staycation UK

Cheap UK Holiday Tips

17 staycation savers, including £400/wk Cornwall cottages and cheap days out

With everything that's going on, more of us are staying in the UK for our summer hols – see Coronavirus Travel Rights for international travel restrictions. Whether it's day trips with the kids, or a wee break in our fair isles, we've pulled together 17 tips and discounts, including rare self-catering bargains (eg, £400/wk in Cornwall), free tennis sessions and how to beat queues at rammed museums.
 

What's a staycation? Well, there’s a fierce argument about that. Some have always believed it’s holidaying based at home with day trips, yet many say it’s holidaying in the UK. The dictionary allows both. When we asked on Facebook, a mammoth 17,000 replied, and roughly a third said it's a UK holiday, the rest were with day trips. So below we've top tips to keep both sides happy...

Holidaying in the UK & coronavirus

Coronavirus has changed the way we live. While many restrictions have been eased, holidays are not as easy as rock up and chill out.

self-catering accommodation
  • Check where you're allowed to go. Currently, different rules apply across the UK. Self-catering accommodation is open in England, and hotels will open from Monday 17 May. In Scotland and Wales, self-catering and hotels are open (in Wales, hotels need to provide en-suite facilities). In Northern Ireland, self-catering is open and hotels are likely to be from Monday 24 May. However, people from outside NI should not travel there.

    Things can change rapidly, so before hitting the 'book' button, double-check the official guidance at: Gov.uk (England), Gov.scot, Gov.wales, NIdirect.gov.uk. Also see our Life-in-Lockdown Help.
  • Look for flexibility. This one's really important. If you're thinking of going away, strongly consider hotels where you pay on arrival and can cancel for free (often you can do this 24 to 48 hours before your stay starts). If you can't get a fully flexible booking, but still want to go ahead, make sure you only spend as much as you can afford to lose.

  • Book early. The key tip for saving cash on UK trips is to plan and book early (keeping in mind the importance of flexible bookings mentioned above). That way you can snatch vouchers, ensure availability and keep prices down.

    While many self-catering options for the school holidays are booked up, you'll have more luck if you don't mind staying in a hotel in a city or can travel from September. While there may be last-minute bargains in individual places, that's a cross-your-fingers solution.

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  1. Holiday cottages and apartments can work well, but how can you get them cheaper?

    cottage

    If you book the right way, holiday rental sites can let you snap up five-star private accommodation at reasonable prices. Yet you may need to be quick, as these sites have seen a surge in UK bookings this year as many more people look to holiday at home.

    We found it's harder to nab a peak school holiday bargain in coastal and countryside spots, though there's more available in cities. We did manage to hunt down a few deals though, eg, we found a two-bed cottage in North Cornwall for £402/week in mid-June, compared with £1,248 – more than three times the cost – for two rooms in a similarly swish-looking hotel nearby.

    Renting a holiday home can be a really good option right now, as they're naturally set up for social distancing. You can usually cook your own food and limit contact with others. Our Cheap Holiday Rentals guide has a full how-to, but here are some quick tips:

    • Check at least three holiday rental sites. Direct booking sites make trawling for holiday rentals a cinch. Use at least three websites to set a target price before you book. Though remember, these sites effectively just list adverts – you're booking directly with the owner. Top sites to check include AirbnbVrbo* and TripAdvisor Rentals*.

    • Go as a group (where allowed) to split the cost. In England, the Government's confirmed from Monday 17 May you can stay with one other household, meaning two families will be able to go on holiday together. This is already allowed in Wales.

      From 17 May, two different households will be able to stay together in Scotland, provided there are no more than four people in total (on 6 June this is expected to rise to six people from three different households). In Northern Ireland, overnight stays with people from another household are not allowed.

      If you go with friends, cheap holiday homes are even more likely to undercut similar quality hotels, eg, we found a four-bed cottage in Somerset in early July for £995/week (£124/per person if there's eight of you), compared with £1,980 for four rooms in a similar-quality hotel.

    • Make sure you do your research first. Check it's a legit operator and if there's good feedback. Also think carefully about how you pay. See our Cheap Holiday Rentals guide for full help.

