August 12, 2022

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I took a punt on a Wowcher mystery holiday and I had some *thoughts*

Photo credit: Raphael Schneider - Getty Images

Photo credit: Raphael Schneider – Getty Images

Ah, international travel, we’ve missed you. Not that we haven’t enjoyed our staycations, ofc, but there’s just something about that rush you get when touching down in a new, unexplored land that a roadtrip to a Welsh campsite simply can’t top.

But… where even to go after staring at the same four walls for so long? Planning a trip actually feels a bit daunting. Luckily – along with some cracking bargains on kitchen gadgets and refurbed iPads – Wowcher has the solution. Enter: the £99 mystery holiday experience.

What is a Wowcher mystery holiday?

Bad news for control freaks: buying one of these babies requires you to surrender a couple of days’ annual leave to the Wowcher gods, leaving your fate (or at least your Insta grid’s) in their hands. Pay up £99 and, in return, you’ll find yourself on a two or three-night trip, flights included, to an unknown destination.

There are 49 potential getaways in the mix; mostly European city breaks. Purchase the deal and six weeks later you could be strolling around Florence, Menorca, Amsterdam, Reykjavik… or somewhere else entirely! Who knows! So spontaneous!

However – and here’s really why it’s tempting – three lucky buyers will bag a seven-night trip to Barbados, three nights in New York or seven in Dubai. Erm, yes please. After soooo long cooped up at home, a surprise week-long Caribbean getaway for under 100 quid sounds very tempting indeed, tbh.

So, armed with a box fresh, entirely unstamped passport, my credit card and a desperation to go literally anywhere that isn’t in England, I gave it a whirl. What did I have to lose?

How does the Wowcher mystery holiday deal work?

Purchase the deal and you’ll be entered into a draw. Every two weeks or so, the holidays are doled out to the buyers. Someone will call to tell you where you’re going, work out dates and send over deets.

It’s all legit but, obviously, you’re much more likely to find yourself sightseeing in Dublin than taking selfies in Times Square – soz. We’d also say that, if you’re savvy, you could probably find flights and a two-night hotel stay for less than £99 in most of the destinations.

So, if you’re really looking to go away on the cheap, we’d suggest finding your own flights and room in a country of your choice. But if you’re happy to pay this price for a (most likely) European weekender, and fancy the thrill of the surprise trip, the Wowcher hol is a fun idea. Then, when you find yourself partying like an influencer in Dubai, it’ll be a sweet, sweet bonus.

Our Wowcher mystery holiday experience

My pal and I decided that £99 was an acceptable price for the lol-factor of the experience and bought in. When we got the call, we were given a choice of three destinations – so you’ll have options if you’re worried you might end up somewhere you’ve already been. Everything was settled with one 30-minute chat, making for a smooth experience.

Fyi, you can’t come off the call and ring back another time, so you need to be ready to book when they phone. The fee also doesn’t include luggage, so we had to pay an extra £40 for a checked suitcase. Factor this into your costs (along with the price of any mandatory Covid tests) if you’re on a tight budget.

After hashing out dates and flights (very early, but it gave us maximum exploring time), it was settled. We were off on a jolly to Budapest! What a rush!

Tempted to try for yourself? Here’s our Budapest weekender travel guide, courtesy of a £99 Wowcher punt. Where will you end up?

Day one

We stayed at City Hotel Matyas in central Budapest. This no-frills three star hotel is basic but the room was clean, the shower was powerful and, crucially, the location is great.

After check-in, first on the agenda was lunch. Five minutes’ walk from the hotel, you’ll find the twee Hungarian Hell’s Kitchen restaurant. Plenty of natural wood finishes, stone-clad walls, red checkered tablecloths and liberal use of poinsettias make it decidedly cosy, despite spacious open-plan interiors. The goulash, served traditionally in a bread bowl, was tasty and filling and a subsequent helping of sweet baked gnocchi gave us the sugar hit we needed to crack on with our day.

After some happy wandering and window-shopping we next took a walk along the river Danube as the light faded. Plenty of spotlights showcase the city’s gorgeously ornate neo-gothic architecture at night; each imposing structure making a grand statement puncturing the darkness across the horizon. We stopped for a few selfies in front of the striking Parliament – Hungary’s largest building – before arriving for our pre-booked boat tour, courtesy of Night Cruise Budapest, for a spot of cultural education.

Glass of complementary bubbly in hand, we set off down the Danube from Batthyány tér. The tour takes about an hour, giving you the lowdown on the city and all the main sights. Did you know? Budapest is split into two halves: one side Buda and, the other, Pest.

Photo credit: Charley Ward

Photo credit: Charley Ward

Two quick stops on the Metro later and you’ll reach the uber-boujie Aria Hotel, where we’d booked dinner at its rooftop bar, High Note Skybar. Enter through the lobby and see the cool curving piano etched across the floor; all the more impressive when viewed from the top of the building.

