Shetland On A Budget

by Alastair Hamilton -

Maybe you love the idea of visiting Shetland but you need to keep to a tight budget. If so, please read on, because there are lots of lower-cost ways to enjoy the islands.

The first decision is about how to get here; you can reach Shetland by plane or ferry. The cheaper option for budget travellers is likely to be the overnight ferry service from Aberdeen, operated by NorthLink Ferries. In peak season, it costs £41 single, £82 return, if you travel without any accommodation. You might want to add a reclining seat, which costs £3.50 each way, or, for £18 each way, a sleeping pod – a much more sophisticated recliner with such refinements as a charging socket for your phone. If you’re happy to spend a little more, you can buy a bed in a shared, single-sex four-berth cabin for £36.50. It’s certainly more comfortable and you get your own ensuite shower and lavatory. Other, more expensive, options – such as outside two-berth cabins – are available. However, at these higher price points, air fares may become competitive, especially if you book well in advance.

there are lots of lower-cost ways to enjoy the islands

The two identical ships that ply the route every night are comfortable, modern vessels with good facilities aboard.

If you’d like to combine a trip to Shetland with visiting our – very different – island neighbour, Orkney, that’s also possible. You can travel through Orkney in both directions, but it may be more convenient to travel north from Aberdeen to Shetland and then back southwards to Orkney, from where you can either head directly back to Aberdeen or take another ferry to the Scottish mainland at Scrabster, Gill’s Bay or John O’ Groats, perhaps to explore the northern Highlands. (You can do the trip the other way, but that will involve another overnight on the boat from Orkney to Shetland, rather than the fast, evening run from Lerwick to Kirkwall).

If you'd rather not take the ferry, there is the option of flying, and you can check prices on the Flybe website. Unless there are special offers available, flights will usually be more expensive than the cheapest ticket on the ferry, but (as explained above), the more expensive the accommodation you choose on the ferry, the more likely that you'll be able to find a comparable air fare. The flight takes just an hour from Aberdeen, rather than at least 12 hours on the ferry. You can also fly direct to Shetland from Inverness (1 hour 45 minutes, via Kirkwall); Edinburgh or Glasgow (1 hour 30 minutes); or Kirkwall (30 minutes); with connections from farther afield available. There's also a service between Shetland and Bergen, Norway (1 hour).

But what about getting to Aberdeen? One option is to take the bus. For instance, you can get to Aberdeen direct from Edinburgh in around three hours by Megabus; one-way fares start from around £9, though if you have an NUS card it’s a little cheaper. However, if you book early, the cheapest Advance rail tickets from ScotRail are only a little more expensive than the bus, from around £11.50 single. The train journey is a bit shorter, generally around 2 hours 30 minutes.

What about budget accommodation? Well, there are three main options, and one or two more unusual choices, and you may well want to use them in combination.

First, there are two youth hostels. The one in Islesburgh House in Lerwick is affiliated to the SYHA and, a few years back, it won the accolade of Best Hostel in the World; so you should have an enjoyable stay! The other youth hostel is the independent Gardiesfauld at Uyeasound in Unst, and it, too, is comfortable and well-equipped.

Secondly, we have a network of Camping Böds, interesting historic buildings that have been sensitively converted to offer low-cost visitor accommodation offering between 4 and 16 sleeping spaces.

The facilities in Böds vary a little, but all of them have a dry place to sleep, a solid fuel stove, a cold water supply and a toilet. Most have a shower. To stay in them, the basic principle is that you should bring everything you’d normally take on a camping trip, except for the tent. That said, some Böds do have cooking facilities, utensils and crockery, and most of them have an electricity supply. Camping Böds provide you with a convenient and economical base in several parts of the Shetland mainland and in the islands of Whalsay, Fetlar and Yell.

a convenient and economical base

The third option is to bring a tent. It’s a good way to get close to nature and, if you follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, you can explore – and enjoy wild camping on unenclosed land – in some of the remotest corners. To stay on the right side of the Code, the essential point is that you mustn’t leave any trace of your overnight stay. There’s a downloadable pdf here. If you do want to camp in or near a settlement, it’s courteous – and often very productive – to ask for advice at the nearest house.

