Champagne holiday on a beer budget: How to have the best holiday for the cheapest price
Travel is never a cheap pastime, but people still have dreams of living the high life when they go away. Luxury hotels, fancy restaurants, the best cruise lines, the best locations. It's natural – but not affordable.
There is, however, good news: there are ways to meet your fantasies in the middle, to enjoy the good things in life, to see and experience some of the world's finest things without needing to spend an outrageous amount of money. You can have that champagne holiday on a beer budget.
Regardless of your preferred style of travel – whether you like cruising, or skiing, or going on safari, or an active holiday, or a trip away with the kids – you can ensure you get the good things without paying top dollar. The idea is to save cash on certain fundamentals so that it can be better spent in other, more exciting areas; the "champagne".
GAME PLAN: ON SAFARI
KEY DESTINATIONS Namibia and South Africa
THE BOTTOM LINE There are few experiences in this world that can compare with an African safari: that feeling of rising with the dawn, of setting out to spot game, not sure if you'll find elephants, or lions, or any number of amazing things.
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There's also, however, little that can compare with the price of a safari. Some of the lodges in places such as Botswana and Kenya are seriously expensive, up into the range of thousands of dollars a night. There are, however, tricks to save cash, including travelling in what's known as "green season", which is when the rains arrive – which does have its perks.
THE STRATEGY "In the Serengeti," says Sarah Hoyland, director of the Australian-based Classic Safari Company, "if you travel in low season, when the rains are expected, that is the time when a lot of the wildlife drops its young. And if you're a photographer and you like photographing landscapes, those storms over the Serengeti plains are phenomenal. They're stunning to watch."
That's one way to ensure you get the most out of your money. Another is to be wary of any offers that sound too good to be true, and to check on all of the inclusions before making a booking.
"It's very easy to be quoted from a lodge, and the lodge is $120 a night, and then get a quote from a travel agent who is charging $350," says Hoyland. "That's because the lodge is only charging you to sleep at the lodge. It hasn't added in the park fees or the concession fees or the community fees that you might be obligated to pay. Also, are your meals included? Are your drinks included?
"Most of the lodges will have resident guides, but how many people are in a vehicle? You want to know that, because you don't want the middle seat. If they have a seven-seater safari vehicle and they leave with seven people, someone is going to end up on a middle seat. And that impedes everything."
ONE MORE THING
Hoyland's final piece of advice is that it's better to splash out on your safari lodge than to spend up on accommodation in the city. "I'd be spending money on champagne experiences over a good room," she says. "That's what it's all about – experiential travel."
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: MEAL TIMES
KEY DESTINATIONS Peru and Mexico
THE BOTTOM LINE Food for travellers is no longer just sustenance. It's not simply the fuel to get you through a holiday – it's your whole reason for being there. But how do you live the champagne lifestyle – or, shall we say, the foie gras lifestyle – on a tight budget when it comes to food? One of the main things to take into consideration is the country you choose to visit.
While it would be nice to dine in the world's finest restaurants without having to remortgage the house, plenty of the current "World's 50 Best" restaurants are in Europe, Japan or the US, where dinner will cost upwards of $300.
THE STRATEGY Consider South America. In Lima you'll pay $150 to eat dinner at the world No. 4 ranked Central, or about $130 to dine at Astrid y Gaston (No. 30). At the No. 43-ranked Biko, in Mexico City, the tasting menu costs only $70, while the Test Kitchen in Cape Town (ranked No. 22) does meals for $110.
If Michelin stars are more your thing, then Asia is the place to go. In Singapore, two street-food stalls have recently been awarded the coveted stars. Meals there cost only a few dollars. In Hong Kong, it's possible to have lunch at the three-Michelin-starred Lung King Heen for about $90. And in Bangkok, even the multi-award-winning Nahm has tasting menus for $95.
ONE MORE THING For those travelling to Europe, it's still possible to eat well on a small budget. The secret is to shop at local markets, where you'll find some of the world's finest bread, cheese, cured meats and seafood at a fraction of the price you'd pay in a restaurant. There's also some amazing food being turned out by smaller, less well-known eateries. Just do your research.
SMALL CHANGE: FAMILY TRIPS
KEY DESTINATIONS Fiji and Vietnam
THE BOTTOM LINE Make your children work for you. That's the advice from Traveller columnist and family travel specialist Tracey Spicer, who says that while children are an extra expense, they can also be great for earning rewards points, particularly if you travel often with the same companies.
In terms of good-value destinations, Fiji and Samoa are extremely family-friendly, while in south-east Asia, Vietnam is emerging as a new favourite.
