Travelling when you really can't afford to: 10 things I've learnt

Travelling when you really can't afford to: 10 things I've learnt

    Travelling on the cheap is my MO. I don’t tend to save up for years before each trip I take - in fact, I rarely save for weeks or even days. When I see a cheap flight, I book first and think logistics later.

    If you’re anything like me, travel is more about experiencing different cultures and seeing new places than staying in a fancy hotel, so you’ve no doubt worked out how to cut a few corners along the way. 

    The tips I’m going to share here are ones I learned both before and after becoming a JFC Flight Finder. Hopefully you’ll pick up something new to make your travels cheaper!

    Lesson 1: Set a goal.

    In 2017, I set myself a mission: I was going to visit every EU country before Brexit. 

    I pulled up the Wikipedia list of member states and started listing the ones I’d already visited. Spain - loads of times, Sweden - check, Germany - lived there! Out of 27, I only had 13 left to go.

    If I were into numbers, I’d have known that I had to visit a new country every 42 days to meet my target - easy-peasy, right?

    The catch was I’d just gone freelance after moving home to Scotland from Germany. Cash wasn’t exactly flowing at the time, but at least I had more flexibility.

    Getting this done was going to need a game plan. Step one: Call out for travel buddies.

    Once I had friends and family enthusiastically on board, it was time to find some cheap flights to get me started.

    Unsurprisingly, it was around that time, in October 2017, when I first became a JFC member. Then I just had to wait for those deals to slide into my inbox.

    I ended up ticking both Bulgaria and Luxembourg off my list pretty soon after, thanks to weekend trip alerts. They weren’t your typical winter city breaks - but that almost made it more fun. Anyway, you can’t be fussy when you want to travel on a shoe string.

    Lesson 2: Start with the flights - and be flexible about when you go.

    With weekend flights typically coming up more pricey than mid-week, it quickly became clear that looking for lots of little weekend trips to individual places wasn’t going to be the best use of my limited time and money.

    Pricier countries like Finland seemed a bit challenging - that is, until my Finnish friend told me that the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia, only takes two hours. 

    That got me thinking. I knew there were no low-cost flights there from Scotland, so I decided to do it the other way around. A quiet Sunday afternoon exploring Helsinki’s markets rounded off a few days in Tallinn perfectly. 

    And thankfully, the ferry bar had Estonian prices!

    Ticking off two countries in one go worked like a charm, so I did it again with Latvia and Lithuania. 

    Lesson 3: Combine your countries.

    For other places, I had to get more creative. I booked a bunch of one-way flights to hit up both Cyprus and Romania during a single trip. To get to Slovenia, I flew into Treviso in Italy then took a 3.5 hr coach to Ljubljana.

    This approach also helped when I later visited friends in the USA. Flying direct to North Carolina and Alabama would have worked out way more expensive than what I actually did.

    I took a flight to Boston for £220, then picked up a separate domestic flight to my final destination for around £70 - nobody wants to take a 2-day Greyhound trip if they don’t have to!

    Since joining JFC, I’ve learnt that this is the best way to travel through South East Asia as well. You can fly around Thailand, Vietnam or Indonesia for less than £50 return, and landing in Bangkok or Singapore will almost always save you cash over heading straight for Bali.

    On the flip side, the cheapest flights don’t always end up saving you money - I learnt that the hard way. 

    Lesson 4: Sometimes flights that are cheaper…are worse.

    I’d been so keen to get travelling again once travel restrictions were lifted that when I spotted £30 return flights to the Canary Islands for March, my friend and I jumped at the chance. 

    She was flying from just outside London, I was flying from an airport “near” Glasgow. Both our flights home landed at stupid o’clock at night, after public transport goes to bed.

    My friend decided to book a hotel in the town near her airport, but at least I knew there was a night bus from mine back home to Glasgow…

    Turns out I was wrong. 

    The night bus timetable I found online (and was linked to by Ryanair’s helpful bot) was from 2020. That bus no longer existed, and neither did any other night bus.

    The airport taxi fare home was going to cost me £60 - it was either that or hang out on the train station platform for six hours until the first connection (no, thanks).

    Spoiler alert: I did neither. I ended up flying to Glasgow Airport earlier in the day for £80 with Jet2. 

    You might be wondering why I didn’t just sleep in the airport. I’ve done it before, so why not this time? (Special shout-out to Schiphol, which has felt like my second home on a number of occasions when flights have been cancelled).