    • Check cancellation terms. Holiday properties' owners usually set their own cancellation terms, so rules can vary. Look for a property where the owner gives a full refund when you cancel by a specific date.

    • Haggle for a discount. Once you've found a property, try messaging the owner to ask if they can drop the price. You're negotiating directly with an owner, so they have complete discretion. They are usually more amenable to haggling a few weeks beforehand, though remember aggressive haggling's usually a mistake. It's worth asking if there's any flexibility in the price for late bookings or if they have any odd dates they need to fill.
  2. How to ram down the cost of hotel stays

    hotel stay

    If you're looking for the really big hotel bargains, you need to get clever. From our research, we found fewer dirt-cheap rooms in coastal and countryside spots for peak school holiday dates – but there are still deals to be had, especially in cities. Premier Inn, for example, told us: "Our coastal locations are very popular this year, so as an alternative we'd suggest people look at the great value available in our amazing UK cities."

    Though do bear in mind the hotel experience might not be quite what it usually is. You may also need to book ahead for hotel restaurants or check out earlier to give staff time to clean rooms more thoroughly than normal.

    Our Cheap UK Hotels guide has a full list of tips, but here's a starter. Also see the Travelodge £29 rooms deal below. 

    • Find the cheapest price for any hotel room. Don't trust the star system. It isn't standardised worldwide and is often about facilities, not quality. Online reviews at TripAdvisor can help, and it has a basic price comparison function too.

      Then double-check comparison sites, including Skyscanner* and Kayak*, to see if the room you're lusting after is cheaper elsewhere. Our Cheap UK Hotels guide has a full how-to.

    • Check hotels' terms and opt for fully flexible bookings. Look for hotels where you pay at the hotel and can cancel for free (often as late as 24 to 48 hours before your stay starts). Even if cancelling your booking isn't free, some have an option to pay slightly more for a fully flexible booking. Weigh this up against how much you'd lose if you couldn't go – these days, it could be worth paying.
  3. £29ish Travelodge rooms – but go quickly

    Travelodge* has a sale with 2.4 million 'saver rooms' (room-only, so no brekkie) for £29 or less per night. It's for stays from 17 May 2021 to 14 March 2022.

    The key to this is to just check which day has the cheaper prices. They’re launched in tranches (this sale started on Tuesday 4 May) and when they’re gone they’re gone. Travelodge says the sale includes seaside hotspots such as Brighton, Great Yarmouth and Southend-on-Sea.

    The £29 rooms are available online across various dates – the Travelodge price finder* can help by showing all dates, locations and prices in one place, but it helps to be flexible.

    What if I need to cancel? You can change your saver-rate booking to another date, as long as you do it before 12pm on the day of arrival. Travelodge normally charged for this pre-pandemic but it's waived the fee 'until further notice' – see its coronavirus update.

    Premier Inn also has many rooms from £29, however, according to its press office it's not a sale – some rooms are always available at that rate.

  4. Check out cheap uni halls and hostels

    One option you might not have considered is to stay at university halls of residence that are otherwise empty during the summer months. You don't need to be a student, and the site University Rooms has rooms available in Cardiff, London, York and more.

    For example, when we searched for early August, we found Oxford University had £88/night en-suite twin rooms, London School of Economics had £79 doubles and Sheffield had £40 double en-suites.

    And don’t miss out on hostels either – they’re not all smelly dorms. Some have singles and doubles in beautiful locations, such as Ilam Hall, a seventeenth century Gothic manor house in Derbyshire. We found private rooms in June for £49/night.

  5. Center Parcs has reopened its doors – bag last-minute breaks from £239

    After closing due to coronavirus, Center Parcs has reopened all of its UK sites. Bear in mind that a few things have changed, such as check-in times and there are fewer activities on offer.

    Center Parcs rarely does discount codes. However, it does offer late deals, eg, this year the cheapest break we could find last-minute was £239 for a three-night weekend break in a studio apartment this month. It was charging £339 for the same weekend in 2022.

    Prices usually come down within roughly eight weeks of travel, though nothing's guaranteed, as it is likely to be busy this year, especially during peak times. Check its last minute deals page for offers.

