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The reality of traveling abroad is that it can be expensive – especially when you hand your money over to a tour company and let them do all the work.
As my best friend Megan and I began to plan our trip to see Scotland and Ireland, we quickly realized we could see a lot more and stay a lot longer if we planned the trip ourselves.
Here’s how we did it.
Creating the Vacation Budget
Megan and I have long been motivated to travel. Together, she and I have explored the Pacific coast, our nation’s capital, the beaches of Mexico, the city of St. Louis and more. Separately, we’ve adventured all around North America.
To do so, Megan and I have given up a fair amount. While friends our age spent their money on frequent nights out, Megan and I stayed in for board game nights. While they bought new electronics and clothes, we made do with less. We recognized that if we wanted to travel as twentysomethings, we would need to be serious about sacrificing some nice-to-haves to save for absolutely-must-dos.
For me, that meant putting between 4% and 6% of my biweekly paycheck into a sub-savings account I had created specifically for vacation savings. If I earned unexpected income through a surprise freelance piece or a stuffed birthday card, I put that money into my savings as well.
For more than two years, Megan and I saved this way. We dipped into our vacation funds for trips to Cedar Point, Gatlinburg, New Orleans and more, but the bulk of those savings were waiting for our big European adventure.
Eventually, we had each set aside $4,000 for the trip of a lifetime.
Deciding to Plan a Trip All by Yourself
Originally, Megan and I had intended to do a paid tour of Ireland and Scotland. There are, admittedly, a lot of benefits to paid tours: You don’t have to plan anything on your own, you don’t have to worry about driving (and getting lost) and you have an expert who can give you all the information you could ever want about each amazing thing you see.
The downside? Tours of Scotland and Ireland are expensive. For the $4,000 we had saved, we could afford a 12-day guided tour – with enough money left over for flights, uncovered meals and souvenirs. For the same amount, we managed to explore all of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland for 21 days.
Guided tours are also limited in their scope. They really only take you to the highlights, without the flexibility to see some of the lesser-known gems of the countries. We saw all the amazing stops the guided tours would have offered, but we also hiked up the mountainous coast of Ireland’s Slieve League, biked through the pastures of the Aran Islands and spent five nights truly experiencing the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands — all of which we would have missed with basic tour packages.
Planning a Three-Week Trip
Though we saved money by opting to plan the trip ourselves, Megan and I spent dozens of hours during evenings and weekends researching and designing the trip. Be ready to invest time in place of money.
Selecting What You Want to Do
Our process started by studying existing tours offered by major companies, to see what common stops they included. We used sites like TripAdvisor to discover can’t-miss attractions and locations. Friends and family who had previously visited the countries offered insights on their favorite memories. Using this, we were able to compile and prioritize everything we wanted to do over the course of three weeks.
We made to sure to balance the trip well with historic sites, museums, beaches and hikes. As you map out your extended vacation, make sure you don’t put too many castles or museums in a span of just a couple days or you might burn out. Likewise, too many hiking days in a row can be draining if you’re not in peak physical condition.
For food and drink, Megan and I researched TripAdvisor’s top-rated restaurants and pubs in each area we would be visiting and compiled a list with notes on the cuisine, price and atmosphere. That way, when we arrived in a small town, we knew our options, where they were located and how much we would likely spend at each. This made choosing a lunch place a fast and easy process, while still giving us the flexibility to eat something we were in the mood for.
The best advice I have when planning a trip of this size is to allow more time than you think you’ll need. Investigate the forums for every museum you intend to tour, every hike you plan to take, every castle you intend to explore — and see how long people say they spend there.
Our rule of thumb was to average the numbers we saw and add a little padding time (roughly 15 minutes for every hour). So if the average time spent at a location was two hours, we would plan 2 1/2 hours.
We also applied this to driving time. We used Google Maps to chart out all of our stops and lodging; we even noted the time in between each stop. We always rounded up to the nearest hour or so to account for parking and missed turns, which happened quite a bit.
This method worked for us. Megan and I had only one close call over three weeks: We were two minutes late to our Guinness Storehouse tour, but as it was self-guided, there was no harm done. Otherwise, our careful planning and time estimation ensured we never missed a thing.
Booking Flights, Lodging and Attractions
Megan and I followed the findings of CheapAir.com’s 2017 study when booking our trip. They found that the best deals on European flights were found 99 days out. Though we didn’t book exactly 99 days out, we acted right around the three-month mark and definitely got the best deal. Prices had been dropping steadily until then and started to climb back up shortly after we booked. (Note: The study been updated for 2018.)
We also thoroughly researched lodging for each city we intended to stay in. To save money, we spent most nights at hostels. You get what you pay for with hostels: There is a lack of privacy, showers are an awful affair (most require you to press a button every 10 seconds to keep the water going) and the beds are just a flimsy piece of foam with a limp excuse for a pillow.
However, hostels are significantly cheaper than hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. If you can sacrifice some personal luxuries in the name of seeing and doing more on your trip, book hostels. For our sanity, Megan and I sprinkled in a few nice bed-and-breakfasts, castle stays and unique sleeping cabins (e.g. Jedi huts at Skyewalker Hostel) to break up the hostel routine.