This venue certainly passed the vibe check – both the A+ TSwift, Mabel and Cher-heavy playlist and its sexy interiors. Low tables, dimmed lighting, fringed lamps and tufted chairs in heavy fabrics create a cool, intimate atmosphere. We visited in November so sat inside, but be sure to head outdoors come summer – the wraparound terrace captures gorgeous 360 views of the pretty skyline.

The food gets a thumbs up, too. My starter of charred lettuce was shockingly tasty, a pork belly main course made a melt-in-the-mouth treat while the banana, mango and coconut meringue looked straight out of a MasterChef final. Cocktail recs? My pick is the smooth and creamy rum-based Clairvoyance, but we also liked the novel, glittering finish of the sharp, fruity Magical Ash.

Post-dinner, we headed to Budapest’s most famous ruin bar, Szimpla Kert. The arty, industrial vibe feels straight out of Hackney but frankly, partying wasn’t really on our agenda. By this point, our 5am alarm (and all the food, tbh) had caught up with us, so we headed back to the hotel and were in bed by half 11. #YOLO

Day two

The next day we were up early for more Hungarian good times. We took a walk towards Fisherman’s Bastion; seven impressive 19th century turrets providing the best panoramic views in the city. This structure was built to represent the seven tribes that founded modern Budapest waaaay back in 895. At the time, it was protected by the guild of the fishermen, hence its name.

We took in the views (and more selfies) in the crisp morning light – enjoying the calm serenity. It was great to see everything looking softer, nestled into the hillsides in the daytime, in contrast to the imposing scenes we viewed from the boat the night before.

In fact, after frantically rushing around all Saturday, serenity was the word of the day for our final 24 hours. After a lazy Sunday morning walk through near-deserted sun-dappled streets, we stopped for a famous chimney cake, finished with sugar, cinnamon and a healthy dollop of chocolate sauce. These bad boys are ambitiously large but, naturally, I did my best to finish the whole thing. #noregrets.

Next, we ducked into a beauty salon for an impromptu (and ridiculously good) Thai massage. *Never* underestimate the value of a proper foot massage – OMG. Forty five minutes later, and feeling zen AF, we floated onto the Metro towards my most-anticipated part of the weekend: a dip in the thermal baths.

Photo credit: Charley Ward

Photo credit: Charley Ward

There are nine thermal spas (and 123 hot springs!) in Budapest, all with their own unique charms. We were very tempted by Gellert – a towering art deco hall replete with imposing, vine-covered sandstone columns, ornate fountains and liberal splashes of gold – but ultimately opted to visit the city’s largest spa, Széchenyi, instead.

This sprawling complex comprises 15 indoor and three outdoor pools. Two outside are heated at 74C (a little chilly for a late November trip) and one at 77C (ugh, so good). Sitting in a balmy hot spring surrounded by beautiful Baroque architecture in the fading evening light, watching steam gently rising all around you? Erm, completely dreamy. 10/10 would recommend.

Just remember to bring your own towel and flip flops, or it’ll cost you a fortune to rent them. If you fancy a proper swim, you’ll need a hair cap, too.

Our final stop in Budapest was dinner at Kiosk; a two- minute hop round the corner from our hotel. Much like the ruin bars, this trendy joint has an urban, industrial vibe. A large projector screen shows old school black and white films, purple backlights dotted about create a cool, moody feel and, in the heart of the restaurant, there’s a literal, actual tree. A talking point, for sure.

We shared a starter of beef tartar, dips (smoky aubergine with pomegranate was a standout) and flatbreads. My chicken casserole with buttery, herby gnocchi was rich and comforting, while my friend’s duck main was perfectly pink inside. For dessert, nostalgic warm sponge cake and custard was made interesting with a perfect quenelle of poppy seed ice cream melting on top. The cocktails here were good too, but we were disappointed that a candy floss-topped option wasn’t available on the night.

After dinner, we headed back to the hotel as we needed to be at the airport at the crack of dawn for our flight home. We bid the city farewell and, with horror, set a 3:30am alarm.

Wowcher mystery holiday: the verdict

Honestly, we had a great time, so I do think the experience was worth the £99 flutter. Did we end up sunning ourselves on a beach in Barbados? That’s a definitive no. But Budapest was good to us all the same.

If you’re looking for a gift for a fellow travel-starved pal, you could definitely do worse than this. Find the Wowcher mystery holiday deal here (control freaks need not apply).

Contacts:

Travel agent: Weekender Breaks via Wowcher
Flights: Wizz Air
Hotel: City Hotel Matyas

Restaurants:
Hell’s Kitchen Budapest
High Note Sky Bar
Kiosk

Tourist attractions:
Budapest Christmas markets
Szechenyi Baths
Fisherman’s Bastion
Night Cruise Budapest
Szimpla Kert

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