With the value of the dollar so low and the American economy just barely slogging along, the prospect of a dream vacation in Scotland might seem like an improbable and distant fantasy. But before you stow away your tam o’shanter and box up your kilt, take heart. By following a few money-wise tips, you’ll be gallivanting through the highland heather in no time.
The Flight. The critical part of the trip, as well as the bulk of your expenses, will be the overseas flight. There’s no denying that air travel is getting both more expensive and more uncomfortable with each passing year. Generally, the key to finding the cheapest airfare is to frequently check websites that offer bundled vacation packages, such as packaged fly-drive promotions that include air travel as well as car rental (I like Go-Today Travel but there are many online options). One rule of thumb for the economical traveler: avoid guided tours. Self-drive vacations are cheaper and provide you with more freedom to tailor your Scottish getaway to your own individualized interests. Securing a rental car is a necessary component to making the most of your highlands adventure, as Scotland is not renowned for its public transportation system. As far as driving in Scotland, you will need to become familiar with both driving on the left side of the road and navigating the ubiquitous Scottish roundabout. You might want to take a few practice turns around the rental car lot to get the feel of it.
The Accommodations. As most international flights enter the country at either Glasgow or Edinburgh, you might want to make arrangements to spend a couple of days exploring around the city (though I would not recommend spending the bulk of your vacation in the big city as prices there are considerably higher). I like Edinburgh for its architecture, history, and good shopping. A-Haven Townhouse Hotel provides lovely Georgian accommodations complete with a full Scottish breakfast for an eminently affordable price. The Hotel has great personal service (the owner went out of his way to accommodate my disabled sister) and a central location close to the Edinburgh city center. Park your rental care in their secure car lot and hop a bus to Princes Street to shop for souvenirs at Jenner’s Department Store or take a tour of the majestic Edinburgh Castle. After a couple of days exploring around the big city, it’s time to move on to your Scottish vacation base camp. A central location in the heart of the country will provide you with a great starting point for a number of adventurous day trips. Scotland is a small country (by American standards anyway – it’s roughly the size of Maine), and most of it will be within a day’s drive of any centrally located point of origin. I like Killin, a quaint village near Loch Tay and Lock Lomond that is nestled beside the glorious Falls of Dochart. There are a number of economical accommodations in Killin (most are guesthouses, but there are a couple of hotels and at least one youth hostel as well). Killin Highland Lodges, self-catering cabins complete with small kitchenettes and a fabulously scenic location alongside a waterfall, are a great choice for the budget traveler. You can save a lot of money by cooking your meals at home and bringing your lunch with you on day trips. The small co-op grocery on Killin’s main street offers a wonderful selection of cheap and wholesome foods (as well as a few not-so-wholesome but perhaps more delicious ones in the form of pastries and meringues).
The Adventure. Scotland is full of spectacular sights and amazing historical landmarks so pace yourself. Your Scottish vacation should be tailored to your particular interests so plan your day trips accordingly. If you are an outdoors enthusiast, and Scotland offers some lovely wilderness, you will definitely want to check out the Trossachs National Park, which resembles a fairy glade with its rushing waterfalls and mossy glens, and the rugged but beautiful mountains around Glencoe. Historians will want to check out the location of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s disastrous last stand at Culloden (a longer drive from Killin at roughly three hours), the Jacobite rallying point in Glenfinnan, memorialized now with a heroically poignant monument at the waterside, and the grave of Robert Roy MacGregor at Balquhidder. For the kids or simply the young at heart, there are numerous castles and ruins to explore, not the least of which are the magnificent remains of Urquhart castle along Loch Ness, which affords you a good vantage point for Nessie-spotting. Shoppers will be delighted by the myriad of reasonably priced souvenirs and other items available at the Scottish Wool Centre in nearby Aberfoyle as well as the countless antique stores decorating each quaint little highland village. Also in Aberfoyle, for those with a penchant for the fantastic, there is the mysterious Doon Hill, where the local Reverend Robert Kirk was allegedly stolen away by the fairies and where modern-day fairy enthusiasts leave various gifts to beseech the favor of the wee folk. And finally, although Scotland is not generally noted for the quality of their cuisine, even foodies will find something to enrich their highland adventure, sampling the daily specials at the spectacularly located Falls of Dochart Inn in Killin or enjoying the uniquely delicious Ploughman’s Special at the Coach House Restaurant in Aberfoyle, topped off with a yummy Turkish Delight from the Rainbow’s End candy store next door. So pull that tam o’shanter on at a cocky angle and don your kilt with pride – your Scottish vacation awaits!