Picture this: it’s September, the weather in England is still warm and everything in your home city is as inviting as ever. All you want is to be outside and you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to filling your days off which seem so much longer thanks to those long summer nights which haven’t quite started to close in.
Now picture this: it’s January. England in January is less than inviting. The cosy colours of Autumn followed by the festivities of Christmas seem like a distant memory. The days are so short that if you treat yourself to a lie-in you resign yourself to the fact that you won’t see daylight that day. You have the labours of piling on several layers of clothes just to go buy milk and even the red wine you buy at the pub is permeated with the incessant chill of the bleak midwinter. You need to get away.
In the New Year everyone is looking for something to plan to take their mind off the fact that they have no money and can’t feel their fingertips because it’s so cold. Of course really smart people embrace the cold and the low January prices and have a trip to Stockholm or Reykjavik poised for just after Christmas. After all, why shiver at 1°C when you can frolic in snow at -20?
Most people though, as evidenced by the number of travel sale emails that start flooding in from Boxing Day onward, start planning in January. This time of year is when the package holiday companies start raking it in. The public are more than happy to pay a deposit on a hot weather summer holiday to look forward to. They can worry about paying for it later. I on the other hand couldn’t wait until summer.
Pretty much all of my time in the last 2 months has been devoted to going anywhere. Hot, cold, cultured or otherwise, I didn’t really mind, although a few places were on my mind. With a little help from skyscanner.net and more than a little knowledge about where is generally cheap and where is expensive, I have made a list of those places which could provide me some release from the trials of living through an English winter.
I’ll often make skyscanner my first port of call when it comes to looking to travel. Not only can you easily decipher when is the cheapest time to fly to a chosen destination, if you want to drop everything and go somewhere tomorrow, it will tell you where will be cheapest.
It should come as no surprise that Ryanair is often the cheapest airline, which, despite it’s faults, is a blessing in disguise. How so? Being Europe’s largest budget airline resembling more of a bus service than an airline, these Irish planes fly to some pretty obscure places.
5. Timisoara, Romania
Flights: £14 return Cheap Hotel: £20 per night
Where? Tell skyscanner that you need a flight to anywhere that’s not going to require you to marry an American heiress to afford it and Romania is often high up on the list.
Although this former part of the Habsburg Austrian Empire often suffers from a slight image problem, the capital Bucharest or the vampiric region of Transylvania have long been on many traveler’s wish-lists. The third largest city of Timisoara though is so obscure that my 9 year old copy of The Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget fails to even mention it.
At £14 for a return flight in March and double rooms in the centre of this city known as Little Vienna for equally low prices it seems like the best place for a couple of days away.
While I’m sure we could have made something of a trip here thanks to the many palaces and parks which are often pre-requisites to a city break for me, a lot of the online info about this city advises sitting in coffee shops and watching the world go by. Another of my favourite foreign pastimes…in summer. Maybe I’d be better off drinking endless cups of espresso and smoking my way through a plantation’s worth of cigarettes in Romania in Summer.
4. Cologne, Germany
Flights: £16 return Cheap Hotel: £50 per night
A bit more of a well-known city, Cologne is another that often pops up as a city you can get a last minute flight to for less than £20 from London. Whether this is to Cologne Airport or to nearby Düsseldorf, transport connections are so good in Germany, it needn’t be a concern.
Germany is a country that I hold quite dear. I studied German at uni but spent my year abroad in rural Austria and, although Austria is a wonderful place for someone with an overactive imagination on being an aristocrat, I’ve always felt some regret for not spending this opportunity in urban Deutschland.
I’ve never been to Cologne and am probably the only person from my class at university who hasn’t. It’s cheaper to get to than Munich and prettier than Berlin. It’s (allegedly) a striking modern city with its fair share of history stretching back to the Middle Ages as illustrated by its imposing cathedral the Kölner Dom. What’s not to love?
