normally Thrifty, but compare quotes from different companies in the city you want to hire in, as smaller local companies may offer better value.
If you’re on a longer trip and want to travel around the country, it’s worth considering buying a cheap older car. Diesel cars, in particular, are a bargain because the government plans to ban them in future, so there has recently been a big drop in the market. You can look for bargains online on Ebay and Autotrader, where you can find pre-owned hatchbacks for £800($1150) or less . VW is a good make to go for. One tip is to try to buy in a cheap area of the country, as the price difference of similar vehicles in different regions (for example between London and Cardiff) can be thousands of pounds. If you do buy an old car, you can aim to sell it off before you leave the UK, drive it onto continental Europe as part of a bigger road trip, or sell it for scrap (you can expect to get £100+).
In some areas of Britain, cycling is extremely popular and there is good infrastructure in place such as cycle routes and bikes for hire. In London, “Boris bikes” (officially Santander Cycles) can be rented at one location and returned to a different location. You pay £2 once per 24-hour period, and get the first 30 minutes of any journey free, and then there’s another £2 charge for each subsequent 30-minute period. Therefore the cheapest way to use these bikes is to keep journey times to less than 30 minutes between bike deposit stops. Hire one and return it in under 30 minutes – repeat as many times as you like in a 24-hour period and only pay £2 in total.
Other cities such as Cambridge are also cycle friendly, with bikes for hire and lots of cycle routes.
Flights and ferries
You could consider flying to Scotland (or Manchester) instead of taking a bus or train; there are daily flights from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh. It’s not as environmentally friendly but even factoring in a carbon offset it is still likely to be cheaper than the train.
Crossing to Ireland
Flights and ferries also connect the islands of Britain and Ireland. For example, you can travel from north Wales to Dublin by slow or fast ferry, or fly from London to Belfast in Northern Ireland. It’s easy to cross to Ireland from Wales with Irish Ferries even for a day trip, taking the fast ferry on the way out and the slow ferry on the return.
Stay longer in cheaper parts of the country
There are striking differences in affluence levels across different parts of the UK. To make your money go further, stay for more time in cheaper regions and limit your time in expensive cities. The cheaper regions include Devon, Wales, the north of England, and Scotland outside of Edinburgh. Here you’re more likely to get affordable accommodation and find cheaper shops where you can buy your basics. In these areas, the cost of living is generally lower so your money will go further. The more expensive places are of course London, and the south of England generally, including cities like Oxford and Bath, and picturesque areas like the Cotswolds.
Wales has stunning natural landscapes and sees minimal international tourism compared to the famous English cities, Cornwall, and the Scottish Highlands – and it’s also cheaper.
Max out the discounts
Even in London and the south-east, there are ways to save your money. There are hostels, couchsurfing, and Airbnb options here where you can make savings on accommodation. It’s easier still to cut costs for eating out.
The Taste card gives its members 2-for-1 meals at 1000s of participating restaurants and costs £1 for the first 60 days. Check the terms because offers may be valid at limited times, weekdays for example. Groupon provides vouchers and promotional deals; you can find good deals here on restaurants, hotels, and travel.
Vouchers giving major discounts on days out are widely available, for a range of locations such as Madame Tussauds, aquariums, Alton Towers, Cheddar Gorge and Legoland Windsor. Look out for 2-for-1 entry tokens to these sights and others as they are often available from train companies, with receipts from WH Smith stores, or with Tesco Clubcard. If you’re staying in Britain for a while it would be worth getting signing up for some free store discount cards like the Tesco Clubcard, because they give bonuses not just on money-off coupons for food but lower prices on many days out and attractions.
Food & drink
The top way to save money on food is to avoid too many meals in restaurants and cafes and buy food from supermarkets. In the summer months when the weather is warm and dry it’s a good idea to make up your own picnics. Salads and tomatoes, scotch eggs, cocktail sausages, potato chips, dips and sandwiches are all a good bet for picnic foods, widely available to buy in any grocery store and not expensive. Whether you’re in a park in central London or walking the South West Coast Path in Cornwall, a picnic is a cheap way to lunch and you also get to enjoy the outdoors.
