Wednesday, 12 October 2016

HOW: to travel cheaply and often





I like to travel, there’s no denying it. But travelling can be difficult. Not only am I constrained by my full time job and annual leave allowance (25 days not including bank holidays or the Christmas / New Year period) but it’s also expensive. When you’ve got a list of dream destinations longer than your arm this only adds to the stress and I find myself asking questions like "will I ever get to visit everywhere I want to". I don’t know the answer to this, especially as my list grows longer every year. But I try to remember that at the grand age of 29 I’ve done pretty well so far. By the end of this year I will have visited nearly 60 countries in 5 different continents, which is a pretty impressive feat. 

Last year I travelled a lot and I managed to visit Paris, Glasgow, Cologne and Düsseldorf, and Bilbao and San Sebastian for long weekends. I spent quick weekend breaks in Newport (Wales), Ireland and Glasgow (again). I spent one day in Paris and I did a 2 week road trip around Iceland. To top it off I spent 2 weeks during the 2015 / 2016 New Year period in South East Asia (Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar).

My holiday schedule this year has included two days in Luxembourg City, and long weekends in Northern Ireland, Porto, Gothenburg, and Aberdeen. On Friday I fly to Tokyo for a 3 and a half week trip around Japan and Korea for my 30th birthday. In December I'm visiting Nuremberg for a Christmas market weekend, and I'm in Ireland for a week over the Christmas and New Year period. I also went to Latitude Festival and Indietracks in July and will hopefully visit Paris for the day with Mum again (although that's looking less likely now that it's already October).

So how do I manage this with limited time and limited income?

OK, first let’s be real about this and do a little disclosure because I want you all to understand that it is possible to travel without a huge amount of resources. In terms of salary I have an average job, my pay is fine, far from anything special, but it’s OK. I live in London which is expensive but I have very cheap rent. I was fortunate to go to SE Asia on holiday with my family so my parents paid for that and my trips to Ireland are usually to visit family so they cost me very little as we have a house there.

But this still doesn't explain how I managed to visit so many places and there are two main things that make this happen, clever planning and compromise.

I think the majority of holiday planners fall into two camps; people like me who spend hours upon hours lusting over locations and figuring out how they're going to do it; and people who just want to find a last minute holiday with a great deal. There's nothing wrong with the latter, in fact you can get some excellent last minute deals if you don't mind where you end up. But for someone like myself who loves the planning process as much as the actual holiday this last minute approach isn't ideal.

So here's how I do it:

Compromise

Compromise is such an ugly word, in fact I hate it because I hate having to make a choice between the things I love. But unless you're super rich compromise is a term you'll be very familiar with. I want to see the world and I want to see it now which means I need money and I have to make compromises in my life to accommodate this. Long gone are the months when I could easily drop £400 on ASOS, long gone are the weeks that I'd eat out at new restaurants more nights than staying home, and long gone are the days I'd wonder aimlessly around town spending money on all sorts of crap I didn't need. Yes I still buy clothes and I still eat out but I do it a lot less than I used, for the sole reason that I'd rather spend that money on travelling.

A lot of my friends are saving up for mortgages at the moment but owning my own place is not high on my list of priorities. However, taking a 3 month sabbatical to visit South America at some stage in the next few years is. I want to spend the majority of my income on seeing the world which is why I comprise with my living arrangements and put up with living in a flat share with cheap rent.

Compromise isn't fun but it's really simple. Prioritise the things that make you happy. If travelling is the number one goal in your life then it's time to take some control of your income and make sure you set aside enough money each month to make your dreams come true. If saving for a house or updating your wardrobe every couple of months is what makes you happy that's great, you can still go on holiday but you might not be able to travel every couple of months. Decide what's important to you and compromise accordingly.

Make a list

I love talking to people about their holiday plans but I genuinely find it baffling when people tell me they have nothing organised for the foreseeable future, especially when they tell me they don't even have an idea of where they'd like to go. Now, I know not everyone can afford to go away every year (hopefully this post gives you some tips about travelling cheaply) and that's totally fine, but to not even know where you'd like to visit is something that really surprises me. I could literally reel off a 'my 20 dream destinations list' in 10 seconds. I spend a lot of time day dreaming about my holidays even if I know I won't be able to afford them for a very long time.

