My life on economic holidays has been an invaluable experience

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In the middle of winter, in the midst of the cost of living crisis, I bring good news. Is this the ultra-short budget vacation you’ve taken to yourself this year? Add some creativity and it will be much better than you think.

As a writer who has spent most of his adult life starving in an attic, I have almost always had to choose cheap and cheerful holidays. And in my experience, these aren’t just on the same level as those that come with more embellishments, they’re often a lot more fun and satisfying. Let me explain.

To begin with, some of the best memories are made from meeting local people and experiencing kindness at home or abroad. Luxury, on the other hand, tends to isolate you from such encounters. For example, inspired by Shakespeare’s many foot journeys between Stratford-upon-Avon and London, I decided to celebrate finishing a book (not just writing a book, but writing a book) by taking a vacation by walking from my east London flat to my sister’s house nearby. Suffolk/Norfolk border. I threw a few things in a backpack, set off along the River Lea, and arrived at a rural campsite late in the evening. This was when disaster struck – unexpectedly I found it closed. There were no other campgrounds for miles, and there was practically no place for wild camping. Ten minutes later, I was in a bar, describing my situation while the landlady was pouring me a beer. My story was overheard and a local family immediately offered me a free bed. I was even given breakfast and went back to the bar to continue my walk the next morning. Thanks Bill.

I woke up with muntjaki deer flapping their wings over my tent and even a hedgehog visited to help me with my snacks.

Camping is, of course, an obvious choice for budget travelers. My investment in a bit of camping gear (there are so many low-priced options these days) has paid off many times over on my cycling and hiking trips. Since the British camping boom began in the early 2000s, facilities at campgrounds have improved immeasurably. And although there has been a proportional increase in prices as well, there are still plenty of excellent sites where you can find everything you need for under a dime a night.

Naturally, the cheapest camping is wild camping, which is perfectly legal in parts of Dartmoor (for now) and the whole of Scotland (with common sense caveats) – but I agree it’s not for everyone. I’m pretty sure I shot late, hit camp early, and left no traces – and never once had a problem. Moreover, wild camping has allowed me to stay in some lovely places high up in the mountains, on the tops of cliffs and on the edges of lakes and bays, and has given me many special moments where I connect with wildlife. I slept with badgers roaming around me; I woke up with a muntjagi deer on the wing of my tent; and even a sneaky hedgehog (when was the last time you saw one of them?) came to visit to help me with my snacks.

But if this place is a little too much for you or you don’t have a tent, how about a ranch or a camp barn? Simple but sturdy shelters, often with fireplaces, offer a place to put a sleeping bag and perhaps exchange candlelight stories with fellow travelers. Joining Scotland’s Mountain Bothies Association gives you free access to nearly 100 shelters, many of which are located in spectacular locations.

Cycling on the Golden Road on Harris Island.

Cycling on the Golden Road on Harris Island. Photo: markferguson2/Alamy

Hostels and bunk beds provide one more step in comfort while remaining economical. I spent very enjoyable evenings in hostels and independent hostels run by YHA. I once spent a very memorable week cycling through the Western Islands, staying in bunk beds converted from traditional black houses. The friendship between my hostel friends was contagious. And one night, after a very rainy day in the saddle, two young women took pity on the “poor little messy thing” I had become and made me dinner.

It was exciting to watch the dawn rise as we entered each new country.

Nor did a general lack of funds prevent me from crossing the English Channel. The Interrail Pass is one of Europe’s crowning victories and was created especially for young people in distress to see the continent in an economical way. On my first Interrail trip over 30 years ago, I saved more money by avoiding traditional accommodation and taking the sleeper train to my next destination every night. Since I didn’t have the money to buy a cabin, I became an expert in getting maximum comfort from car seats. And in those sleepless times, it was exciting to watch the dawn rise as it shook each new land. I saw nine countries in two weeks and became incurably sick of travellers. (Many of the sleeper trains I’ve taken are no longer available, but luckily new sleeper trains are reopening in Europe.) I repeated this experience in 2019 on a journey that spanned Athens, Budapest, Venice and more.

Interrail passengers at Copenhagen Central Station.

Interrail passengers at Copenhagen Central Station. Photo: Kumar Sriskandan/Alamy

Now available for passengers of all ages, Interrail tickets cover 33 countries and start at £212 (£159 for under 28s). Cheaper single country passes are great for those who want to explore a single country. And no matter which card you buy, kids under 12 are completely free, which is the cheapest.

Even with Britain’s overpriced railroads – when they’re not going on strike – there are bargains to be had. Rover tickets provide the best value for your money – there are currently over 80 tickets available covering most regions from Cornwall to the Highlands. Using the North Country Rover, I had a very enjoyable budget trip to the Lake District, Hadrian’s Wall and the North Yorkshire coast. In Scarborough I searched for the cheapest hostel in town and not only was it clean and cheerful, it even had a four-poster bed in the room.

Bus travellers are similarly budget travelers’ companions – most large and some smaller bus companies offer them. I once spent 45 days on a low-cost trip across the entire UK mainland coast using only local buses (and a tent) but I’m sure shorter trips can be fun too.

Hadrian's wall.

Hadrian’s wall. Photo: Clearview/Alamy

At this point you may be wondering why I didn’t mention cheap flights. Well, without wanting to climb a lectern, that’s because they’re a bit of a misnomer: they may cost very cheap right now, but the damage they do means you (and everyone else) will continue to take the bill well for them. future. Besides, who wants to start and end their vacation with the treatment of cattle?

All of this gets to the heart of a fundamental question: why travel? If it’s to have a horizon-expanding experience that’s also fun and will provide you with memories to savor in your rocking chair, I think a budget vacation will give you more of that than its more expensive traditional counterpart. While money can certainly buy you comfort on your travels, it cannot buy joy. And thinking creatively about travel means you’re much more likely to have an adventure in the end. And without bankrupting yourself, which is always a bonus.

Tips for doing more with less

Use one of the many split ticket sites for rail travel in the UK. These get into the dark heart of the country’s rail pricing system to find the cheapest fares possible. I use Buy early: advance train tickets save big and go on sale up to three months in advance. They become more expensive as stocks run low and can be exchanged for a fee, but are not refundable. For rail rover and ranger tickets, visit Train cards can cover their own expenses in one or two journeys. Combined ferry/train tickets (search for “sail rail Europe”) are often cheaper than separate fares. Join mailing lists to be notified of special offers: this has helped me a lot on Eurostar, Interrail and LNER.

Search for the “bus rover ranger ticket” and the area you are traveling to. For example, West Yorkshire’s MCard or North Wales’ 1bws ticket provides an unlimited one-day bus ride for very little cost.

Try Youth Hostel Association, independent hostels Independent Hostel Guide, Gatliff Trust and Mountain Bothies Association.

My favorite site is, which lists thousands of UK and European sites and has good filters. For £45 a year, Camping & Caravanning Club gives members access to 1,200 (often very cheap) sites only.

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