I first visited Scotland in 2016, and now I am lucky enough to call it my home.
I’m often travelling the length of the country for work and for pleasure, and I’ve ticked many Scotland destinations off my bucket list. I’m a budget conscious traveller; I want to save money whenever I can, and use these savings to pay for amazing experiences.
And here’s the truth: a trip to Scotland can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be.
In this article, I’m spilling my best money saving secrets; I’m going to show you exactly how you can travel Scotland on a budget. I’ve also asked some other Scotland travel experts for their best advice on budget travel in Scotland.
I’ve even broken down my travel costs around Scotland for you to give you a good idea of how much you’ll spend on a visit to Scotland. I’ve priced everything in GBP and USD, as that is where the vast majority of my audience is from.
Now, let’s get into it!
Read more: What to pack for a trip to Scotland
Hiking the Pap of Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands
Travel Scotland on a budget: How to find cheap flights to Scotland
In 2014 I worked as a travel agent, and I can tell you, booking through a travel agency usually isn’t the cheapest way to book flights. Travel agents often add a hidden fee and are encouraged to hide this fee from customers (around 5-15% of the total booking price), but there is a way to get around the system and still get the cheapest price possible.
Most travel agencies have a price match or price beat option. This means that if you are quoted a better price or find cheaper flights online, they’ll either beat or match that price.
One of the perks of booking with a travel agent is they can deal with the airline on your behalf if there are any changes to your flights or if they’re cancelled.
In 2022, I always recommend that if you book your flights online that you book directly with the airline.
Booking with third party websites is much more risky now, and if your booking is directly with the airline you only have to adhere to one set of terms and conditions.
So how can you find the cheapest flights? I recommend using Skyscanner. I love this website as it is the most reliable airline comparison site out there. It not only gives you the cheapest flight price, but it gives you the fastest travel options, because let’s face it, time is money.
Search for flights in and out of different airports. In Scotland search for flights to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness. Also search for flights out of the different airports near you.
Another tip is to look at both one way and return tickets. The rule of thumb is that return tickets are cheaper, however sometimes you can break your trip down into several one way tickets which will save you money. For example, when I moved to the UK from Canada, I booked two one way tickets (Kelowna to Toronto with Canada Air, and Toronto to London with West Jet). This cost me less than $200USD, vs $500USD if I had booked it all on one ticket. Just ensure you allow plenty of layover time in between your flights (I allowed myself 8 hours and got lots of work done at the airport) and have travel insurance in case your first flight is delayed and you miss the second.
You’ll also need to be aware that many travel agencies will only beat or match prices departing from the country they are in, so this trick may not work if you decide to book via a travel agent.
As I mentioned before, book directly with the airline if you choose to book your own flights.
Read more: How to spend 4 days in Scotland
Sinead from Map Made Memories has some good advice before you book your flights to Scotland:
”When you’re in the planning stage be sure to look up Scottish school holidays and public holidays and visit out of holiday time if you can. It’s much quieter and cheaper!”
Once I find a price I’m happy with, I’ll also search the exact flights directly with the airline, in case they’re cheaper. I’ll then print off the flights, and take them to a travel agent and ask them if they can book those flights for me at that price, or find me a better deal.
I can’t give an estimate on flight prices, because they vary so much. It’s up to you to keep an eye on flight prices in your country and how they change so you can get an idea on the average cost.
Getting Around: Budget Transport in Scotland
Hiring a car in Scotland allows you to get off the beaten path and visit many of the free attractions.
Car Hire in Scotland
It is totally worth hiring a car if you’re visiting Scotland- you’ll get to see so much more! There are over 2000 castles in Scotland, so you won’t need to drive far to discover ancient castle ruins (with many of these being free to visit).
For car hire I use Auto Europe, a car rental comparison site (similar to Skyscanner). I used Auto Europe to hire a car on my recent trip to Ireland and they were fantastic. I was able to secure a great rate that included insurance, so all I had to do was pick up my car from the airport when I arrived.
One thing to always check in the fine print is the excess. In the UK and Ireland, the excess can be expensive- so ensure you have that amount on your credit card, as it will be blocked off when you pick up your rental car.
>> Read more: Common questions about visiting Scotland answered
Something else to consider is the cost of fuel. If you’re visiting Scotland from Canada or the USA, you may be disappointed in the fuel costs here. As I write this (25 July 2019) the cost for petrol/gas is sitting at around £1.25 per litre ($1.50USD).
Personally I’ve found fuel to be a little cheaper in the bigger cities such as Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness. So if you’re going on a day trip from a city, fill up before you leave!
If you’re wanting to explore and save on accommodation, you could even hire a campervan or take a tent with you for some wild camping.
Angela and Graham from Mowgli Adventures recommend making the most of Scotland’s stunning scenery and parking up in one of the many free overnight parking spots available throughout the country.
