£150 a head, I pondered. Even my primitive mental arithmetic skills had allowed me to slice 300 in half with refined precision. I reflected on how far this could carry me in my own city, with its rocketing cost of living. I reflected on my city, which visitors from around the globe repeatedly denounce as inordinately expensive. My London-savvy brain rattled off a list with the chaos and velocity of jelly beans from a sweet dispenser:
- A meal at a swish restaurant, complete with fanciful amuse bouches and dainty petits fours.
- A pair of boots from the high street (or an empty cardboard shoe box from Russell and Bromley.)
- A hair cut, colour and blow dry.
- Two well-located theatre tickets.
Such funds could whittle down into an emaciated mess within a matter of hours in London so surely the proposed task was impossible?
My index finger hovered tentatively over the mouse as I re-read the email, the uncertainty of my decision-making reflected in its feeble, wavering movements. The idea of accepting the challenge and failing with a wide berth filled me with a premature sense of shame, yet giving up without trying was more unpalatable still.
I looked back on the diversity with which I travel, exploring everywhere from Argentina’s glaciers to wacky museums in Budapest. I remembered how I loved the cosy Pisa B&B and the luxurious Bali hotel villa in equal measure and took pride in the fact that I thrive on playing around with budgets and accommodation types in order to get the most for my money.
I wasn’t raised to shy away from a challenge, let alone one that was focused around finding value for money, something my parents always taught us so well and thus, with a confident “count me in”, I accepted, determined to pull this off with aplomb.
The Cheapflights Challenge
My Cheapflights Challenge was to use a little pouch of dough (£300 to be precise) to plan a fabulous 2 night getaway for two adults to Berlin. Within that budget, I had to include flights, accommodation, activities and spending money. “You will never be able to do that” I kept hearing from those around me.
I sang from the same pessimistic hymn sheet.
I would soon learn, however, that you do not necessarily know what is achievable until you try it.
To kick off the #CheapflightsChallenge, I booked my flights and accommodation through Cheapflights (go figure!) but this proved completely instinctive to us, since we always fly using flight search sites like this to seek out the best deals. You do not need to play the air miles/credit card game to fly all over the world. We have never bought into that scene and yet, by using sites like this and being savvy with our planning, we have still managed to explore over 90 countries between us!
It is staggering just how cheap some cheap flights are: our Berlin flights were only £45 return, departing on a weekend and allowing us 3 full days in the city! It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out that as an avid travel writer, I am partial to travelling but a flight to Berlin for less than the cost of a pedicure in London?! I know which one I would prefer any day.
I still had the rest of the trip to book, however, so my biceps were a way off from raising the Cheapflights Challenge trophy (a metaphorical trophy by the way). I don’t want you to take my word for it though, when I tell you that a break at this price is doable. Instead, I am going to run you through a step by step guide about how I kept my costs within budget, yet still had a seriously fun and even more affordable break!
If you’re old hat with booking flights, then you will already be familiar with the fact that sites like Cheapflights allow users to filter searches by preferred times of arrival/departure and by airport. Luckily for this challenge, my results came up ranked in price order, which helped me choose the best value option. We searched for flights from Stansted Airport, as we always tend to do where possible, since this is one of the closest airports for us to reach from home (critical business when we’re talking about 6am flights!)
Plus, this is a main hub for many of the low cost airlines and I, personally, am totally fine with sitting in a squishy seat for a couple of hours if it means I get to see more of the world.
Opt for the crazy early morning flights and late returns, as these give you up to one additional day at your destination and are often the cheapest fares. Yes, it results in an ugly looking alarm clock but I am not a morning person and even I will rise for this perk.
Hand Luggage Only
Many low-cost airlines charge for checked baggage so if you’re only travelling for 3 nights, consider packing light to avoid an unnecessary fare. Berlin was the first time we had gone abroad together without checked bags and in truth, it was rather liberating and made me realise how many excess material items I am prone to packing. It turns out, there is a clear distinction between what we need to pack for a trip and what we think we need! Auf Wiedersehen hair straighteners and bye-bye gazillion shades of eye shadow – I abandoned you in London for the whole weekend and I felt all the more carefree for it.
