Cheapskate guide to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the ultimate paradise on earth for the theatre, art and culture lover. It’s the largest arts festival in the world, a month-long event that takes over the entire city of Edinburgh and showcases everything from stand-up comedy to improv to musical theatre to circus arts to live music to dance and much more.
This vibrant festival is like an all-you-can-eat buffet of entertainment. When you walk down the historic Royal Mile, you will be bombarded from all sides by quirky street performers and costumed actors – handing you flyers for their show. At any given moment throughout the day, you can choose between over 2,500 shows in 258 venues all over the city.
A typical day at the Fringe could include a morning of watching street performers juggle fire and dance on unicycles, a lunchtime stand-up comedy showcase, an afternoon watching a powerful one man play, an evening musical and then some late night improv or a sexy cabaret show in a bar. It’s very easy to see 3-4 performances in one day, as there are so many to choose from and the venues are within walking distance of each other.
Also, it’s a lot of fun just to walk around the city and soak up the festival vibe – Edinburgh really comes to life during the month of August. If you want to stretch your travel budget as far as possible during your trip to Edinburgh, this is the Cheapskate Guide to the Edinburgh Fringe. Read on for some great tips on how to find affordable accommodation, events and food so that you can make the most of this amazing event without spending a fortune.
Finding cheap accommodation for Edinburgh Fringe
One of your biggest expenses for your trip to the Edinburgh Fringe will be your accommodation, so if you can find a place to stay that is as cheap as possible – you will make a huge difference in your budget. During the month of August, Edinburgh becomes absolutely packed and hotels and hostels tend to ramp up their prices because of the increased demand.
The same hostel bed that would cost you £8-10 per night in January or February will cost you around £30-35 per night in August. However, it is still possible to find affordable accommodation if you look hard and start planning in advance.
How Far in Advance Should I Book Accommodation?
Even though I am one of those travellers who likes to leave my options open and plan things at the last moment, I always book in advance when I am going to the Edinburgh Fringe. Remember, it’s the largest theatre and arts festival in the world and during the month of August the population swells by about a million – temporarily making it the second largest city in the UK.
All of the hostels and hostels in the city will fill up before August rolls around and the later you leave your travel planning, the fewer choices you will have.
I usually start planning in at least June, so that I have a good selection of accommodation to choose from. However, the earlier you book the more chance you have of snagging a cheap deal.
Hostels for Edinburgh festivals
Hostels are a great option for accommodation during the Fringe. They are much more affordable than hotels and they also offer you a kitchen, so that you can cook a few of your own meals and save yourself money. Also, hostels give you the advantage of connecting you with other travellers, which makes the experience a lot more fun.
There are several hostels in Edinburgh to choose from, so your decision will hinge upon your perfect balance between location, price and facilities. I would recommend bringing a pair of good walking shoes – you can find cheaper prices if you stay at least a 30-45 walk outside of the main Festival hub along the Royal Mile.
Also, if you can plan your trip so that you visit the festival between Sunday-Thursday you will also save money, because many hostels have higher rates on the weekend.
Keep in mind that many hostels in Edinburgh will have specific policies that relate to the month of August. For example, many will not allow changes or refunds to group bookings after a certain date and sometimes they will not refund cancellations on August bookings.
Here are a few examples of great value hostels in Edinburgh, so take a look at their prices for your travel dates:
Smart City Hostels Edinburgh – Bed in 12 person dorm for £32 per night
Edinburgh Central Hostel – Dorm beds from £29 per night.
The Hostel – Beds in a 16 person Dorm for £30 per night (Sun-Thurs) or £35 per night on weekends
The Belford Hostel – Set in a 19th century converted church. About a 40 minute walk to the Royal Mile. I stayed here for Fringe 2013 and it was £22 per night for a bed in an 8 person dorm.
Another option to consider when looking for accommodation in Edinburgh is AirBNB. This is a website where people who own homes and apartments rent out their apartments by the night or by the week.
If you are travelling to the Fringe with your significant other or with a group of friends, you might be able to save money by sharing an apartment. For example, I spotted a nice apartment with a double bed for £33 per night – split between two people this is cheaper than both staying in a hostel and you will have private facilities, a kitchen and much more space and comfort.
