Travelling in Scotland on foot
Tip 10: Forget all about buses, trains and cars and use your own two feet for the ultimate budget Scottish sightseeing journey
While many visitors to Scotland spend countless hours route planning the ultimate road trip through country back-roads along with the most efficient use of the railways, there are others who are quietly putting on their backpacks and walking boots to experience arguably the best – and cheapest – way to travel around Scotland on a budget. Their own two feet.
Hiking in Scotland has always been popular thanks to the incredibly beautiful landscapes that we have here, with walking trails like the West Highland Way, The John Muir Way and The Southern Upland Way crying out to be explored. Getting out and about in Scotland under your own power is one of the best ways to really experience our country, and the extra tips below will help you do just that.
1. Prepare for the weather. No matter how much of an experienced hiker you are, nothing can prepare you for the changeable Scottish weather.
The phrase ‘4 seasons in one day’ is particularly appropriate to describe the climate we experience in this country and it’s not unusual to set off in freezing-cold snow in the morning and finish the day in blazing sunshine in the evening.
And if you’re setting off into the mountains for some ‘munro-bagging’ then be extra-prepared. The wind can pick up from a gentle breeze to a raging howl in an instant and it’s not uncommon for hikers to get lost and confused, even experienced ones. So do your research and pack well before you leave.
2. Don’t get lost. Scotland’s landscapes are open to the public by right of way so you can pretty much roam where you like, although you should try not to enter privately owned land unless you get permission first.
That being said it’s pretty easy to get lost in the dramatic scenery of Scotland which can easily lead you to get lost with your bearings as well.
As a rule of thumb, never head off the beaten path without a good quality map to hand, and the ones produced by Ordnance Survey are by far the highest quality UK maps you’ll find, covering every square inch of Scotland from Gretna Green to John O’ Groats.
Even better they now have a mobile phone app so that you can load as many maps onto your device as you need, meaning you’ll (hopefully) never get lost again.
3. We’ve got bothies – so use them! If you’re asking ‘ok, so what’s a bothie?’ then you might want to do a little more research into Scottish hiking before you venture out.
A bothie is an unlikely little dwelling seemingly abandoned in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason, but they can literally be a life-saver.
These simple shelters have been erected for anyone to use and take refuge in, and although they’re not exactly up to hotel standard they’re completely free to use and will keep you warm and dry if you find yourself lost in some remote part of the Scottish wilderness.
Open at all times throughout the year they just require you to leave them in the same condition that you found them. Check out The Mountain Bothies Association for more information.
My top 3 cheap places to visit in Scotland
If I’ve whetted your appetite for coming to Scotland and enjoying a budget holiday you might be wondering where the best places to visit are.
That’s a difficult question to answer. While Scotland is jam-packed full of fantastic destinations a lot of them have jumped on the tourist-trail bandwagon and have introduced entrance charges (which seem to be going up and up with every passing year).
Your best bet, therefore, is to go to the Scottish destinations where they haven’t been able to introduce a fee yet – at least until they start charging for fresh air.
But until then, Scotland’s wilderness areas are the ultimate budget holiday resort where you’ll see the very best of this magnificent country for a fraction of what it would cost for a day trip to the cities.
For me, the best bang-for-buck adventures can be found in the Highlands, mainly because you can drive there (or even hitch-hike if you’re that way inclined) and there are also train routes that run to the main towns.
It’s this comparative ease of access that allows backpackers and budget holidaymakers to enjoy this vast area of Scotland for very little money, and while I’d have loved to have also included one of the west coast islands in this list I’m afraid the ferry costs to get between them is just too expensive in my opinion.
Tip 11: Climb Bidean Nam Bian at Glencoe
Bidean Nam Bian, located to the south of Glen Coe in the Scottish Highlands, is well-known amongst hill walkers and munro baggers for the fantastic views it offers from the ‘Three Sisters of Glen Coe’, the three steep ridges on the north face that extend into the Glen.
The huge mountain complex rises to 1150 metres at its highest point and has several ascent routes of varying difficulty, though the easier path from Glen Coe car park is by far the most used.
As a destination for a cheap place to visit you really can’t beat this mountain region as not only is it free (apart from the car park cost), but the views are gob-smackingly gorgeous. And I mean, completely, absolutely, drop-dead amazing.
Two of the peaks of the three sisters, Beinn Fhada and Gearr Aonach are separated by a partly concealed glen known as the lost valley which at one time was used by Clan Macdonald to hide their livestock from thieves but is today mainly used by hikers making their way up to the Bidean ridge.
