From the distant shores of Israel and Morocco, to Ireland and Scotland's Inner Hebrides, 12 Wanderlust readers reveal the best independently-booked budget adventures, and how you can enjoy them, too...
Who went? Lauren Williams, 22, copywriter
Why go? Old Orient route to snow, wolves and peaks
How long can you go for? Five nights
Lauren's total spend: £240.50
Getting there: Flights from Gatwick, Stansted and Luton to Budapest on Skyscanner starting from £42 rtn. Train from Budapest to Brasov from €29. Book in advance on the Hungarian Railways website, mavcsoport.hu
Where to stay: Florin B&B Apartments, Brasov; four-person apartment from €22.
I wish I’d known... There wouldn't be enough snow to snowboard.
Four hours and 54 games of UNO after leaving Budapest’s Keleti Station, I was tired but comfortable. The train that took us along part of the glorious old Orient Express route was shabby chic: think easyJet-orange baggage shelves, plastic curtains (the type you’d see in Gran’s old caravan) and chairs with worn leathery covers that hadn’t changed since the 1950s.
I spent a few hours on the so-called ‘express’ from Budapest to Brasov in half-conscious sleep. When I awoke, feeling grotty and groggy, I just watched the Romanian countryside roll by.
The word to describe it? Nothing. Absolutely nothing – miles and miles of not much at all. However, the nothing was oddly stunning, oddly more-ish to watch. And I watched for a good few hours, fascinated by the simplicity of the scenery unfolding as we delved deeper into the country. I lost count of how many horses and carts I spotted waiting patiently at level crossings, or how many shepherds and their dogs I saw standing motionless in the middle of nowhere.
On arrival in the Transylvanian metropolis of Brasov, I found my way to my little apartment with the help of a very friendly local. After a quick nap and a shower to wipe off the grime of no-sleep-on-an-old-train, I wrapped up and braved the freezing alpine air.
Brasov’s main thoroughfare was something out of a fairytale, with its red-tiled roofs, cobbled streets and chocolate-box buildings. Smoke poured from the doorways of underground bars and the smell of glühwein wafted temptingly on a cold breeze.
The next day I headed 30 minutes south to Bran to be greeted by two inches of fresh snow underfoot. Wolves howling all around me, I slipped and skidded up the icy hill to Bran Castle (of Dracula fame). After an hour of exploring hidden staircases, passages and imposing towers, a hearty lunch was needed to warm the cockles. However, I stayed well away from a dish called barbaia vampirului (vampire’s manhood) when it was offered...
I missed the train to Sighisoara by about three hours the next morning, so decided to spend the day hopping from bar to church to bar to tower in Brasov instead. I wandered among burnt-orange rooftops dusted with snow, through maze-like alleys sandwiched between higgledy-piggledy rows of houses and beside almost-frozen streams.
After spending that night in an underground Irish bar on Brasov high street, I took the next day easy with plenty of good food and a trip to the top of Mount Tampa, where the winds were high, the snow fresh and the views indescribable.
Time soon crept up on me. I headed back to Brasov station to hop on the train back to Budapest. It was a slight disappointment when the train pulled up – there was nothing old or rustic about it; it more resembled the six-hour choo-choo that runs from Penzance to London, with rows and rows of uncomfortable, itchy seats. Unsurprisingly, sleep eluded me once more.
Who went? Liam Goucher, 25, PhD student
Why go? To show you can take an interesting trip without breaking the bank
How long for? Four nights
Liam's total spend: £247
I wish I’d known... To cross from Gibraltar to Spain for cheaper food/hotel options.
Drinking mint tea at Riad Dar Massaï, I thought about how Marrakech felt so vastly different to anywhere in Europe. From the moment I awoke to the early call to prayer, the city was a hive of activity, colour and smells.
My favourite sights – Koutoubia Mosque, Saadian Tombs, El Bahia Palace – are inside the walled Medina. And getting lost among the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, and haggling over everything from spices to teapots, is a must.
However, the Djemaa el-Fna is the best place to get your bearings. This sprawling square, packed with traders and donkey carts, really comes to life at night when people flock to eat at the hastily erected food stalls offering an array of quick, traditional and cheap Moroccan food.
From Marrakech, we travelled north by night-train to the historic port of Tangier and crossed the Strait of Gibraltar by ferry.
Gibraltar is a curious place. In some ways it’s stereotypically British, with red phoneboxes and English police officers patrolling a high street of familiar shops. But it’s also hard to miss the influence of neighbouring Spain and North Africa.