Camping and caravan parks
If you have a tent or a caravan, a whole new range of options for cheap Edinburgh accommodation is available to you. There are several caravan parks and camping sites in the area where you could stay while you enjoy the festival.
For example, Thurston Manor is located in Dunbar, Lothian and is 28.5 miles outside of the city. You could park up in a grass serviced pitch from £12.75 per night.
Another example is Mortonhall Campsite, which is located only five minutes away from the city. The price for a standard pitch with electrical hook-up is £29.75 per night.
There are many other campsites to choose from within a 30 minute drive from the city of Edinburgh. When you split these prices between a group of people, this can be a very cheap way to visit the Fringe, even factoring in the petrol cost of driving back and forth to the city.
Another innovative idea is the website Camp In My Garden. It allows you to connect with locals so that you can pitch your tent in their gardens or backyard. A quick search revealed quite a few gardens in Edinburgh with prices ranging from £10-£15 per night.
University of Edinburgh Student Flats
The student accommodation at the University of Edinburgh is available during the summer. This is not the best option for a single traveller, but if you can get a group of people together to share a flat then you can take advantage of an economy of scale. For example, in the Self Catering Apartments there are 6-person flats available from £950 per week. This works out to only around £22.60 per person, per night.
Is Couchsurfing Possible During the Fringe?
Couchsurfing is an amazing website that connects travellers with people all over the world who are willing to offer up their spare bedrooms and couches for free. It is a great resource for the budget traveller, saving you a lot of money and giving you the opportunity to stay with a friendly and welcoming local who knows the city well. But is it possible to Couchsurf in Edinburgh during the Fringe?
While there are plenty of members on the Couchsurfing website who are located in Edinburgh, it is important to remember that these hosts will be bombarded with Couchsurfing requests during this time of year. After all, who wouldn’t want free Edinburgh accommodation?
It is likely that your couch request will be lost among the dozens of others that they will receive. If you want to increase your chances of finding a host, apply as early as possible and put a lot of effort into your couch request rather than sending out a form letter.
So, there is the possibility to Couchsurf during the Edinburgh Fringe, but don’t get your hopes up too much.
How to find cheap Fringe events
The Fringe Festival offers a huge range of shows and performances, spanning from big name stand-up comedians and musicians to amateur student productions and unknown comics performing in late night bars.
Tickets to see famous performers are expensive, however a huge number of Fringe performances are either free or cost less than £10 to attend. The trick to cutting down your Fringe expenses is to see as many free or cheap shows as possible so that you can save your money on one or two bigger performers that you really want to see.
Where to find free shows
It is possible to find free Fringe performances every day in many different venues all over the city. Here are a few of our options for free entertainment:
- Watch one of the street performers busking along the Royal Mile. From jugglers to acrobats to musicians to puppeteers, there is a wide range of talent and you don’t have to pay a thing. (But if you liked the show you can throw some change in their hat).
- Check out the Laughing Horse Free Fringe Festival, which encompasses a number of live performances, including comedy, cabaret, theatre, live music and much more in 17 venues.
- Pick up a copy of the Edinburgh Free Fringe Guide. This is a very helpful guide which outlines all of the free shows at the festival. It’s a valuable tool for the entertainment-hungry cheapskate in Edinburgh.
- Keep your eye out for performers who are advertising their shows on the Royal Mile. If the show is free, it will usually be stated prominently on the flyer. (Or shouted enthusiastically by the performers)
Tips for choosing free shows that aren't crap
Okay, so there is one risk when seeing free shows at the Edinburgh Fringe – you sometimes get what you pay for. Many performances will be good, but sometimes you will find yourself watching a performer fail to engage with the audience in such a spectacularly awkward way that you cringe with embarrassment for them.
Watching free or cheap performances can be risky, so how can you avoid the terrible ones?
The first thing to remember is that, with the sheer amount of shows you will see at the Fringe and the un-juried nature of the Festival – it is inevitable that you will see at least one performance that you don’t enjoy. Seasoned Fringe-goers accept this and know that it is part of the festival. In fact, a face-palm-worthy performance might be painful to watch but it can give you a funny story to tell later.
