Cheap holidays are always on the mind for some of us apparently, even if we can’t go anywhere right now.
I won’t say what I do during my day job. However, I’ve learned from my work that a pandemic doesn’t stop many people researching and daydreaming about travel. I too had been in holiday planning mode before lockdown, and had to resist the urge to continue since I was just going to hit a brick wall anyway.
I revisited a recording of Channel 4’s Holidays Unpacked recently in anticipation of possibly-maybe-finally leaving the country again in my lifetime. Apparently I can’t watch anything without writing about how it links to personal finance… So here’s a recap that should help reduce your holiday spending for life, even if it’s going to be a long wait before you can go anywhere.
Holidays Unpacked appealed to me because the presenters Lucy Hedges and Morland Sanders were each trying to visit somewhere different every time for £1000 or less. They chose destinations that aren’t run-of-the-mill. They also tried to fit in as much as possible into a week without going over budget. I thought £1000 for a week was steep because I’ve managed two weeks in the US and Canada for £1200 before. However, they were sticking closer to what Brits spend on average.
Here’s what I’ve covered below:
North America For Under £1000
Three important things to mind in light of coronavirus:
1. More than ever we should think about doing an insurance comparison and getting adequate travel insurance at the time of booking. Don’t assume an EHIC is a swap for insurance, especially when you add Brexit to the mix.
2. Apply for or renew passports long before you think you might need them; even if you don’t go anywhere soon, a passport can be a very useful form of identification. I know someone recently who couldn’t take a work qualification to get a pay rise because they needed several forms of ID, and they didn’t have a current passport. This delayed their step up by several months.
3. It’s okay to dream. It doesn’t mean that you’re a slacker, or away with the fairies. Visualisation is powerful because there’s research that suggests when we imagine doing something, it ignites the same emotions as if the experience was real. (This is why fiction makes you “feel” like you’re in the story!)
No one knows what the future holds, but don’t let it stop you setting goals. Look after your pennies today also, and you will be ready for any opportunities when the time is right.
Lately I’ve mostly been visiting my tomato plants on the driveway…
I’d write about my own travel experience, but I’m not 100% sure where I’d start. Before I decided to plough my savings towards my first home, I had a travel bug. This chewed through a fair bit of cash. I’ve backpacked through the US and bits of Europe, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Fiji. I lived in California for a year, so I did a fair bit of travelling whenever I could then too.
My backpacking was mostly shoestring-like (hostels/food/activities), and at other times it was the opposite. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a cheap skydive. I’ve also been white water rafting more times than is necessary for one person. (No, I don’t want that money back).
When I lived in the USA, I obviously had to afford my rent and health insurance and daily essentials. I didn’t go wild on my trips out of town therefore, although I also stayed in more hotels than typical for me.
I’ll probably write about budget travel in California sooner rather than later as I spent the most time there. Comment if you have any questions about cheap holidays in any of the above destinations in bold. We’ll see how well my knowledge holds up.
Can you save for a goal AND go on cheap holidays?
Global pandemics aside, why am I even talking about travel at any price on a blog that’s mostly about saving for a house? You’ve already stopped wearing new clothes and started wearing a paper bag instead, right?
I’ve written a lot about food lately since it’s an essential spending area. It’s also an easy one to mine for value for money when we’re saving for a mighty goal like a house deposit. I’ve also covered exercise (essential but possible free), health (also pretty essential), and “beauty”. This recap has a little bit of everything, including travel savings:
While it’s debatable whether a holiday is necessary for survival, most of us want to do something with time off. I managed to have a few cheap holidays while saving for my first house until crunch time approached. Depending on how much you patiently need to save, you might be comfortable putting some savings towards budget travel.
If this sounds counterintuitive full stop, or you feel guilty saving towards a holiday as well as a house, then think about spending priorities. We can afford anything, but not everything. I think contrary to what the media say, more of us are capable of saving bear-sized amounts. We have to be ruthless about what’s really important to us in the long term though.
What are your spending priorities?
It can’t be a priority to spend on rent, bills, groceries, books, DVDs, music, the cinema, clothes, restaurants, holidays, your car, your bike etc. I was able to save half my wages while renting in London because after rent I had few priorities. Paying for bills, food, and miscellaneous essentials like toothpaste made the cut. These costs I kept as low as possible.
