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12 travel classics vs budget options

Want to travel more but pay less? Here’s how to enjoy the world's 12 ultimate travel experiences for less – and the low cost alternatives...

How to see Uluru and other travel classics on the cheap (dreamstime)

1. Camp out in the red centre, Uluru, Australia

Luxury camp vs Swag

SAVE £2,750

The classic experience:

Sunset at Uluru is a lesson in chromatography – the mighty monolith’s colours subtly merge, mix and morph from one minute to the next, a palette of red-orange-pink-purple against a deepening Outback sky. To watch it is magical; to eat and sleep out next to it, without the dusty bus-loads of tourist crowds, is something very special indeed. Longitude 131° is a cluster of 15 luxurious tents in the desert, all with private Uluru views. The camp even has a resident storyteller who’ll share stories from the past around the fireside. While staying here, guests can even arrange to dine outside on gourmet grub, to the hum of a didgeridoo and a backdrop of Red Centre rocks under innumerable stars.

The cost: Longitude 131° costs A$2,200 (£1,490) pn, including meals, drinks and activities; the minimum stay in their camps is two nights.

Make it cheaper: You could take rooms at the nearby, and less exclusive, Sails in the Desert resort (as with Longitude 131°, it’s also managed by Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia). Prices start from A$400 (£270) pn, including breakfast, though you lose the ‘tenty’ feel. A pitch in the resort’s campground costs from A$36 (£24).

The alternative:

Camping is not allowed within Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, and much of the surrounding area is Aboriginal land, which may seem to pop your wallet-friendly Red Rock fantasies. However, there’s still a lot of permissible wilderness, and many budget tours – typically three-day round-trips from Alice Springs, costing from around A$350 (£230) – will take in the Olgas, King’s Canyon and sunset at the Rock, before driving to remote ‘bush camps’ each night. Facilities may be limited to a trowel and bucket, and your home will be a canvas swag – but what this iconic Aussie bedroll lacks in glamour, it makes up for in full-on, unimpeded Outback immersion.

2. Track primates, Rwanda and Uganda

Gorillas vs chimps

SAVE £455

The classic experience:

Tough, sweaty, strict, brief, brilliant, expensive, unforgettable – tracking the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas in the central African jungle is all of these things and more. Such trips are possible in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, although the latter is currently off-limits due to political instability. The experience is similar in both Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda) and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Uganda). In both countries, expert trackers lead small groups on a hike to a habituated gorilla group, which might take minutes or all day. Once you’ve found the primate family, you’re allowed to spend just one awesome  hour in their company.

The cost: The DRC is the cheapest place to buy a gorilla-tracking permit (US$400/£225), followed by Uganda (US$500/£320), then Rwanda (US$750/£475).

Make it cheaper: Permit prices are non-negotiable. Permits are cheaper in Uganda, although UK travellers require a visa (£25 in advance, US$50 on arrival) to visit, which isn’t necessary for visiting Rwanda. Also, Volcanoes NP is more accessible than Bwindi.

The alternative:

Many would say that sitting a few metres from a back-scratching silverback and his tumbling offspring is properly priceless. But if you can’t afford that, consider a close encounter with an even closer relative. Uganda offers several excellent opportunities for tracking chimpanzees. Permits are available for chimp-hikes in Queen Elizabeth NP, Kyambura Gorge, Kibale and Toro-Semliki, starting at just US$30/£20 for the latter – though better sightings are at Kibale (US$150/£96). Better still, splash out (US$220/£140) on Kibale’s Chimpanzee Habituation Experience: although more costly, it allows you to accompany local researchers and spend a whole day with the primates, from their morning de-nesting (5.30am) to bedtime (7pm).

3. Ride the African rails, South Africa

The Blue Train vs ShosholozaMeyl

SAVE £840

The classic experience:

The Blue Train is the most opulence-oozing way to travel between Pretoria and Cape Town. It has wood-panelled lounge-cars and a dining-car awash with crystal and white linen. It has Deluxe and Luxury cabins – both elegant, though the latter has a full-size bath. And it has butlers and dress codes and inclusive wine and cigars. Meanwhile, outside this lavish loco, super scenery slides by: the diamond-rush Kimberley, seemingly endless bushveld, the Great Karoo and, finally, magnificent Table Mountain itself.

The cost: The 27-hour Blue Train from Pretoria to Cape Town (or vice versa) costs from R12,280pp (£880), based on two sharing. This includes all meals, drinks and off-train excursions.

