Using these budget travel UK top tips I have found free flights to Jamaica, 2-centre holidays for the price of 1, free entry to Legoland, the Tower of London, Matilda the musical and can get 3 of us from Bristol to London by train for £19.
These travel gems have helped me spend less money, so we can go on more trips. I need this bit to do the other bit.
You may already know all this but, if not, here’s how.
Budget travel UK - top tips
Tip 1 - Budget travel UK activities - free entry to 200 attractions
Blue Peter badges work like magic. They get children free entry until they are 18 into 200 top attractions across the nation including the following A listers: Legoland, Tower of London, SS Great Britain, London Zoo, Hampton Court and Longleat.
Getting a badge is not as hard as I remember from the 1970’s. The BBC want children to enjoy the amazing days out the UK has to offer and the intention is that any child who would like a badge should be able to successfully apply for one. You don’t need to go rescuing people from rivers you can simply write a poem or paint a picture with a letter explaining what it is about. Follow the online instructions about how to apply.
When you get the badge: you must send in a photo and they will send you a card which you need to show on entry to the attractions. Children must be accompanied by a full fare paying adult, usually each (although the Tower of London generously lets one adult take 2 children so we all got in for £27).
Tip 2 - Budget travel UK theatre - Free London Theatre tickets for kids
Kids go free in August – Every year, for the whole of August, children aged 16 or under can go to any participating show for free so long as they’re accompanied by a full paying adult. (Adults can also buy up to two extra children’s tickets at half price and there are no booking fees.)
Sign up through the website and you will receive an email letting you know when tickets are released (in about May). Be ready with your dates and show choices the minute the booking site opens as seats go quickly.
Shows available include all the big names -The Lion King, Matilda,Wicked, Mama Mia, Les Miserables, School of Rock, Mary Poppins and Phantom of the Opera. We went for Mama Mia, but were a bit sad as although the theatre was gorgeous, you are not allowed to sing along.
Tip 3 - Budget travel UK - free stuff in London town
The Houses of Parliament
Stand as an MP in the House of Commons (well behind the green benches anyway) and go behind the scenes in the House of Lords – all free for kids on the family tour (£19 for adults).
Bookings open 3 weeks ahead for 1 hour time slots at the Sky garden at the top of the Walkie Talkie tower, done out as a tropical garden with 360 views of London, outdoor balcony area and roof top cocktails (says optional but how could we not?)
Museums - all free
All tastes and interests catered for:
Imperial War Museum – does what it says on the tin
Victoria and Albert, – best for costumes and its William Morris cafe – if you can get a seat
British Museum – from the controversial Elgin Marbles to an Easter Island Head
Science Museum – for a bit of hands on interaction, and…
Tip 4 - Budget travel UK theme parks - Free entry for campers in Dartmoor
- At the River Dart you camp (or luxury BnB it) in the grounds of a manor house with convenient indoor bar for rainy evenings. By day kids get to try out zorbing, canoeing, obstacle courses across water and high rope adventures.
- At both of these playgrounds in the Dartmoor woods you get free entry if you camp – effectively free accommodation or park entry, depending how you look at it.
Tip 5 - Budget travel UK castles and countryside - National Trust
An Annual family ticket for £125 give you free rein nationwide for the year to run amok in country houses, castles, along gorge walks and through deer parks. What then feels like free entry, enables you to totally justify mainly cafe based trips. Also lots of free parking opportunities.
If you join at the start of the Easter weekend you get the Easter Egg trails in all their properties for free. (Children can actually tire of chocolate but that is where you step in and sweep up.)
Tip 6 - Budget travel UK trains - Ticket alert
Ticket alert – An absolute gem of a system where you simply enter your destination and date more than 3 months in advance, and the Trainline email you when the limited edition cheapest tickets for that journey are released. Once you have this price, you may not want to book with the Trainline as they charge you a booking fee of about £1.50, which you would not pay at the station or if you book online with Crosscountry trains. For 3 people from Bristol a one way ticket St Ives can be got using ticket alert and a railcard for £32 (and why would you want to return?) or to London for £19. Bargain.
You must name your train and catch it though. Flexible it is not.
If you arrive anywhere by train – it is worth checking out the current National Rail 2 for 1 attraction offers for your destination.
Tip - 7 Budget travel UK underground - Family rail card - does the tube too
We all know about the Family railcard but I can’t not mention it – as we wouldn’t be able to get to London without it. So here goes – it costs about £30 a year, although there are often online deals available. The card gives you 60% off child fares and 30% off adult fares when travelling with children. I find I usually make my money back in one trip.
If you have a railcard you can get deals with linked retailers, such as money off YHA annual membership. Check out the benefits section when you buy the card.
I only realised recently that a Family railcard also gives you, and children travelling with you (who are over 10 and therefore have to start paying for the tube), discounted bus and tube fares around London. It is worth buying a zone 1-5 ticket for £2.30 for each child for each day of your trip in advance (when you buy the main ticket) so you don’t have to spend time queuing up at the decreasing number to ticket booths in the London tube stations, and eating into your holiday time.