THE STRATEGY "I have picked one airline and one hotel chain," Spicer says, "and I've stuck with them because of the rewards points. When you're flying with kids – Taj and Grace are not just my children, they're seat meat. They can accrue frequent flyer points. That's why we fly Virgin, because I could join them both up for free. So I can nab their points and upgrade myself if I want, or put them towards the whole family's travel."
There are other ways, too, to live the champagne lifestyle on a beer budget, and one of them is avoid the trap that most parents would consider impossible to evade: school holidays.
"I always recommend that parents take their kids out of school to travel," Spicer says. "And I'm not saying for six months, I'm suggesting maybe one or two weeks either side of a block of school holidays. Because families are ripped off on school holidays. If you can sneak your kids out, particularly when they're in primary school, for one or two weeks either side of the holidays, I would always go. It's half the price."
ONE MORE THING "So many of my friends have been to Vietnam in the last year with their families," Tracey says. "It's cheap, it's a wonderful experience for the kids, you can stay in amazing hotels for next to nothing, the food is fantastic, and it's a really educational trip as well. And you do feel like royalty when you're travelling through Vietnam."
CURRENT COSTINGS: TAKING A CRUISE
KEY DESTINATIONS Mediterranean and the South Pacific
THE BOTTOM LINE Most cruise lines will offer early-bird specials, or will have promotions that include shore excursions, or drinks packages, or any number of perks thrown in for free. To make sure you're aware of these deals, sign up to the email list of the cruise line you want to travel with. And choose carefully to get the best out of your spending.
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THE STRATEGY "It's not so much about how much you spend," says Tony Archbold, director of sales at Holland America Line. "You just want to get more than what you think you paid for."
That, according to Archbold is how to get the best value from your cruising holiday. Maybe you're on a budget cruise, maybe you're on a luxury liner. Regardless, you want to get the most from the money you've spent. And there are plenty of cruises that offer that sort of value.
"Look at a cruise holiday and see what's included in there – the standard of accommodation, the standard of the culinary experience, what you see, the entertainment on board – and try to equate that to what you're going to do when you're on land," Archbold says. "Try to get the same value in a hotel. You won't do it. If you break it down to a per-night rate… you won't match it."
As with many aspects of travel, one of the best ways to get good value out of a cruise is to book in advance. "Some people say to wait until late [to book], because the prices drop, and maybe they do, but you're not going to get any inclusions," says Archbold. "And also, you're not going to get the best cabins. Because the good ones go early. You have to be smart about that."
ONE MORE THING
"Understand what you want in a cruise, who are you are, and who is going to deliver a product experience that suits you," says Archbold. "Don't make a decision that is price-driven alone. Look for a value proposition from a cruise line that is going to suit you, with people who are like you onboard. There's a cruise line for everybody."
UPHILL BATTLE: TREKKING AND ADVENTURE
KEY DESTINATIONS Guatemala and Peru
THE BOTTOM LINE As with safaris, one of the best ways to get value out of a trekking or adventure trip – particularly to South America – is to travel in the shoulder seasons. That's when the weather might not be ideal, but the discounts offered on tours and accommodation make it worth the sacrifice.
If you're into adventure travel, or trekking, or even cultural tourism, South America is a continent that offers surprisingly good value. It used to be prohibitively expensive to even get there from Australia, but that has changed recently, with Qantas, Air New Zealand and LATAM all offering great fares from the east coast.
THE STRATEGY "One of the best times to go to Peru is around May or early June," says Greg Carter, co-founder of South American travel specialists Chimu Adventures. "It's just after the wet season, so everything is always lush and vibrant and green, but you still get the benefits of off-season prices.
"For somewhere like Patagonia, in the middle of the season it gets crazy crowded. Early season – say, September – can be cold, but there's not many people around, and it's much better value for money."
"You can do a two-week trip to a place like Guatemala, everything included, for $4000 to $5000 from Australia," says Carter. "That's flying via Los Angeles.
"Guatemala is the treasure of Central America, too – it's got everything from fantastic culture, amazing scenery, incredible ancient ruins like Tikal, and your money goes a lot further there. The good thing about Guatemala is how accessible is, and a lot of people don't realise that."
ONE MORE THING If you do want to travel to those bucket-list destinations, however – to trek in places like Peru and Patagonia, and to stay in decent accommodation – there are still more ways to save money, including taking a self-guided journey.
"In Patagonia, self-guided treks are pretty easy," Carter says. "There's sign-posted trails, great maps, and plenty of other people doing it. There's also some great 'refugios' to stay in along the trails, particularly in the Torres del Paine area. If you want to do self-guided treks in Peru, all through the Cordillera Blanca and Huaraz it's possible."
