How to do Edinburgh—and the United Kingdom as a whole—on a budget: travel tips to hotels, driving and more.

How to Visit Scotland for Cheap(er)

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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.

Scottish Travel: Road trip from Edinburgh to the Islands
Scottish Travel: Road trip from Edinburgh to the Islands

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.”

Affordable Edinburgh

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.

What tips do you have to traveling in the United Kingdom cheaply?

COMMENTS
  • October 15, 2012

    Lots of good tips. Maybe take a sleeping pad and just sneak in the extra person.

    • October 15, 2012

      Ha! I thought it would be easier to sneak Kari in than it was. Unfortunately, everywhere we stayed was a small-ish hotel or inn with just one entrance and a desk person, so no “slipping in the back door” =)

  • October 15, 2012
    Ris

    Oooh I’m going to add my favorite: eat a big, late lunch out and then either skip dinner or have a picnic with finds from the grocery store. I love going to the store in foreign countries and picking fun things to eat that I could never find the in the US.

    • October 15, 2012

      Or have a progressive, all-day eating extravaganza! We actually did a tour of all my favorite places, so for example we all shared a bagel at Elephants & Bagels mid-morning, then shared a baked tattie at the Baked Potato Shoppe for lunch, then had hot chocolate mid-afternoon at Greyfriars Bobby. We stayed full, and it was far cheaper than paying for three breakfasts and lunches for all of us!

  • October 15, 2012

    Thanks for the tips. October seems like a great month to travel to most of Europe. Too bad I don’t have any trips planned this year. My brother gets to go there for work though.

    • October 16, 2012

      I’m taking a group to Europe next April/May if you want to come! 😉

  • October 15, 2012

    Wow – the charge different rates for automatic cars? Never heard that one before…. Interesting.

    • October 16, 2012

      It seems to primarily be a UK/Ireland thing (particularly Ireland), as I’ve rented automatics for affordable prices elsewhere. That said, my first guidebook assignment was in Spain, and they ONLY had manuals to rent at the dealership! Because gas is so pricy in the UK, they stick to manuals as they get better mileage.

  • October 15, 2012

    Ah, the old “sneak more people in the room” trick. A Van Sandt favorite. When Kyle was a kid his dad refused to pay for a room with more than one bed so he regularly used to make Kyle and his brother sneak around the hotel while telling the hotel that it was just he and his wife. Legend is that one year the family when to Disney World and crashed in sleeping bags on the floor of another family member’s hotel room for the whole week. They had to pack up their sleeping bags every night so that the hotel cleaning staff wouldn’t know they were staying there…

    I’ll be revisiting this post when we finally get to make our European trip!

    • October 16, 2012

      We do the ol’ “sneak the dogs into the hotel” trick more often than we care to admit.

      Though I love the mental image of Kyle’s dad creating a diversion, so Kyle and his brother could crawl past the check-in desk unnoticed.

  • October 16, 2012

    I have to say that being able to drive manual is an incredibly useful skill – especially when it comes to keeping costs down! Great tips – especially about travelling in the shoulder season. It’s sensible, but so few people (comparatively) do it!

    • October 16, 2012

      And if ever YOU go on The Amazing Race, you’ll have that leg up on the competition! Inevitably, that always gets at least one team and is the difference in winning or losing!

  • October 16, 2012

    Oh I’d completely forgotten about the old automatic/manual car hire fee, a couple of my American friends have been caught out by that before and it does suck if you have to pay extra. In our defence, there are relatively few automatic cars in the UK so rental companies have to pay more for them. I think the situation is changing nowadays but up until a few years ago, I’d never even seen an automatic car let alone driven one! We are all stick, all the time over here I’m afraid 🙂

    A few tips for travelling cheaply when you’re in the UK, if you do decide to use the train check out websites like http://www.thetrainline.com or http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/ which have cheaper fare finders and tips (eg sometimes it’s cheaper to book 2 singles than a return ticket)

    Don’t forget there is also a pretty good coach system in the UK too which might save you money on your journey. The website is http://www.nationalexpress.com/home.aspx and although it will take you longer than the train, the coaches are comfy and will often include popular tourists stops in the itinerary.

    Speaking of buses, if you’re travelling into central London from one of the main airports (Gatwick, Stanstead & Luton) check out http://www.easybus.co.uk/. The bus service is run by Stelios (of Easyjet fame!) and runs direct transfers from the airport to London. Tickets are cheaper the farther ahead you book and I’ve found fares for £2 ($4) before so they are worth looking into!