The highlight is the ‘Rock’, a huge, 427m limestone ridge patrolled by hundreds of free-roaming Barbary macaques (below). The road to the top is narrow, with few barriers; the cablecar is reasonably priced and offers a much less stressful ascent.
Who went? Jennifer Frame, 33, yield manager
Why go? You needn’t ‘go further’ to find inspiring travel
How long for? Eight nights
Jennifer's total spend: £244.63
Getting there: Overnight coach London to Glasgow from £29 rtn with National Express. Citylink bus Glasgow to Kennacraig port (£23 rtn). ‘Hopscotch’ ferry ticket, valid between mainland, Arran and Islay from £30 with Calmac.
I wish I’d known... I needed an extra day to visit the isle of Jura.
The first leg of my Scottish island-hopping adventure took me to Islay in the Inner Hebrides, to a hostel in an old whisky warehouse in pretty Port Charlotte: peaceful, relaxing – perfect.
On Sundays there is no public transport, so it was a long, bracing hike to the island’s south-west tip. I was sad not to spot seals – and to get drenched walking back. What was I doing here late-September without a car? Thankfully I was offered a lift by some locals and dried out with tea and cake in a café: it was tough to stay on budget in this weather!
Port Ellen’s pretty whitewashed houses and sandy bay were a bus ride away. I hired a bike and cycled quiet roads across the countryside towards the Mull of Oa, a haven for birdlife. It was an uphill slog there, but a freewheeling downhill on the way back.
Whisky is Islay’s major attraction, so I checked out the Laphroaig distillery and joined locals for a wee dram in a cosy bar. In the morning I crossed to Lochranza, on the north tip of Arran. My loch-side hostel was beautifully refurbished and framed by mountains and castle ruins, with red deer and sheep roaming outside.
Hiking Arran’s tallest peak, Goat Fell, was a highlight. Other walks took me to Machrie Moor’s Bronze Age stone circles and King’s Cave, where Robert the Bruce is said to have hidden during his last bid to free Scotland.
Then it was back to Glasgow, a hectic hub after a peaceful week on the islands.
Who went? Eleanor Ross, 22, student
Why go? Israel is thought unsafe and unwelcoming. I wanted to see for myself.
How long for? Three nights
Eleanor's total spend: £233.57
I wish I’d known... How expensive food is.
Three girls stood in front of me, buying hot chocolate; each had a machine gun. I ordered an espresso to go and fled back to Jerusalem’s Old Town, where the most military markings were bullet holes from 1967s Six Day War. For tourists, Israel has everything: access to the Dead Sea, a beautiful coast, desert, mountains, famous sights. It just has a bit of political baggage too.
After a night in Tel Aviv, I’d bussed 60km south to Jerusalem, looking out for the golden Dome of the Rock, Islam’s third-holiest site, as we wound along the cliff roads. The city’s thick walls rose above the stone walkways, rubbed smooth by pilgrims en route to the Western Wall. Here, bits of paper, scribbled with prayers, were tucked into the cracks.
The Dead Sea is a great day trip from Jerusalem, and budget travellers should alight at the public beach. Complete with palm trees, rugged desert and clear water, it’s a great place for the Dead Sea ‘experience’. I also soaked in religion – seeing ‘Rachel’s Tomb’ or ‘Sea of Galilee’ on the road signs was thrilling. For some, all this significance is too much: each year a few tourists are hospitalised with a psychosis called ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’.
Do visit Israel – and cast aside any preconceptions. The West Bank barrier divides communities in two in an attempt to stem fighting, and it’s a common assumption that Jews and Muslims live segregated lives, constantly embroiled in internal conflict.
But... “Tell your people we love each other,” laughed one Jewish woman, hugging her Muslim friend. “Most of us long for peace.”
Who went? Alex Mapleson, 25, accountant
Why go? Eastern cities are most atmospheric (and cheapest) in winter
How long for? Five nights
Alex's total spend: £248
Getting there: Fly London to Bucharest from £10 one way, Kiev to London from £14 one way, both on Skyscanner. Sleeper train Bucharest to Chişinău from £24 and Chişinău to Kiev from £25.
I wish I’d known... To pack a Cyrillic dictionary, to help read signs.
Travelling on night trains through Eastern Europe is quite an experience. Unbearable heat spews from the cabins and foul smells from the toilets but, once settled in your bunk with some Moldovan wine, they take on a new charm.
We started out in Bucharest, a surprisingly grand city. The main street, Calea Victoriei, is flanked by statues, museums and churches, while the medieval Old Quarter is all cobbled streets and craft markets.
