Nearly a year has passed since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, but it’s still anyone’s guess what exactly this means for the country in the long run. One thing became perfectly clear, however, before the votes were even tallied—the pound was going to take a tumble. Suddenly, a country notorious for being expensive to visit became almost—could it be?—affordable.
Of course, if you knew how to do it—for instance, not spending too much time, or perhaps any time, in London—travel around the United Kingdom has always been more manageable than many might assume. Fancy hotels? No. Michelin-starred restaurants? Absolutely not. But if you’re really keen to see the country, and it is a fascinating place, it’s never been necessary to break the bank. Now, in many cases, in many parts of the country, travel can range from almost-to-downright cheap. Cheaper, in some cases, than travel in much of the United States.
Obviously, now’s the time to get here, but even if you need to wait until the fall, that’s likely going to be fine, too. Those who take a few key steps will be amazed how easy it can be to keep costs low. Let’s talk specifics. London calling? Score up to 40% off hotels, flights and packages with Expedia.
Going via Iceland is so yesterday. Norwegian’s low economy fares from major gateways around the United States allowed budget travelers to say goodbye to the days of having to cool their jetlag-weary heels on the tarmac somewhere outside of Reykjavik—come July, they’re stepping things up with incredible fares that can sometimes ring in around $300 round-trip, serving cities like Belfast and Edinburgh from new gateways at Providence, Hartford and Newburgh. Oh, and, to boot, they’re adding new London non-stops from Seattle and Denver. Not a fan of flying economy? Outside of the high season, you can fly their decent Premium product (think old-school business class, in other words, totally fine for a trip to Europe) for around $1,200 from existing gateways like Oakland and Boston. Is your home airport convenient to major Canadian gateways? With our dollar so far ahead of Canada’s, it makes sense to price check WestJet, which offers regular service into the fall from Halifax to Glasgow and from St. John’s, Newfoundland to London—Halifax especially is easy to get to from most places in the Northeast, and anywhere in the country via Toronto, which of course has its own healthy schedule of flights to London; it’s worth seeing if you can save a bit of money by flying from there. Compare flights and find the best deals with BookingBuddy.
Hotels don’t have to be expensive—in some cities, expensive is the exception. Popular and reputable (well, in this country, anyway) chains like Travelodge are famous for advertising their screaming low rates—in the case of Travelodge, they start at what works out to be roughly $38 right now, working their way up from there. Rooms can be small and there are fewer frills than American travelers might expect, but these hotels do the job and then some, at a fraction of the cost you’d pay in most cities back home. Example: Mid-August in Liverpool, a well-reviewed, thoroughly modern Travelodge just across the street from the city’s must-explore waterfront is asking just $280 including tax for a 6-night stay. Looking for something slightly less basic? Other brands—Premier Inn is a standby—offer a similar setup, but in warmer surroundings and typically for slightly more money, but not always: Sheffield, a highly-underrated city and handy gateway to the Peak District National Park (local trains can connect you to some terrific walks in less than half an hour from the city center) has a handful of Premier Inn properties where you can do a 6-night stay at the height of summer from less than $250, as long as you book at least a few weeks in advance. (And yes, that includes tax.) Trendy chains like German import Motel One, Point A Hotels, Z Hotel and others offer stylish surroundings (and often tight quarters, do your homework) for less than you’d think. Of course, there’s traveling the way your parents and grandparents did—most cities have at least a few dependable, ye olde B&B’s and guest houses—even popular Edinburgh, for example, where summer rates can be notorious. For more on the best budget hotels in the UK and Europe, read this earlier post.
If you can handle the risk, pay for everything up front. Most hotels now offer saver rates for those willing to pay in advance, but the values can be astonishing in the UK—sometimes up to 50 percent off, if you time it right. (Which means, of course, you can stay twice as long.) Just be warned—as always in these cases, be sure of your travel dates and be sure to show up. You’re paying either way.
Skip London. For about $14 round-trip and often in well under two hours’ time, you can zip back and forth from the capital as much as you want on the serviceable London Midland trains that serve Birmingham, a refreshingly unpretentious city at the heart of the country’s second largest urban conglomeration. Yes, you need to book that fare in advance, but unlike many train trips in the UK, the lowest fares on this particular routing are good for any off-peak trains on the day you selected, giving you plenty of flexibility. Within walking distance of the renovated New Street Station (complete with shiny new John Lewis department store), pick from a wide selection of reasonably priced hotels, all just as good as their counterparts in more expensive London or Manchester. (The Aparthotel Adagio Birmingham City Centre, for example, was recently going for just $450 a week—it’s a real home-away-from-home, literally a few steps from both train stations, a massive, upscale shopping center and the scene in gritty-cool Digbeth.) You don’t have to be the least bit interested in Birmingham to make it your base of operations—there are so many worthy places within easy day-tripping distance, it’s a bit overwhelming—but don’t be too surprised if you end up feeling rather at home.
Trainline is your friend. In the old days, you’d get a rail pass to save money. Now, all you need is access to your phone—if your provider back home isn’t offering you included or low-cost roaming service by now, you need to switch providers, stat—and the Trainline app. Voila, you’re using Apple Pay to buy, say, a $10 sale fare on Virgin Trains from Glasgow to London, or planning a spur of the moment jaunt to St. Ives (pictured above). In many cases now, a barcode delivered to your phone becomes your ticket. All you have to do is board. Careful, though: Some lines, particularly those running in and out of London, still require you to pick up tickets from machines at the train station, which can mean a lengthy wait in line—leave plenty of time if that’s the case. Thanks to the app, I managed to travel from Gatwick to Glasgow and back with multiple stops over a three-week period for a little over $150, sometimes booking my ticket as I was running to catch the train. If you like to ride the rails, this app is going to change the way you travel in Europe. (Yes, there’s a version for the continent as well, and it keeps getting better.)
Ask what Uber can do for you. So it’s fashionable to be so over Uber right now, but you’ll likely stop being mad at it when you realize that in nearly all UK cities, you can cross town and then some at any time of your choosing, all for a few quid. If you’re too lazy to hoof it—most UK city centres outside of London can be crossed on foot in, what, thirty minutes, maybe less—Uber can do the job for you, often for less than $7 per ride. Not that you even need Uber—sleek new tram service in Birmingham and Manchester’s expanding city light rail network can also do the job for even less. Still, that angst you may be familiar with from years of travel to London—how are we getting back and how much is it going to cost—isn’t even a thing in most other cities. It’s barely even a thing in London, come to think of it, since Uber showed up.