The problem for me is that I’ve always thought of Köln (as it’s known in German) as not living up to my romanticised ideals of Germany. Although it would be a great place to live, I can’t help feeling that I’d rather spend money on seeing those “typical” German towns along the Romantic Road or the pseudo-medieval castles of the previously divided country’s excitable monarchs.
Not this time, Cologne. But one day.
3. Zaragoza, Spain
Flights: £40 return Cheap Hotel: £40 per night
Cheap flights, affordable comfortable accommodation, a city with a royal past. Things are looking up.
Having spent the last few months nurturing an obsession with learning Spanish and reading its history, admittedly ignoring the 20th century, which is so full with tales of knights, kings, queens and castles, King Arthur would be jealous, I confess I had already entertained the idea of going to Spain at some point in the year.
Spanish cities are a paradox of being highly touristic and being off the beaten track. I guess it depends on who you talk to and sadly Spain is often thought of as the epicenter of package holiday horrors and many (British) people don’t usually think of this country (the only remaining monarchy in this list!) as a place for sightseeing and culture.
Slotted north of Madrid, south of the Pyrenees and west of Barcelona, Zaragoza is the capital city of Aragon. Now an autonomous region of Spain, it was formerly a kingdom in its own right with one of its 16th century princesses being famous to all English school children, Catherine of Aragon.
Zaragoza offered everything I could have wanted! But life got in the way. Due to the fact that, as we’ve already established, I’m not actually a lord, I have to work. And trying to book time off as well as keeping up with the ever fluctuating flight prices has kept “one of Spain’s most underrated regional capitals” out of reach. For now.
2. Rome, Italy
Flights: £40 return Cheap Hotel: £50 per night
This is probably the most mainstream on the list. City of Seven Hills, the Eternal City and historically centre of the world for a variety of reasons, travelers have been visiting Rome for centuries and a springtime visit is not at all out of the ordinary either.
Rome shouldn’t be on this list. Not only have I been there before unlike all of the above, flying there isn’t the cheapest and certainly not the cheapest in Italy. However I admit that thanks to the green-eyed monster that is envy, I’m desperate to go there again.
A few of my friends have either been or are going to Rome in the near future and, while I haven’t been there since 2009, offering what little bit of advice I can remember is making me jealous.
For me Rome is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and it’s history is so long-standing that you can practically feel it in the air. On top of all that, there are so many quaint cafes and bars where you can just sit out and watch the fashionable Romans milling about that it would be impossible to get bored here.
Rome of course is the city that completely surrounds Vatican City. Unlike the Duke of Norfolk, I’m no Catholic and I don’t really have any religious affiliation but I challenge anyone to deny that this place has an energy.
Rome might be the black sheep of this list but as it happens, there’s another place of profound significance to Catholics that has managed to claw its way to the top of the list.
And that place takes us back to Spain….
Flights: £55 return Cheap Hotel: £40 per night
I’ve said before that I’ve been going through a phase of Spanish history obsession so, shock horror, the winner of the cheap flight lottery is another of Spain’s regional centres.
Santiago de Compostela has been a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of years thanks to a certain apostle, Saint James, allegedly taking his final rest there and later making a surprise appearance. Still today, there are those who trek hundreds of miles across the north of the country, either emulating the medieval pilgrims for novelty value (admittedly, it would be a great way see some unlikely places) or through actual religious devotion. I don’t have the time to do such things so 3 nights exploring the city will have to suffice.
From what I can surmise from my library of guidebooks, Santiago de Compostela is going to be less of a sightseeing visit and more of a cultural experience. Although we’ll join the pilgrims in the cathedral and take in a few sights, I’m most looking forward to being in a part of Spain whose unique image I have yet to come across. And what’s more, this is the region where Abariño wine comes from!
When many people travel, there seems to only be two options. Either you go somewhere completely soulless so you can relax or you exhaust yourself trying to fill your time with as many tourist attractions and landmarks as possible. But I’m hoping Santiago de Compostela is going to be that place where we can just be there without being rushed and we can take it all in.