I wanted to save in excess of £50000 for a deposit which was a monumental amount for my salary. But because I was saving a large percentage of my wages with such narrow priorities, I could now and again enjoy something that wasn’t usually a priority like a holiday. A frugal holiday, but still.
I didn’t buy clothes, or spend on home entertainment (although I love clothes and entertainment). I kept the same phone and computer for years, and went to the cinema only once or twice a year (despite calling myself a film buff). I didn’t run a car. These were not priorities because I could survive another day without them, or use free alternatives. Every time I was tempted to make an impulse purchase, I asked:
“Do I want this, or a house?”
Would you rather burn out, or take a (frugal) break?
Would you rather buy things you regret, or save that money into pots, including a house fund and a holidays fund?
It’s okay if you’re happiest recharging your batteries without going anywhere. It’s okay if your idea of a great holiday is spending only on getting there, and then doing as much for free as possible. Don’t let Instagram convince you need to spend thousands to get a bit of rest.
It’s funny also what marketers convince us we need when we don’t give ourselves a chance to slow down. My priorities have changed since refurbing my house. There’s a lot of categories that I don’t bother budgeting for though because they’re still not a priority.
This approach might help you process how I saved on my last trip to America and Canada. I hope this post helps you find your spending priorities so you can do what’s most important to you in life.
Biggest savings: Lucy stayed in a hostel. Lots of people simply will not do this no matter how cheap it is, but I’ve easily spent more than a year of my life sleeping in hostels when you add it all up. My worst accommodation horror story actually happened at a hotel instead.
Some hostels have better amenities than hotels even and a lot of hostels have affordable private rooms these days if you don’t want a dorm. I think this means hostels will still be an option going forward despite coronavirus.
Biggest cost: Lucy rented a car which is rarely a cheap thing to do (at home or abroad).
Hidden costs: They said check with the foreign office because parts of Israel aren’t safe…I imagine this has an impact on travel insurance, but I don’t think this was factored into the £1000. (It’s also why I suspect car hire isn’t cheap).
Activities: £20 to spend the day on a beach by a salt lake. We don’t have salt lakes in the UK, so a week in Margate probably won’t have quite the same sunny appeal even if it costs far less…
Biggest savings: The food and accommodation was extremely cheap compared to the UK.
Biggest costs: Surfing and white water rafting took up most of the budget. The latter is very regulated, but as in any country you have to vet who you’re paying and there might be a trade off if you go for the cheapest option without researching the firm.
Hidden costs: Again, they didn’t mention how much more expensive any threat of danger makes your insurance. When comparing insurance policies, check if they exclude all adventure activities or only certain insane activities. It remains to be seen what impact coronavirus is going to have long term on holiday insurance. Either way it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Also Morland struggled driving himself on the roads because they are so rough. On one of his journeys towards the end of his holiday, the rains had washed the road away. Where there is a lack of infrastructure, you can run into unexpected costs if you get stranded somewhere. He found the driving hairy as it was also easy to skid in the gravel on mountain roads, so he wasn’t convinced everyone would be happy with the road safety.
Activities: All of them! Morland also went zip lining.
To add my own two-bits on value, I’ve been white water rafting several times in different countries for vastly different prices. It is the most fun you can have while wet(!), so I think it’s good value regardless of the price tag. Because different rivers will give very different experiences, it’s tricky to say that one river is better than another.
Surfing was less fun only because you never quite shake the sensation that there’s a shark lurking and because it takes time. This means spending longer in a wetsuit. I was glad I went to a surf school for a few days because the first attempt is rarely that satisfying unless you have the balance of Scott McCall or something.
You can go surfing in the UK.
Total spent: Morland’s challenge was to have an adventure holiday for the money. He went only slightly overbudget at £1024.
Biggest savings: They shared a taxi with the crew for £25 to get to the Atlas Mountains. Split between a group of people this would be reasonable for a 90 minute drive (and with seat belts which is considered a big plus in Morocco!)