That said, there are places to camp with good facilities around the islands, all of them associated with caravan sites, including Levenwick in the south mainland; Bridge End in Burra Isle; Skeld in the West Mainland; Brae in Delting; Eshaness in the north-west mainland; Burravoe in Yell; and Gardiesfauld, beside the Youth Hostel, in Unst.

More unusual options include ‘wigwams’, which can be found at Brae (very attractively set in woodland on a working croft) and on the campsite at Eshaness, (with a great view over the coast). These are cosy, timber cabins, comfortably fitted out.

What about getting around the islands on a shoestring? If your budget runs to bringing a car on the ferry, or hiring one in Shetland, you’ll have maximum flexibility and will be able to explore more of the islands in any given time. The peak season return fare for a car from Aberdeen is £292. We have a page giving details of car and bike hire.

However, it’s perfectly possible to get around the islands in other ways. Cycle touring seems to be gaining considerably in popularity. Although Shetland’s topography means that there are some long hills, the main roads are generally wide and well aligned, so motor traffic tends to move pretty fast. It helps that many of these roads have an informal hard shoulder, to which you can retreat easily if something large and fast is approaching, or if you just need to take a breather. Minor roads can be twisty and you may have to pull in from time to time to let vehicles pass.

many of these roads have an informal hard shoulder

You could explore by bus; there may only be one or two services each day on some routes, but buses do reach all the main communities, including the northern islands of Yell, Unst and Fetlar. There are several services per day on the busiest routes, for example between Lerwick and Sumburgh or Lerwick and Scalloway. It’s essential to study the timetable and plan your sightseeing around it. You’ll find all the timetables and fare information for Shetland buses on the Zetrans website. Inter-island ferry timetables can be found on the same website or on the Shetland Islands Council ferry timetable page. A ferry fares schedule is also available; on most routes, fares at the time of writing were £5.40 return for an adult and £13.30 return for a car. and plan your sightseeing around it.

There are, then, all sorts of ways to make your money go farther on a trip to Shetland. How might it all add up?

Let’s exclude food, which – assuming you’re mostly self-catering – you’d be buying anyway at home. There are supermarkets in Lerwick and Brae and well-stocked local shops, sometimes community-run, in many other places. Let’s also assume, for the moment, that you’ve made it to Aberdeen and plan a seven-night trip including two nights spent on the ferry.

If you were to use a sleeping pod both ways on the ferry from Aberdeen (£118 return), stay five nights, paying on average £12 per night for a place to sleep, (£60) and spend, on average, around £4 a day on bus fares, you could enjoy a week in Shetland for just under £200, plus whatever cost is involved in getting to Aberdeen. The Aberdeen-Lerwick ferry fares quoted are for peak season; they cost £14 less for a return trip in mid season and £28 less in low season. As explained above, travelling between islands won’t add much to your costs.

How low can you go? Well, if you travelled without accommodation on the boat (£82 return in peak season), bringing your own tent and a bike (which is free on the ferry), and wild-camped, you’d could see a great deal of Shetland for well under £100, plus of course the cost of getting from home to Aberdeen.

These costs can only be an indication, as it will all depend on which travel and accommodation options you choose and how much money you spend on entrance fees, on eating out or on internal travel, for example to the northern islands of Yell, Unst and Fetlar.

On that theme, it’s worth mentioning that many of Shetland’s best experiences are absolutely free to visit, including such historical sites as Scalloway Castle, Clickimin Broch, the Shetland Museum and Muness Castle. But there are others which are definitely worth the price of a ticket, for example admission to the archaeological site at Jarlshof, the ferry fare to visit the Broch on Mousa or perhaps a wildlife cruise. If you do visit any of the volunteer-run local museums – and you should – please consider giving whatever donation you can afford.

So, Shetland on a budget is possible and, if it appeals to you, we have lots of information about the islands on our website. Or, maybe you know someone who’d really fancy seeing the islands, perhaps a student who’ll be thinking of the summer vacation and may be in need of an adventure after finals? If so, by all means forward this article to them.

In planning a trip, you might find three blogs useful, all of them containing suggestions for a week or two in the islands. The first deals with the south of the islands, the second with the west and north mainland and the third with the north isles.

We’ll be delighted to welcome you, or them!