Hotels and Accommodation
Wanderlusters, don’t let anyone tell you that you need to splash big cash to find stylish, charming accommodation. My travel back catalogue includes an utter dive of a hotel in Bangkok, sheer luxury in the Seychelles and everything in between. I’ve sampled a wide spectrum of hotels and star ratings so I can say with conviction that the quality of the accommodation experience is not proportional and sometimes, not even related to star rating and cost.
One of my favorite ever stays, for example, was my first Air B&B in Hvar, which left a far longer lasting impression than many 5 star hotels I have been to due to the sheer warmth and sincerity of its host.
Remember also that there is more to the search than hotels. Guest houses, B&Bs and apartments are often worth considering for city breaks and can offer more comfortable, cost-effective and homely alternatives.
Location in the City
Many sources quoted Mitte as the best area to stay in for tourists in Berlin, as one of the main, well-connected hubs of the city and within walking distance to many sites. Inevitably though, where tourists flock, elevated restaurant and hotel prices follow. 3 Euros for a bottle of water? No, thank you.
I soon realised I wouldn’t get much for my money in Mitte and decided to think laterally – literally! Berlin is a city where easy access to public transport makes life as a tourist quite easy so we ended up choosing a hotel right opposite Ostbahnhof station in the Eastern part of the city.
Our choice was heavily influenced by all the rave reviews we read, particularly given its friendly price tag. Once you have narrowed down a list of accommodation choices, it is worth investing some time into reading reviews from different sources, which is something I recommend regardless of the grade of accommodation and which paid off in leaps and bounds on this trip.
If prices seem too good to be true, double check for a hidden catch – unsafe neighbourhoods, miles away from a train station or horrendous service. And sometimes, there is no catch – it just means your hours of research have paid off and you’ve found yourself an absolute steal of a hidden gem, which was exactly what happened with Moxy Berllin Ostbahnhof. A hotel review was not a part of this challenge but I was so impressed with this beautiful box of affordable boutique chic that I will do a full post on Moxy soon to show you just how much value it offers!
Travel and Transport
Unlike our usual ad hoc hopscotch around cities, for Berlin, we already had a plan for what we wanted to see each day. We calculated that if we were doing any more than 2 or 3 individual underground journeys, it would be most cost effective to buy a day pass. Map out a rough itinerary before you start your day so that you can pre-plan which train tickets you will need. In Berlin, the cost of the day pass varied between 7-8 Euros.
On airport days , you need a Zone A, B & C ticket, whereas for most sightseeing, a Zone A & B pass usually suffices and since airport taxi transfers are hardly the most rivetting way to blow a budget, we hopped on the train into the city instead to spend our pennies on something more memorable!
Activities in Berlin
With just under a third of our budget spent on flights and just over a third on accommodation, we still had some spare change left for exploring and it would emerge that the quest for free and cheap activities in Berlin yields a far more fruitful crop than one could have imagined.
My original intention had been to encapsulate our fun, free Berlin shenanigans into this post , assuming there would only be a couple of things to cite. Boy did Berlin put me in my place on that front with a portfolio of wallet-friendly energy that is lengthy enough to fill a thesis!
I will write a full guide on my free Berlin adventures soon but to give you some hints, we were spoiled for choice, flitting between renowned photogenic monuments, bustling craft and food markets and ambling through idyllic residential squares, which boast the balconies of the elite (much too costly for the average Joe to purchase but much too tempting for the average Instagrammer to ignore.)
By day, I revised high school history at some of the free museums in the city and lamented our lack of creativity when faced with thought-provoking street-art murals. By night however, our calves, robbed of their might, sought solace in Berlin’s inviting and remedial, open spaces, where we recuperated in the company of young street musicians, who vied for our attention with melodic renditions of timeless ballads.
“Hey now, hey now, don’t dream it’s over”, sang one such passionate dreamer, the innocence in his tone of voice enhancing the poignant truth of the lyrics he delivered.
