We’ve gotten to be pretty good at frugal travel over the years, but I’ll confess, the United Kingdom is one place that (much as we wanted to go there), I was nervous to plan on a budget.
When I began the work of actually researching our options and making bookings for our family. I was determined to stick within our budget and do this portion of the trip as inexpensively as possible.
I’ll be the first to admit… the UK it is expensive. Probably one of the most expensive places we’ve even gone (and we’ve been to Australia, Dubai, Japan and Switzerland, to name a few).
(And I’ll note upfront that I’m referring to the UK in this post, but technically Ireland is not part of the UK. That said, we’ve also been to Scotland where the prices are similar, as they are in Wales and Northern Ireland, and so I simply chose to use UK in the title as a more familiar term of reference for the British Isles in general.)
It was definitely a challenge, but after much reading, researching, wringing of hands, and creative rearranging, here are some of the tricks and methods I came up with for keeping our time in the UK as cheap as possible:
On our year-long trip around the world, I aimed for us to spend no more than $70-$80 per night, on average, as this worked out to just a little more than our regular monthly housing costs back home (rent, utilities, insurance, etc.). Some countries were more expensive; many countries worked out much cheaper than that for us. It all balanced out.
When I got to researching England and Ireland for this trip, however, my heart sank. Even the cheapest digs I initially found were going to run us no less than £80-90 British Pounds (that’s $123-138 USD). It would have honestly been very easy for us to spend $200-$400 USD per night, if I hadn’t worked hard to find cost-effective options.
Here’s what we found worked well for our family of 6 (and if you are a smaller family, you’re in luck – this will be even easier/cheaper for you!):
For anywhere we’ll stay 3 nights or longer, I look for an apartment or house rental. Airbnb is our very favorite site because it’s easy to use, you never have to do things that feel financially risky (like wire money to someone you don’t know), and there are amazing rental options available all over the world. What’s best about it is that, unlike many other vacation rental sites, many of these are actual homes, so they have well-stocked kitchens and a unique, comfortable feel to them.
Not only do we usually pay less than we would in a hotel per night (and the longer you stay, the cheaper it gets, as weekly and monthly rates drop significantly), but we also end up with a kitchen so we can save by preparing our own meals and snacks. There’s often a washing machine as well, so we can keep our clothes clean without paying at a laundromat or hand washing.
Another perk as a family is that you tend to get much more living space than in any sort of hotel situation. In London, for the same or less per night than we would have spent at a nasty, cheap hotel, we got a 200-year-old row home in the suburbs (but easily accessible by Underground trains) with a small backyard, a living room, kitchen, bathroom and three bedrooms!
In several places, the best option I could find for us was a hostel, where we booked a “family” room or a six bunk dorm room (but got it all to ourselves). In both locations (Dublin, Ireland and Stow-on-the-Wold, England), the rooms were small, for sure, and in one we were sharing a public bathroom down the hall. But there was a kitchen for cooking, a large eating area, and a public area where we could hang out if we wanted to.
I will say that hostels, while fantastic for single people or friends traveling together, are not always the right option for families. By the time you add up the fee for each individual person (because that’s how they charge you, and they don’t usually give breaks for babies or young children), it can be cheaper to just stay at a hotel or B&B. Not always, of course, and so you need to do your research and compare what’s available in each place you plan to stay.
Also, with small children, we aren’t comfortable in any sort of dorm room situation where other people would be sleeping in the same room as us. Again, it’s fine for a single person, but we only feel safe with our children when we are in a private room with just our family. Many hostels can accommodate this, but some can’t, so be sure to look around and ask good questions. Even when I book us 6 beds in their 6 bunk dorm room option, I make sure to contact the hostel directly to let them know that we are a family and we all need to be together in one private room, and so long as they have the space available (it pays to book ahead), I’ve always found them to be accommodating for us.
Budget hotels/guest houses
We also made use of several hotels and guest houses. They were more Plain Jane, perhaps, but perfectly adequate for our needs (and our budget).