Make it cheaper: You can’t – sadly, R12,280pp is the cost of the cheapest cabin in low season. Trips in high-season (1 September-15 November) cost from R15,155 (£1,085) in Deluxe, R16,505pp (£1,180) in Luxury.

The alternative:

It will cost you from R560 (£40) to ride a Shosholoza Meyl train from Johannesburg to Cape Town. The service doesn’t quite extend to Pretoria, just north of Jo’burg, but otherwise it follows the Blue Train’s route to an inch. That’s the same grand veld views, with at least £840 change. Shosholoza Meyl is arguably more interesting, too: the cabins (two or four berth) are a little more plasticky and meals in the restaurant car aren’t included in the fare, but you’re far more likely to meet regular South Africans – who, like you, can’t afford the Blue. Oh, and you don’t have to dress for dinner.

4. Have a traditional night's sleep, Japan

Ryokan vs Minshuku

SAVE £630

The classic experience:

Though they come in varied shapes (and prices), most ryokan will fulfil your basic Japanese hotel fantasy. The interiors of these traditional inns are usually wooden, with sliding shoji screens, futon mattresses and tatami-mat floors. Service is impeccable and discreet; food – served in-room, by waitresses in kimonos – is delicious, exquisite and almost too pretty to eat. While you’re there, it’s shoes off and yukata robe on, to laze on your little terrace or maybe take a dip in the on-site onsen (hotspring baths).

The cost: Ryokan prices vary sharply. A top-end establishment with high-quality food and rooms with private onsen could cost ¥100,000 (£670) pppn. Simpler options cost between ¥12,000-20,000 (£77-128) pppn.

Make it cheaper: Stay in a lower-end ryokan. Also, many include breakfast and dinner in their rates; it may be possible to save by choosing a ryokan that doesn’t and eat elsewhere instead.

The alternative:

If a ryokan is a slick boutique hotel, a minshuku is a good, honest B&B. Smaller, simpler and family-run, minshuku still offer an authentic Oriental feel – beds will be futons on the floor, paper screens are common – but there will be no staff to serve you tea in tiny cups, bathing facilities will be shared, and likely no one will speak English. Meals are less fussy too, the emphasis being on good homecooked Japanese dishes rather than creating an edible work of art. But, for a friendly, informal feel, and a good cash saving – minshuku cost around ¥6,000-9,000 (£40-60) pppn – they’re hard to beat.

5. Infiltrate the fjords, Norway

Hurtigruten Voyage vs Geiranger Ferry

SAVE £1,952

The classic experience:

Norway’s west coast is notched by over 1,000 fabulous fjords, best seen and snuck into by boat. Luckily, the Hurtigruten (‘fast route’) fleet has been plying this serrated shore for 120 years. There are year-round daily departures on the 2,400km voyage from Bergen, in the south, to Arctic Kirkenes. En route you sail by Art Nouveau Ålesund, the Seven Sisters Mountains and the charming fishing huts of the Lofoten Islands. You also experience life aboard a working ship: this is no simple cruiser – locals use it as a vital lifeline to get between these remote, spectacular ports.

The cost: A one-way, seven-day midnight-sun sail from Bergen to Kirkenes (or vice versa – sailing south is slightly cheaper) in June-August costs from £1,738pp (based on two sharing an inside twin cabin); outside cabins cost from £2,007pp, suites considerably more.

Make it cheaper: Sail off-season – the lead-in fare for a January-March departure (good timing for northern lights) is £1,179pp. If you book for 2014 by the end of September there are discounts of up to 25%.

The alternative:

If you don’t have the time or budget to sail the length of Norway, opt for a mini-taster instead. UNESCO-listed Geiranger is the Taj Mahal of Norwegian fjords, its dramatic sides splattered by lofty waterfalls and dotted with abandoned farmsteads. From 20 June to 20 August, a ferry links Geiranger and Valldal, charging just NOK230 (£25) for 2 hours and 15 minutes of magnificent – if all-too-brief – fjord floating.

6. Navigate the Nile, Egypt

Cruise ship vs Felucca

SAVE £106

The classic experience:

Travellers have been cruising the Nile since the 19th-century: it was simply the way to see the best of Egypt, from its ancient relics to its rural life. Little has changed – the Nile remains the country’s lifeblood – though the boats have speeded up a bit. The most iconic way to cruise now is like those early tourists, aboard a replica dahabiya. These sailed houseboats offer old-school glamour as well as floating you by sites such as the Temple of Philae, Aswan and Luxor. Being smaller, too, they don’t need to dock alongside all the big cruise ships, and shore excursions are a less crowded affair.