We kept our entire itinerary in a detailed Excel workbook with hour-by-hour guidance on what we’d be doing — driving, sleeping, eating and, most importantly, exploring. Since we knew when we expected to arrive at each attraction, we were able to pre-book tours and tickets online in advance. Most places offered notable discounts (multiple pounds/euros) for booking online, and several places (especially tours in big cities) had sold out by the day of our arrival, meaning we would have missed out had we not booked in advance.
Because we did not have a tour guide joining us at each stop, we thoroughly researched each destination ahead of time. I made Megan and myself detailed folders with history lessons and fun facts about each stop on our route, which added something extra to our trip (and gave us something to talk about over breakfast each morning).
When booking your flight, lodging and attractions — and when spending money during your time abroad — use a travel rewards credit card with no foreign transaction fees. By using our Capital One Venture card, we earned a couple free nights of lodging.
Packing for a Three-Week Trip
Perhaps more daunting than planning a three-week trip is packing for one. You want enough space to pack all the essentials, but you don’t want to overpack and have to carry multiple bags down Edinburgh’s cobblestone streets. Megan and I managed with one duffel bag each and a couple backpacks.
A few packing must-haves:
- Packing cubes
- A microfiber towel (if showering at a hostel)
- TSA-approved locks
- Extra phone chargers
- Weather-appropriate clothing and shoes (in Ireland and Scotland, this meant layers, rain jackets and waterproof shoes)
- Protein bars or protein-heavy snacks (so you can skip breakfast)
- A water bottle
If you will be gone for three weeks, plan to spend time at a laundromat or, if you’re lucky like Megan and me, stay with a friend who lives abroad and use their laundry machines. By washing your clothes instead of packing enough to last you 21 days, you will save a ton of space. And don’t be afraid to rewear clothes — a lot. Just bring long-lasting body spray or Febreeze, and voila! You can suddenly wear your same Dunder Mifflin T-shirt for the third time in a week.
My biggest mistake on the trip was overpacking. I packed more shoes than I needed, and despite three options for pajama shorts, I wore the same pair every night. I also packed three books and only finished one of them (I know: I need an e-reader).
Megan and I did not plan our trip perfectly. We made some money mistakes along the way, and at times we felt a little rushed. However, we also did a lot of things right. Here are the ways we saved money on our trip:
Download Offline Google Maps
Rental car companies will try to sell you cars with navigation systems for a steep daily rate. However, many reviewers online lamented that the maps were not always up-to-date. Instead, Megan and I downloaded the Google Maps for each of the countries we were visiting and then accessed them while in airplane mode. Though they lacked real-time traffic updates, the maps still gave us turn-by-turn directions, and the only times we got lost were because of human error, not map error.
Stay in Hostels
I’ve already mentioned this, but it bears repeating: Stay in hostels when you can. We spent about $20 to $30 a night each on hostel lodging, compared to the $50 to $75 we would have spent each on hotels or bed-and-breakfasts. Most hostels also offer free breakfasts and discounts on day tours or overnight tours out of the cities.
Request a Hybrid
Petrol is more expensive in Europe, and I have a lead foot. It was immensely helpful to our wallets to drive a hybrid in each location. How’d we swing that? We simply asked when making the reservation, and it came at no extra cost.
Get Full Coverage
If your credit card and personal auto insurance do not cover you abroad, get full coverage for your rental. The country roads of Scotland were rough, particularly in the Highlands. Our rental suffered multiple large dents that we were ultimately not responsible for since we opted for the full coverage.
When you visit major cities, it can be tempting to park near your destination in an expensive parking garage. But if you do your homework before visiting, you’ll likely find cheaper lots (or free spaces) that might require you to walk a little farther. Though our feet and knees were sore most nights, Megan and I saved a lot of money by walking farther — and I lost 20 pounds (in weight!) on the trip, despite stuffing my face with potatoes every meal.
But when I say “walk,” I don’t just mean walk from the car park to your destination. I also mean you should make walking your actual activity. My favorite memories of my trip were the experiences I had outdoors: hiking to Steall Falls, exploring the Neist Point lighthouse, collecting shells on Derrynane Beach. All of those had two things in common: They required a lot of walking, and they were completely free.
Set a Daily Budget
After booking flights, lodging and attractions, Megan and I knew how much we had left of our $4,000 to spend on food, booze, souvenirs and gas. We simply divided that number over 21 days and determined how much we had for our daily allowance. Of course, we also remembered that for three weeks, we weren’t spending money at home on groceries, gas or entertainment, so we padded our wallets with a little extra.
Don’t Overpay for Drinks
A friend told us never to pay more than 5 euros for a pint of Guinness in Ireland. She wasn’t wrong. Prices for Guinness ran the gamut, but pints were most expensive in the most touristy places. If we ordered a Guinness that was significantly more than 5 euros, we knew: 1) we should find a less touristy place for an authentic experience; and 2) we were being ripped off.
Timothy Moore is an editor and freelance writer living in Germantown, Ohio, with his partner and their two dogs. He has traveled to lots of cool places, including Mexico, Scotland, Ireland and all over the US, but his favorite vacation is and will always be to Cedar Point in his home state.
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