This United Kingdom travel advice page is tailored to the ultimate budget traveller. If you have money to burn, look elsewhere.
Despite it’s small size, the UK is one of the most popular destinations for tourists to visit from around the world. Around 30 million people make their way to the UK annually and this number continues to grow as world travel becomes more accessible. The UK is the birthplace of some of the most famous musical acts and stories from history including Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Beatles. Flocks of people come to see the towns and cities that helped forge these wonderful demonstrations of human creativity.
When visiting the UK, you must balance your time between experiencing the awe inspiring beauty of the natural landscapes with days spent in towns that have taken hundreds of years to be built. As an old country that grew organically, it is not uncommon to find street maps that look more complicated than spider webs and architecture from the dark ages. As the UK has become such a popular destination, flights from within Europe are incredibly cheap if you manage to book them at the right time with budget carriers. The UK is renown as one of the most expensive countries in the world, but with the following advice, you can enjoy it at a reasonable cost.
Just to establish the meaning of the term, the UK refers to the United Kingdom which consists of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. (The Republic of) Ireland is not part of the UK. The term Britain refers to England, Scotland, and Wales only.
Food and Drink in the UK
Prices of restaurants and bars in major cities are through the roof and will quickly eat through your budget. However, compared to general in country costs, UK supermarkets are very well priced to cater for all needs. Each supermarket offers varying qualities of each product, meaning that you can make your choice between the premium and budget brands. Unlike other countries, one generally associates different supermarket chains with different price ranges. If you head to the larger supermarkets such as Tesco’s, Asda, or Sainsbury’s, they will all stock their own brand products that are many times cheaper than name brands. European supermarkets such as Aldi and Netto also offer discount goods, albeit a smaller selection. All of these supermarkets offer alcohol at prices that are far below what you will be paying in bars (although minimum pricing laws will be introduced in the foreseeable future). As a financial warning, stay away from Waitrose or Marks and Spencer’s because these are the premium supermarkets with the highest quality produce and prices to match. If you do ever find yourself with spare cash, go shopping in one of these stores; they offer delicious food.
Try looking for independent stores or markets (often several times a week) that source products locally. Beaten down by hard competition from the superstores, these shops are a dying breed. However, when you find them, you will be rewarded with great fresh produce at lower prices, as well as helping out the local communities that you are spending time in.
If you want to go out for food or drinks, look for student areas. Often these will be close to the universities and offer student deals without requiring a student card. Drinks promotions may include free shots upon entry, happy hours, 2-for-1 cocktails, and selected drinks at a reduced price. When looking for food, you can often find pub deals that combine food and drink for a reduced price, particularly at lunch time. Takeaway food is greasy but cheap. Student areas offer whole pizzas for under £3 or footlong sandwiches for £2.
If you’re at the beach, try fish and chips at least once for a budget meal and on a Sunday, take advantage of Sunday roast promotions. The UK is one of the most vegetarian friendly countries in the world and wherever you go, there will normally be at least one or two options, even at McDonald’s. Do not eat at McDonald’s. Great student cities for food and drink promotions include Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle, and Bristol.
While in the UK, you must try crumpets and marmite, although not necessarily together. For drinks, try squash and then move onto a cider or an ale. When drinking cider, avoid strongbow and aim for a local scrumpy or a pear. You might wonder what these thing are, but if you ask, they will understand. Also find time to ‘do’ scones and tea. No trip to England would be complete without a break for tea and scones. Ideally the scones should be served with jam and clotted cream, while the tea has to be drunk with milk.
Accommodation in the UK
Hotel prices in the UK are extortionate and beyond the reach of backpackers. Even hostels are priced higher than most travellers ideally want to pay. However, the UK has a great couch surfing network in which you can find free beds across the country and you should take advantage of this. If you are planning on visiting the UK for an extended period of time, there are also a lot of volunteering and house sitting opportunities which you can learn more about on my free accommodation page. In summer, one should try free camping in order to appreciate the famed beauty of the countryside.
Transport in the UK
Public transport in the UK is priced extortionately when not pre-booked. If you know when and where you will be going, book transport in advance. Trains are incredibly expensive but you can greatly reduce your costs by taking buses instead. When travelling between major cities, Megabus is undoubtedly the cheapest option and when booked for the right day, you can travel huge distances for very small amounts of money. Be warned that Megabus are near impossible to get hold of and tickets are often non-refundable. For slightly less common routes, book tickets through National Express or Eurolines. Hitchhiking is also possible in the UK although it has a somewhat messy road network.
What to See and Do in the UK
Visit London. London is one of the most famous cities in the world and you will not be disappointed. You can walk around and visit all of the famous sites such as Big Ben, The London Eye, Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey, and Buckingham Palace for free if you choose not to go inside. For the prices they charge, you are better off looking at them from the outside. You can also read my what to see and do in London for free page.
Be Cultural All Over the UK. Public art galleries and museums are donation based. This gives you access to some of the most wonderful art and history exhibitions in the world without having to pay a penny if you can’t afford it.
Explore Nature in Cornwall. Cornwall is one of the most beautiful parts of the country. It has rolling hills and wide flat beaches which you can traverse for miles. If you are able to travel around the county, you will come across lots of ancient sites that you can enjoy for free as well as some of the few places that you can surf in Britain.
Journey Through Edinburgh. Edinburgh is arguably the most beautiful city in the UK and you can enjoy walking cobbled streets and admiring the architecture. If you like tours (I don’t), there are free walking tours offered every day.
Go Punting in Cambridge. Not only is Cambridge a delightful historical city and home to one of the most prestigious universities in the world, it can also be enjoyed by boat. Rent your own punt for a couple of hours to have more fun and avoid sitting with other tourists while being poled along by somebody in an outrageous costume.
Watch a Show in London. This is the one expensive thing that gets onto my list. Ticket prices are high, but it is worth it. I would personally recommend the Lion King because it was incredible, but from what I have heard, many of the shows will absolutely blow your mind.
Walk the Shire. The birth place of Lord of the Rings, the UK really is blessed with fairy tale countryside. Aim to visit as many as possible from the selection of the Scottish Highlands, the Lake District, the Peak District, the Welsh valleys, the (many) moors, and Norfolk (my home area with wonderful beaches). In each of these areas, get outside and start walking. Then walk some more and enjoy the view.
Watch a Cricket Game. Cricket is famed as a game of gentlemen and Englishmen. You don’t have to understand the rules and you don’t have to go to a professional game. Find a village in summer and ask when the next game is, then enjoy the sight of typical village life at it’s best.
Become a King for a Day. The UK is literally littered with castles and ruins in which you can explore and play out your fantasies. Although many of the well kept attractions charge an entrance fee, smaller ruins are free for everybody and normally not overrun by tourists.
Visit a Village Pub. There is nothing quite like a typical English pub. Enjoy the atmosphere and feel disconnected from the world as you bury yourself in a pint of ale or scrumpy cider. Drinking lager deteriorates from the experience.
Further Information on the UK
The UK is my country of birth and I could talk about it for days on end. I haven’t lived there for many years, but all-in-all, it is actually quite a nice place. I would like to apologise to Northern Ireland for seemingly excluding you from this guide. I was already overwhelmed with options of what to include and had to limit myself to just ten of my favourite activities. Let’s just call it a guide to Britain instead.
Check out: London, Things to Do and See for Free