The cost: A dahabiya cruise costs around US$175 (£112) pppn, including food and excursions.

Make it cheaper: There are simpler cruise ships on the Nile. A cabin on a basic motor vessel can cost from US$40-50 (£25-30) pppn; fancier ships with spas and pools will cost US$200 (£130)pppn-plus.

The alternative:

Without doubt, lateen-sailed felucca are the most authentic way to navigate the Nile, floating at the whim of the wind and mooring up at empty riverbanks. They also make for a great option for travelling on a budget: you’ll likely pay around US$10-12 (£6-8)pppn. Feluccas are a bit on the basic side, offering nothing but a deck (for communal sleeping); there are no bathrooms or cabins. But if you’re happy to face a few privations and aren’t in a hurry, this is the best (and cheapest) taste of real Egyptian river living.

7. Climbing volcanoes, Kenya

Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania vs Mt Kenya, Kenya

SAVE £250

The classic experience:

Kilimanjaro is king of the hiking world. For the non-technical trekker, there is no greater prize than to pose, exhausted but elated, next to THAT sign: ‘Congratulations! You Are Now At 5,895m, Africa’s Highest Point’. There are better, far more beautiful peaks to conquer, but Kili offers a uniquely alluring mix of imposing physical presence, manageable challenge and statistical prowess (continent’s loftiest, biggest free-standing mountain... etc). But it’s also an expensive thing to climb – and getting more so. From July 2013 Tanzania National Parks is increasing the conservation, camping and other fees for tackling Kilimanjaro.

The cost: Conservation fees are rising from US$60 (£38) to US$70 (£45) per day; other mandatory fees include those for camping/huts (US$50/60 [£32/38] pppn), mountain rescue (US$20 [£13]) and porters/guides (TNZ10,000 [£4] per porter/guide). A five-day dash (not recommended) up the hutted Marangu route costs US$610 (£390) in fees alone – that’s without food, crew wages, transfers or equipment.

Make it cheaper: Don’t. Scrimping on a Kilimanjaro climb means spending fewer days on the mountain, which means less time to acclimatise, which means less chance of success – false economy. 

The alternative:

Mount Kenya is Africa’s also-ran. The continent’s second-highest peak (5,199m) is still a big challenge, but it doesn’t seem to evoke the same excitement in travelling trekkers as big bro Kilimanjaro. Which is a shame, as it’s a great climb, with equally oddball plants, great volcanic scenery, higher chances of spotting wildlife (especially on the lush lower slopes) and fewer other trekkers. The climbing costs are also lower – park fees (including camping) cost US$220/270/320 [£140/170/205] for four/five/six-day packages. Plus, being a less formidable obstacle, you don’t need to spend as many days on the mountain. In an ideal world? Do both. Mount Kenya is a great acclimatiser for climbing Kilimanjaro itself.

8. Watch whales, Hermanus, South Africa

Boat vs Clifftops

SAVE £188

The classic experience:

There’s something almost spiritual about watching a whale. Indeed, few remain unmoved if they’re lucky enough to spot one of these timeless creatures of the deep rear into the human world – playful yet stately, huge yet benign. Hermanus, on the south coast of South Africa’s Western Cape, is one of the best places in the world to see them. From early June to early December large numbers of southern rights come into the town’s Walker Bay to breed; humpback and Bryde’s whales, African penguins, Cape fur seals and dolphins also like it here. Regular trips head out from Hermanus; strict regulations require boats to stay at least 50m away from the whales, but southern rights are curious creatures, often approaching for a closer look.

The cost: A two- to three-hour boat trip from Hermanus costs around R600-900 (£43-64). Whale watching by Cessna plane is also available; a 30-minute flight costs from around R2,640 (£188) for up to three passengers.

Make it cheaper: Hit the water in a kayak instead; two-hour guided trips cost around R300 (£21). Note, kayaks are not permitted within 300m of a whale, but intimate encounters with Cape fur seals and seabirds are common.

The alternative:

The beauty of Hermanus is the proximity of its cetaceans. Fond of Walker Bay’s shallow, safe and sandy waters, the visiting whales come close to land. This allows for excellent – and free – shore-based whale-watching, and trails along the fringing clifftops can provide fine views of their breeching, tail-flicking antics; hotspots include Gearings Point and the Old Harbour. The world’s only ‘whale-crier’ makes life easier, too: every day, 10am-4pm, June to December, a man with a kelp horn does his rounds around Hermanus, sounding a different blast depending on where the whales are spotted.

