Is the budget way the best way to travel? Simon Calder certainly thinks so. Here he champions low-cost travel and offers his tips on how to scrimp your way around the world
Pure travel? No such thing: getting around the planet is, by its nature, a messy business.
To minimise the impact of your meandering, it helps to pay as little as possible for the privilege of seeing the world. Yes, us cheap and nasty travel skinflints are now claiming moral superiority. The less expensive your journey, the lower the harmful effects.
Here’s how. Motorised transport devours fossil fuels and pumps out CO2. Flying is the worst offender. But by squeezing into the cheap seats, whether in the economy section of a Jumbo jet or a no-frills Ryanair flight, your proportionate impact is lower than flying in one of the premium classes on that same 747, or on a plane kitted out with fewer seats giving extra comfort in exchange for higher fares. Your knees may be scrunched, but your conscience should be clear(-er).
Better still, opt for low-cost surface transport – particularly the slow, smelly and uncomfortable bus. Students can usually be relied upon to flock towards the cheapest travel options, as the average population on board a Megabus trundling around the UK – and now the US – shows.
With fares between England, Wales and Scotland as low as £1, hitch-hiking has been rendered uneconomic; it could cost more to catch the Tube from the centre of London to the start of the M1 than the entire bus trip to your destination.
Similarly, the old overland thumbing route through Belgium, Germany, Austria and all the Balkans to Athens or Istanbul has been superseded by cheap flights on easyJet. By booking ahead and travelling off-peak, you can reach either city for less than £40.
I still hitch-hike frequently, though; my travel log shows 28 lifts in the first three months of this year (plus one truly ignominous failure on a Sunday evening in rural Portugal, when the traffic simply disappeared and – after two hours – I took a cab).
On many journeys thumbing remains the best option from almost all points of view: besides being free, it liberates you from the tyranny of timetables and also happens to be the most efficient form of motorised travel.
Here’s how: by the act of buying a ticket for a train, bus or plane, you are creating demand – saying to the operator: “look, it is worth your while running this service in the future”; and the aggregation of travellers means that the trip will run whether it is full to the brim or completely empty.
Hitch-hiking is different; you are inviting people who are making the journey anyway to take you along for the ride. If the driver agrees, your presence in their vehicle will consume a minuscule additional amount of energy. But the motorist will certainly not plan in future to trawl up and down the highways of Europe just in case there’s anyone hitching.
Best of all, the cheapest, purest form of travel is also the most fun. It brings a (usually) delicious randomness to your journey: on that same trip through Portugal I encountered an eminent sociologist, a property developer who told me he had moved to Ipswich “for some excitement” and a trio of Ukrainian gardeners (now that’s a winning hand in hitching poker).
Hitch-hiking enables you – indeed obliges you – to come into contact with a self-selecting bunch of generous people who you would not otherwise meet, and give them the chance to demonstrate their kindness.
Of course, in a world that is increasingly perceived to be dangerous, you may not feel comfortable about casting your fortunes to the slipstreams beside a busy motorway. Women travellers may understandably feel vulnerable, and should certainly not hitch-hike alone. But all forms of transport have their attendant risks, and I believe that for many travellers the potential benefits outweigh the possible dangers.
And there are worse ways to see the world than from a chauffeur-driven car.
More... Read Simon Calder's guide to scrimping around the world
But make it the Megabus. This Scottish enterprise has expanded to the Midwest. Including the booking fee, the 500km ride from Chicago to St Louis will cost you just $1.50 – less than a pound to cross a big slab of the States. www.megabus.com
Can’t afford a cruise along Canada’s Pacific coast? Happily, a regular and subsidised ferry runs between Port Hardy on Vancouver Island and the mainland port of Prince Rupert, threading through the extraordinary seascape of the Inside Passage. At most this one-day voyage of a lifetime costs C$111 (£55). www.bcferries.ca
London’s airport rail links are scandalously overpriced. But on the Gatwick Express, there’s a solution: the ‘Four For Two’ ticket enables four people to pay the price of two (£7 each instead of £14). I ask people if they’d like to join me to save some cash. Some are suspicious but most accept. Tickets must be bought at the station. www.gatwickexpress.co.uk
You can join online wherever you live, and pay just £8 for annual membership – much less than for the YHA of England and Wales and, like any Hostelling International member, your card will be valid worldwide. www.syha.org.uk
Usually, the late-booker is penalised. Except, that is, when booking long-distance train travel in France. Log on to www.voyages-sncf.com and click on the ‘Dernière Minute’ button, which provides a random selection of late-notice deals.
