Budget Travel

Your membership includes:

  • Access to our exclusive booking platform with private rates.
  • Newsletters with weekend getaways, trip ideas, deals & tips.
  • Sweepstakes alerts and more...
  • Don’t have an account?Get a FREE trial membership today. No credit card needed. Sign up now.
  • FREE trial membership. No credit card needed. Limited time only. Already have an account? Log in here.
    By creating an account, you agree to our Terms of Service and have read and understood the Privacy Policy
Close banner
ADVERTISEMENT

​How to Plan a Whisky Tour to Scotland's Speyside Region

By Katie Hammel
updated September 29, 2021
Scotch Whisky 2
Bizoon | Dreamstime.com
Scotland's Speyside is a region rich in whisky heritage nestled within rolling hillsides, small towns and fields of barley. Here's how to explore it.

In the pastoral region of Speyside in northeast Scotland, whisky is everywhere. Vast, blond fields of barley stretch under open skies. Wooden whisky barrels sit stacked behind low stone warehouses. Whisky bars and bottle shops line the streets, the signature pagoda-shaped chimneys where malt is roasted peek above the green hillsides, and the sweet smell of fermenting barley fills the air.

There are more than 100 whisky distilleries operating in Scotland, and more than half of them are located in Speyside, a subregion of the Highlands. It’s the capital of single-malt whisky production in Scotland, and in fact, the world. More single malt whisky is produced here than anywhere else, and tiny towns with just 1,000-2,000 people often support at least two or three working distilleries.

For whisky lovers – particularly Scotch whisky lovers – Speyside a playground for the palate. And for those who've never so much as sipped a dram, there's no better place to learn the ins and outs of whisky production and sample a wide range of styles. Here’s your primer on tasting your way around Speyside.

Distillery Tours

While each distillery puts its own unique spin on things, the basic processes are the same. Rather than trying to tour every distillery, focus on visiting a cross-section of distilleries, or choose brands you’re especially passionate about (they may have some distillery-exclusive bottles you can’t get anywhere else).

Dufftown.jpg?mtime=20190826111309#asset:106720A street in Dufftown © Katie Hammel / Budget Travel

Aberlour runs a very informative tour and tasting that’s great for beginners. The 90-minute tour costs £15 per person and includes a walk through the distillery, an overview of how whisky is made, and a tasting of six whiskies. Continue your education at Balvenie, which grows and harvests its own barley onsite and is the only distillery that still practices floor malting in which barley is germinated on a floor. Small-group tours are offered three times per day for £50 per person, and you can bottle your own Balvenie for an additional £30.

To see the future of whisky production, head to The Macallan. One of the most modern distilleries in the region, both in design and production style, The Macallan distillery is a gleaming, glass-and-steel monument to whisky and an architectural marvel. Half of the structure is built into the hillside, sheltered under a living roof covered in grass. Underneath that grass, some 2500 individual sheets of Scandinavian spruce – held together only by pressure, with no glue, nails, or other materials – form the distillery ceiling. And, almost all (95%) of the distillery’s energy comes from renewable courses. Ninety-minute introductory tours cost £15 per person, while 2.5-hour tours that go deep into the state-of-the-art production area cost £100 per person.

One of the most inexpensive options for tours is Glenfiddich, where a 90-minute tour with three tastings costs just £10 per person. And if you don’t want to spring for that, you can simply wander the bucolic grounds dotted with stone buildings, a small lake, several warehouses, a gift shop, and statues of founders Elizabeth and William Grant. You can even catch a peek at the copper stills. Or, head to the Malt Barn where you can sample by the dram along with soups, salads, and sandwiches that range from £5-8.

To work off a few of those whisky calories, join the Dufftown Distilleries Walk. This 3.5-hour tour combines a leisurely stroll through woods and meadows past nine Dufftown distilleries – both active and historic, now-defunct distilleries – with up to 18 drams representative of each distillery’s style. The tour is fully outdoors and doesn’t go inside the distilleries or tasting rooms, but it’s an informative and active way to learn more about the area’s history while sampling a wide variety of whiskies.

