The founder of Bradt Travel Guides reveals the penny-pinching mastermind schemes of her youth
I've noticed that when I’m reminiscing about my life on the road, it is accounts of irresponsible travel that catch the listener’s or reader’s attention, rather than the opposite. So as long as you bear in mind that I’m now a respectable citizen who’s curtseyed to the Queen and who wouldn’t now dream of misbehaving, here’s how then-husband George and I managed to afford to hire cars in the 1970s.
Our first experiment was in Big Bend NP in Texas, a million acres of desert and mountain enclosed by the mighty Rio Grande. Hiring a car was affordable – just – but we had to pay extra for every mile beyond the first 100, and just driving to the park and back would take up most of that allowance.
At our campsite just inside the park, we hatched a cunning plan. If the milometer went inexorably up as we drove forward, surely it would go down if we drove in reverse? Inconceivably it worked, but only for the small numbers. Back down from 160 to 150 was fine, but there it stuck. So we spent the day on the empty roads driving forward for ten miles, then doing a three-point turn and driving backwards for ten miles.
We had the same problem in Patagonia. We arrived at the wildlife hotspot of Peninsula Valdés, thrilled at the prospect of seeing our first penguins and elephant seals. We positioned ourselves at the turnoff to the peninsula with our smiles and thumbs at the ready and waited for a lift.
Patagonia had come to us, its gritty dust lodging in our hair, nostrils, lungs and clothes. Finally we gave up and hired a car in Trelew. Here, too, there was a basic fee plus an additional charge per kilometre. Reversing on the broad, tarred roads of Texas had been a doddle, but the narrow gravel tracks of Argentina were a different matter. Suddenly there was a loud kerplonk! We got out and surveyed the situation with dismay. I’d reversed over a cattle grid without seeing that most of the bars were missing. The car was resting on its chassis over the hole with its rear wheels still turning pathetically.
There was nothing for it but to wait for help. A cheerful family arrived, including several strapping young men, and together they lifted the car out of the hole. They stayed to wave us on our way, so they thought, to Trelew. We had to drive for quite a distance until they were out of sight and we could turn round and head back towards the peninsula.
You’ll be glad to hear, however, that there were times when we used ingenuity to save money when hiring a car, rather than dishonesty. A year after the Patagonia incident we were exploring The Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve at a time when the south-east wind was blowing so hard it was an effort to keep upright. We battled to the tip of the peninsula, but on the way back we sailed – literally. We discovered that by turning off the engine and opening the doors to use as sails, we could bowl along nicely using wind power alone. With petrol prices at an all-time high, we were pretty pleased with ourselves.
Are there shortcuts you take on your travels to save a few extra pennies? Reveal your budget tips and tricks below
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