The most popular route up into the mountains heads out over a 2.5-mile path starting at the Glen Coe car park near Loch Achtriochtan and finishing at the peak of Stob Coire nan Lochan. This route is quite busy at times so during the summer it’s probably best to avoid it at weekends, especially as the car park gets clogged up with coachloads of tourists visiting the nearby loch.
The path is easy-going at the start but it becomes a fairly tricky scramble across several rocky sections in the middle, although the views at the finish point 2/3 the way up the mountain make up for the work needed to make the ascent.
Part way along the route you’ll come across an impressive waterfall thundering down the mountainside while the wooded ravine following the path makes a great place to stop and take a breather, but be careful if you try to get down to the pool under the waterfall as it’s very slippery.
The path continues up in the direction of Stob Coire nan Lochan where you’ll find another waterfall in a small box canyon before exiting out onto the summit of the north ridge. From here you’ll get amazing views in all directions and you can either head back down to the car park or push on further into the mountain range.
Address for your sat nav: Ballachulish, PH49 4HX, UK. Lat/Lon 56.64419°N / 5.03345°W
Tip 12: Cycle around Loch Ness
Loch Ness is without a doubt one of the most famous, most visited and most photographed tourist attractions in the whole of Scotland. Not only is there an abundance of wildlife living both in the loch and along its banks, but there’s a rich history to be discovered thanks to famous locations like Urquhart Castle and the city of Inverness.
Although the loch has more than its fair share of tour operators it’s possible to explore the region for very little money thanks to the A82 which follows its shoreline the entire way along its western edge.
This road is perfect for cycling along and you’ll see as many cyclists loaded up with tents as you will cars towing expensive caravans. I’ll even go so far as to say that in summer the best way to enjoy the loch is on a bike. After all, who wants to miss out on all those amazing views by being locked inside a car all day?
If you want to give the bike a rest then there are some really good walking trails running right through this area of the Highlands, and there are even a couple that run along the water’s edge, like the very enjoyable Fort Augustus Heritage Trail.
This walk takes in some of the best scenery in the Highlands and it’s completely free to follow, so if you think you’re up to it check out the trail website for maps and route itineraries.
There are lots of pretty villages dotted along the 23-mile length of Loch Ness including Fort Augustus on the southern edge, and you might consider going there too as it’s a favourite stopping-off point with tourists looking to explore the loch.
If you’re well-versed with the intricacies of a fishing rod then you might be keen to catch some of Scotland’s largest fish in this area, and you’ll find several species living in the water of Loch Ness with the famed Scottish Atlantic Salmon living alongside Brown and Sea Trout, Perch, Roach and Char.
However, be sure to check that you’ve purchased the appropriate fishing licence before you start casting away, details of which you’ll find posted across the notice boards of Fort Augustus.
Fort Augustus can be found on the A82, at the head of Loch Ness in the heart of the Highlands.
- From Glasgow take the A82 via Crianlarich and Fort William to Fort Augustus – 132 miles.
- From Edinburgh take the M90 to Perth, the A9 to Dalwhinnie, the A86 to Spean Bridge and the A82 to Fort Augustus – 157 miles.
- From Aberdeen take the A96 via Nairn to Inverness, then the A82 to Fort Augustus – 141 miles.
Tip 13: Go wildlife watching in the Cairngorms
As I frequently mention, the best things in life are free, and to my mind one of the best experiences you can have in Scotland is seeing its wonderful wildlife. There’s an incredibly diverse range of animal species to see in Scotland but arguably the best sightings are located throughout the Highlands, with my personal favourites being the majestic red deer.
These animals are the largest in Britain and it’s a real privilege to watch them roaming around the countryside, especially when the stags are in their rutting season and can be seen battling against each other using their enormous (and very spiky) antlers.
Alongside red deer you’ll frequently find mountain hares, ptarmigan (a type of grouse), pine martens and badgers all scurrying about as they forage for food in the cold winter climate, while otters and dolphins can often be seen along much of the Highlands coastline.
You’ll find loads of places to go on a Scottish safari in the Highlands but if you want my recommendation I’d suggest heading to the Cairngorms during the winter months.
Winter in the Cairngorms is one of the highlights for any visit to Scotland thanks to the number of animals that descend from the mountain tops for the slightly warmer climate at the bottom.
Although many Scottish animals hibernate throughout the winter (red squirrels being one), you can still see plenty of other creatures and the fact they’re on lower ground means they’re much easier to spot and photograph.
While you could go all-out and pay an experienced guide to take you out into the wilderness perhaps the best way to experience Scotland’s winter wildlife is to just pack your rucksack, pull on your boots, and set off on a trek across the rugged landscape.
