I imagine most people’s reactions to the title of this post will be “I wish!” How many times have you had a wonderful holiday, used your credit card to its max, then returned home to the worry of paying your credit card bill? Doesn’t it negate some of the positive effects of your holiday – so why not do things differently this year?
The first step is to plan your holiday well in advance, looking online for information about the area you will be visiting. I can give you plenty of general tips for saving money in Spain - and most of those will apply to other countries - but even within Spain different regions have different traditions. Some holiday-makers may return home from Spain raving about the free tapas they had with every drink, but others may say they had to pay for their tapas, albeit they were very cheap, so it helps to know in advance.
Before moving to Spain, we decided to use the train to travel there, partly because it is stress-free compared to flying, and partly because we didn’t have to worry about the weight of our cases! On checking online we discovered that Renfe have a special discount card for over 60s (la tarjeta dorada), which gives discounts of between 25% and 40%. At a cost of 5€ for the annual card, we were soon saving money!
We also discovered that Renfe have occasional Estrella offers, so we were able to travel first-class for the same price as normal second-class fares. Not only did we have more comfortable, spacious seats, but our lunch and drinks were included, so we were actually saving money. Note however that, if you are a vegetarian or have special dietary needs, you will need to book your meal in advance.
If you are staying in a hotel, check what is included in the price. If a buffet breakfast is on offer it may be cost-effective, as a good breakfast will keep you going for hours. However if breakfast is extra, and especially if it is a continental breakfast, it could be cheaper going to the nearest bar. This is where prior research is useful: I have to thank fellow travellers who posted on tripadvisor for identifying local bars where we could buy a cheap breakfast and good budget restaurants close to our hotel.
Families may find it cheaper to stay in a self-catering apartment, however be aware that supermarkets on a resort may be surprisingly pricey, and what you don’t want to do is arrive just before it shuts and spend a small fortune trying to stock up for your holiday! If you have done your advance research, you will know where the nearest large supermarkets are and, more importantly, what is the local market day. All you need when you arrive are a few basics until you can go shopping in the morning. Fruit and vegetables will be a lot tastier if you buy them in the local market, as well as cheaper, and you may find good cheeses, cold meats and other local delicacies on offer there.
A good option on a hot day is to visit a couple of air-conditioned museums! Be aware that in Spain many museums are closed on Monday, however if you have checked in advance you will already know that. You will also know whether museums are free on certain days (in Madrid, for example, many museums are either free or cheaper on Sunday mornings) and whether discounts are given for EU residents and/or pensioners (have your passport with you!)
If you are going out for the day, budget for a cheap menú del día (in Spain) or look out for le menu or la formule (in France) or similar offers. If you decide to have just a snack for lunch and eat later on, you will probably end up spending a lot more money, particularly if you become very hungry! I know – that happened to us in Paris!
Beware of optional day trips, which may sound tempting but often end up costing you a lot of money. When we were staying at an apartment-hotel in Marbella, we were told about a day-trip to Gibraltar. We thought it was a bit expensive for what was basically a coach-trip with nothing extra included, so investigated the alternatives. We found out that the local bus to La Linea was a lot cheaper, so we took that to save money. We discovered that it saved time too, as lots of coaches and cars were lined up waiting to cross the border, while we strolled across in seconds!
Don’t stop for food or drinks in the main plazas or squares in any tourist area, or you will be charged tourist prices. John and I saw a reasonably priced menú in the window of a restaurant on Las Ramblas in Barcelona, and were impressed by the cost in what we expected to be a pricey area. We then noticed that it didn’t mention any drinks, even though a menú del día usually includes one, so we went inside to check. The waiter was keen to take us to a table (it was obvious that we were tourists!), however before sitting down we asked whether drinks were included. They were not. We then asked to look at the wine list, before beating a hasty retreat! The food might have been reasonably priced, but the drinks were definitely over-priced.
We turned down a side street and soon discovered a good neighbourhood restaurant, which seemed to be full of locals rather than other tourists, and where the final bill came to less than the food alone in the first restaurant. Lesson learnt!
Join in the local fiestas for a great and cheap night out. Many resorts offer free entertainment, but some acts are not much better than a karaoke evening, and most bars will charge you a lot for a couple of drinks – remember the worse the act, the more you are likely to drink! I hasten to add that we have enjoyed watching some very talented performers while on holiday, but these have been the exception rather than the rule.
Wander into the town centre where the local fiesta is taking place, and you will soon be enjoying a real party atmosphere. The entertainment will be free, any food and drinks will be either free or far more reasonably priced than back at your hotel or resort, and the whole experience will be one to remember. No doubt we are prejudiced, but we can highly recommend a visit to Jumilla in August. As well as the renowned Fiesta de la Vendimia, you can enjoy the National Folklore Festival and the spectacular Moors and Christians parades.
I suspect that you won’t be brave enough to leave your credit card at home when going on holiday, but I am hoping that with a bit of advanced planning, and by using your common sense while away, you may be able to leave it in the safe until you return home.
If you have any of your own budget holiday tips to share, please send them to me via the comments box below, and maybe we can have an “International Budget Holiday Tips” feature next time!