Once you’ve toured enough, continue your education at the local pub. Most pubs in Speyside boast expansive whisky collections, knowledgeable bartenders, and drams starting at around £2, so you can sample quite a bit for a small bit of cash. Head to the Seven Stills in Dufftown, The Mash Tun or The Still at the Dowans Hotel in Aberlour, or the Quaich Bar at the Craigellachie Hotel.

whisky-and-cheese-pairing-at-Seven-Stills-pub.jpg?mtime=20190826111310#asset:106721A tasting the Balvenie with cheeses © Katie Hammel / Budget Travel


How to Plan Your Day

Nearly all distilleries require that you take a tour if you want to sample the goods, and most tours last 1-2 hours. Factor in lunch, and typically you can do no more than three distillery visits in one day – and honestly, that’s plenty if you want to be standing by 6pm.

Most distilleries open for visitors at 10 or 11am and close by 4 or 5pm, and while not all require reservations, it’s wise to make them as tours do sell out. The most popular tours, like Balvenie, book up weeks in advance.

Assume one tour in the morning, a break for lunch, and then one or two tours in the afternoon, and when possible, cluster them within one town or area to eliminate unnecessary travel time. Or, plan one of the activities listed below in the morning, before tackling the distilleries.

What to Do When You're Not Drinking Whisky

While there are enough distilleries that you could spend a week or more doing nothing but touring, your liver might not be up to the challenge. Thankfully, there are plenty of other things to do in the region.

To learn more about whisky production, head to the Speyside Cooperage where you can watch master coopers repair the barrels used for storing whisky. You’ll learn all about the barrel-making process and can watch the lightning-fast coopers from a second-story observation window. Thirty-minute tours are offered Monday through Friday for £4. Nearby, the crumbling ruins of the 12th-century Balvenie Castle are also worth a look (closed Oct 1 to March 31, admission £6).

Head to the town of Elgin to visit the Johnston’s of Elgin cashmere and wool mill. Free, daily guided tours take visitors through the entire production process from dyeing to weaving, as the famous mill creates fabrics for high-fashion companies including Burberry.

Reindeer-center.jpg?mtime=20190826111310#asset:106722Reindeer spotting in the Cairngorn Mountains © Katie Hammel / Budget Travel

Speyside also offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor fun. There are hikes both big and small, from the 65-mile Speyside Way trail (one of four official Long Distance Routes in Scotland) to a 20-minute walk behind the Aberlour distillery that leads to a lovely little waterfall. There’s canoeing on the River Spey, or you can go fishing, ATVing, or clay shooting at the House of Mulben.

And, if you’re up for an hour drive, head to the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre in the Cairngorm Mountains. The reindeer that used to roam these mountains vanished centuries ago, but they were reintroduced in the 1950s. Now, visitors can take a guided walk (£16) to the herd to meet the reindeer, hand-feed them, and learn more about the important part they play in the local ecosystem.

How to Get around Speyside

Scotland has a zero tolerance policy on drunk driving. There are strict limits for the amount of alcohol you can have in your system, and just one drink can put you over that limit. Distilleries will not allow designated drivers to sample, however most distilleries offer a driver’s tasting kit. For a few extra pounds, they’ll fill up small sample bottles with each of the tastes that were offered onsite, so you can try them all at home. If you’ll be visiting a few distilleries, bring your own; Amazon sells the sample bottles individually or as part of a whisky-tasting kit.

If you’re not willing to delay gratification and want to taste onsite, you’re left with three options: public transport (bus or train), private driver, or taxi.

Public transport is the cheapest, but provides the least amount of flexibility; you’ll need to limit your travels to distilleries in and around towns served by busses and trains, and forgo visits to any distilleries in the countryside. Between bus and train you can easily travel between the main towns; train fare varies and the bus is typically under £3. Traveline Scotland has an easy-to-use website for planning routes.