Lucy’s mountain accommodation was tiny because it makes it easier for them to stay warm indoors in winter, but for £45 per night, she got meals included. Guests shared mealtime, so it was ideal if you want to meet other travellers (when life permits…! Sigh). She also had a hammam where someone washes and scrubs you. You don’t have to go to Morocco for this. I’m sure someone will do it for free through Tinder.
Biggest costs: I think this was the midrange riad in Marrakech. However, Lucy chose a ground floor room for a better price. The room looked quite luxurious, but these rooms are cheaper because the central courtyard is a social space, so they can be noisy depending on the other guests.
Hidden costs: In the market Lucy thought dinner was £2.50, but they kept bringing extra plates that she didn’t reject, making the final bill £14.
Activities: Quad biking was £36 for 2 hours on the sand dunes.
Total spent: They projected a £900 spend for a week because I think they actually only filmed for a few days. Based on that Lucy concluded it’s cheap to stay, eat (if you watch the bill), and shop (so long as you haggle).
Biggest savings: Morland stayed in the less touristy Tulum. It’s also a bit hipster therefore if you fancy paddle board yoga… (See this recap for why paddle boarding is a great way to get fit).
Then he moved onto the Hotel Caribe Merida in the Yucatan. On a night out beers were 99p, a platter of tacos and more was £2.50, then he went dancing in the square for free.
To take a tour from Merida to the wetlands is £54, but if you turn up on the day and gatecrash a group it’s only £9.
Biggest costs: Morland paid £42 a night to stay at the Hotel Caribe Merida…and it was better than he expected for that price.
Hidden costs: He did a Mezcal shot for £6, but warned that it can vary wildly in price, so you must check before ordering.
Again, I think factor in travel insurance because there are lots of stories of carjackings, so the locals said avoid driving at night. He drove to a Mayan pyramid because according to official advice the Yucatan is a safer region than other regions.
Activities: It was £3-6 to visit the pyramid and £2 to borrow a bike to the highest pyramid which he was able to climb.
He also drove to a cenote, a water filled cave. Entry was £1.50. There are 6000 in the Yucatan region, so there are plenty to stop off at while driving (so long as you reach your destination before dark…)
Total spent: £1022
Santa Maria, Cape Verde
Biggest savings: On Fridays the centre streets are meant to be pedestrianised with lots of free music and dancing in the streets, but this has likely changed obviously.
During siesta time everything closes so people chillax, sunbathe, swim and surf because it’s impossible to spend anything. It was 28 degrees in November and not humid, so perfect lounging weather.
Lucy also went to a cachupa buffet for £9 at Funana; the same restaurant had free singing and dancing. She thought communual dining was good if you were happy to chat to other diners. Again, coronavirus has rather put the kibosh on this (so ideal if you hate the idea of mingling!)
Biggest costs: Lucy’s guestroom was very spare for £56/night. She thought this was okay because she could see the beach and was near restaurants
and bars though.
Activities: Baby turtles hatch on the beach. You can see this during the day because they don’t all hatch successfully at night, so conservationists help the leftovers to hatch. Donations are welcome.
Half day sailing is £45; if you take a snorkel, the boat will take a spear gun…Not sure if that’s to catch dinner, or to stop you being dinner! They found a shipwreck.
There was a salt lake near here too, but Lucy already visited one in Israel.
Total spent: £923
Ponta Delgada, The Azores
The Azores: aka Europe’s Hawaii.
Biggest savings: Morland basically got a mini apartment at his guesthouse for £66/night including breakfast. A millipede or something similar also crawled on his back in the bathroom. He thought this was because the cottage opened onto the garden. Something to be aware of if you want a bit of Hawaii in Europe…
He also had a buffet for £9 at Tonys that they barbecued underground in thermal soil.
Biggest costs: Probably had to spontaneously buy some new underwear after the millipede incident.
Hidden costs: It’s that pesky insurance again as Morland is just an adrenaline junkie and a half. Get a tattoo and be done with it, sir.
Activities: Swimming with dolphins was £66, but be prepared for several cancellations as it’s weather dependent.
I tried swimming with dolphins in New Zealand and that required more than one attempt, and then when we found dolphins we couldn’t swim as they had babies with them. Most excursions refund if you don’t see dolphins.
Canyoning was £48.
Total spent: “Only” £879, so expect to pay more to visit more than one island.