MOUNTING CHARGES: SKI HOLIDAYS
KEY DESTINATIONS Bulgaria and Iran (really)
THE BOTTOM LINE
The dream is a beautiful one: a huge alpine cabin with an open fire, set right next to the chair lifts, with great restaurants and bars all around, plenty of snow falling overnight and blue skies during the day. The reality of a ski trip, however, is usually somewhat different: a hotel room the size of a shoebox, with not even enough room to get your ski boots on, plus an hour-long drive to make it to the slopes.
Skiing is an expensive hobby, and most people find by the time they've factored in all of the costs, the holiday they thought they could afford is much different from the holiday they're actually going on. There are ways, however, to avoid this.
The trick is to save money on small things so you can afford to spend up on the big ones – like that alpine cabin. So book your trip in advance. Ski in shoulder seasons. Ski mid-week. Book your lift passes online, where they're often cheaper. Take advantage of packages like Perisher's "Epic Pass", which allows skiers access to certain US resorts for free. Plan to pack your lunches instead of buying them on the mountain. And buy ski gear and accessories away from the resorts.
An even easier way to ensure you live the skiing dream, however, is to choose your destination wisely. Traditional ski areas – in the US, Canada, Europe, and even Australia – offer great conditions, but high prices. Usually more than $100 a day just for a lift pass.
ONE MORE THING
In Bulgaria, meanwhile, at Borovets resort, you'll be fully decked out in hire gear and hitting the slopes for less than $70 a day. It's a similar price in Argentina, too, at a resort like Cerro Catedral, or in Japan, at the increasingly popular Hakuba. Accommodation in these places is similarly affordable. And for the cheapest of the cheap, try Dizin, a ski field in Iran that offers lift passes from about $25 a day.
FORGET THE BUDGET AND BREAK THE BANK
... ON A GOOD MEAL
You may be forced to live on packet noodles for a few weeks once you return home, but it will be worth the sacrifice to enjoy a meal at one of the world's best restaurants. Most fine-diners provide as much theatre as they do gastronomy – they're once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
... ON AIRPORT LOUNGE ACCESS
So you can't afford to fly business class. Who can? At least, however, you can enjoy one of the luxuries of business class without paying the fare: the airport lounge. Depending on the airline, one-time access to a business lounge will cost between $50 and $100, but if you have a layover of more than a few hours, it will be worth its while.
... ON A RENTAL CAR UPGRADE
There's absolutely no financial sense in upgrading your rental car. After all, it's just a thing to get you from A to B. But we're not talking about financial sense here. We're talking about fun. So when the rental people offer for you to drive around California in a Mustang convertible for an extra $30 a day, you go ahead and take it.
… ON A MASSAGE
After a long flight, or bus trip, or train travel, there's no better way to ease into your holiday than with a massage. It might cost more than you'd usually like to shell out, but this is an indulgence you can justify.
… ON FANCY COCKTAILS
Maybe you can't afford to stay at the Peninsulas and the Ritz-Carltons of the world, but you can probably still fork out for a cocktail or a glass of wine at one of their bars. There you can relax in luxurious surrounds, often with amazing views, getting to feel like one of the fancy people – until you reach the bottom of the glass and have to leave.
IT COSTS HOW MUCH? FIVE UNAVOIDABLY PRICEY DESTINATIONS
Many things about Norway are stunning – the mountains, the fiords, the people – but nothing shocks visitors quite like their first look at the bill for dinner, or the price of their hotel room. When even a dorm bed in a hostel will set you back almost $50, you know you're in an expensive country. Beautiful, but expensive.
Ouch. When you're used to spending the euro, which can go from a bargain in southern Spain to just reasonably expensive in Germany, Switzerland can hurt. Suddenly you're paying $30 for a "budget" meal. You're shelling out $11 or $12 for a beer. Even a Big Mac Meal is $15. Switzerland is lovely. But you pay for it.
There are bargains to be had in Britain. If you head to northern England, or Scotland, you'll definitely get value for money. However, most tourists inevitably end up in London, where a bed in a hostel can cost $60 or more, a ride on the London Eye costs $50, and a meal at pub is more than $30. Head north, friends.
As anyone who lives here knows from bitter experience, this is an expensive country. Cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, you expect to be pricey. But it's our remote capitals, Perth and Darwin, that really shock you. There are restaurants in those cities charging $40 or $50 for a main meal. That hurts.
As historically fascinating as Jerusalem may be, and as hedonistically enjoyable as Tel Aviv most definitely is, Israel is not a cheap country. A beer will set you back $10 or so. A nice dinner will be $40 or $50. And the hotel won't be a bargain either.