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The Out About Scotland complete guide to travelling in Scotland on a budget
So you want to enjoy some Scotland sightseeing and travel around all the amazing tourist attractions that the country has to offer? Well, why not?
Year-on-year the number of global tourists visiting our shores has been increasing steadily, with a 15% increase in overseas visitors in 2018 alone.
This may be partly due to the weakening pound meaning that overseas visitors have got more ‘bang for their bucks’ and also because the best travel bloggers like to feature photos of Scotland’s gorgeous landscapes, but it’s also no doubt helped by the surge of visitors wanting to get new experiences that they simply can’t get anywhere else in Europe.
Vast, snow-capped mountain ranges? Check. Unspoilt wilderness and crystal clear lochs (some with monsters in them)? Check. Some of the most beautiful and fun-filled cities on the planet? Yup, check again.
Clearly, Scotland has plenty of sights and activities to attract wealthy tourists coming from all over the world, but what about those of us who have to make our money stretch a bit further than most?
While Scotland has plenty of cheap, and even free, activities to enjoy, travelling around to visit them all can be a huge pain in the wallet.
This isn’t necessarily because the cost of public transport is particularly expensive, but when you’ve got a country the size of Sweden and a population smaller than the city of London, you know it’s going to push transport prices up, especially with the additional 14 million tourists that come into Scotland each year.
So what can you do to save a few pounds while you’re here? Well, a little bit of common sense goes a long way, but taking the advice of the following tips will definitely help your Scotland sightseeing budget stretch a bit further. And who knows? You might even be able to save enough money to take another Scottish holiday next year…
Travelling in Scotland by car
By far the most popular form of transport in Scotland is the car, with around 65% of all journeys using this form of transport.
Generally, the Scottish road network is excellent, with well-maintained surfaces, easy to understand signs and a populace that has to pass stringent tests in order to drive their cars on the roads in the first place. The downside is that running the things costs an arm and a leg.
The cost of fuel has soared in the last couple of years and is currently (as of 2019 from the RAC website) around £1.30 per litre of petrol and around £1.35 per litre of diesel. That means to fill up an average hatchback like a VW golf will cost you an average £65 to £70, which would give you 400 to 500 miles of driving (as long as you’re not driving like Lewis Hamilton).
So a two-week self-drive holiday in Scotland covering about 1500 miles would cost in the region of £210 in fuel costs, and that’s before you’ve paid the hire car rental and insurance. Obviously using a car isn’t the best way to enjoy Scotland sightseeing on a budget, so what money-saving tips can you use if you really want to get out on the open road?
Tip 1: Beware useless hire car Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) contracts.
Most car rental companies will feature their website prices in big bold numbers in an attempt to appear to be the cheapest to the unwary traveller, but 9 times out of 10 they’ll then hit renters with extortionate fees when it comes to insurance.
One of the biggest complaints is the cost of the CDW, a contractual term where the rental company waives its right to claim compensation from the customer for damage to the rented vehicle.
Unfortunately, basic CDW cover usually excludes damage to tyres, wheels, wing-mirrors, windows, hub caps, the undercarriage and even the roof of the car.
It also frequently excludes towing costs in the case of breakdown and clutch failure, and these policies often only cover damage to another vehicle so if you’re subject to single-vehicle damage (such as driving into a wall), then the CDW won’t cover you and you’ll still have to pay the excess (anywhere up to £2000).
The rule here is that before you pay for CDW insurance make sure you take the time to thoroughly read through the policy paperwork, and don’t be afraid to walk away if you don’t like what you see.
Tip 2: Don’t use a rental car broker.
Car hire is big business and a new niche has opened up with car rental brokers advertising low prices on comparison websites where they offer to act as the middleman between the car hire company and the renter.
However, the broker is only a sales agent and the customer’s contract is always with the car hire company, so many customers find that when things go wrong their brokers just wash their hands of the problem and tell their customers that they must deal with the hire company direct.
Avoid the problem by doing your own research on several well-respected hire car companies and making your own comparisons. You’ll often find that the saving you make from not having to pay the broker commission fees beats the ‘offer’ that they were advertising anyway.
So stick to the big guns in the rental business like SIXT, Hertz or Avis, and others who are members of the BVRLA, and be safe in the knowledge that should any problems arise you’ve got a trade body who will attempt to resolve the issue on your behalf.
