Simon Calder: Budget travel is back - but don't let on to your friends

My sister Penny does not mind you knowing that, shortly before Christmas, she went shopping in the discount supermarket Lidl. A fellow shopper was evidently less comfortable about the location: when the woman's mobile rang, Penny heard her tell the caller "I'm in Sainsbury's".

Had you called me at 10am on Thursday, I would have answered, truthfully, "I'm in Stanfords." I was perusing the shelves of the world's biggest map and travel guide shop, in London's Covent Garden, to gauge some responses to the fact that our entire nation finds itself in reduced circumstances.

Budget travel is back – but we may need some help to remember how to do it. Leafing back through the cheap travel guides of the Seventies, it emerges that much advice was written for a gentler, more innocent age.

"If you're about to go through the barrier and you realise your passport is out-of-date, keep cool and say nothing. It's amazing how often immigration officials fail to notice." So said the first edition of the Travellers Survival Kit: Europe in 1976. A few years later, as sterling endured yet another crisis, Alternative London invited travellers to improve the exchange rates in their favour by pointing out "English 2p pieces work in most French Space Invaders machines; 5p pieces work as 1DM in German vending machines."

The current crop of low-cost travel guides does not deliver such radical advice for impecunious Brits. I turned to 1001 Smart Travel Tips from Fodor. Some were helpful, such as a reminder that the cheapest way to travel short distances between US cities is often the "Chinatown bus"; through fungwahbus.com you can find a New York-Boston trip for $15 (£10.70).

"Numbers" books are all the rage. My eye was caught by 747 Things to Do on a Plane. Tip 660 is a prank involving hurling a toilet roll to watch it unravel from one end of the plane to the other; Don't try this on a flight shared with sky marshals.

Lonely Planet had a smart idea for travel refugees seeking to escape the recession – a book called Flightless: Incredible Journeys without Leaving the Ground. And the man who first demonstrated how to enjoy long-distance travel assisted by a minimum of cash and a maximum of non-prescription drugs was Jack Kerouac.

In 1947, in the depths of the post-war recession, Kerouac set off on an epic, pharmaceutically assisted journey across an America struggling to come to terms with a new, more tolerant identity. In 1951 he wrote up his excursion through a beautiful, fractured nation in three weeks, fuelled, Kerouac claimed, by nothing stronger than caffeine in his system (others have attributed his high productivity to amphetamines).

In the absence of a computer, he adopted the unusual technique of typing on sheets of tracing paper that he taped together to form a continuous scroll so that he would not have to stop. As far as I know, he never unravelled the resulting manuscript along the length of a 747.

If you feel like an Incredible Journey without Leaving the Ground, head for Birmingham. The city's Barber Institute of Fine Arts has staged a geo-cultural coup as the first place in Europe to host the original Kerouac manuscript; you can see it up to 28 January. His words have not had the global impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but they sear the soul – such as the first time he sees the West Coast:

"Out ahead of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness of the late afternoon of time."

If you are inspired to visit the city, see today's Travel by Numbers on page 17. But if one of those figures – 337 for the price in pounds for a British Airways return to San Francisco – doesn't add up from your point of view, then you could find yourself shopping for a holiday in a discount supermarket.

This month Aldi became the first to offer holiday breaks along with your shopping. It provides low prices in return for limited choice; only one hotel, the Melia Benidorm, is featured on Spain's entire Costa Blanca. How will the middle classes on a cheap holiday to Benidorm respond when phoned while abroad? Probably with "I'm in Tuscany".

On the road with a good guide

As you trim back your holiday spending, the very last thing you should economise on is the guide book. The more informed you are about the culture and history, rail network and tipping customs of your destination, the richer the experience you will have. Even without tips on fraudulently using British coins in foreign coin-slots, guidebooks can save you a fortune. And, if a travel guide helps reduce the environmental impact and social transgression of the traveller, your hosts will be happy, too.

Today, we celebrate the work of the hard-pressed guidebook writers by introducing a new column, which you will find today on page 13. In it, authors researching for the Footprint guidebook series will contribute each week from a location somewhere on the planet. The series could have only one possible name, inspired, of course, by Jack Kerouac and his long roll of manuscript: On The Road.

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