    If you are staying in or around London, the chances are you’ll end up taking the tube (subway) at some point. To save buying single tickets/day passes every day, get yourself a Visitor Oyster card instead. It’s a plastic card you add credit to and use as you go in/out of the tube to pay for your fare. It’s cheaper to pay with an Oyster card than to buy a full priced ticket in the machines and the card never runs out so you can just keep topping it up every time you’re in the UK. Plus for families travelling with kids, an adult with a Visitor Oyster card can take up to 4 children under the age of 11 years to travel for free on Tube, DLR and London Overground services- it’s a pretty sweet deal!
    There is more info here: http://visitorshop.tfl.gov.uk/help-centre/oyster-card-help.html

    I think that’s about it for now but if I think of anything else, I’ll come back and comment again 🙂

    • October 16, 2012

      This is awesome–thanks for all the input, Vicki!

      Oh, and I just realized it’s Monaco and not Nice I’ll be visiting in May. Drats!

      • October 16, 2012

        You’re very welcome, glad to be of service!
        And actually, if you’re coming to Monaco that’s even better than Nice because I work in Monaco and am there all day, every day 🙂
        Are you coming in on the ship? If so, you guys will be docking about 10 minutes away from my office so we can definitely organize something fun!! Plus it will be Grand Prix month so there’ll be lots to do and see!

  • October 16, 2012

    Oh I’d completely forgotten about the old automatic/manual car hire fee, a couple of my American friends have been caught out by that before and it does suck if you have to pay extra. In our defence, there are relatively few automatic cars in the UK so rental companies have to pay more for them. I think the situation is changing nowadays but up until a few years ago, I’d never even seen an automatic car let alone driven one! We are all stick, all the time over here I’m afraid 🙂

    A few tips for travelling cheaply when you’re in the UK, if you do decide to use the train check out websites like http://www.thetrainline.com or http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/ which have cheaper fare finders and tips (eg sometimes it’s cheaper to book 2 singles than a return ticket)

    Don’t forget there is also a pretty good coach system in the UK too which might save you money on your journey. The website is http://www.nationalexpress.com/home.aspx and although it will take you longer than the train, the coaches are comfy and will often include popular tourists stops in the itinerary.

    Speaking of buses, if you’re travelling into central London from one of the main airports (Gatwick, Stanstead & Luton) check out http://www.easybus.co.uk/. The bus service is run by Stelios (of Easyjet fame!) and runs direct transfers from the airport to London. Tickets are cheaper the farther ahead you book and I’ve found fares for £2 ($4) before so they are worth looking into!

    If you are staying in or around London, the chances are you’ll end up taking the tube (subway) at some point. To save buying single tickets/day passes every day, get yourself a Visitor Oyster card instead. It’s a plastic card you add credit to and use as you go in/out of the tube to pay for your fare. It’s cheaper to pay with an Oyster card than to buy a full priced ticket in the machines and the card never runs out so you can just keep topping it up every time you’re in the UK. Plus for families travelling with kids, an adult with a Visitor Oyster card can take up to 4 children under the age of 11 years to travel for free on Tube, DLR and London Overground services- it’s a pretty sweet deal!
    There is more info here: http://visitorshop.tfl.gov.uk/help-centre/oyster-card-help.html

    I think that’s about it for now but if I think of anything else tip-wise, I’ll come back and comment again 🙂

  • October 16, 2012

    Great advice- especially about the automatic/manual car prices and traveling a couple months off from peak season. I’m planning a trip to Ireland in April, so between now and then I definitely need to learn how to drive a manual!

  • October 16, 2012

    Being back to a full-time career in the US is good because I will be able to afford trips to places like the UK. BUT I still want to do them as cheap as possible 🙂

  • October 17, 2012

    Scotland is the best place for vacation. The tips you are mentioned are very useful for people who want to save some money. We can also save money by living in hostels instead of living in hotels. I agree with if we travel in off peak times we can able to save lot of money.

  • October 17, 2012

    We have done the only two are staying more then a few times. But never thought about the gateways. Great tip. Didn’t realize that knowing how to drive a manual could save me some money in Scotland. Never rented a home on a trip before so I will think about this one for our next trip.

  • October 17, 2012
    Eva

    I see you really enjoyed your trip, as you look so happy ! :))))

  • October 18, 2012
    haidang

    thumbs up for sister bonding time

  • October 19, 2012

    Great tips ~ I’d love to get to Scotland some day, so I appreciate you putting together this guide.

  • October 21, 2012

    Great tips! I love Scotland and everyone loves saving money if they can!

  • October 23, 2012

    I’ve never been to Scotland and would love to go, thanks for the tips, anything that saves some money is fantastic!