To make sure I always have a location of interest at the front of my mind I have two different travel wish lists saved in the notes section on my phone. I have a list of the destinations that I really want to visit at some stage in my life and I have a list of places I want to visit in the next few years.

For example, on my long term list I have destinations like Antarctica, India, Indonesia, a 3 month sabbatical in South America, a Californian road trip, a journey on the Trans-Mongolian Express, and a train trip across Canada. Whilst I really want to visit these countries I don't feel the need to visit them right now. On my short term list I have things like return to Norway and NYC; city breaks in Athens, Beirut, Baku, Lisbon, Amsterdam, and Rotterdam; a train trip through Russia; Croatian island hopping; an inter rail trip around south-eastern Europe; a road trip around the Scottish Highlands; and a week in Israel.

My lists have developed from years of research and suggestions from friends, whether it's in real life or via the internet. I love talking to people about travel and when I ask you about your recent holiday I literally want to know every single detail from when your journey to the airport started to the moment you made it back home. Hearing people talking about the feelings they experienced when they were in a certain city will make me want to visit more than any editorial will. But of course written content accompanied with fancy pictures helps and I can't deny the impact a friends holiday album on Facebook will have for making me want to instantly book a trip to wherever they've just been. That's one of the reasons I went to SE Asia when I finished university, hearing about friends visiting on their gap year made me jealous and I wanted a piece of the action.

Whilst a lot of my holiday suggestions come from friends a lot also come from the media and by this I mean film, TV and music. The main reason I want to visit San Francisco is because my favourite band is from the Bay area and I want to go on a musical pilgrimage. This was predominantly why I wanted to visit Glasgow and on doing so I realised just how amazing a city it is. The film Lost in Translation has definitely had an impact on me wanting to visit Tokyo and pretty much every time I see panning shots of the New York skyline I have a sensational urge to return.

Being in a relationship also means I have to listen to Steve on occasion and go somewhere on his list. Fortunately we like the same sort of places but our trips around the Baltics in 2014 was definitely his idea as I really didn't know much about the area. I adored that holiday therefore proving that stepping out of your comfort zone and going somewhere you wouldn't normally think of can be a huge blessing.

I also have a few holiday traditions that I try and keep up. One is to visit a new country every year, another is to visit somewhere in Scandinavia on an annual basis and the third is to visit a German Christmas market come December. Once we've exhausted our list of cities in Germany I'm sure we'll branch out but these little traditions help plan our holiday schedule. If I know we're going away in December then I don't need to think of any trips until October or March time on either side. I like to plan my holiday schedule so that I don't have to wait 6 months between each trip, otherwise I start to get bogged about not going anywhere.

Of course your lists will change over time and that's totally fine. New exciting places will pop up and some locations may become less important to you. As long as you keep referring back to it you will constantly have a list of key holiday destinations which brings me nicely onto my next point.

Plan holidays a year in advance

I know that there are many people who hate the idea of planning a holiday (or anything for that matter) so far in advance but if you want the best possible deals in order to maximise the number of trips you take then that's what you need to do. This year is sorted and whilst I don't have everything booked yet I know exactly where Steve and I are going on holiday next year; a 2 week road trip around Denmark in June, a week in the Netherlands in October, a weekend in Liechtenstein come December, a long weekend in Baku or Beirut in August hopefully, and a trip to Romania over Easter. In fact I have a good idea of 2018 as well; a week in Russia, a long weekend in Norway and a 2 week trip around Southern Eastern Europe most likely.

If you know when and where you want to go a year in advance you will be able to snap up cheap flights or train tickets the day they go on sale, find the best accommodation deals and plan what money you need to put aside to pay for it all. Airline tickets are generally not on sale for more than a year in advance (even less for budget carriers) and if you can find out the day they're released (just ask the company on Twitter or sign up to newsletters) you'll be able to take advantage of cheap flights, which is especially ideal if you're planning to fly over the weekend. Train tickets come on sale about 3 months in advance but sometimes Eurostar make exceptions which you need to look out for.

I'll give you an example.

Steve and I went to Iceland in July 2015. We knew a year in advance that we'd be going because we'd bought super cheap early bird festival tickets after a band I love was announced as the headliner. Easy Jet was the only budget airline that flew to Iceland and I found out that their 2015 summer schedule was due to come on sale in October 2014. I booked our flights within minutes of them being released and was able to get 2 return journeys with added luggage for just over £100. This was a phenomenal deal and only a few months later the same flights would have cost us nearly £200 each. Being prepared really paid off, quite literally.