Having spent a slightly cramped night at London’s easyHotel, it was a pleasure to visit the more understated (ie less orange) version in Switzerland’s most artistic city. You get a clean room for as little as €21 (£15) a night – and, unlike in London, you can call in as a walk-up customer. www.easyhotel.com
The part of the world where the low-cost revolution in the skies is most flourishing is the corridor from Bangkok via Kuala Lumpur to Singapore and beyond. Airlines such as Air Asia are eliminating the need for those long overnight bus journeys, and even the long hop to Australia can cost as little as £40 each way. www.airasia.com
Changi airport in Singapore is the greatest treat for transit travellers. You can take a swim in the rooftop open-air pool or go for a stroll around the cactus garden. If you have a connecting flight that departs at least four hours after you arrive, take a free bus tour around the sights, then a free ‘bum boat’ ride on the Singapore River.
Want to visit China without paying for a visa? Book a flight to Sydney with China Eastern, via Shanghai. On the way back, the arrival time does not connect with the London flight, so transfer passengers are given a free night in a top-class hotel – plus a free 24-hour entrance permit to allow you to try Shanghai before you buy www.chinaeastern.co.uk
More than 1,000 Japanese families offer a welcome to foreigners through the Home Visit System, which (stereotypically) works wonderfully well. Expect tea, conversation, dinner and an insight into the life and soul of your hosts.
‘Culture’ and ‘Las Vegas’ are more synonymous than you might think. A walk along the Strip will provide you with amazing light shows, the world’s most dramatic fountains and free circus performances.
In Central and South America you can take a Spanish course for around half the price that you would pay in Spain. Guatemala and Ecuador are long-established options for cheap verbs and nouns, but recent exchange-rate changes mean even beautiful Buenos Aires is a good place for low-cost linguistics.
What did the EU ever do for us? Not much, you might imagine, but at many of Spain’s museums and historic attractions you can get in for free if you can prove you live in a member state.
What could be better than a cheap hotel? A free place to stay! Dotted through the Pyrenees are basic mountain huts that are free to all on a first-come, first-served basis – so if you don’t get lucky, expect a long walk to the next.
Rail travel in Germany is surely the most democratic in Europe. The Happy-Weekend-Ticket allows you to travel on non-express trains anywhere in the federal republic for just €30 (£21.50) on either Saturday or Sunday. That’s just the start: the same ticket covers you and up to four pals, and any number of under-14 children.
'Safari lodge’ and ‘cheapskate’ are not usually compatible, but in east Africa’s most overlooked country, charging top dollar for stays in sublime spots has not yet caught on – it’s around £40 a night here. Uganda has some of the best bird life in Africa, plus lots of hippopotami and elephants. And the hitching is excellent, too. www.mweyalodge.com
Europe’s Inter-Rail pass incentivises people to sleep in crowded carriages on overnight trains that rattle around pointlessly. But sleeper trains in India are a model of civility – clean, comfy and cheap mobile dormitories. A few pounds buys you miles of travel, crisp linen and sweet dreams. www.indianrail.gov.in
You can travel on the Great Southern Railway for six months for just A$450 (£185). OK, you’re limited to three lines – the Indian-Pacific (Perth-Sydney), the Ghan to Darwin and the Overlander (Melbourne- Sydney). Normal rate is A$590 (£245); you save A$140 (£60) by proving you’re a backpacker. Do that by buying a (Scottish) YHA card. www.gsr.com.au
Long before the good-but-expensive Bridge Climb started, it’s been possible to get some great views for free simply by walking across the pedestrian gantry. Or visit the museum in the south-east pylon – history and views for only AUS$2.
...when you could just hitch-hike towards nightfall? This has worked for me and many other travellers: the hospitable Kiwis invariably pick you up then put you up for the night.