Stay for free and book it backwards: nine easy ways to have a cheaper holiday

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Cutting back costs and going on holiday don’t exactly go hand in hand. In fact, a trip away is often the first thing on the chopping block when cash is tight – but why are we so loth to let it go? Is it because in the busyness of life, we know just how beneficial a holiday can be? The good news is that getaways don’t need to break the bank, and with some imaginative thinking – and these handy tips – you may be surprised at what you can afford.

Book your holiday backwards

Forget the destination and start with the accommodation first. Sites like Airbnb, Vrbo and Booking.com allow you to type in entire countries, and even continents, which leaves you free to use the filters to find exactly what you’re after for the right price.

Pay nothing for your accommodation

No, it’s not too good to be true – it is possible to stay for free at houses all over the world thanks to home swap holidays. Whether you’re looking after a pet or simply keeping someone’s plants watered, there are several websites that help match you up with owners who need someone to look after their home while they’re away. Check out TrustedHousesitters, Nomador and HouseCarers – once you’ve paid the annual fee, you can go on as many trips as you like.

Experience ‘van life’ for a fiver

camper van

Thanks to the growing trend of #vanlife, getting away in a campervan has never been more popular, but when customers only want a one way rental, it leaves companies needing to get the van back to base. This opens up a great opportunity for bargain hunters as rental firms will offer out these return journeys for as little as £5 for an entire trip. Check out Indie Campers, iMoova and Just go. If you’re just looking for a car, DriiveMe has a similar offer with one way rentals starting at just £1.

Explore UK railways with a secret rail pass

An undersung travel hero, a Rovers & Rangers ticket offers incredible value if you’re hoping to explore the UK by train. There are more than 100 options based on which networks you want to use and how many days you want to go for, which can be found on National Rail – a typically good deal is the Explore South Wales ticket which grants you four days of unlimited off-peak travel in an eight day period for just £69 for an adult, £45.55 with a railcard and £34.50 for a child. However, you can’t buy them online and will instead need to buy them in person from a train station ticket office or from a conductor on board your chosen network. Given the general lack of awareness of this type of ticket, I’d opt for the former and give yourself a bit of extra time to get this sorted.

Explore Europe using the overnight train network

Want to holiday in Europe for cheap but don’t fancy flying? Overnight trains are the answer. The most important thing is to get yourself to a train hub where these sleeper trains are ready and waiting to whisk you away as you sleep, from as little as €29.90 (make sure you’re booking months in advance to access these fares). Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam are all good options near the UK and will link you on to Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. What’s more, there are new routes and brand new sleeper trains coming in 2023, so it’s set to be a really exciting time for slow travel. To get started, take a look at Nightjet’s routes and check out Seat61 for more train inspiration, plus detailed guides on what to expect from your chosen journey.

house swap pet and plant watering

Work for your stay

Working a few hours a day in exchange for accommodation isn’t just for gap year students, and it can offer an incredible learning experience for those travelling with children. From learning about new cultures and understanding the importance of team work to simply disconnecting from constant screen time, there’s loads of reasons why this type of holiday can be a fantastic getaway for everyone. Try Workaway and Worldpackers for opportunities including farm work, decorating and even web development.

Use data to find the best value destinations

There are two things to bear in mind if you’re trying to get the best value from your pound on holiday: how strong sterling is compared to the local currency, and how much things cost when you get there. While there has been a lot of noise about the falling value of the pound in recent months, that isn’t the case everywhere; in Turkey the amount of lira you can exchange for sterling has doubled in the last couple of years. As for day to day costs, use Numbeo which compiles the prices of everything from milk to fast food for more than 11,000 cities across the world.

Pack smart

With low cost airlines charging up to £36 each way to take a large cabin bag on board, now is the time to streamline your packing. Start by listing all the outfits you intend to wear with one or two hero pieces that can be reworn several times. Then invest in some roll-by-hand vacuum bags to make the most of your space. If you’re heading to self-catered accommodation, use stackable mini cosmetic pots for salt, pepper and sugar and don’t forget some olive oil in a small shampoo bottle. Finally, pack into a backpack, rather than a suitcase – even if you do find one small enough for your airline’s dimensions, you’re giving away much needed inside space to wheels, the handle and even the case itself!

Get a free room upgrade

Free room upgrades are not just reserved for those celebrating birthdays and milestone anniversaries. It’s worth simply expressing how excited you are to stay at the hotel and asking if you could be considered for an upgrade if they have the availability. Of course, if it is a special occasion you should definitely throw that in there too, but the key is to be kind, complimentary and to never expect anything for free. When it does work out, it’s the best feeling ever.