I don’t know if there’s truly a way to visit Scotland for cheap—particularly if you’re American and converting dollars to pounds, which is never a favorable exchange rate—however, you can definitely make it more affordable. Here’s how we did it:
Travel during off-peak times—and be flexible. I know this sounds obvious, but even waiting until mid-September versus end of August made the difference in several hundreds of dollars. Not only does August boast the month-long Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, but the Olympics being held in London meant airfare to all European cities was sky high for pretty much the whole summer. Originally, we had planned on traveling in July pre-Festival, but quickly decided against it when airfare search showed that flights were $1400 from any major U.S. city into any major European hub. So we altered our travel dates to fit a time when airfare was lower.
Plan your flights carefully. I had originally accounted for using airline miles to get to Europe (which I didn’t wind up doing) and then fly one of Europe’s many budget airlines (which I did do) between Scotland and Ireland. As it turned out, prices for the long-haul flights were reasonable enough—$882 round-trip for a multi-city ticket from Nashville to Edinburgh and back from Dublin—and better routes than any awards travel ticket I could find, so I decided to save my miles for a rainy day when airfare was higher. Our tickets between Edinburgh and Dublin ran about $25 each (more on that later).
Fly out of gateway cities. Sometimes—but not always—it’s easier to find a great deal if you’re flying in or out of a gateway city. Originally, when we had planned to go to Edinburgh during the Olympics and airfare was sky high, I looked at flying into every gateway city in the surrounding area—from Amsterdam to Paris to Barcelona—to save money and then getting an intercontinental flight with one of the low-cost carriers.
Travel between October and May if you can. In my opinion, April, May, September and October are the best months in Scotland, and May and September flank the high season (so some hotels were priced at high season still, while others were shoulder season prices). Our trip overlapped the two first months of fall, and hotel prices dropped drastically the second Oct. 1 rolled around. To be honest, the weather in Scotland is never reliable—I’ve been there in August before when the high was 40 degrees—and we still had daylight until 8pm even in early October, so fall or spring months are a smart time to plan your Scotland trip to avoid crowds and exorbitant prices.
Leave your little sister at home. Ha! Kidding. Then we wouldn’t have this gem of a souvenir from our girls’ getaway. (Besides, it was actually her trip to celebrate her finishing grad school and acing her CPA—I was the intruder.) But it is really hard to find rooms to accommodate three or four. Which leads me to the next point…
Home rentals. As I previously referenced, we had a really tough time finding accommodation all over Scotland. I’m going to suggest if you’re a family then you look into renting a flat or an apartment. My mom said this was the case when she planned our trip for the four of us to London back in 1998, and as such, we wound up renting a whole flat for a week. This is the more economical—not to mention, spacious—option if you’re traveling in a group of more than two (of course, then you forgo things like continental breakfast, but Scotland is so rife with cafes, you’re never lacking for dining options).
Bargain. A couple times, we couldn’t find hotel or inn rooms that accommodated three and so we tried to make it work (er, without telling the hotel we were bringing an extra body). When booking, many of the hotels wanted £50 (that’s $75!) for an extra person—even though the extra person was going to be sleeping on the couch and none of the places included meals—so I asked if we could book a double and bring three people, without paying for the third since she (my sister) was just going to be sleeping on the couch anyway. Two hotels said yes. I doubt they would have had they been at full capacity, but in reality, £150 is far better than the nothing they would have gotten had we taken our business elsewhere. As I always say, “they can’t say ‘no’ if you don’t ask…” followed by my other favorite: “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.”
Rent a car. No, car rentals aren’t cheap—ours ran about $400 for a week—however, train fare in the UK is ridiculously pricey, and while I love me a good scenic train ride, I also like the flexibility of having my own method of transport. $400 for seven days for three of us was far cheaper than had we taken trains around the island. Plus, we would have been pretty stuck once we got out to the Isle of Skye.
Learn how to drive a manual. Automatics were about $300 a week more expensive than manuals. I wish I could say I was one of those people who can drive a stick shift—after all, I’ll need to learn if ever I get cast for The Amazing Race—yet, I missed out on that crucial lesson as a teen. (Adding it to my Life List. SVV happens to be a pro at driving a manual.) So we ponied up the extra funds for an automatic. But you can save some serious cash (particularly in Ireland) if you can drive a manual instead. Also know that many European countries use “car hire” instead of “rental car”—that could cause some confusion if you’re looking for where to pick up your car at the airport and don’t know the terminology.
Also, book through a third party. We found much lower rates using an online rental car agency via a Google search than we did booking directly through that same car company’s website. Always compare before you pull the trigger.