    Whether you've booked already or plan to, our 16 Center Parcs Tips guide has full details of the changes and ways to cut the cost, including hidden cheap dates if you've school kids and cheaper alternatives with a similar vibe.

    Center Parcs says it will offer no-quibble date moves or refunds up to 14 days before your arrival date for all booking up to 18 April 2022 – see it's cancelation policy. We're currently checking what happens if you need to isolate within 14 days of your break and will update this when we know more.

  6. Driving? Do these checks to make sure your car's good-to-go beforehand

    If you're planning to drive far and you've not used your car much during lockdown, there are a few things you should check before doing so to make sure you're driving safely and legally, not to mention to avoid having to call out a breakdown firm and spoiling your holiday.

    According to the AA and Green Flag, the main things you'll need to check on your car are:

    • Brakes. Handbrake/parking brake and foot brake.
    • Fluids. Brake, coolant, engine oil, power-steering and screenwash.
    • Tyres. Check the pressure and inflate accordingly.
    • Vehicle tax. Check you're taxed or you could face a fine of up to £1,000.
    • Under the bonnet. Make sure nothing's living there and/or that nothing's chewed through any pipes or hoses.

    For more detailed help, see MSE Kelvin's Motoring Tips blog.

    Some backup in case your car fails is also important, especially if you're travelling a long way from home. Know where to look and you can often get a cheap basic AA or RAC policy without paying full price, or comprehensive cover for £54/year. For a full guide, see Cheap Breakdown Cover.

  7. Clubcard triple-value swaps are back on, eg, Alton Towers, Longleat Safari, Hotels.com and Forest Holidays

    With many restaurants, theme parks and other venues open again, the top Clubcard rewards have returned – perfect for taking trips with the kids this summer.

    Before spending Tesco vouchers in store, check Tesco's rewards brochure as it may allow you to get three times the value of your vouchers (£10 becomes £30) on days out, restaurants and more.

    You can spend them on restaurants such as Pizza Express and days out such as Thorpe Park and Longleat Safari.

    If you want to spent them on UK stays, rewards partners include Hotels.com and Forest Holidays, which like Center Parcs, offers lodge-style accommodation in forests. See our Boost Clubcard points guide for full info on the top rewards.

  8. Beat queues - 10 top museums where you can book free timed slots

    dinosaur

    The UK’s home to several of the world's most visited museums and galleries. Yet this year social distancing limits mean tackling one of the biggies, such as the Science or Natural History Museums, may be less frantic. Many now let you book a free timed slots – great for the June half-term.

    So you can take advantage, here are 10 top UK museums and galleries that are letting people book timed tickets. While bookings are free, some encourage an optional donation. Most dates had availability when we checked, though go quick for popular dates such as half-term.

    • Ashmolean Museum, Oxford – opening Monday 17 May. Its world-renowned collections include everything from Egyptian mummies to contemporary art. Book a timed ticket (currently taking bookings until 20 June).

    • The British Museum, London – opening Monday 17 May. Marvel at two million years of human history and culture. Book a timed ticket (currently taking bookings until 20 June).

    • Imperial War Museum, London – opening Wednesday 19 May. The museum encourages you to see war through the eyes of the people who lived it, including a free refugee experiences exhibition (running until 13 June). Book a timed ticket (taking bookings until 31 December).

    • National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh – open now. The museum’s stuffed with thousands of incredible objects, including a new display on monarch butterflies. Book a timed ticket (taking bookings until 20 June). 

    • The Natural History Museum, London – opening Monday 17 May. Discover millions of specimens, including its famed Dippy the Diplodocus. You can book a timed ticket (currently taking bookings until 5 September).

    • Railway Museum, York – opening Monday 19 May. Features awe-inspiring engines and, for tiny train enthusiasts, outdoor play areas. Book a timed ticket (taking bookings until 6 June).

    • The Science Museum, London – opening Wednesday 19 May. The museum celebrates the amazing scientific advances that have shaped world history. Visitors need to book a timed ticket in advance (when we checked it was taking bookings until 5 September).

    • Tate Liverpool – opening Monday 17 May. See modern and contemporary art, including portraits of Merseyside's NHS staff. Book a timed ticket (taking bookings until 8 July).

    • Tate Modern, London – opening Monday 17 May. Check out modern and contemporary art from around the world, including paintings, sculptures and video works. Book a timed ticket (taking bookings until 31 August).  

    • Museum of London – opening Wednesday 19 May. Trace London’s history, with displays on everything from the great fire to the Suffragettes. Book a timed ticket (taking bookings until 5 September).
  9. Road trip? How to find the cheapest petrol

    Exploring the UK can mean big drives - and big petrol bills. To find the cheapest petrol or diesel near you in seconds for your summer trip and all year round, use nifty tool PetrolPrices.com. All you need to do is register, enter your postcode and select how far you’re willing to travel for the best deal (up to 20 miles). It'll list that day's cheapest petrol stations in your area and covers most of the 8,500 forecourts across the UK

    A quick check before you need to fill up could save you some decent cash. For a Manchester postcode, the price of unleaded within a five-mile radius on 11 May ranged from 117.7p/litre to a pricey 124.9p/litre.

    Even just cutting the cost by 5%, saves someone who fills up £50 a week £125 a year. For more ways to cut petrol costs, including how to make your car more fuel efficient, see the Cheap Petrol guide.

  10. Do I need travel insurance for a UK holiday?

    Standard travel insurance covers you in the UK but the cover here is not as powerful as when overseas. However, it can still prove useful, so you'll need to weigh up the pros and cons.

    Travel insurance in the UK offers all the usual protections you'd get abroad, such as theft of valuables and cancellation. You're normally not covered for hospital treatment but that's not such an issue given you should be able to use the NHS.

    That said, you'll still need to declare all existing medical conditions as insurers want to know how likely you are to have to be driven or airlifted home in a medical emergency. The problem is not all trips are covered, eg, most insurers only cover you if you've booked accommodation.  

    Also, there can be other restrictions. For instance, LV gives cover if you're more than 25 miles from home or your journey involves a sea crossing. So check policies carefully as they can vary.

    Are you covered for Covid cancellations? In a nutshell... yes if it's personal, no if it's due to lockdown. Our full Cheap UK Travel Insurance guide has full details.

  11. Planning to hit the rails this summer? Save about a third with a railcard

    train

    For those of you going by train, a railcard usually cuts a third off the price – ideal for the summer holidays. You buy them on the Railcard site and most are £30/year or £70 for three years (£23.30/year). So if you spend more than £90 a year on trains, a railcard is worth getting. 

    For example, a Friends & Family Railcard gets you a third off train tickets for up to four adults when travelling together with up to four children aged 5-15 getting 60% off. Even if you don’t use the train that often, just one big rail trip across the country would make the railcard worth it.

    Our Cheap Trains guide has a full list of ways to save on fares, including buying 12 weeks in advance and splitting your tickets.

  12. Get theme park tickets for less with 2for1 vouchers and more

    If you’re going to attractions, always try and bag discount vouchers first as you could typically save about £50 compared to the on-the-gate price. Our Cheap Theme Parks page has an attraction-by-attraction guide, but here's a round-up:

    • Days Out site: Buy a National Rail ticket for the nearest station to the attraction you want to visit, then get a voucher from Days Out Guide to get 2for1 entry to top UK attractions, such as Warwick Castle, Chessington and Legoland. It’s worth doing even if you’re not travelling by train as a single ticket costs a couple of quid. The list of attractions is more limited that usual right now – see a list of available attractions.

    • Got a Tesco Clubcard? Convert Tesco Clubcard vouchers into Tesco Rewards vouchers and on some attractions you can get three times the vouchers’ face value, eg £5 in points converts into £15 worth of rewards rewards at Longleat, Alton Towers and Edinburgh Dungeons.

    • Kids can earn a Blue Peter badge to bag free entry to 200+ attractions. You might assume Blue Peter badges are hard to get hold of, but actually, with a bit of effort, kids can earn a badge fairly easily.

