My big sister Holly and I are ferociously competitive bargain-hunters. Our publican mother trained us in the dark arts of parsimony, where shoes are handed down child-to-child and broth is simmered from string and nettles. Nothing delights Holl more than being able to say, “You know that vase I bought you for your birthday? It cost 20p from the Sue Ryder shop.” We nick carpets from skips, buy paperbacks from Oxfam and get everything else we need from eBay. (As well as things I really, really don’t need, like a resin-frame rocking horse, a cabinet of curiosities, and 21 taffeta ballgowns.) Even my wedding dress was £40 from the Red Cross shop in Cambridge. But nothing delights my sister and me more than finding dirt-cheap holiday options. We started in our teens, hiring a prefab bungalow in St Ives with an outside loo for next to nothing: perfection. Then we went Interrailing, where we slept on beaches and overnight trains, or on the oil-smeared decks of Greek ferries. It’s just as well we’re such feral travellers, as our lives have delivered adventures, but not fortunes. You can’t afford the Orient Express when you’re a freelance hack and a primary school TA.

I can honestly say I never enjoyed the pristine good taste of five-star establishments as much as the jolly, grotty ones

In our late twenties we stretched our ingenuity by organising a cut-price trip to Barbados with four friends. Happily, Virgin flights were on special. We hired a tiny apartment with one bedroom, two sofa-beds and dodgy air-con, where we slept like sweaty schoolgirls in a dorm. We decided to hire bikes on arrival as rental cars were beyond our means, but the local shopkeepers were baffled by our desire to pedal. Barbados in the 1990s catered for lolling sun-seekers, like the late director Michael Winner in his swimmers at Sandy Lane. Even so, a plea for bikes went out and our entrepreneurial janitor said his mates would rent us six cycles for the week. When they brought them round, we saw they were ancient men’s racers, with the chuff-chaffing saddles that give women instant UTIs. So we took six small soft cushions from the flat’s sofa and used gaffer tape to strap them round the narrow bike seats. Then we rode in stately fashion around the island, looking mildly demented and becoming in the process a short-lived phenomenon. “Look!” local onlookers would cry out with delight, “it’s the cycling layd-eeeeeeez.”

For a while I lucked out staying gratis in Provence with my naughty, funny, Uncle John – a bachelor lawyer who hosted legendary house parties, mostly all-male and almost always naked. A typical gathering would include a gossip columnist, a historian, a stage-set designer, an MP (I can tell you who he was, but then I’d have to kill you), a rent-boy turned florist, an academic who’d taught Julian Clary at Goldsmiths, and a cleric – since my uncle did a lot of legal work for the Church of England. On one pleasing occasion a guest jumped through a window into the dining room at 2am, wearing a silver cloak and yelling, “Nobody expects the Vicar of St Tropez!” On another, my friend Clare invited octogenarian style maven Maxine de la Falaise (mother of the model Loulou de la Falaise, and former lover of Duff Cooper, Louis Malle and Max Ernst, to name just three) to supper and we panicked when we found the fridge was empty and shops closed. But Clare declared that stylish French women exist on fags and air, so we’d be fine if we bored into a melon, infused it with vodka, and then served ice-cold slices up as starter, main and pudding. She was absolutely right. Falaise delighted us by recounting how she’d once sat next to a man at a dinner party and told him he looked strangely familiar. He’d replied crossly, “Maxine, I was married to you!”

I’ve always loved the guest houses that time forgot: flock wallpaper, polyester sheets, and carpets that spoke of the multiple sins of travelling salesmen. I crammed 22 women into one prime example in Brighton for my hen night, where we slept four to a room. It had a basement lounge with stained velour sofas, where Mikey the stripper, a dental technician by day, invited me to remove a rose, stuck between his buttocks, with my teeth. Despite scoring a couple of freebies in five-star establishments during my journalistic career, I can honestly say I never enjoyed their pristine good taste as much as the jolly, grotty ones. My sister and I still fly cattle-class with Bastard Airlines (you know the ones). I’ve never once turned left on an airplane and rather enjoy the camaraderie that comes from humanity squished into one airborne sardine can.

Five years ago, Holly sent out the usual rallying call: “You’ll never believe how cheap this place is!” and I was, indeed, confounded by the bargain-basement prices. I could rent a tiny apartment on the Greek coast, with a sea view and balcony, that would take my family of four for 63 euros a night – all this in August, when tariffs usually treble. OK, so the boys had to sleep in the kitchen, the shower was basic, and the mattresses thin, but the view to Mount Olympus was balm to the soul. The only surprise was finding that a prominent British family had discovered it before us, which we realised when someone papped shots of Boris Johnson sitting outside our favourite taverna. I suspect he’s now doomed to spend future vacations on hideous oligarchs’ yachts, anchored off tax havens and stuffed with criminals and bores. Meanwhile, Holly and I will sit by the village’s jetty, downing cold Mythos beers and feeling like queens.

Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and former editor of The Erotic Review

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