However, like the Palace of Parliament, built by Ceauşescu before his execution in 1989, Bucharest lacked depth. The Palace itself is the world’s second-largest office building, after the US Pentagon. However, a tour inside showed it’s mostly an unused white elephant.
One of those memorable trains took us on to Chişinău, Moldova, a city of gridded tree-lined avenues. It lacks tourist sites, but makes up for that with some excellent microbreweries and wine bars.
The undoubted highlight, though, was stop three: Kiev. I loved the Great Patriotic War Museum and theme park of Soviet memorabilia. The whole city was buzzing, and clearly investing a lot of money for Euro 2012. The football fans will be delighted by the abundance of cheap beer; hopefully they’ll take time to explore the city, too.
Who went? Nick Ladd, 42, manager
Why go? Venice has a reputation for being pricey – I wanted to debunk that myth
How long for? Three days
Nick's total spend: £245.50
Getting there: Fly London to Venice from £38 return on Skyscanner. Venice to Padua train costs €12.
Where to stay: Ciao Venice Guest House starts from £32pppn.
I wish I’d known... To read up on the art and architecture, to better appreciate them.
Venice on a late-November evening, sea mist shrouding the city, was cold. Very cold. Walking down alleys alongside canals, we saw few people; the odd tourist, dragging their wheelie cases over the bridges, clearly wished they’d brought a backpack.
I’d imagined our two-bed apartment would be tiny, but I was pleasantly surprised. It had windows directly onto a canal and, just outside, an accordion player stamped his feet between tunes to keep warm.
The Jewish quarter, Campo Del Getto, was a quiet backwater. Immaculate parents grasped thick hot chocolates in small bars while the kids chased the cats in the square outside. Nearby, the daily traffic of plumbers, carpenters, deliveries and tourist taxis chugged by along the canals.
Nothing quite prepares you for the magnificence of St Mark’s Square and the rows of polished gondolas moored at the water’s edge. One gondolier was doing good business with the help of his mini dachshund – they wore matching stripy jumpers. Raised boardwalks along every main thoroughfare were a reminder of Venice’s precarious state; we had just missed one of the city’s frequent winter floods.
We took a 30-minute train trip to the old university town of Padua. I wanted to see the Giotto frescoes in Scrovegni Chapel, but it was closed. Nonetheless, the Basilica of St Anthony and Palazzo della Ragione were impressive – and oddly quiet.
Back in Venice, we visited the Palazzo Ducale. I have a fascination for old prisons and shivered at the thought of being held in one of the Palace’s tiny cells – cold and dark, yet so close to all that opulence and luxury.
Who went? Leanne Hyland, 21, trainee journalist
Why go? To visit the monastic island of Skellig Michael
How long for? Four nights
Leanne's total spend: £220
Getting there: London to Kerry from £25 on Skyscanner.
I wish I’d known... The weather forecast.
I began my Irish adventure with an evening walk through Killarney National Park. The edge of Lough Leane gave sweeping views of the mountains and, as I navigated the forest track, I found myself surrounded on all sides by wild herds of red deer. A good start.
The following morning I headed south on foot towards Muckross Abbey, a spectacular ruin with many rooms to explore. Heading east, I continued to the deserted forests of the park’s Blue Pool area. And I finished that night back in Killarney, with traditional Irish music at O’Connors pub.
The bus to Cahersiveen, a town on the Ring of Kerry circuit, was interesting: at times the road clung to near-vertical hillsides that dropped away to sea. On arrival, I walked along the waterfront to the ivy-clad ruins of Ballycarbery Castle, severely damaged by Cromwell’s forces in 1652, and the two ancient stone ring forts.
The main aim of my trip was to visit Skellig Michael, a former monastic island located 15km offshore. However, adverse weather conditions dashed my plans. Bitterly disappointed, but with a few days to spare, I hopped on the ferry to Valentia Island. A day’s walk through Glanleam woods to The Grotto, a huge cavern left over from slate mining, gave incredible views.
On my final day I battled near gale-force winds to cycle 16km from Cahersiveen to Portmagee, hoping for a view across to Skellig Michael. Although I couldn’t make out the island’s jagged silhouette, the ocean was dramatic, high waves crashing onto the shore. Not what I’d hoped for – but the Irish weather obviously had its own plans for me.
Who went? Gavin Fernandes, 42, self-employed
Why go? To visit this isle out of season, for cliff walks and pretty bays
How long for? Five nights
Gavin's total spend: £195
Where to stay: Sliema hostels has beds from £16.
Rabbit burger cost: €7.95. Sounded interesting. I’ve always had a desire (or obsession, even) for trying a nation’s delicacies.