  • October 26, 2012

    Wow what an extensive list of great tips!!!

  • November 4, 2012

    The biggest expense of any vacation is almost always going to be the airfare, so if you’re trying to save money on a trip the first place to do is to try to get a better deal on your flight. Visiting major cities helps in this regard, as they often have not just international airports but can also be their country’s primary international gateway. Such is the case with Edinburgh .

  • November 24, 2012

    FANTASTIC tips. I’m starting to plan an England, Scotland and Ireland trip for next fall. I love traveling in spring and fall. Since the kids aren’t in school yet it’s so easy to do and I plan on taking full advantage as long as I can. You are right about the apt. rentals too. We save a bundle when we travel, plus with kids it’s nice to have a kitchen.

  • November 24, 2012

    Great tips and some really great photos! Scotland is such a sweet travel destination, but it is hard to make it cheap. We did a post a lot like this one a while ago and talked about getting and using frequent flyer miles to book your flights to Scotland – http://worldwanderlusting.com/2012/01/03/from-wanderlust-to-wandering-edinburgh-scotland/
    Thanks for re-inspiring the Scotland bug!

  • September 26, 2013

    Very informative post ! Thanks for sharing this important information as I am planning to travel Scotland by the end of this year.

  • February 11, 2014

    If you’re a student & headed to the UK for any extended period of time and need to rely on train travel it’s worth getting a student railcard (http://www.16-25railcard.co.uk/). For 30 pounds (or appx. 60 dollars) you’ll get nearly 2/3 off all regular fares. This was a lifesaver when I lived in Southern England and Scotland!

    • February 11, 2014

      That’s a great tip! Thanks for chiming in!

  • March 29, 2015
    Kaitlin

    Hi,

    I was just wondering what airline you used? I’ll be flying in from the west coast to edinburgh so it’s going to be pricier but the lowest I’m seeing is close to 1300 for one person. Any advice is much appreciated 🙂

    • March 30, 2015

      We flew AirFrance at the time. However, this was 2.5 years ago, and airfare to Europe has spiked a lot over the last 18 months. I paid $1400 to fly round trip to Italy last summer =/

      • April 1, 2015
        Kaitlin

        Hi! Well thanks for at least letting me know I’m not getting ripped off 🙂 .

        • April 1, 2015

          You’re not! The airline industry is just ridiculous. Average airfare from the US to the Caribbean even has been around $800 for the past year and change.

  • October 12, 2015
    Tabetha

    Hi. I am super new to international travel. In fact, only been out of the country once. To Canada. Which doesnt really count. Especially since im from Washington State. Lol. Anyways, ive never really looked into travelling to scotland before. These are great tips. I was just wondering, did you just do a ton of research, flying out of each airport you could think of? Or is there a best website for comparing all different places to fly out of/in to? I have a couple of favorites, just trying to figure out if theres a better way. Thanks!

  • April 26, 2016
    Betty

    My sister and I have been traveling to Scotland for 16 years. It was like I wrote this article myself. All great and true tips.

    • April 26, 2016

      Ah lucky you! I haven’t been back since 2013, but I’m really hoping to make a North Coast 500 road trip work sometime this fall or next.

  • April 27, 2017

    I was born in the UK and I would encourage anyone planning a visit to head ‘up north’ rather than staying around London. The hebrides in Scotland are fantastic – head up to Oban then hop across on the ferry to Mull. York and Harrogate are also fantastic, as well as the Peak District including Castleton, Eyam, and Buxton.

    • May 5, 2017

      Ooooh I’ve never been to the Hebrides. Would love to do that and the Peak District on my next return!

  • May 22, 2017

    Nice vocational trip and some nice tips to make tour possible with low budget. One of the finest place to visit is Forth bridge, Spanning the Firth of Forth, this rail bridge links Edinburgh and the Lothians with Fife.

  • January 29, 2018

    I am grateful to you for sharing some tips on how to make the most out of your Scotland vacation tour such as traveling during off-peak times. If you’re a little tight on your budget, it is recommended that you pick a month that doesn’t have too many tourists or passengers coming in. This means that tickets are relatively cheaper and you wouldn’t have to fight against a crowd waiting in line for your turn. This would definitely make your vacation truly worthwhile and hassle-free. If I were to go to Scotland for vacation, I would make sure to keep this in mind. Thanks.

  • February 20, 2020
    Zoya Shaikh

    Hey Kristin, I’m planning to visit Scotland this summer holiday. Your article really helps me to explore new things in Scotland. I’d love too if I would get the guide like you.!

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