9. Float down the Amazon, Brazil

Cruise ship vs Ferries

SAVE £1,085

The classic experience:

The Amazon offers cruising at its most literally wild – surrounding this vast watercourse are swathes and swathes (and swathes) of forest, teeming with critters of all colours and sizes. Boat travel is the only way to access impenetrable thickets, monkey-swung trees and lively tributaries. It also means you’re immersed in the jungle: in its heat, its vivacity, its deafening chorus. Many tourist boats ply the waters. The best choices are the smaller vessels that can squeeze down narrower channels, dock at more ports and get closer to all the action. Even better is a boat with a bit of class; for example, the MV Tucano is a traditional three-storey riverboat with just nine wood-panelled cabins, plus a spacious saloon and expert guides to point out the creatures lurking beyond.

The cost: A five-day cruise aboard the MV Tucano costs around US$1,800 (£1,150).

Make it cheaper: Manaus-based Amazon Clipper has both a ‘traditional’ and ‘premium’ fleet, catering to cruisers of differing budgets. It offers shorter cruises too: its three-day Amazon sail costs from US$667 (£425).

The alternative:

Buy a hammock and brace yourself – tracing the Amazon by public riverboats is not an experience for the faint of heart, but it’s a full-on adventure for a fraction of the cost. No one boat runs the entire river course from source to mouth (which would take weeks). Try a section: say, the three-or-so day sail between Tabatinga, on Brazil’s border with Colombia and Peru, to Manaus. These ferries have few cabins (costing around R$800, £240); better, buy a hammock space (R$200/ £65) from the ferry docks and get to the boat eight hours before departure to secure a decent stringing spot – the upper deck, away from the toilets and kitchen is best. Then lay back and let the cry of the howler monkeys, the babble of your fellow passengers and the rhythm of the water rock you to sleep.

10. Play with penguins, Argentina

Antarctica vs Punta Tombo

SAVE £4,987

The classic experience:

The rules may state that tourists mustn’t get closer than 5m to a penguin – but no one has ever told the penguins that. Many a lucky South Seas cruiser has found themselves not only over-awed by the sound, stench and sheer size of an Antarctic penguin colony, but overjoyed that the inquisitive birds seem to want to say hello. Sailing to the pristine White Continent offers the chance to wander amid an avian multitude, from 100,000-strong gaggles of king penguins (best seen on the island of South Georgia) to masses of macaronis, Adélies, emperors and chinstraps too.

The cost: A ten-night cruise from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula costs from around £3,000. Longer cruises that visit South Georgia cost upwards of around £5,000.

Make it cheaper: You could risk travelling directly to Ushuaia to try to bag a last-minute bargain; this may require a lengthy stay in the port city. Deals and availability are more likely to be found at the beginning and end of the cruise season (November, February-March); December-January are peak months.

The alternative:

Granted, the rocky reserve at Punta Tombo doesn’t have much by way of penguin variety, but it does have up to 200,000 pairs of one type, the cute and compact Magellanic. And, helpfully, it’s a little easier and cheaper to access than Antarctica. Punta Tombo, on Argentina’s Pacific coast, is 170km south of Puerto Madryn, which is around 1,400km from Buenos Aires – a long way, but on good roads. From late September to March, Magellanics flock here to nest and breed; December-January is the best time to see the chicks. Visitors to the reserve (entrance roughly US$20/£13) must stick to the trails and boardwalks, but these still allow close encounters with the birds.

11. Explore ancient heritage, United Kingdom

Stonehenge vs Avebury

SAVE £16.30

The classic experience:

Stonehenge is impressive. This ancient ring dates back to around 3,000 BC, and some of its monoliths were dragged 240km from Wales. However, its should-be-mystical atmosphere is somewhat tainted by the adjacent A303, and the unfriendly fence which means that, with a regular ticket, you can’t get in among the stones themselves. For that, book English Heritage Stone Circle Access (available April-September), which allows admittance to the circle in a pre-designated slot outside of regular opening hours.

The cost: Regular admittance costs £8 (EH members: free); Stone Circle Access costs £16.30 (EH: £13) and must be pre-booked.

Make it cheaper: The Stonehenge World Heritage Site is far more extensive than the circle. To avoid the entrance fee, take a (free) hike around the surrounding landscape instead. Wander down the 2.5km bank-and-ditch Avenue and visit the burial mounds of King Barrow Ridge and the enclosure of the Greater Cursus.