Tip 8 - Budget travel UK flying - British Airways Airmiles with American Express
Get free flights with your groceries by using credit cards and store loyalty points all using the same scheme. We have decided to collect British Airways airmiles using a BA American Express card.
Points rack up very quickly if you buy anything big like a kitchen. Or a holiday. Here’s how it works:
- Using a British Airways American Express credit card will earn you 1 Avios air mile for every £1 you spend.
- If you spend more than £15,000 in one year you are entitled to a free companion ticket for any BA flight you buy in the next year.
- You can have 2 cards associated with the account to rack up points more quickly, using 2 people’s spend.
- Refer a friend (spouse) and get 4000 bonus miles.
- The number of seats available in exchange for airmiles is limited so plan to book about a year in advance. We found there was a maximum of 4 seats per flight which were bookable with reward points and these can go quickly and so limit you choices when travelling as a family. We did manage to get all 4 of us on a flight to Jamaica in August on points, so it is possible if you are flexible with dates and destinations. (You do still have to pay the tax on the tickets.)
- Book flights as soon as you qualify for any companion voucher, as you only have a year to use it and the air miles seats will get snapped up. Plan the date you tip over the threshold to exactly a year before you intend to travel.
- You can pay for upgraded cards which have lower thresholds for qualifying for companion vouchers, earn airmiles at faster rates and give you 2 years to use your companion voucher. Worth doing the maths.
- You then select the option on your Tesco Clubcard to collect reward points as airmiles with Avios.
Tip 9 - Budget travel UK flying - Free stop overs on long haul flights
If you are headed in generally the same direction, some larger airlines let you stop off somewhere for free, or only a small additional cost, on the way to a long-haul destination e.g. Iceland on the way to Canada with Iceland Air, or Toronto on the way to Calgary with Canada Air. BA offer free stop overs in London, and Emirates let you stop off in Dubai.
I find Trailfinders provide an invaluable service when booking more complicated flights. They can access the best prices across most of the airlines (though they do not cover the budget airlines like Easyjet). They can let you know when the cheapest tickets are released and advise you about free stop-off options for multi-centre trips. Booking multiple flights through Trailfinders gives an extra layer of security/help if there are any problems with the flights or connections, which you would not have booking independently online.
Tip 10 - Budget travel UK flying - Flight release dates
Find out when flights are released for your destination by the relevant airlines. The cheapest fares can be found about 6 months ahead of flight dates with Easy jet though this can vary with the destination.
Tip 11 - Budget travel UK flying - Airport Parking
Tip 12 - Budget travel UK driving - Car travel tips
Use a broker
For car hire, I tend to check out the Which? guide to find out which broker gets their latest award for service. You can still hire the car with the big name hire companies (Hertz/Avis etc.) but the brokers tend to provide car hire at a fraction of the price of going direct. I have used Zest in the past to get good prices and with no problems (and they give discounts for repeat bookings).
Go with a big company
I always go with a big company like Hertz or Avis, as the world is filled with stories of cheaper disreputable companies making up for low hire charges by falsely claiming there is car damage. It is hard to argue back when you are hundreds of miles away back home, and all the documents have been signed in a different language.
Don’t forget to photograph the car before you set off and when you return it for evidence.
Insure your excess
Another way to reduce costs is to opt for a cheaper insurance deal with a larger excess, but then to insure the excess independently for about £20 online before you go.
Book in advance
Booking car hire in advance can save you ££££.
Get a DVLA code
To hire a car there is a relatively new requirement to get a DVLA code 21 days before you hire a car in the UK or abroad so firms can check for points on your licence. Even though they don’t usually ask for this, best get one in case they don’t give you the car.
Tip 13 - Driving abroad
If driving our own car abroad, I check the AA site for up to date info on what kit you need in each country and complicated headlamp beam instructions. And then try to remember to add European breakdown cover.
Tip 14 - Discounted boat rides
Book your caravan holiday through Sun Holidays (see below), and you not only get discounted accommodation. but also ferry travel. We have booked an overnight ferry (with a cabin for 4) from Plymouth to Roscoff (including the car) and 5 nights’ accommodation in May half term in France for £400 all in, cheaper than the cost of the ferry alone. We’ve also used Sun Holidays and got discounted ferry fares to the Isle of Wight.
Tip 15 - Budget travel UK and Europe accommodation
Sun caravan holidays
Caravan holidays from £9 a head can be yours with a bit of planning. Here’s how:
How it works:
Sun holidays – About 4 times a year The Sun newspaper runs a deal where you can collect 10 tokens and then get 3 or 4 nights away for £9.50pp off-peak (and £15pp in high season) at top caravan parks in the UK and across Europe. (See Top Sun Holiday sites – coming soon.) Most half terms and the very start of the summer holiday dates are included in the deal.
Getting code words:
You can buy the paper every day (which is what they would like, obviously) or you can check the internet for people posting the codes each day. Book on the morning the booking lines go live for the biggest choice. You are unlikely to get school holidays on your first go.