Tip 3: Watch out for sneaky upgrade offers.
Rental pick-up desks will often try to sell you an upgrade to a bigger car by hard-selling you the advantages of a larger vehicle over the one that you’ve already pre-booked online.
Many of these agents are working on a commission basis so it’s in their interests to make you spend as much money as possible, but frequently these ‘upgrades’ are completely unnecessary.
Quite often customers from the U.S. are picked out for these upgrade offers due to the fact that the cars over there are generally larger than the small compacts that we tend to drive in the UK. But there’s a reason we love our compact cars. They’re easy to park in cities, they’re economical, and they’re perfect for our narrow roads.
So before you fall for the hard sell think about your situation. If you’re only going to be driving in Scotland for a week and there are just 3 or 4 of you, plus suitcases, do you really need a 9-seater Mercedes minibus?
Whole families of Brits quite happily spend years zooming about in Minis and Ford Fiestas so there’s no reason why you can’t cope with a compact car for a fortnight’s vacation.
Tip 4: Are you sure you even need a car?
Sure, cars have their place and they make it easy to head off in any direction at a moments notice, but have you considered how much of your holiday will actually require a private car?
If you’re visiting Scotland from overseas then it’s likely you’ll want to spend at least a few days in our major cities, and Glasgow and Edinburgh have more museums, art galleries, theatres, historical attractions and fun activities than you can shake a stick at, and both offer absolutely first-class public transport systems.
Edinburgh, in particular, has invested millions of pounds into its public transport infrastructure to the point where many native residents don’t even own a car nowadays.
Not only is there the excellent Lothian Bus network but there’s an equally impressive tram system, and the national railway lines run straight into the heart of the city at Waverley station.
Glasgow, on the other hand, is only an hour away from Edinburgh by train and has the nation-wide First Bus network of buses running throughout the city, as well its own subway system and numerous black cabs.
Another thing to think about is, have you decided if you’re going to take any organised tours during your holiday?
Tour companies like Rabbie’s small group tours of the UK and Ireland will be only too happy to drive you to the remote tourist attractions of Scotland, and many of their tours start and end in the major city centre so you don’t even have to travel far to find your tour bus.
If you’re planning to spend a couple of weeks in Scotland remember that you’ll likely not even need a car for a good chunk of it.
Bonus safety tips for driving in Scotland
- If you’re driving in the Highlands fill up with fuel whenever you can because there are surprisingly few petrol stations once you get away from the towns.
- If you get stranded you can usually get a phone signal to call for help, but make sure you’ve got enough charge in it. It’s worth keeping a spare battery pack in the car at all times.
- Following on from the above tip – it’s illegal to hold a phone while driving in the UK so invest in a windscreen or dash-mounted phone holder.
- The remote areas of Scotland (the Highlands and Islands especially) can be confusing for new visitors, so take a good up-to-date sat-nav with you along with a good old-fashioned paper map as a backup.
- If you’re driving in winter take an emergency bag with you containing at the minimum: food and water, a warning triangle, a tyre foot pump, jump-start leads, and a blanket.
- And just in case you do break down make sure you’ve kept the fuel tank topped up so you can keep the engine running to keep warm.
I think it’s obvious that Scotland sightseeing on a budget doesn’t have to involve the use of a car, and the tips below will offer some alternatives that might be a whole lot cheaper…
Travelling in Scotland by bus
By now you might be thinking that using a car isn’t the best way to experience Scotland sightseeing on a budget, although it certainly offers up lots of opportunities to see attractions that would otherwise be out of reach.
But if you’ve decided against driving yourself around our beautiful country why not let someone else do the work for you by using Scotland’s excellent bus network instead? With that thought in mind let me show you a few helpful tips you might find useful while using Scotland’s public road transport.
Tip 5: Use trams and buses whenever possible
Both Scotland’s capital city and it’s larger cousin to the west have excellent bus networks that will get you to anywhere in either city for a fraction of the cost of taking a taxi.
Edinburgh, in particular, has a world-leading public transport system with cheap, clean, and well-maintained vehicles. The bus network extends right through Edinburgh and out to the surrounding areas, while the trams provide a fast mode of transport over 14km from the airport to the city centre.
