Friday, July 24, 2009

Doing the Edinburgh Festival for free (or cheaply, at least)

Edinburgh during the Festival can be an expensive affair. Pubs & restuarants bump up their prices, accomodation rates tend to get hiked up through the hotel roof and the cost of show tickets seems to rise every year.

I'm lucky, I live here (and no, I don't have a spare room, sorry) - but it still costs me something approaching a return first-class air fare to Sydney every year, and that's just for the bloody taxis.

However, it is possible to do things on a budget and still sample just about everything Edinburgh has to offer during the Festival.

Here's how:

The Shows
  • The Free Festival. Organised by Laughing Horse, this splinter event has grown from small beginnings to a substantial and well-respected part of the overall Fringe. With a heavy comedy bias, this year's programme has over 200 shows taking place in 14 venues across the city centre. As it has grown in size, it has also grown in quality, proving the old adage of 'you get what you pay for' isn't always true. Shows are run on a first-come first-served non-ticketed basis, and the performers will pass round a bucket for voluntary donations after each show, but the Free Festival does do what it claims to - provide a varied and cheap alternative to the costlier ticketed shows of its official Fringe big brother.
  • 2-for-1 weekend / preview shows / Half-Price Hut. If you do want to see some 'official' shows, you still have some options available to do this without incurring massive cost. Every year, on the first weekend of the Fringe (9 and 10 August this year), many shows offer two tickets for the price of one - although understandably this proves extremely popular and participating shows do sell out quickly. Similarly, many performers run preview shows before the Fringe officially starts (previews are on 5 and 6 August) - these tend to be substantially lower in cost and sometimes even free (especially if you pitch up at the venue and ask). Also, after some doubt as to its return this year, the Half-Price Hut is back. This is a temporary box-office at the foot of The Mound which offers half-price tickets for many shows if bought on the same day of performance. So, if you don't have a rigid schedule, it's worth pitching up here on a daily basis to see what's on offer.
  • Friends of the Fringe. This one's only worth it if you're interested in seeing 2-3 or more participating shows. For a one-off fee of £18, you are entitled to 2-for-1 tickets for 100s of shows in this scheme, meaning you can save substantial amounts. It's worth checking the shows you're interested in are taking part first though.
  • Fringe on the Royal Mile. Mentioned elsewhere in this blog, the Royal Mile is a fantastic outdoor space in which to experience free snippets of shows (performed to a schedule on three small stages) and to witness some top-quality street entertainment. As with the Free Festival, the street performers will pass round a hat after their show (some are well worth a couple of quid), but the performances on the stages are free, and as well as giving you a glimpse of a show that might be worth catching, are a good way of seeing half-a-dozen acts for nothing. Due to the noise and bustle going on, the acts taking part are nearly always musical or dance troupes, but you're still bound to see something you like.


Many hotels, serviced apartments and bed & breakfasts are fully-booked weeks in advance of the Festival beginning, though a few may still have rooms available (though likely at premium rates).

Many residents let out rooms or entire flats during August (it's a well-known local moneyspinner) - the official Fringe website's message board is a good place to look here, as is Gumtree. Do make use of Google Maps or similar to check out the location of any accomodation you're interested in, as there is little point paying good money for a room only to find it's a (expensive) taxi journey into central Edinburgh where the majority of things are going on.

Perhaps your best bet for budget accomodation is the selection of stylish, funky and artsy backpackers' hostels based in the city centre. Hostelbookers have a great selection here, and whilst they may not offer the most peaceful place to rest your head if you're after an early night, they will provide extremely cheap accomodation without sacrificing comfort or quality. Additionally, your fellow guests will all be there for the same reason, and the ad-hoc parties, jams and late-night soirees that spring up in these venues can be almost as entertaining as going to some shows themselves. If you're cool, hip and up for a laugh (or even just like to think you are), these places are for you.

Food & drink

As well as being Festival City, Edinburgh is also Scotland's capital and a financial & political centre to boot. Due to this, the cost of living is comparable to London and other major European capitals. However, it also has the advantage of meaning Edinburgh is well-served by the usual chains providing decent food (Pizza Express, Pret A Manger, etc) whose prices remain the same all year round.

Additionally, Edinburgh is chock-full of bars and restuarants competing for your business. Although some do raise prices during the Festival, you'll find others will have special deals and offers running to entice you through their doors, particularly if you choose to dine early.

You also have temporary food vendors springing up around the main venues such as the Pleasance and the Udderbelly. A particular favourite of mine is the Wannaburger stand that has been in Bristo Square for the last few Festivals, offering high quality grub for only a few quid (I always go for the beanburgers in a vague attempt to convince myself they're healthy). It's to their credit that, despite often having a captive market, Wannaburger and others are competitively priced and do provide a good option for cheap food on the go.

Drink is another matter however. Apart from buying a carry-out from the supermarket and sitting in Princes Street Gardens, there are few options for cheap alcohol in the city. Some bars will run happy hours, and the likes of The Standing Order on George Street and the Rose Street Brewery provide cheap drinks, but most bars and venues know they're onto a cash cow during the Festival and prices are set accordingly.

No such thing as a 'free' Festival

Unless you're a tee-totaller that doesn't mind sleeping in a bus shelter, you will have to spend some money whilst you're here. But, contrary to some doubters and naysayers, neither will you have to sell an organ to finance your trip - follow some of the pointers above and you can still have a blast without breaking the bank.


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