Anthony Peregrine, The Daily Telegraph, February 14, 2014
There are several aspects of travel that annoy me no end: airports' obsession with deodorant, notes in bathrooms urging me to help the hotel save the planet, food poisoning. Few things, though, irritate me as much as the contumely heaped generally upon escorted tours and specifically on coach holidays.
The practice is widespread. “Coach tours? Not for the likes of us! How ghastly!” Even pubs (“No Coaches”) may be against them. The image is of dimwit dotards being herded round places, thus ruining them. It is of undifferentiated masses clogging up service stations while on their “comfort stops”. It is, in short, poor. As Gavin Tollman said of his early days as the Geneva-based boss of Trafalgar: “I’d go to social events and say, ’I run a tour company’ and people would say, 'Oh, yeah, old people in buses’.”
The image always was inadequate. Some seven million people take coach tours each year. The sector generates £2.35 billion annually, according to Coach Tourism Council figures. About 1.5 million travel to the continent, or further afield on fly-coach holidays. These people can’t all be dimwit dotards. They aren’t. In recent years, their number has, on a few occasions, included me (in itself, a pretty conclusive counter-argument). And, while I’ve met many mature people, I recall very few dimwits.
I do recall, though, having some cracking times, both as a customer and as an occasional guide. It now appears that those times are getting better. The range of escorted tours increases by the year. These days, you’re as likely to be in Peru, the Himalayas or the Grand Ole Opry as in Scarborough.
The style, too, is changing. Tour companies are building in more flexibility, and free time to their itineraries, and even the mainstream ones - are also keen to underline that, alongside practicality and security, they deliver astounding experiences. These are often based on equally astounding local knowledge. (You should hear these chaps speak; their enthusiasm lights bushfires.) “The days of simply herding people around are long gone,” says Peter Traynor, UK manager of Collette Worldwide Holidays.
Here, then, are a few elements to keep in mind when considering an escorted tour.
Consider the alternatives. With a car, you must drive (quite often, on the wrong side of the road), find your way through lunatic unfamiliar cities, argue with your spouse, winkle out a parking space and then hope the vehicle doesn’t get stolen. Trains involve jostling along the platform at the right, ridiculous time (15h38, 07h22), lugging luggage, arguing with the fat guy who is occupying your seat, worrying whether you have the right ticket - and that an unexplained stop in the middle of nowhere will mean missing your connection, so leaving your life in tatters.
We scarcely need mention the totalitarianism of air travel. With escorted tours, by contrast, you simply hand over responsibilities, along with your cases, to the staff, settle back and that’s it. It is enormously liberating. The coaches are usually pretty comfortable, too. New ones cost upwards of £230,000 - some a great deal more - and come with several mod-cons and more leg-room than on a train or plane. On a tour of Andalusia, my seat would easily have accommodated a young giraffe.
And, when you arrive wherever you’re going, hotel and perhaps some meals have been arranged. Visits are laid on. “Ah! Herding!” they cry. Not really. It’s just that the technicalities are organised. They would be a lot more time-consuming, tedious - and probably expensive - if you tackled them yourself.
It is also a fiction that escorted tours are over-regimented. Free time has always been a key component. In recent times, tour companies have, as mentioned, added flexibility. Trafalgar offers a complete category - Trafalgar At Leisure - dedicated to longer stays at each stop and a promise of no pre-9am departures. “We try to slow it down,” says Gavin Tollman. “Guides introduce the destination, then leave travellers on their own.” Trafalgar’s 13-day “Best of South America” trip has four nights in Rio and two or three nights at subsequent spots. