WASHINGTON, September 9, 2014 – You’re offered a free ticket to Scotland. But don’t have the budget for hotels, or even hostels. But its eight days in Scotland so what do you do?
Go wild. Wild camping that is.
The UK is not generally known as a budget friendly vacation destination, but it can be done if you are willing to trade in every day amenities, like maid service or beds, for the simple pleasures of a hastily pitched tent on an unmarked campsite in what I would consider one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth.
The adventure began during the first week of August when I nervously boarded the flight to Glasgow I had booked on a last minute whim 4 days before, with nothing but my gear, my Lonely Planet travel guide book and reservations for a rental car and flight home booked. And my cell phone for the Selfies taken to record the trip.
Trying to find accommodations ahead of time proved impossible given the it was the height of summer vacation season and the Commonwealth Games were happening in Glasgow.
Thankfully, during the first leg of my flights, I found myself seated next to Stewart, a handsome executive who had taken the same pilgrimage in college some years before.
“You will love Scotland” said Stewart, who reviewed the travel guide with me and reassured me that there were no bears or viking invasions to fear. “Everything will work out perfectly as it is meant to be.”
On the final leg of my flight into Glasgow, I was seated with a hearty father/daughter duo from Michigan, who were delighted to tell me all about how excited they were to be on a guided bus tour of Scotland, hitting all the tourist hot spots with a bunch of other slow-paced Americans. Every meal, every person they would meet, every moment and detail of their travel itinerary and accommodations had been worked out for them, and all they needed to do was get on the bus.
While I had hoped these nice people had fun and got their money’s worth, my first thought was “Well doesn’t that sounds like a really expensive slice of hell?”
If you truly want to have an adventure, you must at least make yourself open to the possibility of engaging with your environment. The bus tour was sure to be full of all the things in Scotland that I did not want to see, such as big cities, other people (or at least not other tourists), rat races, long lines, mirrors, sleep schedules, phones, and internet.
Wild camping made perfect sense not only because it was free and I already own a lot of camping gear, but I also liked the idea of renting a car and wandering freely wherever the road led me. There are no trespassing laws in Scotland, which allows you to avoid the administrative hassles of last minute booking and budget woes by simply pulling over to the side of the road in the wilderness at the end of the day to pitch your tent.
Really, all I wanted was to be alone with my notebook to discover wild Scotland, and perhaps a part of myself I had not known before, but I walked away having been invited into the worlds of some of the kindest people I have ever known. In hindsight, I think I could have done with a few more showers, but the pictures don’t smell, and I certainly don’t regret any of the amazing experiences I traded for them.
Had the rental car been properly handled, I could have seen everything on my bucket list in Scotland for under $1,000.
(1) Gear-Keep It Simple: Do not bring your best white linens or anything you care about that might get dirty or lost. You will need good hiking boots and a waterproof jacket, as well as an umbrella. I brought with me a two-person [water proofed] dome tent, cold weather sleeping bag, blow up mattress, portable inflator (for the mattress), lantern, wine bottle opener, cutlery, power converter, and a car charger for my electronics.
When you get there, you may want to invest in a tarp and a small cooler to keep food in.
(2) I wish I had brought my fishing gear, but it was too much to take on the plane.
(3) Purchase Two Travel Guide Books: I purchased the Lonely Planet guide for the Scottish Highlands, which was an excellent source of maps and guide of to where to eat, sleep, discover, and how to get there. However, I wish I had gotten a guidebook for the Lowlands, or at least another guidebook with alternatives for the Highlands.
(4) GPS for the car is a must: Scottish cities are difficult to navigate because they are unplanned, centuries old, there’s traffic circles, etc. If you have a GPS for the US that you plan to bring with you, remember to purchase and download the UK maps ahead of time, which is how I got stuck at the airport and ended up buying a new one for about $90. Renting a GPS from the rental car company will cost you about $25 per day, making it generally not worth it to do so.
(5) Rental Cars: Priceline.com allows you to bid on car rentals, which is how I scored a Skoda for less than $20 per day. The roads are narrow and the cost of gas is about $10 per gallon in Scotland, making a small fuel efficient vehicle your best choice for the trip.
Driving on the left side of the road is not difficult to get used to, but remember to specify that you need an automatic transmission if you don’t know how to drive a stick shift. It is important to note that Scotland has pretty strict and complicated laws concerning car insurance, but often it is included with the cost of the rental. International car insurance coverage is often offered for free via your credit card, and you should print this policy out and bring it with you when you pick up your car.
(6) *HIDDEN COSTS WARNING: The mistake I made was that I fell prey to the high pressure sales tactics of the Alamo corporation and purchased insurance from the company after being led to believe the insurance I had was insufficient, adding an additional $400 in unforeseen costs to the cost of the rental.
The customer service from Alamo was terrible, and it took the company nine days to respond to my inquiry, at which point my trip was already over. The Skoda was also not good shape and did not handle well on steep hills, highways, or muddy terrain where car repair and tow services are far and few between.
For these reasons, I would never rent a car from Alamo again. Once you sign something and take the car off the lot, all bets are off. (Thank you Annandale Farms and to the Steele Family for saving me from the mud pit)
(7) Food: My advice is to grocery shop and prepare your own meals as much as possible, and save your money for making memories while socializing over expensive whiskeys at the local watering holes. If you are into eating organ meat and delicacies like blood pudding first thing in the morning, then you will be golden in Scotland, but otherwise, no one really goes to Scotland to eat the native cuisine.
In the larger cities you will have a wide variety of food sources to choose from, but is difficult to find grocery stores and restaurants in the remote areas of Scotland where less than 300 people might live in a 25 mile radius. Best to have your food with you, enjoy it at your leisure.
(8) Buy Groceries at Tesco, souvenir kilts at Lidl: The major grocery store chains in Scotland include Tesco (which was like Shaws or Publix in the US) and the Food Cooperative (which was akin to Whole Foods.) Then there’s Aldi and Lidl, markets itself themselves as “no frills” grocery stores which are like the Scottish version of a Family Dollar store. At Lidl, you can literally buy a discount bag of no name frozen fish sticks out of a bin sitting next to the discount kilts.
(9) The best attractions are often free: The two best days I had in Scotland were on the Isle of Skye. Thanks to the Reverend Booker and his wife’s hospitality, I enjoyed a lovely home cooked meal and rest at the old school house in Tokavaig, after which I was treated to the sight of wild otters playing in the bay at sunset beneath Duncaith Castle.
(10) Take chances, take selfies: The reason I came to the Isle of Skye was to see Dunscaith Castle, which is not only a 15th century ruin, but featured in Celtic mythology as an ancient school for warriors…but I had to cut through somebody’s cow pasture and cross a water slicked, centerless, death bridge to get there.
Setting foot on the castle was easily the happiest moment I had in Scotland, and that moment of happiness also made it the best picture I took on the trip.
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