The alternative:

That Avebury gets ignored over showier Stonehenge is a tourism conundrum. Not quite as neat and tidy, perhaps, but the ancient stone circle that part-encompasses this Wiltshire village is one of the biggest in the world. Better still, you can wander right in it, day or night – for free. Standing amid the rocks, you better appreciate the effort behind their erection. Also, the circle is only one of a scatter of treasures that makes up this Neolithic theme park. Walk around nearby Silbury Hill, into West Kennet Long Barrow and along West Kennet Avenue to get a better feel for the whole ancient landscape.

12. Get close to critters, Ecuador

Galapagos Islands vs Isla de la Plata

SAVE £3,470

The classic experience:

The Galápagos Islands offer wildlife-watching at its most intimate and wonderfully weird. Cruise this Darwin-inspiring archipelago, 1,000km off the Ecuadorean mainland, and you’ll find unearthly volcanic islands a-tumble with fearless creatures that will nibble your flippers, invade your personal space and generally flabber your gast. Of course, uniqueness isn’t cheap, but there are animals here you won’t see anywhere else (marine iguanas, Darwin’s finches, Galápagos tortoises), and others you’ll never see so close, doing things – snorting, cavorting, courting, evolving – you can barely believe.

The cost: For a lower-end week-long Galápagos cruise, expect to pay from US$1,000 (£638) plus flights from the mainland (around £270 with TAME) and park-entry fee (US$100/£64); however, cost is an indicator of quality and high end expeditions cost US$1,500-3,500 (£960-2,235).

Make it cheaper: Shorter cruises are possible, but will dramatically impinge on your experience. Those with time and flexibility could fly to Quito and scour local travel agencies for last-minute deals. For potentially even better deals, fly to the Galápagos and check out the agencies in Puerto Ayora.

The alternative:

Isla de la Plata, a tiny scrubby isle just 35km off mainland Ecuador, is known as the ‘poor man’s Galápagos’. There’s not the same multi-island magic here, but a day-trip from Puerto Lopez – usually including a 90-minute boat crossing, island stroll, birdwatching, snorkelling, lunch and return sail – costs US$30-45. Plata’s ‘Galápagos-lite’ experiences include up-close encounters with three types of boobies (blue-footed, red-footed, Nazca), plus sightings of frigatebirds and waved albatross (breeding season: April-October), snorkelling with sea lions and the possibility of spotting humpback whales, which swim by June-September.

Stay more, pay less!

Camping: We know it gets you closer to nature, but who would have ever thought that camping could be described as ‘boutique’, ‘luxury’ or ‘cool’? Camping has never been trendier with yurts, camping pods and safari tents all on offer. For UK options check out coolcamping.co.uk. And if ‘glamping’ isn’t your thing, check out Wanderlust magazine editor Phoebe Smith’s book Extreme Sleeps (Summersdale, £9) for inspiration on some wild sleeps.

Hostels: Think hostels are all about students and dorms? Well think again. There’s been a huge growth in hostels with private rooms and en-suites, and some even have swimming pools, private cinemas or their own cafes and bars. Even a ‘luxury’ hostel will usually be better value than a budget hotel, will offer good value or free activities and tours, and will be social and friendly. Take a look at HostelWorld or Hostelling International.

Hospitality exchange networks: There are several of these networks of hosts and travellers offering and seeking accommodation. Servas is the granddaddy of them all, set up in 1949 as a non-profit organisation to promote world peace. Travellers must go through an interview process before being accepted. It tends to attract a more mature, educated type – typically retired teachers and professionals. The internet has allowed a number of other hospitality exchange sites to set up. Although they don’t have the interviews and formal structure of Servas, they usually encourage comments and recommendations by both travellers and hosts. Couchsurfing is probably the best known of these, and has the most extensive profiles; it holds events too.

Rental / Private accommodation: Renting usually works out cheaper than a hotel, and there’s been a growth in people renting out their own homes when they are away – airbnb.com offer rooms for rent in people’s homes, as well as more standard self-catering options. HouseTrip has a range of properties that you can rent for one night upwards, and point out that “You can help fund your own trip by renting out your home while you’re away.”

Campus Accommodation: Want a bargain in the peak holiday periods? During the academic holidays many universities have rooms that can be rented. This can be a particularly cheap way of staying in UK cities such as London, Edinburgh and Oxford. Take a look at university-rooms.com.

Housesitting: Responsible and an animal lover? Then house-sitting could be the option for you. While not all house-sits involve pets, many do. TrustedHousesitters.com have all sorts of opportunities ranging from looking after alpacas in Somerset, through a two-week stay in Brooklyn, New York, going up to a year looking after a house and dog in Costa Rica.

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