I wish I’d known... The winter climate can bring sun hot enough to burn but also heavy rain and a cold wind – I got the full range in my five days.
I’d just arrived in Valletta, Malta’s capital, and was strolling the bustling streets within the city’s ramparts, past ornate churches and palaces, restaurants and modern shopfronts.
Outside the city gate, buses congregated around the Triton Fountain, as they have done for years. But these were not the colourful old classics, loved by many. Those vintage Bedfords were replaced last July by Arriva’s modern fleet, including a number of articulated ‘bendy buses’ that, until recently, meandered the streets of London.
Travel icon or not, the Malta bus was my transport of choice for the duration of my stay. I bought a seven-day pass for a very reasonable €12.
My first trip was out to the picturesque fishing village of Marsaskala for an afternoon photographing small, brightly painted boats in front of the imposing 17th century St Thomas’ Tower. It was a pleasantly quiet little place with a handful of small bars and restaurants around the harbour. Returning by a different route, I paid a visit to the medieval walled town of Mdina, the former Maltese capital, for a wander through its narrow streets.
Changing buses at Marsa on Saturday afternoon, I discovered the Sports Club and a horse-racing meeting in full swing – only here the jockeys were being pulled along at speed on two-wheeled chariots rather than riding on the horses’ backs.
At the Sunday morning market at Marsaxlokk, I walked around the bay, passing lace and linen fluttering in the breeze and freshly caught fish and octopuses squirming in shallow trays of water, awaiting their fate on a plate. As it got to lunchtime, few seats were to be found in the local seafood restaurants.
Taking the coastal road to the ferry port, the scenery became a lot more desolate and rugged as we ventured further from the larger towns. It was a taste of what was to come on Gozo, the more rural sister island to Malta’s mainland.
The ferry took less than half an hour to reach Gozo, passing the tiny isle of Comino on the way. Summertime sees boatloads of swimmers and snorkellers come to dive in the warm waters of its Blue Lagoon, but today Comino’s waters looked rather cold and grey.
From the port I took a bus to the Gozitan capital, Victoria, and waited for a connection to Ta’ Cenc, the island’s highest point. I followed the path up onto the clifftop and continued walking back along the coast, 150m above the crashing waves.
The view of the Comino cliffs in the distance, with Malta’s late afternoon sun on the horizon, was literally breathtaking as I clambered over the rocky landscape in the blustering wind.
I made it down to port for the last ferry before dark, and was soon back in Valletta, ready to sample a few well-deserved Hopleaf ales from the local Farsons Brewery. And the rabbit? It tasted a bit like snake.
Who went? Sandra Moody, 60, retired
Why go? To take an unusual journey to a remote place, in the UK
How long for? Four nights
Sandra's total spend: £239.41
Where to stay: South Lighthouse B&B provides full board from £75pp.
I wish I’d known... To research internet access points for when plans had to be altered.
Perhaps most famous for shipping forecasts ad specialising in knitting, tiny Fair Isle – the UK's remotest inhabited island – is a mere dot on the map between Orkney and Shetland. Access is by mailboat or eight-seater plane from Lerwisk, on Shetland – but the weather regularly disrupts both. This unpredictability makes the journey as much of an experience as the arrival. Which was part of the attraction.
I arrived in Lerwick to find the mailboat had sailed early to avoid bad weather; my earliest means of getting to Fair Isle would be by air the next morning. Could I fly within budget? It turned out I could. However, again the weather muscled in: strong winds grounded all flights. I was so near yet so far!
Fortunately, after several hours, the winds eased and my patience was rewarded with fine aerial views of Fair Isle before we landed on the airstrip, freshly cleared of sheep.
On hearing about my £250 challenge, my hosts at the South Lighthouse B&B helped me plan how to pack everything into one night now rather than two. I climbed Malcolm’s Head for a magnificent 360° view and walked round the island’s south, where the majority of the 70-odd residents live.
My hosts had invited friends from the Bird Observatory for dinner, so as well as a great meal there was a night of lively conversation followed by an observatory tour.
After an early breakfast by torchlight (Fair Isle’s electricity is turned off overnight), my host drove me to the harbour to catch the 6am mailboat. It pitched and rolled all the way back to Lerwick – just another part of this great journey.
Who went? Nathan Bates, 21, student
Why go? Nothing beats clean mountain water and fresh air
How long for? Four nights
Nathan's total spend: £220
I wish I’d known... A basic grasp of Polish would have helped considerably.
