If your holidays have been mostly coast or countryside of late, you might not remember how expensive a city break can be. From the tiny hotel rooms with sky-high rates to expensive tourist sights taking a bite out of your budget, you can easily spend more money on a city break weekend than on a week at the beach.
Before you book your next weekend break, take a look at these travel hacks which will help save you money on flight prices, hotels, sightseeing and getting around.
Main photo: visitors at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin (Getty Images)
*This article contains affiliate links.
All products and brands mentioned in this article are selected by our writers and editors based on first-hand experience or customer feedback. We feature properties from a specially selected list of trusted operators who are of a standard that we believe our readers expect. This article contains links which are ads and if you click on a link and buy a product we will earn revenue. These links are signposted with an asterisk. The revenue generated will help us to support the content of this website and to continue to invest in our award-winning journalism.
1. Travel midweek
City breaks might be synonymous with Friday-Sunday getaways, but in most cases everything will be more affordable — and more enjoyable — if you can travel midweek. Both flight prices and hotels tend to be less expensive between Tuesday and Thursday. You’ll also find that the bars, restaurants and sights are nicely buzzy without being too packed.
A word of caution: for rock-bottom airfares and hotel rates, you could opt to stay over on the cheapest nights of the week — Sundays and Mondays — but it’s rarely worth it for city breaks. Most cities are dead as a dodo on these two days, with many restaurants, bars and sights closed on one or both, which can turn your whirlwind weekend into a damp squib.
2. Use a flight comparison site
Always start your flight searches by browsing at least two of the major flight-comparison websites: Skyscanner*, Kayak*, Momondo and Google Flights. They scour thousands of airlines and travel agents to find you all of the available prices in a single screen. Before hitting “book”, check Ryanair, as it constantly tries (but often fails) to keep the comparison sites from accessing its rates.
Note that the comparison sites don’t take bookings themselves so your contract is never with them. They will show you prices, followed by a link to the website of an airline or travel agent to book. Once you’ve found a fare, date and time you like, click the link, which will take you directly to the airline or travel agent that has the deal. That means it’s important to do a little due diligence.
Before handing over your credit card details, if the agency you intend to book with is one you don’t know, check their reviews online on Trustpilot and other review sites, and see if they have a UK phone number for any problems — and give the number a quick call. This is to check that the company is legitimate and that their customer service is decent when dealing with problems, such as flight delays or cancellations. And never pay for any part of the trip by bank transfer.
3. Check the hand luggage limit
Many of us think we can get away with taking hand luggage only for a couple of nights. But airlines are making the free carry-on allowance smaller and smaller.
Even if you flew hand luggage only with a particular airline on your last trip, you might find that this time their inclusive allowance is now so tiny that it won’t hold two days’ worth of clothes, toiletries and tech essentials. Once you’ve found the three cheapest fares on the flight comparison sites, take a quick look at each airline’s cabin bag allowances to get an idea of the real cost.
EasyJet, for example, used to have a generous free carry-on allowance, but that’s recently changed to a much smaller bag. So if British Airways is only a few pounds more, it might be worth booking with them — their carry-on allowance is currently still large enough for a weekend’s worth of stuff.
A popular travel hack is to wear a jacket with lots of pockets, so that you can pack T-shirts, socks and all sorts in there without it being counted as a bag. Some passengers even go as far as to board a flight wearing two or three full sets of clothes, then peel off the extra layers in the plane’s loo after the flight has departed.
And for reasons known only to the gods of the airlines, almost anything you buy at the airport after going through security is typically allowed into the plane without being charged as extra. No guarantees, and airlines are within their rights to take this off you and ask you to pay to check it, but they almost never do unless you’ve bought an entirely new suitcase and filled it with stuff. So buy bottles of water, toiletries, sunscreen and booze in the airport shops — if it’s in an airport carrier bag, you will nearly always be allowed to board with it in addition to your carry-on.
The best cabin bags for summer travel
4. Save on hotels
Stay in the business district
You’ll already know it’s cheaper to stay outside the city centre. But time is money on a city break, so one of our top tips to stay in the centre for less is to book a hotel in the city’s business district. Many excellent hotels that cater to businesspeople during the week slash their rates Friday to Sundays, when their usual clientele has gone home.
You might not be right in the middle of the action, but you’ll usually be close enough to get there in a few stops using public transport, rather than the hour-long train journey you’d need if you’d stayed in the suburbs. This trick works best in major cities with significant business districts, such as London*, Frankfurt*, Milan* and Brussels*.