Food Finds in Berlin
It has always been my preference, when I travel, to hunt out authentic eats rather than fine dining (you may recall my guides to street eats in Rio, foodie finds in Havana and must try Japanese dishes) but if we were going to adhere to our budget, I honestly suspected we would go to bed hungry each night nevermind enjoy any of our meals.
What this challenge inadvertently made us do though, was to reflect on how we eat when we travel. When I am abroad, I can easily get through 2 rounds of a hotel breakfast buffet (compared to one banana at home), a 2 course lunch (compared to my usual bowl of soup or salad) and a 3 course meal to end the day (compared to a freshly-prepared one plate dish). Yes, it is a holiday and on holiday, one indulges – but to what extent?
For me, greed has a tendency to rear its ugly head when I travel. I can pile on weight and whilst I am all for foodie exploration, I am not convinced that it needs to come from 3 course meals, 3 times a day, every day of every trip (especially considering we made it to 9 countries last year – sorry for forgetting you in my round up, Montenegro!)
In Berlin, we grabbed croissants for breakfast (the chocolate, hazelnut praline ones we spotted around the city were good enough to travel back for!) For less than 2 Euros each, we were full till lunchtime and yet, we were still indulging in a treat compared to our home routines. Simples.
Lunches and dinners were a mix of styles and meals. One day, we stood in line at Curry 36, sandwiched amongst hungry locals, awaiting our portion of authentic German cuisine – Currywurst and chips. I find it odd how I proposed this idea, since I don’t even really like it but when in Germany right?!
On other days, we ditched sausages for chicken kebabs – yes, Turkish kebabs and yes, there was a method to our madness. Many people had told us that kebabs are a must-try in Berlin, due to the large Turkish community that have settled their roots in the city.
Whilst Pumpkin (and around a hundred other tourists) waited patiently in the queue for Mustafa’s Gemuese Kebap, I put my hunger pangs on standby until we arrived at Dada Felafel , rumoured to serve up some of the best versions of this veggie staple in the city. 6 Euros later, I was sorted for the night with my fill of giant felafel, salad, bread and dips and of course, no Turkish or Middle Eastern food experience is complete without a baklava.
It wasn’t all fast food though and just as Berlin has a large Turkish community, so too is it home to a vibrant Vietnamese one. On our first night, we indulged in a scrumptious, sit-down dinner at Madami – Mom’s Vietnamese Kitchen, one of the best Vietnamese restaurants I have ever been to, where portions were enormous and extremely affordable. Anyone else care for a crispy fried salmon bao burger?
Final Thoughts on my Cheapflights Challenge
Whether you travel on a shoestring budget or you prefer uber-luxury, I have always hoped that somewhere in the nooks and crannies here on Why Waste Annual Leave, you will find some travel inspiration that suits your budget.
For me, the passion has always been to share my stories & hopefully, inspire you to reach out to those destinations, whether that is in a caravan or a rooftop penthouse suite! It is the same world we are all exploring.
I never would have anticipated I would be able to have a 3 day holiday in Berlin (or anywhere) for around £150 per head, especially with my own choice of airline and accommodation. Whilst you will note from my price breakdown below that we just went over our limit by about £14, we still felt a huge sense of accomplishment about managing to plan such a fun adventure abroad on such a small budget and although our brief was only a 2 night city break, our choice of flights meant that we were rewarded with 3 full days in the city and we were delighted that we were able to make the funds last that long.
Hopefully, our challenge may bust some myths about how much holidays actually cost and/or may even encourage you to set yourselves your own challenge to embark on an adventure-filled European city break without breaking the bank!
- Flights: £91.28
- Accommodation for 2 nights: £117.60
- City Tax: £5.88
- Transport: £38.73
- Meals: £60.57
- Activities, Tours & Sights: ZERO!!
Total Expenses: £314.06
Additional Optional Expenses
- Souvenir Chocolates: £10.61
- Optional Tips: £8.81
Have you ever travelled to Berlin? What did you think of the city?
Many thanks to Cheapflights.co.uk for hosting us on this exciting Berlin adventure.