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Will 2021 see the return of the coach holiday?

As typical sun, sea and sand holidays are uncertain this summer, Ben Aitken suggests considering a coach tour instead

Pre-pandemic, I went on six all-inclusive coach holidays with people twice and thrice my age. Several things happened: I won the bingo on my first night in Scarborough; my appetite for an absolute bargain was repeatedly satisfied; I was charmed by a slower mode of travelling; my eyes were opened to the virtues of cross-generational encounters and I took a shine to the drivers. (Best driver joke: “Small group today, ladies and gents. Average height, 5ft 4.”)

The idea of a ‘Gran Tour’ came to me while on the telephone to my great aunt, who told me she’d recently had four nights in Torquay, return coach travel, nightly entertainment, 16 pints of craft lager, four three-course dinners and the company of people of a pensionable age – all for less than £100. I hung up, booked six trips, went on them, and survived to tell the tale.

The Gran Tour: Travels with my Elders was published last autumn. The book was not endorsed by Richard and Judy and nor was it in any way a bestseller, but it did pay a significant dividend: it equipped me with the knowledge that an older person is no more likely to be unbearable than a younger one. (Which is why my new housemate is 85, but that’s another story – literally: The Marmalade Diaries: The True Story of an Odd Couple will be published, for better or worse, next year.)

I’m still in touch with loads of people I met on my coach travels

But back to coach holidays – and more specifically, why you might want to consider one this summer. The evidence is persuasive. For one (and I know I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating), they’re great value. For two, going by coach allows you to drop down a few gears and holiday at an easy and soothing pace. For three, you’ll be shown how reliably rich and good-looking your doorstep is. For four, it’s a staycation, which means it’s more likely to actually happen. And for five, you’re bound to meet some good people.

I’m still in touch with loads of people I met on my coach travels. There’s Mick, a part-time philosopher from the Midlands, who’s worn nothing but shorts for 50 years because “they’re just easier to put on”. There’s Jill, who during our trip to Lake Como flung her bra into George Clooney’s garden. (When asked why, Jill just shrugged and said, “Well, I’ve plenty of others.”) And there’s Gary, who after a few pints in the bar of the County Hotel in Llandudno confessed to keeping his wife in the boot of his car. (Her ashes, of course, which he scatters whenever he finds a place he thinks she would like.)

I haven’t been on a coach holiday since they resumed in May. I’ve been meaning to, but keep getting forced to stay at home. Not by the NHS, but my housemate, who keeps finding things for me to do around the house, and sometimes even on top of it.

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I’m trying to persuade her to join me on a coach holiday, just a few nights in Eastbourne or something, but the trouble is, she’s worried the onboard toilet will be the end of her hips.

I don’t want to overegg the pudding, but I really did have a great time on my coach holidays, and I really did have a great time travelling with my elders. I’m not saying that a coach is the only way to go, nor am I saying that seniority is only and at all times a virtue.

What I am saying – to anyone sitting on the fence, I suppose – is to just give a coach holiday a shot. If you don’t come back moderately nourished or amused or mentally extended, I’ll refund you myself.

I asked people I came across on my travels their thoughts about coach tours in the post-pandemic era.

Robert Shaw, director of Harry Shaw, and chair of the Coach Tourism Association

Favourite aspects of coach holidays? There’s a few things. How friendly everyone is once they’ve got to know each other a little. Not having to think or worry about too much: as soon as you hand over your suitcases you can relax and enjoy the ride. And listening to other passengers’ tales about their previous Harry Shaw holidays is always nice.

Best moment? Arriving at Disneyland Paris and hearing the excitement when the group spotted Donald Duck outside the hotel!

A thought on the pandemic? What’s been very testing is having our hopes of resuming operations raised and then dashed as the pandemic – and the government’s responses – have ebbed and flowed.

Been on a coach holiday since their resumption? Or would that be too much of a busman’s holiday? No I haven’t been on one, but I did go to see off our first departure on May 17 –a three-day trip to Bournemouth. The world’s first vaccine recipient – Margaret Keenan – was on board. It was great to speak with her and the other passengers. They were all looking forward to a bit of ‘normality’, and who can blame them?

And did they find some normality in Bournemouth? Yes – it rained!

Carole Hughes, coach holiday enthusiast from Stoke-on-Trent

Favourite aspect of coach holidays?The best thing about coach holidays is that everything is arranged for you: there’s no wondering what to do, no twiddling your thumbs. You make new friends, which is great, and the nightly entertainment (bingo, singing, a comedian) is always good.

Have you been on a coach holidaysince their resumption? No – but I’ve got three booked up: Tinsel and Turkey in Llandudno around Christmas time; the Outer Hebrides next April and then the Lake District next summer.

Basia, coach holiday enthusiast from Nottingham

Have you been an enthusiast for a while? We’ve been going on coach holidays for nearly 30 years. When we first started going, our friends tried to put us off, saying such trips were for coffin-dodgers. But we weren’t deterred and have loved them ever since.

Favourite aspects of a coach holiday? I like that they’re organised from the word go. All we have to do is turn up at the departure point, and then the drivers take over. Haven’t encountered many drivers that weren’t funny and friendly and helpful. They are a breed apart! The excursions are well thought out, and the drivers know their stuff, so we’ve visited some really interesting and historic places quite by chance. All this without having to worry about parking!

Best coach holiday moment? It was on a trip to Spain about 20 years ago. It was the time of the foot-and-mouth outbreak in the UK, and we were under strict orders NOT to take any meat products in or out of Europe, but my husband Zoltan couldn’t resist buying two huge salamis to smuggle back with us. Me being me, I couldn’t sleep the night before we left for home. The driver had been deadly serious that sniffer dogs were being used to detect illegal foodstuffs. Before we went down to breakfast, I begged Zoltan to leave the salami in the room for the cleaners. He agreed to leave one, but not both. By the time we approached the border, the whole coach was aware of what we’d done. The driver suggested we dump it in a bin, but Zoltan had a better idea – he would eat it. It was huge! He ate it bit by bit, without any bread or water to wash it down with. It looked torture, but he wasn’t going to give up – the whole coach was hysterical watching him. Some were taking bets, whether he’d do it or not. In the end he did it. Ate the whole thing. When we got to the border there was a quick passport check and then we were waved through!

Thoughts on the pandemic? Last year was the year of Zoltan’s 80th birthday and our golden wedding anniversary, so I’d planned a trip every month of the year as a special celebration. Alas, we were in serious lockdown. I keep looking at a Shearings trip to Newcastle and Durham in October, as I fancy exploring our old haunts. In the meantime we’ve got the garden. And the odd glass of wine!

The Gran Tour: Travels with my Elders by Ben Aitken is out now (Icon, £9.99)

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