Biggest savings: Book accommodation directly for the best prices. Sok Sabay Resort was £38/night for a double with aircon, plus it’s walking distance to the beach. One end of the beach is the party end and other parts are zen. An Englishman owns Sok Sabay, and Westerners own a lot of the resorts.
Lucy moved onto Koh Rong (an island the size of Hong Kong) which has lots of backpackers and places to stay on the beach. Double cabins here were £54/night, but she saved money by accident. Because it was the end of the rainy season, there’s nothing to do when it rains but lie in a hammock on the terrace.
Biggest costs: It was £89 to hire a driver and pay for fuel to get to Sok Sabay in the mangroves in Sihanoukville.
Activities: High Point Adventure Park was £22.50. A Russian dude suited her up, so don’t expect to meet many Cambodians on the islands…She forgot to put mosquito repellent on her back, so they chewed her badly during ziplining.
She also visited Pnom Chiso temple which has 400 steps (so workouts are free…)
In Kep she ate at the crab market. She saw her blue crab come straight from the sea and being cooked in front of her. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing unless you want to be more conscious about where your food comes from…!
Total spent: £1027. This is even though the exchange rate is a lot more forgiving than it was for Morland in Iceland.
Biggest savings: Morland’s £89/night double room was a bit basic, but they had free coffee which is worth far more since food and drink is so expensive! So think of your room rate in terms of the consumables you get with it, I guess!
Otherwise his biggest savings came from activities being cancelled due to inclement weather which is not ideal.
Biggest costs: Morland hired a car again.
Goods are very expensive here because of import costs. A beer is £10, so a supermarket employee said it would be cheaper to fly back to England on Easyjet to buy 10 beers…
An evening of seafood racked up: fish stew for £20, fermented shark for £11 (it smells like ammonia), washed away with schnapps for £7 a shot… Tasting plates were £25 and included endangered Fin Whale. The restaurant told Morland nothing was endangered on his plate. This was a loophole because Fin Whale is not classed as endangered in Iceland.
Hidden costs: They’re not very hidden, it’s all fracking expensive.
Activities: Kirkjufell Mountain was in Game of Thrones. Glacier guides were giving three hour hikes for £71. It’s not safe to go on the glacier without a guide.
Horse riding on black sand beaches was £65 per hour, but the weather can change very quickly. It was too dangerous to swim, so that free activity is out.
At Jokulsarlon, a filming location in Die Another Day, Morland booked an amphibian boat tour for £40, but it was too windy, so he went for a walk instead. Icebergs wash up on land here. He missed the Northern Lights due to cloud cover also.
Total spent: £1073, and he only ate out once. Morland suggested the cheapest way to visit is to go hiking for free (except for needing a hire car to get to the hike).
So what does £1000 for a week get you really?
- The cheapest of their eight experiments was The Azores
- The most expensive was Iceland
- Iceland also had the least flexibility on activities if the weather changed
- Morland’s trips were more adventure-based which will usually cost more (including insurance)
They did seem to take the £1000 as a target rather than an upper limit. If someone gave me £1000 to spend, I’d probably still only end up spending £300 by nature because I never see a budget as a competition to spend it in its entirety. They obviously wanted to demonstrate a range of activities though for the show.
Have you been to any of the above destinations? What did you get up to? Did you find them value for money, or do you not worry about having a blowout on holiday? Do share in the comments.
All this just leaves one question…
Cheap Holidays: North America For Under £1000
I mentioned it in the intro, but how did I spend two weeks in the US and Canada for around £1200?
This was definitely a one-off opportunity as I hadn’t been back to my college town for several years. The friends I travelled with had moved to Vancouver for a year only, so we jumped at the chance to hang out together on the west coast of the States for Homecoming before they showed me around their temporary Canadian abode.
I was quite close to my house buying savings goal, but this trip floated to the top as a priority partly because of the novelty. Also partly because I was still certain I’d be able to buy a house within a few years either way as I was putting so much money away and compound interest was doing its business.
Let’s break down the other things that kept costs down.
Before you go
I applied for an airline credit card and earned a bill credit on my flight.
I use a cashback credit card for all my spending and the same card didn’t charge me to use it abroad. Pay it off in full each month otherwise the cashback becomes meaningless.