Once you have been on a Sun Holiday you will receive a “priority” letter giving you a one day’s head start for booking before general release. But even with a day’s head start you are against the crowds and the clock. You need to enter at least 4 dates and parks, some of which you won’t really want. Research is essential. Have a top 10 list of dates and parks you are prepared to go for, and be ready to book the minute the online site opens to get school holiday dates. You don’t have long though. It’s quite panicky as you quickly enter the 10 codes and park and date options. The site throws up a few options which you can accept or reject, but the options start to dry up for key dates pretty quickly. Dithering is lethal. Do you want the lovely Croyde but on a normal weekend in June, or do you want to hold out for a Bank Holiday or Half term at somewhere not so nice? Assign the most decisive party member the role of booking master (at 6am).
Many of the better quality caravan sites will add service charges and entertainment passes which are sometimes compulsory which can double the cost of the break. Off season this means the cost can work out pretty similar to the direct booking price, but in the summer months you are usually guaranteed a bargain.
There are loads of UK sites, but also a whole selection of top campsites across Europe. We stayed at Le Grand Metairie in Brittany and Les Mouettes in Normandy, which were both fab. The French do campsites so much better (pools/landscaping) and are generally in with a chance of good weather on the side.
Break Free caravan holidays
Tip 16 - Budget travel UK accommodation YHA's
- YHA s – provide family rooms, with or without en suite bathrooms, in accommodation ranging from Grade 1 Listed mansions to bunk houses, in the wilds or city centres. There is generally a games room or outside area for children, meals can be provided or you can self cater. You do not have to be a member (or a youth) to stay in a YHA but if you do pay for annual membership (for about £20) you can get 10% off all bookings (or 15% if you are travelling with children). We have stayed in Harry Potter – esque Grade 1 listed Ilam Hall for £38 for an en suite family room near Christmas.
- Several times a year they have online sales were you can get big discounts for bookings during school holidays.
- Check out my YHA’s Best in Britain post for the A listers.
Tip 17 - Budget travel UK and worldwide accommodation Hotel reward schemes
Bit of a revelation that you can stay in a hotel as a family and it is not too bonkers expensive. If you book a family room at the Novotel Excel, for instance, you can usually stay for about £60 for a family of 4, including breakfast. If you join their reward scheme you get discounted prices and also earn points which you can use as full or part payment against future stays. It is worth picking a favourite and building up points with them. We chose Novotel because they are family friendly, usually have family rooms for 4 for the same price as a double and off-spring are classed as children (qualifying for free breakfast) until they are 15.
Joining a reward scheme can not only give you money off (even free stays) but also perks like free upgrades, drinks at the bar or late check out.
Trivago – always our first port of call when looking for a family room if there is no reasonably priced Novotel available. They scan most of the discount booking sites and show all available deals for each hotel. It is a good site for securing the best room price – but the down side is you will often get the smallest room with a car park view.
19. Union discounts
20. European campsites
When looking to camp/caravan abroad many companies offer accommodation at the same campsite (Eurocamp/Canvas etc).
We always check to see if Vacancesoleil do accommodation as it is the same standard, but often a lot cheaper
Tip 21 Budget travel UK and worldwide accommodation - Black Friday
I recently didn’t do this, but met a family who had booked their summer holiday accommodation in the US on back Friday in the previous November and grabbed a bargain Hard Rock Hotel in Lake Tahoe for $79. Next November make a note to look at the Black Friday deals.
22. Find a fee-free credit card. Visa used to be free to use abroad but now charges a transaction fee on every purchase. I use the Halifax clarity card (Mastercard)– no fees for international transactions.
23. Insurance – start with comparison sites to find the best deal. Often a family annual insurance policy is not much more than single trip cover. Virgin is not always on comparison websites but is cheaper (and bailed us out when we needed them to).
Air bnb – Check your cover. Not all policies will pay out for Air bnb cancellations.
24. Social media postings. I’ve heard a rumour that some insurers may refuse to pay out if you are burgled at home whilst you on holiday and have advertised your absence in a Facebook posting. Maybe wait til you get home to share your snaps. This will save you money replacing your stuff.
Cheap eats and photos
Tip 25 - Budget travel UK family food options
The food bill for a family holiday/weekend away can be more than the accommodation. Especially in bad weather. Check out these budget eating ideas to save the bank:
- Wetherspoons (for free latte refills and cheap pub dinners)
Photos - I've not given this a number as 26 top tips sounds rubbish
For cheap(ish) holiday photos, instead of just using up phone storage, I upload them on an annual basis to photobox, buy a 70% off 3 month credit in their sale just after Christmas and for about £40 make a little (160 page) photobook of the year’s trips. Sometimes I make little ones for individual trips like this one from Russia http://www.photobox.co.uk/1xC8C8A7/creation/5709030601?cid=puksecs00
Budget Travel UK Summary
Happy travels! The cheaper you can make it, the more you can do! Drop me a comment with any other budgeting gems you have found!
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