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Travel on a Budget: Getting Around the UK Cheaply

Suppose you’ve arrived in the United Kingdom at this point.  You’re thinking about traveling around the country — perhaps down to Southern England or up to the far reaches of the Scottish Highlands — or perhaps venturing out to the best that western Europe has to offer.  What are your options for stretching your budget?

Long-Distance Buses: The Dirt Cheap Option

It’s definitely not the most comfortable option — you get what you pay for — but most times it is the most economical way to travel by far.  Fares are generally low to begin with, and if you’re like me and can catch some shuteye anywhere, you can even consider taking an overnight bus… and save the night of hostel accommodation to boot.

The primary operators you should be aware of in the UK:

National Express

From what I could tell, this is the largest inter-city bus operator within the United Kingdom.  They offer many departures around England and on a few services connecting England and Scotland. Services within Scotland were more limited, and most of their coaches were timed to continue on to destinations in England — largely morning or late evening departures.  They tended to be the most expensive of the major operators, but frequent travelers can benefit from a bus card which entitles the passenger to 1/3 off all fares.

Megabus

This was my favorite bus operator, primarily because of their fares.  In addition to low fares, however, Megabus also offers complimentary Wi-Fi which (mostly) works.  On a few services like London-Edinburgh, they also appear to operate nonstop if there are enough passengers booked for the journey, saving you about an hour in travel time.  So how cheap are we talking about?

London, England to Edinburgh, Scotland: £12.50 one way

This was inclusive of the booking fee for an overnight service, booked two weeks prior to departure in August 2013.  This is a 9-hour journey mind you!

Edinburgh, Scotland to Inverness, Scotland: £11.00 one way

I think we booked this about two weeks prior to departure for travel in December 2013.  I just did a search for a trip 3 weeks out, however, and the ticket is just £4.00 for this 4-5 hour journey!

For select routes, such as London to Edinburgh, Megabus also offers Megabus GOLD, which is a nonstop bus service where your seat includes access to a bunk as well.  A friend of mine took it and was quite impressed — and these go from only £30!

For Megabus, it pays to book in advance: fares increase as seats are sold!

Scottish CityLink

Primarily for folks traveling within Scotland, this can be an economic way to travel between Scotland’s cities and towns.

On the most popular services within Scotland, Scottish CityLink often partners with Megabus to jointly operate services.  These routes include, for instance, Edinburgh to Glasgow, Edinburgh to Inverness, and Glasgow to Inverness.  Fares for these services tend to be more competitive by booking through Megabus’ website.  For instance:

Glasgow to Edinburgh: £4.50 (through Megabus) or £10.00 (through CityLink)

Where Scottish CityLink really shines, however, is in their CitySingle deals. These are special fares that are usually only £5-6 one way, and they take you quite far around Scotland!  It’s a good idea to do your homework though: with CitySingles, it’s sometimes necessary to book connecting journeys separately to take advantage of the deals.

A friend and I were able to book travel from Portree (on the remote Isle of Skye in the northwest) to Edinburgh, with a bus change in Glasgow back in December 2013.  We had to book each segment individually — but the 9 hour journey cost us a grand total of £11.00 each.

Buses to the Continent

These buses go beyond the UK’s borders — there are many daily services which cross the English Channel to Continental Europe!  The big operators are Eurolines (a National Express affiliate) and Megabus.

I took Eurolines from London to Paris (and back), booking the fare in August 2013 one week prior to departure… for €75.00 roundtrip.  It wasn’t the best experience: this was an overnight service, and we had to wake up to pass through EU immigration in Calais, France at around 2:00 am.  The bus itself was fine, though the driver was clearly far more comfortable with French.  Considering that the train and flights this close to departure were going for upwards of €100 one way at this point, though…

When you can snag a seat on Megabus, however, go for it.  I was able to grab a fare from Brussels to London for £18.50 one way, and this is an 8 hour overnight journey.  You have the same issue of having to wake up in the middle of the night to pass through UK immigration, but hey, for that price…

Trains: Faster and More Comfortable

The UK has an excellent train network, National Rail.  It’s actually a collection of different train operators which all operate on behalf of National Rail.  This tends to be one of the fastest and most comfortable ways to travel within the UK — and on the long-distance routes can even be faster than traveling by plane.