”There are many places in Scotland where overnight parking/camping is allowed, free of charge. So if you’re travelling in a camper van or motorhome, you can park and have free accommodation. Just make sure you park responsibly!”
+ Read more: 50+ places on my Scotland bucket list
Public transport in Scotland
It’s easy to find great deals on transport in Scotland, but you do need to know where to look for deals. Aga from Worldering Around recommends making the most of cheap bus fares using Megabus.
”Megabus often has bus tickets for only £1 to various places in Scotland and below the border.”
I’ve personally paid only £5 for a Megabus from London to Dundee. It did take 12 hours, but I got lots of work done so it flew by.
Local buses in Edinburgh and Glasgow are also fantastic. To explore Edinburgh by bus you can purchase an all-day ticket with Lothian Buses for only £4. In Glasgow, you can get a day pass with First Buses for £4.50. Tickets can be purchased on board, but make sure you have the correct change as most buses in Scotland only accept cash and don’t give out change.
Catching the train is another great way to travel in Scotland. Most rail services in Scotland are operated by Scotrail.
It only costs £13 for a return ticket with Scotrail from Edinburgh to Glasgow, and vice versa. You can travel anytime during the day, and you can purchase your tickets at the train station (it’s not cheaper to buy this ticket online).
On the Scotrail website you can check for the next train times too, which is super helpful if you’re booking last minute.
For adventurous souls, hitch-hiking is a common mode of transport, especially in the Highlands, says Aga.
”You’ll get to meet local people and learn more about the country this way. Always keep safety in mind, and don’t get into a car with someone who makes you feel uncomfortable.”
When I hiked the length of Scotland in 2018, I successfully hitchhiked a few times in the north-west Highlands, due to their limited transport options.
Finding accommodation at the best price
Marvelling at the beautiful (and massive) Blair Castle
When it comes to accommodation, there are two types of budget travellers:
- The budget conscious backpacker who will do anything to save a penny. They’re happy with sharing a room with strangers in a hostel and cooking their own meals vs eating out.
- The sophisticated budget traveller, who likes having a private hotel room, but wants to get it at the cheapest rate possible.
When I first arrived in Scotland I fell into the first category. I always booked the cheapest hostel I could find, made an effort to go to the cheapest supermarket, and refused to pay more than £10 for a meal.
Then when I turned 30, I started to crave more comfort; I no longer wanted to share a room with strangers, and I just wanted to eat delicious food without feeling guilty about spending too much. However, the budget conscious part of me still wanted to book a hotel for the cheapest price possible.
Whatever type of budget traveller you are, I’ll cover both options.
How to find the cheapest hotels in Scotland
If you want to book accommodation for the cheapest price, it does require a bit of clicking about on the internet.
I’ll also go directly to the hotels website to check if it is cheaper there too. Be sure to check if breakfast is included on each booking site. Occasionally the price will be the same on two websites, but one will include breakfast!
If booking through a travel agent, you can also use the same method I mentioned before when booking flights. Find the best price and take the printed copy to your travel agent.
You’ll also want to use an incognito browser when looking for hotels online.
Fortunately, many hostels throughout Scotland offer comfortable, affordable accommodation. I’ve stayed in over 30 hostels across Scotland, and I really rate the Hostelling Scotland properties (Disclosure: I’ve worked on campaigns with them before, however I was not paid to say this- this is just my honest opinion!). The reason I like their hostels is because their standard is consistent, and each of the hostels have their own individual charm. They’re also not party hostels, and many make a great base for some hiking.
Some of my favourite hostels in Scotland are:
- Castle Rock Hostel in Edinburgh (this is one of Scotland’s top rated hostels and it’s located fabulously right next to Edinburgh Castle)
- Loch Ossian Youth Hostel in Rannoch Moor (read about my stay here)
- Portree Youth Hostel in the Isle of Skye (read about my stay here)
- Achmelvich Beach Youth Hostel (right next to Achmelvich Beach!)
- Torridon Youth Hostel in Torridon (a great hiking base)
- Gairloch Sands Youth Hostel in Gairloch (only a short walk from the beach)
”Although there are many reasons to visit Scotland, one of the best reasons is the ‘Freedom To Roam’ Act because it can save you some serious money during your visit. The Freedom To Roam act essentially gives everyone the right to access all land throughout Scotland. This doesn’t just mean an abundance of free hikes, walks and beaches but the ability to camp wherever you wish (within reason). This means you can fall asleep on the banks of a beautiful loch, or wake up to the sunrise on one of Scotland’s white sandy beaches. Simply pack a tent and some (very warm) clothing and you’re good to go!”
I love my 2-man tent from Mountain Warehouse which is only $60USD. There is also a 3-man version for $80USD. This tent lasted incredibly well when I hiked the Scottish National Trail last year, and it’s still going strong!