However, here are a few tips for avoiding the worst:
- Ask others for recommendations – Get chatting with the other travellers at your hostel or the audience members next to you before a show. What performances did they love and which ones did they regret?
- Read the reviews – After the first week or so, you will start to get an idea where the gems and the stinkers can be found.
- Use social media – If you are interested in a show, send out a Tweet with a #edfringe hastag and ask others whether it is worth seeing.
How to get ticket discounts
There are a few ways that you can get discounts on tickets for Edinburgh Fringe shows, which can help you save even more money:
- If you are a student, bring your student ID with you to the Fringe as it will help you to get discounts on some tickets.
- Also, concession prices are often available to those with disabilities, the registered unemployed, senior citizens and children under the age of 18.
- Download the app “Theatre Ninjas” on your iPhone. This app allows producers to advertise free or discounted tickets 30 minutes before the performance begins, so that audience members can snap them up.
- If you think you might see a lot of shows at a single venue, some of the venues have loyalty scenes that will give you discounts on tickets. For example, if you see more than 5 shows at any of the “C Venues” locations (the largest venue chain at the Fringe) you can get discounts on further tickets.
- See a show on a Monday or a Tuesday rather than a Friday or Saturday night, you can sometimes get a discount on tickets.
Go see a preview
If you are in Edinburgh at the very start of the festival, you could save some money by seeing some previews of the shows before they officially open. The Fringe officially begins on the first Saturday in August, but the previews begin as early as the preceding Wednesday.
These are essentially dress rehearsals and although they might not be 100% polished, they are pretty close to the real thing. The great thing about previews is that they can sometimes be up to 50% cheaper.
How to use the Half Price Ticket Hut
If you are spontaneous and want to save some serious cash, you can swing by the Fringe Half-Price Hut. This handy service offers tickets for shows on that day at half their usual price. It is located on the Mound Precinct close to the Royal Scottish Academy and the Princes Street Gardens and there is a large list of the shows offering discounted tickets on display.
Also, to make things easier you can download the iPhone app, which will give you updates on which tickets are available. The hut will open up at 10am every day and there is usually a long queue in the morning when it opens. If you are not waiting for anything specific, you might want to go a few hours later to beat the crowds.
Why you should visit during the first week
If you can plan your trip for the very first week of August, you might find more chances for cheaper tickets to the Fringe. This is because the venues will be more eager to fill the seats – the more audience members the better so that they can promote themselves via word of mouth.
In fact, the first Sunday and Monday of the Festival is the Fringe 2 for 1 weekend – which is a great opportunity to save.
Volunteering for free tickets
If you have more time than money on your hands and you really want to experience the inner workings of the Fringe, you could volunteer at a venue in exchange for free tickets.
The best way to do this is to contact your venue directly and find out the opportunities that they offer. This is a great opportunity to enjoy the festival from behind the scenes.
Is it worth it to get a “Friend of the Fringe” membership?
You might be wondering whether getting a “Friend of the Fringe” Membership will save you money. To be a “Friend of the Fringe” it costs £25 per year and you will receive free delivery of the programme to your door, a 2 for 1 ticket offer on a choice of up to 15 shows and 10% off Fringe merchandise.
Becoming a “Close Friend” costs £50 per year and offers you the same, except you get 2 for 1 tickets on up to 25 shows and an invitation to attend a special reception. There is also a “Best Friend” option for £150 which allows you 2 for 1 tickets on an unlimited number of shows and your name in the official programme.
Will this save you money? If you are a single person attending the Fringe, the 2 for 1 offer really won’t benefit you at all. However, if you are attending with a friend you might find that it is worth it – depending on how many shows that you think you might see and how much they cost.
Where to find cheap food
Of course, after walking all over Edinburgh and taking in all of this great entertainment, you have probably worked up an appetite. Where can you grab some food between shows that will be easy on your wallet?
Go where the students eat
In any University city, to find cheap food you can just ask the students – they are used to filling their bellies on a small budget. A student favourite in Edinburgh is Nile Valley, which serves up large portions of North African cuisine for cheap prices, including falafel with hummus, baba ganoush, ful beans with onion and tomatoes and toasted wraps. The main dishes are all around the £10 mark and you can grab a wrap for lunch for around £3 or £4.50.