Eating out: pubs & restaurants
Across the country, you can find affordable pubs and restaurants. There are broadly two types of pubs, cheap chains like Wetherspoons and gastro pubs that are more individual and serve higher quality food. Wetherspoons have branches in virtually every town and multiple ones in cities. In many cases, Wetherspoons has taken over a local pub and the pub is still known under the original name as well as under the Wetherspoons banner, so it may have two names.
Wetherspoons is aimed at the student and budget market, and provides classic British pub meals and alcoholic drinks for very low prices. You could eat pretty much every one of your meals in Wetherspoons and still not break the bank. It’s a good bet for getting to experience dishes like traditional Sunday roast, fish and chips, and full English breakfast for a low price. For example, a recent Wetherspoons lunch offer was fish and chips for £3.99 ($6).
It’s not just Wetherspoons; there are many pubs offering similar deals, such as the Irish pub chain O’Neills, and smaller regional groups of pubs. You’ll soon be able to tell whether it’s one of the cheap chain pubs from a quick look at the menu and its available deals.
Gastro pubs often provide excellent food for not much more money, an average of £12-£15 per main meal. The popular restaurant chains mostly specialize in Italian cuisine and offer basic meals at a price similar to gastro pubs. These include Strada, Pizza Express, Zizzi, Bella Italia, Jamie’s Italian – all run deals of some description and many accept the Taste Card.
Bargain restaurants like Pizza Hut and Harvester have all-you-can-eat deals from £7.50 ($10) and cheap mains.
Save money on drinks by ordering tap water. All restaurants and pubs that are licensed to sell alcohol have to provide free drinking water to customers on request – it’s the law.
Street food is popular in the UK. In most cities, you can find small street food outlets selling cheap, tasty and filling hot food. For example, the Hot Sausage Company in Cambridge sells hot dogs with locally-made pork sausages from £2 ($2.80).
Every town in Britain has takeaways where you can buy meals more cheaply than if you were eating in a restaurant. The most popular and common takeaways are Chinese, Indian, and fish & chips. This can mean you spend £5 on an evening meal instead of £15 at an average budget restaurant – a nice saving of £10.
Accommodation is likely to be one of the biggest expenses of your trip to the UK, and although potentially a budget killer, there are ways to drastically reduce the costs. Room rates vary wildly across the country and at different times of the year.
How to find cheaper accommodation
Avoiding the school holidays, like with the rest of Western Europe, will make a big difference to the cost of your accommodation. The long summer vacation runs from mid-July to early September. Throughout this period there is a premium on accommodation in most parts of the country. Slightly outside of these dates prices drop significantly. Some of the nicest weather can actually fall in May and June rather than July and August anyway, and it can stay sunny and warm until mid-September. Also watch out for Christmas and Easter vacations, which cover two weeks around each of Christmas and Easter, and half terms. As well as accommodation being cheaper outside of the school holidays, there will also be fewer tourist crowds, so it’s a win-win.
If you are traveling in the high season, do your research and book your accommodation as far in advance as possible. The same goes for train and bus tickets as these are also cheaper bought well ahead of time.
Average prices to help with budgeting for your trip: a dorm bed in central London can be had for £14 and a double/twin room for £50. As well as Airbnb you could consider holiday cottage rentals in rural places, for example, Sykes Cottages where you can rent a whole house in the Scottish Highlands for around £300 for a week.
The Travelodge chain is one of the cheapest hotels in Britain – good for a night or two at around £50 a night – there’s at least one that can be found in most cities and large towns. If you’re driving, these will be particularly handy as they’re often situated off a main road just outside town, but there are plenty in city centers and near train stations too.
Moving on from the UK
If you’re extending your trip and visiting any other countries in Europe after your time in the UK, be sure to make the most of Britain’s excellent and affordable international connections. Some of the best value flights in the world fly from London with Ryanair and Easyjet – and a few other – budget airlines. London has four airports in addition to Heathrow and London City: Stansted, Gatwick, Luton and Southend. These four airports are major hubs for cheap flights to European destinations. You can also fly from other cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol.
For less than £20 ($28) you can fly from London to Copenhagen, Oslo, Dublin, Milan or Madrid. You can also connect to Paris, Brussels or Amsterdam by train, and to Spain, France, the Netherlands and Ireland by ferry. For all Eurostar and ferry deals, check online well in advance of travel. For tips on saving money here see seat61.com by British travel blogger Mark Smith, who is an expert in traveling by train and ferry.