Loyalty schemes

This is an avenue I am keen to explore more as there are a few ways you can really tap into this resource. First of all, I don't think airline loyalty schemes are always cost effective. BA let you save air miles but their flights are usually phenomenally more expensive than the budget operators so it doesn't always make sense to just fly with them. Saying that, if you're travelling to the airport by train it's a good idea to offset the price of getting there against the plane tickets. BA flights from Heathrow might cost more than Ryan Air flights from Stansted but it only costs me a few quid to get to Heathrow compared with £20 for Stansted.

Back on the topic of air miles, there are a few credit cards available that help you build up air miles. If you're good with money you can buy everything on your credit card, making sure you pay it back at the end of each month so not to be charged. You'll soon build up a big supply of miles.

Embrace Europe

You'll notice that most destinations on my short term list are European based and that's because it is so quick and easy to travel around this continent. When I was 22 I spent nearly 2 months inter railing around Europe. I visited 16 countries (even more cities) and most of the places I stayed in were so small that the majority of sights could be seen in one full day. Everywhere I visited was fascinating and completely different from the cities I had previously been in. Europe is so diverse with so many excellent things to see that it really shouldn't be snubbed for locations further afield. For the most part Europe is cheap which is another reason I have travelled so much, out of all the countries I have ever visited the majority are based in Europe. So rest assured that you can have an incredible holiday without the need to fly 10+ hours.

When I went inter railing I mainly visited capital cities but thanks to my enormous European guide book I had the chance to read about a lot of other places. I'm now finding myself revisiting countries but to experience different cities. Gothenburg this year is an example of this. I fell in love with Stockholm back in 2009 and on reading about Sweden's second city I knew I wanted to return one day.

Maximise you time

Regardless of money, the reason I travel so much is because I maximise my time. I have a Monday to Friday job which means I can take advantage of the weekend and book a Friday off work to be left with a 3 night holiday using only 1 day annual leave allowance. Whenever possible I try to fly on a Thursday evening to make sure I have a full day on Friday to sight see. I also try to travel home as late as possible on my last day, maximising the amount of time I actually spend in the place I'm visiting. Ideally I want to see everything without making a return trip.

I said earlier that most cities in Europe are pretty small so a long weekend is usually more than enough time. I also take advantage of bank holidays including Christmas and the Easter weekend to minimise the days of annual leave I need to take. I don't work between Christmas and New Year which means I can go on a week long holiday without using a single day of annual leave. I'm taking 16 days annual leave for Japan so I've had to be clever about how I planned everything this year.

When I worked in a shop that was open 7 days a week things were a little different but I still managed to make it work in my favour. If your manager allows it ask for your days off to be a Saturday and Sunday one week with the Monday and Tuesday as days off the following week. This will give you 4 consecutive days off work and you'll be able to go away without using a single day of annual leave. If you're planning your holiday far in advance your manager should be able to work this into the rota, even if that means working a few weekends into the lead up.

For those of us with Monday to Friday jobs or who want to travel during bank holidays we all know that it can be a lot more expensive to travel at the weekends which is why you should refer to my previous point about planning in advance. Cheap flights still exist during the weekend but they get snapped up more quickly than those during the week. If you're on the ball and keep an eye out for the release dates you can save yourself a lot of money, especially for popular destinations.

FYI if you're going away for a long weekend you may want to consider flying Friday to Sunday instead of Saturday to Monday. The reason I say this is because many attractions are closed on a Monday which can really screw up your timings if there's lots of different things you want to do.

Another way to save money without losing too much sight seeing time is to travel really early in the morning instead of the previous evening, therefore saving yourself the cost of 1 night in a hotel. This can work for small cities where there isn't too much to do, otherwise you can end up pretty exhausted by the early afternoon. We did this for Luxembourg City, catching a 7am flight on the Saturday morning and returning home on the Sunday night. We had practically 2 full days with only 1 night accommodation. It was a little tiring but it was 100% worth it, plus the money we saved by only booking a hotel for 1 night instead of 2 was used for future holiday planning.

When I look back on previous holidays I don't remember how I got home at 1am on a Monday morning and felt dreadful at work all day. I think about the amazing time I had and how I was grateful for an extra few hours to squeeze more sight seeing in.

