Immersion is a tried and tested path to fluency in a foreign language. You won’t find much argument amongst linguaphiles about that. And while it is possible to immerse yourself in a language remotely, nothing is as exciting as throwing yourself into the target language culture for a hefty dose of practice.
Immersion trips are just as important for your existing languages in ‘maintenance mode’ as they are for your new language projects. 2017 has been just that kind of year for me: I’ve been on a journey of rediscovery with Germany, the country of my degree language (an ever more distant memory!). Two trips to Berlin and a long weekend in Bremen might sound expensive, but there are some canny tricks for minimising the costs.
1. Follow the fares
The best approach to extremely cheap fares is flexibility. Airline websites often have ‘cheap fare finder’ calendar tools (see the EasyJet screenshot below). If you don’t care when you go, bargains are much easier to find.
EasyJet’s cheap fare finder tool (easyjet.com)
Booking a long way ahead is a good tactic, too. Airlines like easyJet release fares 6-12 months ahead of the date of travel, and that’s when there’ll be greatest availability for cheap seats. Follow the seat release dates, and you can forward-book a raft of cheap travel fares.
2. Don’t be fussy about where
Of course, the big, headliner tourist destinations often have the greatest pull factor. Berlin, Madrid, Paris, Warsaw… Who wouldn’t want to go where the big lights are? But often, lesser-known destinations can be cost-effective, off-the-beaten-path gems. Shunning the Polish capital, for example, I picked up a cheap Polish weekend in Gdansk for just £40 return with Ryanair in 2016.
Away from the big cities, there’s another benefit. Places that are less geared up to overseas visitors are often places where your language skills will have to work harder. While you might find plenty of confident English speakers in Madrid, your Spanish will have to go further in Vigo or Salamanca.
Generalise, generalise, generalise
There are several ways to generalise your search away from the major destinations. One essential tool for bargain hunters – and a secret worth sharing again and again – is the little-publicised website Google Flights Explore. The great thing about this tool is how general your searches can be. Start with you preferred destination airport, and pop in a whole country or region name. The search results will list forthcoming flight deals across a range of cities in that area, with the cheapest first. It’s an immersion junkie’s dream!
Google Flights Explore – an immersion junkie’s dream!
The general search is catching on, though. Some airline websites like easyJet and Ryanair allow you to type in a country name to see a list of routes to search on. While you can’t search for prices on more than one at the same time, it’s a quick way to see what’s available to browse.
A general search by country on the Ryanair website
3. Reap the rewards
There’s a whole mini-industry specialising in optimising travel rewards like air miles. This kind of advice is not so helpful when it comes to short-hop mini-breaks, though. Many low-cost, regional airlines have no useful reward scheme, as the ‘reward’ is the cheap fare, in effect. The best exception I’ve found to this is the British carrier FlyBe, which partners with Avios to offer reward flights.
However, it’s worth looking into other aspects of your travel to see where loyalty accounts can help. If you use hotels on your trips, then Hotels.com is worth a look; for every ten nights you book, you get a free night worth the average of those previous ten.
More generally, cashback sites like TopCashBack.co.uk allow you to earn a little discount on your travel bookings. It’s not usually a huge amount, but can add up. What’s more, you can often claim your cashback in travel vouchers like Avios – and, usually, at a slightly better rate than when you claim it as cash.
Check your High Street rewards cards, too. Some of them can pay out in travel rewards. Tesco, for example, offers a good conversion rate on Clubcard points to Avios, while Sainsbury’s / Nectar can be exchanged for Expedia vouchers. (It’s also worth pointing out that you can collect Nectar points on Expedia, too!) If you choose one supermarket and remain loyal to it, the travel treats can stack up.
Lastly, if you need to eke out as many extra pennies as possible, consumer rewards sites like Swagbucks can be useful. Completing surveys via these sites results in points that can be exchanged for vouchers or PayPal payments. It can be a slow process, but if you do it with a goal in mind, it can be fun!
4. Make the most of every minute
It stands to reason, but it’s crucial to take advantage of every moment you spend in the target language country. This kind of ‘immersion hop’ travelling is necessarily brief, often just a couple of days here and there. Frequently, it’s also solo travel, unless you have a willing travel bud / partner / language pal to share in the madness!
Fostering an attitude of throwing yourself in is key. It doesn’t need to be too challenging to your sense of social boundaries (chatting randomly to strangers is something few people find comfortable!). Instead, look for everyday opportunities to converse.
The easiest conversations in the world, for example, are those across shop counters. Dare yourself to go a little bit further than asking for what you want; talk about the weather, ask what is in that cake over there, say you’re learning the language and ask the word for something. It’s when we stretch those everyday interactions that we get our trip’s worth of language practice.
Three simple rules for affordable immersion trips
In a nutshell, the ideal approach is:
- Don’t be particular about where or when.
- Do be particular about your reward scheme memberships.
- Talk, talk, talk.
That’s a good credo to live by if you want to fill your life with target language trips and not break the bank!