Hiring a private driver is more costly. Speyside Whisky Experience offers full-day tours with private transport for up to six people that include three distillery visits and time for lunch for £275-£325.

A taxi can be a good compromise; you have more flexibility but it’s not quite as pricey as a private driver. Taxis aren’t found in abundance so call well in advance and set a pickup time with the driver when they drop you off. Depending on the distance, the cost might be £15-40 per ride; many taxis, such as Craigellachie Cars, will also offer a single price based on a pick-up and drop-off schedule booked in advance.

Where to Stay

While you could base yourself an hour west in lively Inverness, to really immerse yourself in Speyside, choose one of the central towns, such as Aberlour, Dufftown, or Rothes, which are surrounded by distilleries.

Rothes, a workaday town set on the River Spey, has a residential feel. While it’s home to two distilleries, a couple of pubs, and a fish and chips shop, it doesn’t offer as many tourist diversions as Aberlour and Dufftown. What it does have is the luxurious Station Hotel, a 14-room hotel housed in a 1901 stone building. It doesn’t come cheap, but the Caperdonich Suite is a stunner, with a four-poster king bed, gas fireplace, and a mezzanine level where a deep two-person tub overlooks the room. Room rates start at around £196.

Four miles south, tiny Aberlour (population 972 as of the last census) offers accommodation across the budget spectrum in a quintessential Scottish village. The main street runs parallel to the River Spey and is lined with shops, including the Walkers Shortbread Bakery Shop (the factory sits on the end of town), and the Spey Larder, a great spot to load up on picnic supplies.

Check into the Dowans Hotel, conveniently located right on the edge of town (rates start at £150 per night). The 18 plaid-and-velvet-adorned rooms call to mind an old Scottish country estate, and the onsite bar, dubbed The Still, houses a collection of more than 500 whiskies. On the lower end of the budget, try the Mash Tun, a pub and whisky bar with four cozy upstairs rooms starting at £120 per night.

Rounding out the trio of towns, Dufftown is the Goldilocks: slightly larger and busier than Aberlour and with a bit more charm than Rothes. Home to six distilleries, it produces more whisky than any other town in Scotland and offers lots of options for dining, drinking, and shopping. The Highland Spirit Bed & Breakfast offers three sweet rooms in the heart of town starting at £139 per night including a full Scottish breakfast.