One hotel chain that we found very affordable and convenient was Travelodge. We stayed at one in York, England and also for our last night in Ireland, near the Dublin airport. In low season, we could get two rooms for our family for as little as £70 or about €80-90 in total, which is very cheap in both places. You won’t get any character in a place like this. They’re just cheap, sanitized, big-chain hotels. But they’re clean and inexpensive and they worked for us.
Another option is to seek out smaller, simple budget hotels or guest houses. In Galway, Ireland, we found a recommendation through Rick Steves where we got a little family cottage with a self-catering kitchenette for €99 and it allowed us to easily make our own breakfast the next morning. In Dingle, Ireland, we stayed at the Dingle Harbor Hotel (another Rick Steves find) which was a just a little more per night, but was still very affordable when they gave us an off-season deal, threw in little perks like doing a load of laundry for us (just because) and served incredible breakfasts which totally filled us and our kiddies right up.
There are SO many ways to save on food, if only you’re willing to forgo the expectation of eating in a restaurant for each meal, or ordering one entree per person. By making use of grocery stores, learning to eat wisely when you’re out, and taking advantage of DIY options, it’s far easier than you might think to feed a family cheaply, even in England or Ireland!
Here are the strategies we used:
:: Grocery stores. “Picnic” breakfasts and lunches are easy to buy and so much less expensive than eating out. In England, I could make a nice breakfast for us all for £10-15 or less (eggs, bacon and toast/English muffins with butter, or yogurt, granola and fresh fruit). In a restaurant or hotel, that would usually cost our family more like £20-25 (the equivalent of $40 USD- yikes!).
:: Stay in places that offer kitchens/kitchenettes whenever possible. Making your own (again, by shopping the grocery stores) is heaps cheaper.
:: Pick up extra when you go to the store and carry it around for snacks between meals. Choose fruit that travels well (like apples or oranges), individual yogurts, trail mix or granola bars, cheese or deli meats, veggies like snap peas or baby carrots, baked goods like muffins or scones, and keep it in your backpack or rental vehicle.
:: Always ask for tap water at restaurants. Nearly all of them are happy to oblige and will often bring out a glass bottle with chilled tap water for your table.
:: Never order one meal per child (unless they actually have an adult’s appetite, like a teenage boy). For that matter, it usually isn’t worth it to buy children’s meals, either (they tend to be a rip-off). Instead, our family could get away with 3-4 regular size meals, split between the six of us (just ask for a few extra plates to dish it all out). Or, we’d go for cheaper options like soup or stew with bread, and could usually share one bowl between two children (they’re adult portions, remember). For that matter, share things like pots of tea (my girls often wanted tea, so we’d order a pot to share between the three of us), or scones (four large scones with cream and jam were still a filling snack for us all – we didn’t all need our own).
:: Get used to eating anywhere. If it’s not summertime (which, of course, is the best time of year for impromptu picnics outside), you can still find ways to eat your snacks or grocery store grub. We ate breakfast in our car one morning and we’ve done plenty of hotel-room meals and snacks (see the picture above).
:: Look for more inexpensive options in your guidebook, or ask for recommendations from hostel or hotel staff, apartment landlords, kind locals you meet while sight seeing, etc. I personally enjoy Rick Steves books while in Europe and found his Great Britain and Ireland books both helped me to quickly find a restaurant that was more family-friendly and in our price range.
:: Pubs are fine with kids if you go for an earlier dinner time (once it starts getting to 8 or 9pm, you begin to get more of a pub scene and some pubs will ask children to leave). Pub grub is often cheaper than other sit down restaurants, but still tasty and filling.
:: Carry your own coffee/tea and make yourself a cup in the morning (rather than paying £2-3 from a cafe). Most accommodations have kettles. I carry Starbucks VIA coffees in my backpack and will often buy a box of tea (recycle the box) and take the bags along with me. Also, carry reusable water bottles and refill them whenever possible.
In my next post, I’ll share tips for saving money on transportation and sight seeing in the UK!