Visit Transport For Edinburgh for more information on Edinburgh’s Trams and buses or download the Transport for Edinburgh App. To help you find your way around the bus network more quickly you can get real-time information on the web and on your smartphone.
To find out when your bus is due go to:
If you’re going to spend some time in Glasgow and want to use public transport then the main bus operator is First Bus, who provide a regular bus service throughout the city with over 100 routes to choose from.
Most locals prefer to use the bus network as it’s one of the easiest and cheapest options for getting around the city centre and the outlying districts, and they also have regular links to the airport and train station.
Tip 6: Use coaches for journeys between cities
If you need to travel between cities on a budget then the coach company Mega Bus has got you covered with a transport network that not only connects the cities of Scotland but also includes England and Wales.
As an example of the savings that are possible, while a train ticket from Edinburgh to Glasgow can cost upwards of £15 depending on the time of day, a cheap-rate Megabus ticket will only cost you around £4, and you can occasionally find one-way journeys on special offer for £1.
While some people might turn their nose up at travelling ‘cattle-class’ (it’s not, they’re actually really comfy), you can upgrade your bus journey by choosing the Citylink Gold service instead.
This luxury bus service operates from Glasgow to Aviemore and Inverness, Glasgow to Aberdeen, and Edinburgh to Ferrytoll, Kinross, Perth, Dundee and Aberdeen, and offers a variety of upgrades over other coach operators.
Onboard you’ll find coach attendants, leather seats, Wi-Fi, and complimentary snacks and refreshments during your journey, with coaches leaving regularly from the main city centre bus terminals.
Tip 7: Don’t buy individual bus tickets. Buy a day ticket instead
This is a great tip and one that you’ll find Scottish locals using all the time.
While there’s no doubt that using the bus is a quick and cheap way of getting around the big cities you can save even more money as a tourist by buying a day ticket. These bus tickets can be purchased for as little as £4 (Lothian Bus in Edinburgh) or £4.50 (First Bus in Glasgow) and will let you take as many journeys as you like in one day. Note that prices are as of 2019.
Let’s face it, you’re a tourist and you want to see as many attractions as possible, so you’ll no doubt be hopping on and off buses at every available opportunity.
The beauty of a day ticket is that once you’ve bought it all you need to do is keep it in your pocket and present it to the driver each time you want to head somewhere new so there’s no need for the embarrassing fumbling around in your pocket for the correct change with a bunch of tutting locals waiting in line behind you.
Taking this even further why not use a city tour bus as your main form of transport for one of the days you’re in the city? While these buses are a little pricey (upwards of £15 per person in many cases) you’ll get the benefit of open-top travel with an experienced tour guide telling you all about the amazing attractions that the city has.
Follow this link to book your tour bus tickets in advance: Edinburgh Bus Tour from 15£
Where most people fail is that once they’ve done the tour they get off and go somewhere else, never to use it again. But us savvy travellers know that these tour buses are hop-on/hop-off services, so once you’ve done the main tour you can use it again and again, as many times as you like for the rest of the day. Bonus!
Taking a bus or coach has become increasingly popular with backpackers for travelling between cities while they’re enjoying Scotland sightseeing, but there’s another more efficient means of travel that could save you even more money if you know a few tricks of the trade. Read on…
Travelling in Scotland by train
Britain has always had a love-hate affair with its rail network, with commuters frequently complaining about train services being cancelled due to it being too windy, too much snow on the line (an inch will usually do it), or mechanical failures (I think the UK must make most of their train’s critical components out of Lego).
But the humble commuter is fighting back, and online services like The Trainline offer instant online ticket booking at prices that are up to 43% discount compared to buying the same ticket from the station.
With British train tickets among the most expensive in Europe it’s always handy to get a little extra help when it comes to buying your rail fare, and with a little prior planning Scotland’s railways could be the ideal way to experience Scotland sightseeing on a budget.
That being said, if you want to spend a little extra and take part in what has been voted the best railway journey in the world I wholeheartedly recommend you save up a few extra pennies and book a ticket on the Jacobite steam train that runs from Fort William to Mallaig.