Travelling mid week is usually cheaper and you can often grab a great deal with only a few months notice however if you work Monday to Friday this will mean using a lot of holiday allowance. That's fine if you don't travel much during the year but when you want to make every single day of annual leave count then this isn't ideal.

Sales, sales, sales

All airline companies have a sale at some point during the year. BA have a fantastic Christmas sale and budget airlines like Ryan Air seem to have some sort of discount every other month. But sales can be tricky business to navigate - do you book your flight the minute they become available or do you wait and see if they're cheaper in the sale a few months later?

I'm flying to Tokyo in October and flying home from Seoul in November so I knew that the flights would not be on sale until the previous December. Knowing that BA have a Christmas sale I decided to hold off booking anything until the new year. This paid off as Steve and I each saved over £100 each. However, it all depends on what time of year you're going away and how long you need to wait for the sale to start.

The reason I manage to go on so many short trips is because I fly with budget airlines at the weekends thus saving me money and time I need to take off work. If this is your plan then I'd say book the flights as far away as possible regardless of sales. Even when the sales come around it's unlikely that there will be super cheap tickets available for a Friday night. This is especially true for popular destinations or destinations that only one or two airlines service. If you're planning to go somewhere less popular and/or during the week then you're likely to find a good deal when the sales come around.

This is a little London centric but I'm a huge fan of Eurostar, I think it's absolutely magically that you can travel from London to Paris by train and I thoroughly believe that the locomotive was one of the greatest ever inventions. Eurostar is quick, arriving and departing in the city centre plus the security is minimal so you don't need to turn up for your train hours in advance. Eurostar is also cheap with standard returns starting at £70 and even better is that they have great sales where you can grab a return ticket from £60. Whilst budget airlines often do tickets for £20 return you end up paying an awful lot more just to reach the airport so if you live in London Eurostar could actually work out cheaper and most probably quicker. Signup to the mailing list and keep an eye on sales but it's normally pretty easy to grab cheap weekend tickets. I've caught the train to Paris, Bruges and Cologne so far and I plan on many more journeys in the coming years.

Pick your accommodation wisely

Most of this post has covered flights but the second most important factor to consider which will end up saving you money is accommodation.

When I go on holiday I don't automatically look for the cheapest accommodation available. I love staying in places with character, history and something a little unusual. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I'm a huge fan of affordable luxury which means my first port of call is to always check out the local boutique hotel scene. If something in this area piques my interest and is a reasonable price (for me that's anything cheaper than £100 a night per room) I probably wont look any further. However if I don't find anything that takes my fancy I'll widen my search.

My next port of call is air bnb and I'm sure you all know how that works. I usually start my search with £50 a night as my top price and increase my budget in multiples of £10 if nothing jumps out. If you look early enough you'll be able to find some real gems. I've booked an apartment in Shibuya, Tokyo for £53 a night which is an amazing find considering the location. For Porto I booked an apartment which cost us £123 for 4 nights, an outstanding deal!

If you're looking to book something far in advance but you don't have the money to pay for it then it's definitely worth checking out booking.com where most hotels let you pay once you check in. The hotel takes your card details but doesn't charge you (unless you're a no show) so it's a great option if you need to budget yourself. Another handy website is hostelworld.com where you can find hostels, guest houses and apartments. You usually have to pay a deposit but for an extra £2 you can make this refundable which is handy if you just want to secure a room somewhere but continue your search for something 'better'.

My final advice for cheap accommodation is hostels. Sharing a room full of bunk beds won't be to everyone taste but if you're serious about travelling often without spending a huge deal of money than this could be an ideal considerations. The larger the dorm the cheaper the bed. When I went inter railing I was staying in rooms with 10 bunk beds sometimes and paying £5 or less a night. It's far from luxury but at the end of the day all you need is a bed to sleep in as you'll be out and about exploring all day.

Couch surfer is a similar theme, staying on someone's sofa for free but the most you'll probably be able to get away with is 2 nights. I've never done couch surfer but I've heard so many wonderful things about it that I think it's a great option for cheap travel. It's definitely something I want to try in Denmark next year.

Let me know your list of top travel destinations and if you have any helpful tips for travelling cheaply and often, I'm always on the look out for a good deal.

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