Southern Poland has much to attract travellers, including two gems: one firmly on the tourist trail and one very much off. The former is Kraków, which I explored on the first morning, wandering the elegant streets towards Wawel Hill, the ancient political centre of Poland, with its grand cathedral and Italian-style courtyard.
Then, travelling via the hugely thought-provoking Auschwitz concentration camp, its grim past in stark contrast to the warm autumnal sun, I arrived at the latter gem: the High Tatras mountains. The odd mix of tradition and tourism in Zakopane was intriguing, but the mountains themselves were everything I could have hoped for: compact and spectacular; fresh and invigorating; utterly beautiful.
Going in early November was perhaps slightly too late for ideal hiking, as the high ground already had some snow. The upside was that the white coating made the peaks look quite formidable. Taking the cable-car up Kasprowy Wierch (1,987m) gave me a fantastic (downhill) hike past alpine lakes. Murowaniec mountain hut was packed with Poles enjoying meals.
A longer hike took me through the forested Dolina Bystrej Valley, then up to the peak of Sarnia Skala (1,377m) for sweeping views back to the town on one side, to even larger peaks on the other.
After a long lunch, I returned to Zakopane via the peaceful Strazyska Valley. The trails were well marked and generally a pleasure. In fact, navigating the mountains was much easier than finding my way onto a Zakopane-bound bus in Kraków station!
Who went? Sasha Wood, 30, journalist
Why go? Curiosity about a country long cut off from the world.
How long for? Five nights
Sasha's total spend: £248
I wish I’d known... It gets chilly at night.
For most, Albania is a blank on the map, in part due to its isolation under a communist regime that ended in 1992. But that only piqued my curiosity. Flights to capital Tirana would have bust my budget, so I flew to nearby Corfu and entered by the backdoor.
Sailing into the Albanian port of Saranda, it seemed like a Spanish Costa in miniature: concrete blocks around a bay. But the seafront facade is just that. Head away from the main strip and tatty markets squeeze into the gaps created by poor urban planning.
Poverty is evident. Despite being almost winter, every day felt like spring. However, it got dark at 5pm, which caught me out a few times. This was especially spooky in Butrint National Park, where I had to find my way back past ghostly Greek and Roman ruins in the near-pitch.
Bus rides through the mountains were also hairy. On my way to UNESCO-listed Gjirokastra, the van sped along a winding single-lane road. I tried to focus on the view, reminiscent of the Lake District’s fells.
Gjirokastra – the ‘town of 1,000 steps’ – is all slate-roofed Ottoman houses piling down steep cobbled streets. I spent hours exploring the fortress, where rulers have been leaving their mark since the sixth century.
I saw few tourists, but on the boat back to Greece I met an Albanian who’d once worked in Windsor, Wanderlust’s hometown. It really is a small world. And Albania is no exception.
Who went? Keith Ruffles, 29, customer service assistant
Why go? To find out if it's like the USSR used to be
How long for? Five nights
Keith's total spend: £216
Getting there: Fly London to Bucharest from £54 return on Skyscanner. Bucharest to Chisinau (Moldova) by coach costs £27. Taxis/buses connect to Tiraspol.
Where to stay: Marisha arranges beds and homestays, starting from £12.50.
I wish I’d known... To check my 24-hour entry card: I was two hours late leaving, and had to pay a £10 bribe to re-enter Moldova…
I’d once heard about a place where statues of Lenin still line the streets; a place notorious for weapons (and people) smuggling; a place rarely visited by outsiders. That place? Transnistria, an unrecognised breakaway state between Moldova and Ukraine.
Getting there on a budget took a bit of planning: I took a cheap flight to Bucharest, then an overnight bus to Chisinau in neighbouring Moldova. After a night there, I caught a shared taxi to Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. I’d heard stories about people being refused entry at the border or being shaken down for bribes, but nothing untoward happened; my passport was checked and I was issued with an entry card.
Once safely in Tiraspol I had a couple of hours checking out the sights, souvenir-hunting and taking photos. It was absolutely fascinating, with plenty of Soviet memorials of the sort that have long been torn down in other parts of the former USSR. I changed some money into Transnistria roubles – a currency that can’t be exchanged anywhere else – before heading to a rented apartment.
Later that afternoon I met up with Mila Selezneva, a trainee journalist with Dnestr TV; she had read about my trip on my blog and was keen to talk about life in the UK. That evening Mila and her friend Aleksei took me out for a traditional Russian meal and a shot of the local vodka, and they joined me for lunch again the next day.
After shaking hands and exchanging gifts I boarded a bus back to Moldova for the rest of my trip, safe in the knowledge that I’d made two very good friends.
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