Your best resource for train tickets is TheTrainLine.  This searches across all of National Rail’s operators and finds appropriate discounts as well.  If you book about a month in advance, you may find special “Advance” tickets which tend to be a little cheaper.  For overnight trips, National Rail offers sleeper services as well.

So how do these fares compare?  When I looked up a trip from London to Edinburgh recently:

  • Daytime service — seat: as low as £20.00, typically £50-60  (4.5-5 hours)
  • Sleeper service — seat: £64.00  (7.5 hours)
  • Sleeper service — berth: £88.00  (7.5 hours)

If you plan on taking the train frequently, consider a National Rail Railcard, which entitles the holder to 1/3 off fares.  Note: these railcards are different from the Eurail pass and are only valid on British trains.  Annoyingly, the Eurail pass does not cover British trains at all.

Planes — but do your homework!

Europe has a plethora of airlines to fit every budget.  Of course, you have your typical flag carriers: British Airways, Lufthansa, and the like.  Where you’ll typically find excellent deals, however, are with the low-cost carriers, the most famous of which are Ryanair, easyJet, and Norwegian Air Shuttle.

In my experience, the best way to search for flights is by using Skyscanner , a flight comparison tool which includes many of these low-cost carriers in its search.  You’ll see some unbelievable fares: I’ve seen a €20 London – Dublin roundtrip on Ryanair, and I’ve taken a £24 London – Edinburgh one-way on easyJet.

Before you jump at these fares, however, a few things to keep in mind (esp. on the low-cost carriers):

Don’t forget ground transportation.

You need some way to get to the airport.  This is a particular problem in London, which is served by six different airports — Heathrow (LHR), Gatwick (LGW), Stansted (STN), London City (LCY), Luton (LTN), and Southend (SEN) — the farthest of which is Southend Airport, a whopping 42 mi / 68 km from the city center.  Don’t forget to include the time and cost of getting to/from the airport!

Know where you’re flying to.

Ryanair is the main reason I have to include this. When you buy a plane ticket to “Florence”, you’re actually flying to Pisa, about an hour away from Florence.  Make sure you know where you’ll be flying to, and how much extra it will cost you to get from where you land to where you want to go.

Beware: Ryanair’s cheapest London flights typically fly into London Southend Airport, and that’s quite far from the city center!

Know the rules.

The low-cost carriers are especially strict about their rules.  For instance, Ryanair and easyJet allow one carryon bag free of charge, up to 10 kgs (22 lbs).  This is different from most American carriers, which allow one carryon bag plus a personal item.   If you’re bringing a purse or a camera, you’d better be able to fit that into your carryon bag!  If your baggage is even a teeny bit overweight, expect to pay up. Bottom line: do your homework or your cheap flight will end up costing a lot more!

Expect tighter seating on these planes as well.  Despite all the warnings I’ve put in here, they’re perfectly fine to fly, esp. when you think about how cheap that fare was.

Consider alternate airports.

A friend of mine discovered a neat trick for finding cheap fares to the continent: she would take the bus (or sometimes, even the train) to Manchester and then fly from there.  Bottom line: it pays to search around — sometimes it’s cheaper to go all the way to Manchester or even London to save big on your flight.

Don’t forget about your frequent flyer miles though!

In some cases, however, it may make sense to redeem frequent flyer miles.  I remember I was looking for flights from Edinburgh to Berlin, and unfortunately, I had been saddled with a final exam in the last exam slot.  The cheapest flight I could find was a one-way ticket on easyJet for £450… more than what I paid to fly one-way to London from San Francisco!  I happened to have 12,500 United MileagePlus miles however, which I happily swapped for a Lufthansa flight worth £600.

Hopefully these tips are helpful!  Happy traveling (and saving)!

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