ADVERTISEMENT
Keep reading
Travel Tips

The Best Day to Buy Airline Tickets

Cost-conscious travelers have always been obsessed with paying less for plane tickets, but as airlines consolidate, raise prices and fees, and slash amenities, gaming the system in search of a good deal has become a standard step in the booking process. As it turns out, there’s not an easy answer to the industry’s million-dollar question, but we’ve combed through the latest data to bring you the information, tips, and tricks that’ll help you find those hidden-gem fares. What’s the best day of the week to shop? First, the not-so-great news: if you’re strictly interested in the best day to hit the “buy” button, there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Though standard wisdom indicates that midweek purchases tend to be cheaper – FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney doubled down on this advice, telling Barron’s that to find a sale fare, “the best time is Tuesday afternoon at 3 p.m.,” thanks to airlines’ price-matching adjustments – the reality may not be so straightforward. The 2019 Air Travel Outlook Report from Expedia and the Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC), which tracked Average Ticket Prices (ATPs) and examined billions of data points to identify travel patterns, determined that it’s cheapest to buy economy flights (both international and domestic) on Sunday and most expensive on Thursdays and Fridays, but a competing report claims that the specific date of purchase may not actually have that much impact. The most recent CheapAir.com Annual Airfare Study looked at 917 million airfares in over 8000 markets and found negligible cost differentials from day to day, with average lowest fares within $1 of each other. How far in advance should you book? Now for the better news: you might not be able to predict price drops by day of the week, but if you pay attention to the calendar, you should be able to find bargains. Though last-minute deals aren’t unicorn-level rare, you’ll likely get the best prices at least three weeks in advance. Instead of zooming in on a specific day to shop, CheapAir.com recommends booking within a window of 21 to 115 days ahead, depending on the season, with a domestic-flight sweet spot of 76 days before departure. The Expedia/ARC report also pushes for a long lead time, recommending that bargain-minded economy travelers book three weeks in advance for the lowest ATPs, and Skyscanner suggests a 21-day cut-off as well. “There are obviously a lot of factors at play, but Skyscanner has found that savings can typically be found three to seven weeks out from the dates of travel,” says Randi Imas, the company’s head of communications for the Americas. What are the best times to travel? And finally, the best news: When you buy doesn’t matter as much as when you fly, so you’ll be ahead of the game if you can keep your dates loose. Of course, there’s not a complete consensus on this front either, but the Expedia/ARC report found that the best day for an economy-class traveler to start a trip is Friday (for overseas travel, check Thursday departures as well), while CheapAir.com’s study declared Tuesday and Wednesday the least expensive days to fly, with average tickets costing $85 less than on Sunday. To complicate matters further, seasonality affects pricing as well – the CheapAir.com data indicates that US travelers paid the highest economy fares in winter and the lowest in fall, so if you have flexible PTO, plan accordingly. So how DO you find the best fare? To cover your bases, sign up for newsletters like Scott’s Cheap Flights for flash sales and mistake fares, follow your favorite airlines on social media for real-time deal alerts, and try flight predictors like Skyscanner, Hopper, or Google Flights, which closely monitor airline activity and let you know when to buy. “When considering fluctuation in ticket prices, economic states, and the increase in airline flash sales, it is hard to guarantee that there is a specific day or time that will offer the cheapest flight, so we recommend travelers set up price alerts to track a route’s fare to see how it can fluctuate and independently determine the best time to book based on their own criteria, whether that’s based on budget, dates of travel, or adjustments to departure or arrival city/airport,” says Skyscanner’s Imas. Suffering from buyer’s remorse? Don’t worry, airlines operating in the US are required by law to refund your money if you cancel within 24 hours of booking, at least seven days in advance of departure. If you missed that window, try Yapta, a site that tracks your purchased flights and notifies you if prices drop enough to trigger the individual airlines’ refund policies. Scored a great deal lately? Tell us how you did it in the comments below, and we’ll highlight our favorite strategies in an upcoming roundup.

Travel Tips

These Are The World's Friendliest Cities

Vancouver has long been rated as one of the world's most liveable cities but it's just been recognized as the world's friendliest in a new international survey. Vancouver is dripping in charms from dazzling skylines to coastlines, and now its multicultural population has been singled out for its exceptionally good nature. A poll published this week from Big 7 Travel asked its 1.5 million followers to decide the friendliest city for tourists and expats and Vancouver came out on top. Locals were praised for being "quick to offer assistance to tourists" and authors complimented the city's "community vibe" which makes "socializing in Vancouver simple." New Yorkers might often be accused of being cold but it appears that reputation is beginning to thaw as it made the cut in 47th place. While it's true that things move pretty fast in Manhattan, authors noted that there's more of a community feel in the neighborhoods of each borough and a melting pot of cultures, which invites people in. But according to the poll, it's not as friendly as Charleston, South Carolina (33rd), or Houston, Texas (19th), and it doesn't have a patch on Nashville, Tennessee (8th), which was declared the friendliest city in the US. Why? Because it boasts Southern charm by the bucketloads, a lively music scene and friendly locals with a "buzzing attitude and an eagerness to show off their city to out-of-towners." With regards to the top five, Kuala Lumpur's "friendliness towards visitors" drove the Malaysian capital into the second spot, while Bruges's "charming atmosphere" and "locals who go the extra mile to welcome tourists" placed the Belgian city in third. Taipei, Taiwan, was recognized as one of Asia’s most LGBTQ+ friendly cities in fourth place, while Hamburg, Germany's "family-friendly feel" pushed it into the fifth spot. You can view the poll's top 10 friendliest cities below and the full top 50 list here. 10th. Glasgow, Scotland 9th. São Paulo, Brazil 8th. Nashville, Tennessee, USA 7th. Christchurch, New Zealand 6th. Dublin, Ireland 5th. Hamburg, Germany 4th. Taipei, Taiwan 3rd. Bruges, Belgium 2nd. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 1st. Vancouver, Canada