Another popular spot with students is the Red Box Noodle Bar, which is located on West Nicholson Street. You can create your own noodle box by choosing your style of noodles along with your meat, vegetables and sauce. A meal deal with a starter, a noodle box and a soft drink will cost £8.50.
Tempting Tattie is another brilliant spot that students love, because you can fill up with a hearty baked potato loaded with toppings for only around £4. The potatoes are warm and comforting and you can choose from toppings like baked bean, greek salad, tuna or, of course, haggis.
Reasons to take a packed lunch (and where to buy supplies)
Okay, so you just finished watching an afternoon comedy showcase and its 2pm. You are absolutely starving, but you have tickets for another show at 2:45 in a venue across town. You need some food to keep your stomach from grumbling so loud that it interrupts the performance, but where can you find a quick snack?
The answer is – always have a packed lunch with you while enjoying the festival.
This is a secret that is not only much more convenient than breaking away from the theatre action to find food, but will also save you money. Going to the supermarket for a loaf of bread and some sandwich fillings, which can make you lunch for several days, is much cheaper than eating out every afternoon.
If you prepare your own breakfast in your apartment or hostel and make a packed lunch, you will only need to spend restaurant prices on your dinner (unless you cook that in your hostel too).
So where can you find the supplies to make yourself a lunch? There is a Sainsbury’s on St. Andrew Square, but Sainsbury’s has never really been the budget option supermarket. You will find better prices at the Tesco Edinburgh Superstore on Broughton Road.
Although it is a little bit out of the centre, you can also visit the ASDA Chesser Superstore on New Mart Road. You can also find some nice fresh produce and some unique and interesting foods for your packed lunch at the Edinburgh Farmer’s Market, which takes place on Castle Terrace right near the Edinburgh Castle.
Cheap drinks and pub food
So when you want to relax with a cold pint and chat about all of the interesting shows that you have seen that day, where can you find the most affordable pubs in Edinburgh?
One of the local favourites is called “The Dogs”, located on the first floor of a beautiful Georgian New Town terrace on Hanover Street. It offers fresh and tasty gastro-pub food with mains priced around £4.50 for lunch or £7.90 for dinner.
Another great bargain is the Brauhaus on Lauriston Place, which offers a £10 beer bucket with an assortment of 5 beers from around the world. Also, at the Jekyll & Hyde Bar in New Town in Central Edinburgh, you can get a pint of John Smiths for £1.50 (as long as you don’t mind the creepy horror themed décor).
The Joy That Is Mosque Kitchen
It’s an Edinburgh favourite – loved by festival-goers and broke students alike. Mosque Kitchen is located close to the lecture theatres at the University on 50 Potterow and you can get a plate of curry and rice from £4. It is open from noon until 8pm daily, although it closes from 1-1:45pm on a Friday during prayers.
It isn’t a luxurious eatery – you eat with plastic spoons from paper plates – but the price is right and the food is hearty and filling.
Where to get the best value haggis
Of course, while you are in Edinburgh it is absolutely essential that you try haggis while you are there. While it might sound like the most unappetising thing you can think of (the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep, cooked in its stomach with oats and spices) it is actually quite delicious – especially with some neeps (turnip), tatties (mashed potato) and whiskey gravy. When in Rome… as they say.
You don’t want to necessarily go for the cheapest haggis – as this might not necessarily be the best way to experience this unique dish for the first time. Go for a good value haggis, which will not break your budget but will taste delicious.
One of the most popular places to have a haggis is the Whiski Rooms on Bank Street. This restaurant offers a reasonably priced haggis that is loved by locals and tourists. Also, there is Arcade Haggis and Whisky Pub – which is dedicated solely to this Scottish culinary experience.
Enjoy Your visit to the Fringe
With these tips in mind, you should be able to have a fun and affordable experience at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.
If you have any more cheapskate Fringe tips or recommendations, please share them with us in the comments below! Have fun and happy Fringing!
By Kelly Dunning – Kelly Dunning is a freelance travel writer and digital nomad. She and her partner Lee have been travelling the world for the last 3 years while running Global-Goose.com – a source of information and inspiration for fellow travellers.