I used MSE’s comparison tool to get the best rate on my American and Canadian dollars in cash.
Despite Homecoming on campus, flights were off-peak as we visited in October/November.
I flew into Oakland rather than San Francisco. It was cheaper to take this new route partly because the flights were only every other day and partly because less people will have heard of Oakland. It was perfect for me though because I would have taken the train through Oakland anyway to get to our Airbnb if I’d flown into San Fran.
Saving on travel in the US and Canada
I used Amtrak instead of a taxi from the airport. American trains are a lot more spacious inside than in the UK, and the majority of the time it’s easy to get a seat and travel with luggage.
We found the cheapest internal flights from Sacramento to Vancouver through a price comparison. We also took the local bus to get to Sacramento airport. I used to ride that line when I lived around there anyway. Also bus fare in the States is usually ridiculously cheap compared to public transport in the UK, especially if you come from a rural village!
We also took buses cheaply in Vancouver to go between opposite parts of the city. Otherwise if we were just out and about generally, we weren’t on a schedule so we just took our time walking everywhere.
Staying and eating out in California and Vancouver
We shared an Airbnb for the majority of the trip, and then I stayed with my friends at their hospitality in their Vancouver apartment for the last few days. Our host left some food for us like popcorn and biscotti, so that took care of snacks on several days.
I also took some Nakd bars with me as they travel well and can substitute for breakfast if there’s really nothing else on the savannah.
If we ate or drank out, we’d go to happy hour and order starters for dinner to share. American portions are so huge that this was enough food. The one time we splurged and ordered individual dishes at The Cheesecake Factory in San Fran we practically had to roll ourselves home (and have our cheesecakes for lunch the next day since we couldn’t face eating it that night).
We bought our own groceries for breakfast and a few other meals too.
Our journey home from a day trip to San Francisco was delayed which is the only time I’ve ever had a problem on Amtrak after years of riding. However, we ended up with more free food and drinks as compensation. Also we were just going back to the Airbnb and didn’t have any more plans for the night, so we weren’t that bothered.
Cheap and free things to do in the USA
For activities, we were mainly there for Homecoming. A lot of the campus hoohah surrounding this is free to spectate anyway except for the actual football game which was $20. Then because it’s America brands give everyone free things inside the Stadium. We also had a lot of free food that day because an event on campus had too much catering leftover, so they were handing out meal boxes to people who were on the way to the game.
Generally if you’re near a university in the States, have a stroll through because you never know what you’ll end up with. Local businesses gave out big freebies like clothes, towels, reusable drinks cups… And then lots of small fry like pens and keyrings.
We took the train to San Fran one day and mainly wandered around old haunts for free like Pier 39. When I lived nearby, I used to visit the city regularly. The most expensive part of my day was usually just the train as there’s a lot of free things to do in San Francisco.
Could I repeat this trip in current circumstances? Not exactly. Would that change the budget? Quite likely. But restrictions make us creative. When plans change I look for the opportunities to spend less, rather than more.
If I think of anything else I’ll update this post. Ask in the comments if there’s something I haven’t answered here.
Cheap holidays in the UK
If I’d gone to the US for only a week like in Holidays Unpacked, then I think I would have struggled to go over £1000. It’s a long way to go for only seven days though.
For cheap holidays in the UK, there’s often nothing more valuable than catching up with friends and family when allowed.
It’s cheapest usually to book train tickets at least 12 weeks in advance. All my unused train tickets during lockdown were refunded.
Not everyone had the same luck getting refunds or exchanges on foreign holidays booked in advance. Flights are usually cheaper the further in advance we can book. I’m waiting to see how coronavirus affects my approach to booking cheap travel abroad in future therefore.
Let me know if I should share any more savings I find on cheap holidays in the UK/abroad as circumstances evolve.
I might to do a post on cheap all-inclusive holidays next to see how they compare. Subscribe if you don’t want to miss that and for savings ideas straight to your inbox.
I’m also experimenting with selling travel journals on Amazon (affiliate link) using my many photos taken over the years, so shout if you want to know the ins and outs of that. (My first observation on the experiment is that Amazon chose a different category than I selected for the book, and it’s not a relevant category. Watch this space!)