Travel Tips

How to Get More Legroom in Coach

If you’ve been feeling extra cramped on flights these days, you’re not alone. Air carriers have been been slowly shrinking the amount of legroom customers get for years. The average “seat pitch” – the distance between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat directly in front of it – has decreased from 35 inches in the late 1960s to 31 inches today, and on some airlines has been reduced to 28 inches. That may explain why a quarter of passengers on economy flights said they found seat comfort to be “poor” or “very poor,” a 2018 survey by Consumer Reports found. Many airlines have added more seats to planes to increase profits. But amid growing concerns of deep vein thrombosis (a potentially fatal condition involving blood clots in the legs) on planes with less legroom – and safety issues in the event of an emergency evacuation – the Federal Aviation Administration is considering stepping in to impose regulations on how much room travelers deserve when flying with a commercial airline. The good news? We’ve compiled a list of the best and worst coach seats based on legroom from North America-based airlines. Knowing what your options are can help you make a smarter choice on your next flight. (Note: Legroom on carriers can vary between long-haul and short-haul planes.) NORTH AMERICAN AIRLINES WITH THE MOST LEGROOM Interjet: 34 inches. This Mexico-based, low-cost carrier flies from a handful of US cities to destinations in Mexico and Central and South America. The airline says it removed up to 30 seats on each its aircrafts in order to give customers more space. Air Canada: 30-34 inches. Canada’s largest airline is known for not only low prices but also spacious seats. JetBlue: 32 inches. Although JetBlue recently lowered its average legroom space by adding 12 cabin seats to its latest fleet of planes, the carrier is still a strong runner-up. Virgin America: 32 inches. At 5’11,’’ Virgin America founder Richard Branson doesn't like to be confined to tight spaces – and he doesn’t want his customers flying coach to be either. Southwest: 32 inches. In addition to low rates, the domestic discount carrier gives passengers more space than many of its higher budget competitors. NORTH AMERICAN AIRLINES WITH LESS LEGROOM Alaska Airlines: 31-32 inches. Despite the squeeze, coach passengers have the option to book Preferred Plus Seats, which offer 4 inches of extra legroom, starting at an extra $15. American Airlines: 31 inches. Tight space, right? To American Airlines’ credit, after the Fort Worth-based carrier announced last year it would be adding more seats to its Boeing (BA) 737 Max jetliners, the company decided to nix its plans after receiving negative feedback from customers and employees. Delta: 31 inches. Delta, one of the largest airlines in the world, also offers some of the tightest economy seats. Hawaiian Airlines: 31 inches. Despite its tight seating, Hawaiian Airlines recently nabbed the title of the US's airline industry’s top-ranked carrier for on-time performance from the US Department of Transportation. United: 30 to 31 inches. With flights to 60 countries spanning North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Oceania, United offers larger “Economy Plus” seating with extra legroom. Allegiant: 30 inches. The budget airline serves more than 100 domestic destinations. Select flights offer “Legroom + seats” that provide passengers with up to 34 inches of legroom. Spirit: 28 inches. Although the airline is tied for last place, Spirit offers some of the cheapest fares. Frontier: 28 inches. The low-cost carrier may offer seriously squashed legroom, but (like Spirit) it has some of the lowest prices. HOW TO UPGRADE YOUR LEGROOM FOR FREE Put simply: Loyalty pays off for air travelers. Many frequent flyer programs offer members perks such as free seat upgrades and discounts of 10 to 50 percent on select flights. Promo alerts are often sent to members via email, Twitter, Facebook, and other channels. If you travel enough to earn elite status, you may also qualify for complimentary seat upgrades. For instance, when you fly 25,000 miles on American in one calendar year, you earn “Silver status” that can get you (and a companion) free access to the airline’s roomier economy plus seats. Pro tip: You may even be able to score a seat upgrade by asking the check-in agent or gate representative “nicely” for one, The Points Guy says.