    Honestly, I’m just a bit of a wimp. Prestwick Airport doesn’t close at night like some smaller airports, but it is a total ghost town with only a couple of flights going in and out, and the idea just freaked me out too much.

    Tl;dr - It’s always worth double-checking public transport options, opening hours and seating arrangements in an airport before you grab a cheap flight leaving early or arriving late - or you could just be brave, pop up your tent and go for it. 

    All this talk of camping leads nicely on to accommodation. I’ve been really lucky to get free accommodation with friends in lots of places I’ve visited (thanks guys!), but sometimes you have to suck it up and pay for somewhere to crash.

    Lesson 5: Accommodation only costs what you’re willing to pay.

    Airbnbs

    I became a real Airbnb fan when I realised that 3 nights in a 2-bed apartment in central Budapest would cost less than £200. That’s only £50 each if you’re sharing a room!

    You don’t get a living room to share with your travel buddies in a hotel, and being able to use a kitchen for meals and a packed lunch really helped keep costs down, too. 

    If you’re not picky about privacy, I find booking a private room is a pretty affordable half-way point between a hostel and a hotel.

    Hotels

    On the other hand, it’s worth checking all your options before booking, since it turns out Airbnb isn’t always cheapest. I was recently looking at places for a trip to Amsterdam, only to find they were more expensive than many of the city’s hotels - like double the price! 

    I spent ages comparing prices on every hotel booking platform known to man (booking.com, hotels.com, lastminute.com, Bidroom…) before going for somewhere a little less central but on a main tramline. 

    The simple perks of staying in a hotel always seem like a total luxury to me these days, like a reception desk to fix any problems, the on-site pool, breakfast included.

    But the best bonus of this one? They have a sweet eco policy where you get a €5 voucher for their bar each day you don’t get your linens & towels changed! That’s what I call a win.

    Free Accommodation

    That’s right, it’s not a scam - you can actually find free accommodation all over the world. For example, my colleague Kash swears by House Sit Search to find accommodation. 

    It gathers all the available house-sitting gigs listed with companies like Trusted Housesitters, where folk offer free accommodation in exchange for looking after pets, watering plants, etc. It’s especially nice if you tend to miss your furry pals while you’re away!

    You can also find loads of house-swap groups on Facebook, though that might feel a little more risky since they generally involve offering up your home to a stranger. 

    For anyone with a job that can be done remotely, joining professional Facebook groups and putting out the call there is a good option. That way, you get to know like-minded people and make it all seem a little less scary. 

    Camping

    Wild camping will be familiar to the more outdoorsy and adventurous among us, but it can be tough to know what’s allowed in different countries. 

    In Scotland, we’re pretty lucky that you can pitch up whenever you like on the banks of Loch Lomond, or up a hill on the magical Isle of Skye, while other places might slap you with a fine. 

    The Nordic countries are also really into wild camping, which is pretty nice since they’re somewhere you’d usually avoid when you’re watching your money. And the USA’s fairly relaxed rules let you stay in epic spots in National Forests around the country, even with a car or motorhome. 

    Pretty good excuse for a great American road trip or a hike around the fjords, if you ask me.

    All that being said, sometimes it’s nice to have a few quid going spare to add a little shine to your trip. 

    With all the fintech apps and online banks available these days, I have actually been managing to trick myself into putting more money aside. It really helps when you just don’t have to think about it.

    Lesson 6: Trick yourself into saving cash before you go.

    My old flatmate introduced me to a multi-currency bank  years ago, and I seriously haven’t looked back. In fact, it’s thanks to my Revolut account that I had a spare £20 lying around for a Ryanair flight to the south of France!

    You can use them like any other bank account - pay for groceries using your card, make transfers, etc. But you can also set up different savings pots to round up your change and put it away after every transaction.

    And I wasn’t joking about that cheap trip to France. In March, I looked at my appropriately named “Travel” savings and discovered a cool £22.18 sitting there just earning interest. So off to the French Riviera I went!

    Eating free oysters on a boat trip near Cap D’Agde - turns out they’re not my fave

    There are loads of similar banks on the market these days, so I suggest checking out their perks to see what works for you. Some offer discounts on hotels, cheap airport lounge access, cashback on transactions you make abroad, or even free travel insurance.

    Other plus-sides of a borderless account include free currency exchange, no more foreign transaction fees, and easy-peasy daily budgeting. It’s all a little grown-up, but at least you’ll have extra cash for another ice cream by the beach each day. 

    Of course, there’s also the question of how to avoid paying for all those pesky extras on top of your £20 flight. 