Choose a ‘posh hostel’
If you don’t mind more basic sleeping arrangements, another option is to stay in a “posh hostel”. They have a bit more design flair than trad youth hostels, tend to come with decent bedding and towels, and have affordable private bedrooms, but you’ll usually have to share a bathroom.
To find the best hotel and hostel deals, check comparison sites. Most of the airline comparison sites offer hotel comparisons, but also look at Trivago. Before you book, and once you have the best price and your preferred accommodation, go to the hotel or hostel’s own website, then call or email them to see if they’ll beat the price you found online if you book directly with them.
5. Skip the city pass
Tourist offices are always very keen to sell you their official city passes, but in most cases they aren’t worth it. They might tout their free and discounted access to 100 sites for £50 over two days, for example, but when you look carefully at the sites on offer, apart from one or two headline grabbers, they’re almost always second-tier sites or have lame discounts — ten per cent or £1 off — that you could easily find elsewhere online.
Do some quick calculations in your head before paying for a city pass. Many people will only end up visiting one to two paid sights, at most, each day. Cities themselves are free open-air attractions, and you’ll want to soak up the scenery, try out the cafés and rest your weary legs, so try not to overestimate it.
6. Don’t fall for the ‘free’ tour
Ask gap year students how to save money on a city break, and many will tell you about free walking tours from sites such as FreeTour, Sandemans New Europe, City Free Tour and Discover Walks.
Of course, they aren’t free. You’ll be expected to tip at the end, and while you can walk away without doing so, very few people do. But the bigger question is the value you place on your time.
Anyone can set themselves up as a tour guide on most of these “free tour” sites, and it’s a common way for students to earn extra cash. So while you could luck out with a brilliant guide, there’s no quality control and you can just as easily waste several hours of your two-day break being shown around a city with no greater insight than you could get from your own guidebook.
When it comes to value for money, you’re usually far better off paying for a tour by a qualified guide, such as those you can find at Context Travel or the British Guild of Tourist Guides.
The exception to the above is the official volunteer guiding system offered by some cities, such as San Francisco, Tokyo and Kyoto, and Lausanne. If you go to a city’s official tourist office website that offers free volunteer guides, these are often professionals and retired people who have been vetted to ensure they have genuine historical knowledge and insights. Tips are rarely allowed, although a small donation to the association running the volunteer programme is often suggested.
7. City break travel insurance
You might not think it’s worth bothering with travel insurance for a city break. But if you add up all of the costs if something goes wrong — lost luggage, illness requiring you to cancel, medical emergency on your trip, missed flight connections — then you will realise how important travel insurance is.
Before you start your search, don’t forget to check your packaged bank accounts, credit cards and other financial products in case they include annual travel insurance. People often forget about these bundled account benefits and end up paying for travel insurance they don’t need.
Then decide if you want annual or single-trip cover. The rule of thumb tends to be that if you’re likely to take three or more holidays in a year, annual travel insurance is better value. But that varies a lot depending on your age and circumstances, so if you’re closer to 70 than 30, or have pre-existing medical conditions, single-trip policies for each trip can often work out best.
Although it might seem an easy option, the add-on policy offered by your airline or travel agent is often the worst-value choice. Before you hit “buy”, read their key policy info carefully, then compare the price and coverage to external insurers.
You can compare travel insurance prices on the major insurance websites: TravelSupermarket*, Compare The Market, GoCompare, Confused and, for anyone with pre-existing medical conditions or aged over 60, Medical Travel Compared.
Travel insurance: everything you need to know
8. Get your GHIC
Whether you buy travel insurance or not, don’t forget to apply for your free NHS Global Health Insurance Card — known as a GHIC. This replaced the EHIC after Brexit. It gives you access to emergency healthcare in the EU and Switzerland at the same rate paid by the locals. Note that GHICs are not valid in Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, the Vatican and the Channel Islands.
You will usually still have to pay something towards your medical bill — unless you have separate travel insurance with medical cover, which typically pays that part for you. Note, however, that many travel insurers will only cover you for medical emergencies in the EU and Switzerland if you use your GHIC, so without it you could be invalidating the medical part of your travel insurance policy.
You never have to pay to apply for your GHIC, nor to receive it, so avoid the dodgy websites that offer to arrange it for you for a fee. It’s easy to apply online from the official website and your card, which should arrive a couple of weeks after your application, is usually valid for five years.
For more money-saving tips, read our sister publication Times Money Mentor.
Travelling to Europe after Brexit: how will it affect holidays?
Inspired to go on a city but
Take me there
Inspired to go on a city break but yet to book your trip? Here are the best deals from Tui* and British Airways*.