Travel Tips

How To Decide If a European Cruise Is Right for You

As I took in my second Mediterranean sunset from the top deck of a cruise ship, I thought to myself, “This isn’t a bad way to see Europe.” Although I had visited the continent before, this was my first time cruising it, and I was doubtful if the growing trend was a worthwhile way to experience the most visited landmass on the planet. But after returning to port 11 days later, I found my answer. In short, cruising is a terrific way to sample many of Europe’s most iconic sites, countries, buildings and cultures, sometimes for less than you would by land and often with fewer logistical hassles. Cruising the continent has its share of shortcomings, however. Having personally explored Europe by land, cruise ship, and even river cruising, I’ve put together a handy list of pros and cons to help you decide if the added convenience is right for you, whether as a first-timer to the continent or someone who’s visited several times before. Pro: logistical ease Celebrity (for which you’ll pay about $100-200 more per 7-day reservation for noticeably better food than with Royal Caribbean), I was delighted by the logistical ease of boarding the ship and hopping on and off in several different counties with only my ship card (no Passport required). And it was really nice not to have to worry about where I’d eat breakfast or dinner after a full day of sightseeing. Pro: unpack your suitcase once A unique pleasure of cruising is that you only have to unpack once, since your floating hotel travels with you. This is especially easy for anyone who’s traveling with family or are themselves a chronic over-packer. Not having to re-pack your suitcase allows you to better observe and enjoy what’s going on around you. Pro: cruise into savings Cruising can also afford significant savings. For example, I paid $1000 for roundtrip airfare through the ship and saved $300 per ticket when compared to online search engine. I even prepaid for gratuity, got complimentary ground transport back to the airport, and only ended up spending a couple of hundred dollars extra on souvenirs. If you can stay away from casinos, specialty restaurants, and costly drink plans, cruising can be quite affordable. That said, you could clearly backpack and stay in hostels for less than you would cruising. But $150 per night in a comfortable room with meals included is a very compelling case for cruising Europe. TIP: For even better savings, book land excursions online in advance with local companies or in-person at port. I’ve done both and saved up to 65% off when booked through the ship. First-Time Cruisers: 11 Biggest Mistakes (and How Not to Make Them) Con: Less interaction with local people While cruising is a great way to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of Europe, it will undeniably limit your interaction with local people and cuisine. In my experience, this is a pretty glaring omission, but not necessarily a deal-breaker. If you can embrace your tourist status and know beforehand that you’ll have to try extra hard to interact with locals, then your cruise can be just as interactive than any overland journey. Con: Fewer authentic meals As for the food, my ship did an admirable job offering breakfasts, lunches, and dinners that reflected the local port. They even brought in several local performing groups to the onboard theater. But there is no getting around this: if soaking up the local language, cuisine, and people is of utmost importance, than cruising might not be a good fit for you. Con: Just the highlights If you like to take things slow and soak in a destination, cruising is also a bad fit. For example, imagine trying to see New York, Washington, D.C., or San Francisco in eight hours or less. That’s often what cruising forces you to do in equally storied cities such as Rome, Venice, Barcelona, Nice, Budapest, and more. On top of that, most cruises only focus on a major section of Europe, say the Western or Eastern Mediterranean, Scandinavia, the Black Sea, or inland rivers. You can’t fault cruising for that sizable geography, but it’s something you should know before boarding. TIP: While April through November is considered the “best time” to cruise Europe (peak season is July and August), you can enjoy even greater savings by booking in the spring or autumn shoulder seasons.