It’s an absolutely stunning journey and you can read more about it with my complete guide to The Jacobite Steam Train. You can find the starting point for The Jacobite at Fort William train station with this handy directions map:
Tip 8: Use railcards, split tickets and advance tickets whenever possible
Railcards can save you up to 33% on train tickets, and you can sometimes get a discount on buying railcards (RRP is £30). You can also use Tesco Clubcard Points (the UK supermarket points card scheme) to purchase railcards to save even more. Remember that you MUST travel with your railcard to get the discount.
2. Split Tickets
On some journeys, it might be possible to split your ticket to save some money. For example, a single ticket from city ‘A’ to city ‘C’ could cost £50, but a ticket from city ‘A’ to city ‘B’, plus a ticket from city ‘B’ to city ‘C’ might only cost a total of £40. Remember that the train MUST stop at each station on your ticket itinerary.
3. Advance Tickets
Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy 2 single tickets instead of a return, or book an advance ticket rather than buy on the day. On most rail booking sites you can usually search for all routes for a specific journey which sometimes brings up cheaper on-the-day tickets, as well as a variety of cheaper advance tickets.
Most advance tickets go on sale 12 weeks before the date of travel, though some rail booking sites offer tickets 24 weeks ahead of the journey, but be aware that there’s usually a small additional fee for booking these advance tickets. It’s best to weigh up the pros and cons of booking from a particular site before getting your credit card out.
Tip 9. In Glasgow, use the subway system
Glasgow is unusual in Scotland as it’s the only city which has its own subway system.
Although not the cheapest option, the subway is by far the easiest way to get around the city centre and the west end. Trains run every 5 minutes at peak times and take just 24 minutes to complete a circuit of the 15 stations.
You can either buy a single ticket or a Subway Smartcard, which offers the best fare prices and allows you to top up as you go. The Glasgow Subway map is a great way to find your way around the stations.
The south of Scotland is linked to the city by Glasgow Central Station, while Glasgow Queen Street Station has links to Edinburgh & the north of Scotland. The ScotRail website has information about all the available routes and timetables.
The SPT Roundabout ticket gives one-day unlimited travel by rail and subway to over 110 stations in the Greater Glasgow area. You can purchase these tickets through ScotRail or SPT Travel Centres.
Please note that they are only valid after 09:00 Monday to Friday, all day at weekends, and Scottish public holidays. You can buy them either through ScotRail or SPT Travel Centres.
If you want to find out information about the various travel options in the Glasgow and Strathclyde areas then check out the SPT Travel Centres in the city, as they provide all the information you need during your visit, while Traveline Scotland covers public transport across the rest of Scotland if you’re intending to travel further afield.
Download the Traveline Scotland app for more information.
If you intend to do some inner-city Scotland sightseeing, Glasgow’s underground rail system might be your best and most affordable option.
Infographic about Glasgow
Your need-to-knows for travelling in Scotland by train
Like the rest of the UK, there are three different types of train tickets you can purchase for your rail journey in Scotland. These are:
- Off-peak tickets which are restricted for use only between the morning and evening peak times. These times are dependent on the train operator so check with them before purchase.
- Anytime tickets are valid for use at any time of the day and are usually more expensive than off-peak tickets.
- First class tickets are more expensive than the other two types but offer a higher standard of service, including free wi-fi and refreshments.
You can also purchase travel passes from Scotland’s various rail operators which offer unlimited travel across the network for the duration that the pass is valid:
- The Spirit of Scotland travel pass offers unlimited rail travel throughout Scotland for either four or eight days. As of January 2019, four days unlimited travel over eight consecutive days costs £111, while eight days unlimited travel over fifteen consecutive days costs £143. Note that these prices can vary depending on available special offers so check the website in advance before you buy the pass.
- The Highland Rover travel pass gives you four days unlimited travel over eight consecutive days across the Highlands for £89 (as of Jan 2019). Although it’s only valid for standard class you can travel at any time and you’ll get 20% off Northlink ferry services to Orkney and Shetland.
- The Central Scotland Rover travel pass lets you take unlimited journeys between Glasgow, Edinburgh, and the surrounding area for just £49 (as of Jan 2019). The pass lasts for three days and is valid for standard class journeys on ScotRail trains, but unfortunately you can’t use it on the new Borders railway line.
If you want to buy a ScotRail travel pass you can order them from the ScotRail website, by calling 0344 811 0141, or direct from ticket offices at staffed stations.
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