If you’re into the outdoors, I recommend spending a night in a Scottish mountain bothy. A bothy is essentially a basic shelter, and to reach them usually requires a short or long hike. Best of all the Mountain Bothies Association’s bothies are completely free to stay in! You will need to bring your camping essentials such as a sleeping pad, sleeping bag, pillow, food and water, because the facilities are very basic. Many bothies also have a fireplace, just make sure you bring your own firewood and a lighter. For some inspiration, check out my 10 favourite bothies here.
Spending a night in a Scottish bothy is a magical experience that all outdoor lovers should enjoy at least once.
Wild camping in Scotland is free and one of the most amazing experiences you can have!
How to eat on a budget
There is a saying in Scotland- if the sun is shining, get outside. Suzanne from Meandering Wild recommends rather than eating out at an expensive cafe, have a picnic lunch.
”It’s much nicer to find a beautiful landscape and enjoy it while you eat. If you’re in a city, most Scottish cities have fantastic green spaces, so make the most of them. Most villages have a small shop with fresh produce so you can still make it local if you want to avoid supermarkets. Always remember to always take any litter out with you.”
So where should you shop? There are a variety of supermarkets and convenience stores throughout Scotland. Some are cheaper than others however. Aldi and Lidl are the cheapest supermarkets in Scotland, however they are smaller and aren’t the best stocked.
Head to these supermarkets first to grab what you can, and if you need anything extra, go to some of the larger brands, such as ASDA or Morrisons. Both ASDA and Morrisons carry everything (ASDA is like the Walmart of Scotland) and sit in the low-medium price range. If you are short on time, head to one of these supermarkets- they’ll have everything you need.
Marks and Spencer (M&S) and Waitrose are the expensive supermarkets in Scotland. Only shop here if you’re wanting to treat yourself, or any of the previous options aren’t available.
Tesco, Sainsburys and Co-op stores are convenience stores in Scotland. You’ll find at least one of these in most small villages, and they’re very common in cities. Of the three, Sainsburys is the most expensive, followed by Co-op and then Tesco. All three have good meal deals, and are great places to stop to grab some lunch.
If you want to eat out, Kay from The Chaotic Scot says to look out for set lunch menus.
”If you’re a foodie, eating out in Scotland can put a decent dent in your daily budget. Lots of restaurants offer excellent value lunch menus however, so you can have a high quality meal for a fraction of the price. Always check the website for a set menu before you jump in and make a dinner reservation. Basically, eat lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper!”
When eating out, allow £8-£20 / $10-$25USD per meal.
Saving money on activities, tours and festivals
I always recommend to anyone visiting Scotland to purchase a Historic Scotland Explorer Pass. With this pass you can get into 70 attractions and 400 daytime events all across Scotland for free. If you’re planning on visiting attractions around Scotland such as Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle, you can pay this pass off pretty quickly. Plus you get to skip the lines at these castles and receive a 20% discount at their gift shops and 10% off at their cafes.
I have a 12 month subscription to Historic Scotland (if you live here you can get a yearly membership), and it’s fantastic. They created the Explorer Pass for visitors to Scotland, and you can purchase a 5 day pass for £35 or a 14 day pass for £45. They also do family passes. All passes are consecutive.
You can also purchase a National Trust of Scotland membership. The idea is the same as the Explorer Pass, however it doesn’t have as many properties on it. Simply check the NTS website to see what attractions you can visit to see if it’s worth the investment.
One of the most popular times to visit Edinburgh is during the Fringe Festival in August, however this is not a cheap time to visit. Gemma from Two Scots Abroad has this amazing hack:
”Accommodation prices triple, bars are open later so there is more time to party, and tickets in multiples don’t tickle the wallet! However, there is a winning budget tip – arrive early! Attend the Fringe during the first week to enjoy the 2-4-1 cheap seats and support the acts as they warm up the stage. There are also many free shows you can see, however tipping is expected.”
Nikki from Yorkshire Wonders also recommends signing up to discount websites.
”Sign up to Groupon, Wowcher, Living Social sites before you go as they often have great deals on tours and activities, restaurants, and hotels. You can see what is popular and save a great deal of money this way.”
Read more: St Andrews on a budget
Ruthven Barracks- a fantastic free attraction in the Cairngorms National Park
Summary of the average cost of travelling in Scotland
Hotel (per night): £60-£100 / $100-$125USD
Hostel (per night): £11-£20 / $14-$25USD
Campsites (per night): £5-£10 / $6-$12USD
Bothies (Mountain Bothy Association): Free!
Fuel (per litre): £1.25 / $1.50USD
Eating out (per meal, in Edinburgh & Glasgow): £8-£25 / $10-$31USD
*Please note, these prices are from my personal experience of travelling around Scotland, and prices may vary from place to place, especially during the summer months where prices increase.
Do you have a tip on how to travel Scotland on a budget? Leave a comment below.