    Lesson 7: The carrier bag technique.

    I felt pretty conned when the budget airlines introduced a fee for taking two items of hand luggage on board. But then I learnt that if you buy something in the airport (looking at you, Boots Meal Deal), you are allowed to take it with you in its carrier bag.

    Even on Ryanair

    I also found out that nobody checks what’s inside your airport carrier bag, so why not put the stuff you actually need in there?

    Personally, I hate squeezing my handbag inside my rucksack. I like having my money and passport to hand, and I’d rather have that space for extra underwear! 

    So it’s a good thing my handbag fits nicely inside a Boots carrier bag once I’ve eaten the contents in the departure lounge. 

    I’ve also learnt that nobody will ask you when or where you got your bag, so I sometimes bring along the World Duty Free carrier bag I got at Schiphol Airport years ago. It’s the perfect size for that travel pillow or pair of shoes you couldn’t fit in your rucksack!

    They do tell us we should reuse our bags, after all…

    Even the best laid plans for a cheap trip can easily get derailed, though. Like the time my friend got pickpocketed as soon as we arrived in Barcelona - we kind of had no choice but to stick to a super low budget. 

    Lesson 8: Experience over expense.

    We were totally broke students and happy to live the hostel lifestyle anyway, but we hadn’t accounted for that. I even saw it happening and tried to tell her, but it was too late…

    We ended up with only €150 between us to last 4 days in Barcelona, but we decided we would do our best to make the most of the experience! 

    Each morning we went to the local supermarket and bought a fresh baguette, a packet of ham and a couple of pieces of fruit. We made up our packed lunches in the hostel kitchen, bought 50c beers from corner shops, and splurged only to visit the places we wanted to see most.

    It’s an extreme example, but it taught me how nice it can be to just walk around and soak up the atmosphere for a few days instead of trying to see and do everything.

    I didn’t know about free walking tours back then. Nowadays, you’ll find them in pretty much every major city - general city tours, historical tours, street art tours, pub crawls, you name it. 

    My favourite so far took us round the wooden houses of Old Vilnius before heading up the skyscrapers overlooking them. 

    They’re usually free to join and work on a tip basis, so now I always make sure to save a few quid for the guides. The fact you get to chat to really knowledgeable locals adds that extra charm! 

    We did miss out on one big thing that time in Barcelona, though - all the great food! So, we definitely could have done with knowing about thefork.com back then, too.

    It works like the sites I’d usually use for restaurant deals at home, except it has spots in cities all over the world. You can get as much as 40% off your meal just by reserving a table through the site. 

    It also gets serious brownie points from me for taking the fear out of trying to navigate that whole situation in a foreign language!

    Cafés are another place I got to know pretty well on my travels around Europe - but not always just for a nice slice of cake.

    Lesson 9: These days, your office can be anywhere.

    I had to do a lot of working while I travelled when I was freelance. Sure, it doesn’t make for such a relaxing trip when you’re hurriedly meeting deadlines in a noisy Starbucks in Lisbon, but when you run your own business, there’s always the worry that you can’t afford not to work.

    Finding somewhere with decent bottomless coffee is my top tip for getting through a day of café-lancing without spending a fortune on treats.

    Surprisingly, Iceland is one country where you’ll reliably find free refills in most cafés. Since everything else is insanely pricey (I’ll never forget my £18 lunch of soup, salad and a water), a warming caffeine hit is by far the cheapest option.  

    Now I work full-time for JFC, I don’t have to worry about taking on jobs when I’m meant to be on holiday. But like a lot of you, I work remotely, which means I can work from anywhere! 

    It may not directly save you cash to work while you travel, but it can definitely save precious annual leave. And as a silver lining, you won’t have so much time to spend money when you’re busy answering emails. 

    Sometimes just being abroad is enough.

    Lesson 10: Complete your mission.

    In case you’re wondering whether I ever made it to every EU country by my deadline, I did. Slovenia was my last one on 15th March 2019, and it did not disappoint.

    That’s just over three years ago now, and I recently joked that maybe I should try and do them all again in the next 3 years - but only visiting parts of each country that I’ve never been to before.

    Maybe not, but I’ll certainly still be taking those cheap flights and adding in a cheeky neighbouring country wherever possible.

    If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this, it’s that a Boots meal deal is worth far more than the sum of what goes in your tummy. Oh, and that travelling is always worth it, even if you don’t have the money to splurge on a luxury resort.

    If you have to eat a cheap supermarket baguette, you may as well do it in Spain.