But before you go make sure you check the weather and pack plenty of warm hiking gear. The last thing you want is to be stuck in the middle of nowhere without thermals when the temperature drops, and as the old Scottish saying goes, ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’.
Find cheap places to stay in Scotland
So we’ve seen that it’s possible to travel around Scotland on a budget if you just have a little common sense and follow some of the travel tips I’ve mentioned above, but what if you’re looking for somewhere to stay? Isn’t it true that hotels in Scotland are way overpriced?
My answer to that has to be ‘yes and no’ because it all depends on where you’re intending to take your overnight accommodation.
If you’re planning to enjoy cheap sightseeing then I can’t really recommend you stay in Scotland’s city centres because the hotels are massive tourist traps and even the so-called ‘budget’ options are a complete rip-off (in my humble opinion).
Take the UK’s main budget hotel operator – Travelodge – for example. Spend a night in June at their Edinburgh Princes Street hotel and it’ll cost you a not-inconsiderable £140 (ish) for accommodation that can be best summed up as ‘adequate’, and yet head a few miles out to the town of Livingston and you can get a similar Travelodge room for around £60.
That’s less than half price for a room that’s going to be damn-near identical.
And yes, I know in Princes Street you can roll out of bed and step straight into Edinburgh’s tourist attractions, but have you ever tried to park your car in the city centre?
It’s not something I’d recommend to a new visitor, and besides, if you stay in Livingston you can get a Scotrail train to the centre of Edinburgh in around 30 minutes at a cost of just £5-6. I know what I’d rather do when I’m on a budget.
Anyway, with that rant over I’ve included a few options below for cheap overnight accommodation in Scotland that offer a decent room at an affordable price, which aren’t quite up to Hilton standards but are a hell of a lot cheaper.
Tip 14: Find cheap accommodation in Glasgow
- Euro Hostel Glasgow is located just 2.6 km from the city centre and features mixed and female-only dorms, as well as en-suite rooms if you want a bit of privacy. Prices start at just £10 per night and include free Wi-Fi.
- The Tartan Lodge provides affordable accommodation 4 km from central Glasgow in a former church which has been converted into a collection of male and female dormitories and private rooms. A dormitory room bed can be had from just £18 per night and includes access to a social room and showers.
- The Glasgow Youth Hostel offers rooms in a Victorian townhouse overlooking Kelvingrove Park in the city centre. There are private rooms as well as shared apartments and prices include Wi-Fi, social room and secure storage. Prices start at £13.50 for a bed in a shared room.
- Hampton Court Guest House is a bit more up-market than a hostel but offers reasonable prices for rooms only a 20-minute walk from the SSE Hydro and Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. A single en-suite can be found for only £30 (depending on the time of year).
- Crosshill House in Glasgow features 12 budget rooms with Wi-Fi, an outdoor pool, breakfast buffet and a gym around a mile from the city centre. Standard rooms can be reserved for a very reasonable £30 per night (depending on the time of year).
Tip 15: Find cheap accommodation in Edinburgh
- Kick-Ass Hostels in Edinburgh offer fun and friendly mixed and female-only dorms in the centre of the city with views looking out across to Edinburgh Castle. Rooms in a mixed dorm can be had for only £18 while a private twin room costs around £50 per night.
- High Street Hostel is located less than a mile from the city centre and is the city’s original backpackers hostel. Close to all the attractions of Edinburgh, High Street Hostel features a great social room and has prices starting at £10 for a bed in a mixed dorm room.
- Edinburgh Backpackers Hostel has over 150 beds in dormitories and double, twin and single rooms less than a mile from the city centre across four separate buildings. A basic single private room can be had for as little as £25 depending on the time of year you visit.
- St. Christophers Edinburgh is a hostel nestled right in the heart of the Old Town and features free Wi-Fi, free breakfast and free city walking tours. There’s an on-site bar and bistro, and prices for a bed in a mixed dorm start at a reasonable £13 per night.
- Cowgate Tourist Hostel is one of the few 2-star hostels in the city and has a selection of mixed dorms and private rooms. Located in the Cowgate area in the heart of Edinburgh, prices for a budget twin room start at around £50 for 1 night.
Well, I hope these tips have at least given you a few bits of useful information that you’ll be able to take with you when you come to visit us in Scotland, and perhaps you’ll be able to save a few pounds over what you’d originally budgeted for as well.
Travelling in Scotland on a budget isn’t easy, but at least now you’ve got a little bit of extra info that will help you save a few pounds.
That, of course, means that not only can you come back and visit us again next year, but you’ll have some extra money in your pocket to purchase some Scottish essentials while you’re here. So don’t forget to stock up on Irn-Bru and Tunnocks Tea Cakes before your next adventure! Happy travelling 🙂
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