      The badges gain free entry at 200+ UK attractions, including Southend's Adventure Island, Cheddar Gorge and Eden Project. It can take about eight weeks for the badges to come through, so you may want to apply soon, ready for summer. For a how-to, see the Blue Peter Badge blog.
  13. Become a tennis ace with free sessions

    Check out Tennis For Free's website to see if there are free coaching sessions in your area. The sessions mostly run during weekends and currently running for anyone aged 12 or over (it's normally over-threes but its changed due to coronavirus). The equipment’s also provided free.

    The sessions aren't professional coaching, they're more focused on having fun. You can book online with some sessions whereas others you can just turn up – all the information for each venue is on the website.

  14. Become a nature detective – and more free ways to create a magical summer for kids

    group of people walking

    Escape the hustle and bustle and take a walk through a British woodland. Before you go, download the Woodland Trust's nifty Tree identification app (available on iPhone and Android). It helps you identify UK trees by leaf, flower, fruit or bark.

    You can also complete Woodland Trust activities. Ideas include outdoor fun such as a minibeast hunt, nature art and more. For rainy days there are craft activities and colouring sheets. See Woodland Trust for full information.

    For more creative ideas to make memories with kids, see our 21 free (or very cheap) ways to create summer magic blog. It includes everything from fruit picking to hugely popular 'painted rock' treasure hunts.

  15. Party on at a free festival (fingers crossed)

    festival

    In a normal festival season, there are plenty of free concerts and gigs – rock, pop, folk and more. Of course, this year’s festival calendar is anything but usual. Yet many free events are now tentatively going ahead, subject to coronavirus restrictions being eased – and those that do take place should be a truly joyful experience.

    You usually don’t need tickets in advance for these festivals, you can just turn up on the day. Of course, do check events’ websites to confirm closer to the time, as things can change at the last minute.

    Free festivals pencilled in include Bristol’s Balloon Fiesta from 12-15 August, a chance to see over 130 hot air balloons from across the globe. Join artists and performers for the carnival and parade at Stockton International Festival in County Durham (29 July to 1 August).

    Stowmarket’s Stow Fiesta includes live music of different genres and free kids’ activities (28 to 29 August). Rothbury Traditional Music Festival is a chance to watch some live folk music on stage – expect some ad-hoc jam sessions too (10 July 2021). Finally, Stompin’ in Christchurch Quay, Dorset includes live jazz music and street food (11 September).

    For more inspiration, try listings site Eventbrite’s freebie section. Also keep an eye on our Free Festivals list, to be updated later this year.

  16. Beat UK school holiday travel price hikes with hidden cheap booking dates

    There's a collective 'GRRRRR' from parents about holiday price hikes when term ends – the cost of hotels, self-catering accommodation and even days out always seems to rocket.

    Fortunately, a simple trick can help you fight back and turn the tables. Every so often, your school's term dates may differ from everyone else's. This could be due to inset days or just because your council's chosen different dates. These hidden dates can mean huge savings.

    For example, in 2021 most Leicestershire schools break up on 13 July, while most others do so around 23 July. When we checked, we found a week's holiday at Bath YHA for £723 for a family of four from 14 July. On 24 July, the same holiday jumped to £803.

    Most schools in Scotland break up earlier (this year it's around 25 June). If that's you and you're vacationing outside Scotland, consider going away sooner rather than later.

    Also watch out for inset days – those one-off mid-term holiday days which vary by school and are usually for teacher training. These can be a boon for long weekends away. For example, some MoneySavers report nabbing cheap stays at Center Parcs through careful forward planning.

    To spot hidden cheap booking dates:

    1. Use the Gov.uk school holiday dates tool to find out when schools in your area are off, and check directly with your school too, as inset days and term dates can vary.

    2. Then search Google for other schools' dates. The School Holidays UK site has a summary of the different 2021/22 dates in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

    3. Work out where your school differs from the norm. It might start a week early, finish a week late or have a tempting Friday or Monday inset day, which means you can make a long weekend of it. If your school's off and others aren't, chances are you'll find a bargain.

    For more hacks, see our full How to beat school holiday travel price hikes blog.

  17. Some can save on summer childcare

    It’s worth noting if you’re paying for childcare, or even after-school or summer clubs during the summer, you may be eligible for childcare tax credits, or able to get childcare vouchers which enable you to pay for it from your gross (pre-tax) income to save you cash. See full Childcare Costs Help.

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