As students we are all torn between the broadening of our minds and the paying of our bills. Every student loan payment seems to disappear as quickly as it arrived into your college’s dubious capital and borrowing fund, whilst a detailed study of Ibiza’s drinking culture or Greece’s beaches lies torturously out of reach. But fear not! Whether your dream summer involves mountain trekking or just the perilous journey from your bed to the bar, here at ‘The Bubble’ we have some vital tips to keep those costs down and your pennies in your pocket, whilst enjoying your months of freedom to the full.
Whilst in education we often resign ourselves to peak travel periods and book onto the next Ryanair flight to be done with it all, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Just slight adjustments to travel dates and times can make a big difference to prices, starting with the obvious switching of months. At university you have a slight window of opportunity where holidays extend beyond the classic school break periods, so make sure to take advantage of it and consider jetting off in March or September instead of August. Days of the week can also have a surprisingly large impact, with flights on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays often costing extortionately more than the same journey on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Even picking a slightly more anti-social takeoff time could bag you a saving.
When to book flights for the best deal is a controversial topic, and the simplest answer will always be that you should research trends around your own destination as these can vary widely. However, it is generally best to avoid booking either too early or at the last minute, with the suggestions of most experts lying in the range of four to one and half months before travelling for short-haul journeys, and a couple of months before that for long-haul. Also be sure to delete your browser cookies when searching, or prices may mysteriously rise every time you return to a site!
Another way to pinch the pennies with airfares is to avoid hefty luggage charges and make do with just a carry-on. For shorter trips, invest in a cabin-baggage-sized suitcase or a spacious rucksack, taking miniature bottles of toiletries and just the bare minimum in terms of clothes. The reduced space may also help you save money as you think twice about those over-priced souvenirs!
For a longer trip, you may have to get a little more extreme to keep your belongings down to a minimum. Some progress can be made by swapping your normal, bulky possessions for ‘travel’ versions (especially towels) but, for the particularly dedicated, look into the potential of pockets for sneaking in some extra heavy items, or peruse travel blogs such as the ‘No Bag Challenge’ and ‘One Bag’ to find out how even your choice of batteries may be weighing you down.
Whilst the first instinct of many people planning a Euro adventure is to purchase an Interrail ticket – wait! Before taking the leap, work out how much your individual tickets would cost. It may be worth it if you plan to hop on a long-distance train with no notice every other day, but if you want to explore a smaller area then buying cheaper regional tickets is a better option. Many countries also offer their own deals – such as unlimited travel during a weekend or group discounts – which are worth researching. Even long-distance journeys may not make you your money back if you are instead prepared to book in advance to make savings, especially when you take into account that Interrail does not include seat reservation prices.
In any country, it is also worth exploring the option of coaches over trains. These may sometimes take longer, but are often very comfortable and cost only a fraction of the price. Coach or train fares can even be used to save money on accommodation if you choose to travel overnight instead of by day, and can actually offer a surprisingly good night’s sleep.
Finally, always make sure that you are using a local booking site rather than an agent to beat price mark ups and to potentially take advantage of the current strength of the pound. Voyages-sncf.com, the French national railway, may often be the first site to appear on Google, but compare other suppliers too as they may not list every route option and redirects to other sites could cause you to incur a booking fee.
Another assumption often made is that a hostel dorm always offers the best value for money, but this may not be the case. Many hostels do indeed have great deals and, especially if you’re travelling solo, any discomfort or hygiene issues are more than made up for by the social aspect of sharing accommodation with other like-minded travellers. Look for central locations to save money on public transport, or even hostels which also offer trips and tours as they are often cheaper and more aimed at young people than those which you might find in a travel agent’s.
However, for groups of friends looking to stay together it can often actually cost less to rent an apartment from a website such as airbnb.com or wimdu.com. These offer the advantage of a fully-equipped kitchen to save money on eating out, as well as private living space if you want to come back and crash during the day rather than sitting in a café, or pre-drink at home before a night out. The initial price may look overwhelming but normally just three or four people are needed to bring it down to the same or lower than a dorm bed. You may have to make sure you’re travelling with close friends though, as apartments rarely come without at least one double bed!
The cheapest way to eat abroad will always be to utilise local markets and self-cater, but when you’re on holiday it’s only natural to want to treat yourself – and without breaking the bank. Avoid particularly touristy areas and instead search back and side streets for a restaurant which appears to be busy with local people, rather than your fellow backpackers. In some countries meals taken in different parts of a restaurant, such as at the bar as opposed to on the terrace, will be priced differently or incur a supplement so clarify these before sitting down. Make sure that you see a drinks menu too, as many places with seemingly cheap food might still end up delivering you a sky-high bill by inflating prices there, with the same going for any bread or other appetizers placed on the table. Ask the price before tucking in!
An afterthought for many travellers, being smart when it comes to currency can mean that your pound stretches further in foreign lands. If you have planned your trip in advance, it is worth keeping track of exchange rates in the run-up as buying when the pound is strong can vastly increase the euros in your pocket. Even if you didn’t think quite so far ahead, you still have control over where you exchange – make sure to compare all of the available options, but avoid leaving it to the very last minute and desperately buying in the airport.
If you plan to be abroad for a longer period of time, a currency card – such as those offered by Caxton FX – can help you to avoid extortionate fees when withdrawing money, whilst also offering a good exchange rate and the extra security of not carrying large amount of cash. If you do open a bank account abroad, check out transferwise.com to avoid hidden bank charges when transferring your earnings back to the UK.
Finally, potentially the entire objective of your holiday: to actually see something in another country once you get there. Generally it will be cheaper to organise excursions independently rather than joining a tour group, but where trips would be just too complicated or dangerous otherwise it is better to go with a local guide and to book the excursion once you’re on location. It’s easier to haggle and compare options in town, and you’ll have the chance to go with often more knowledgeable small companies who may just not have the skill or money to make as flashy a website. Do make sure that you get in writing exactly what each trip includes though – one company may seem cheaper, but when you discover that their three-day trek doesn’t include meals, the deal may suddenly not look so great!
When visiting smaller sights the best plan is to research when they are available for free, which in Europe is often the first Sunday of the month. There are also many high-quality free walking tours available in major cities, and student discounts are a resource not to be sniffed at. If you plan to intensively cover a city in a period of one or two days then a tourist card including public transport may be for you, but do make sure that you have planned your visits in advance to ensure that they will add up to an overall discount.
Do you have any top tips for the thrifty traveller? Comment with your own ideas below!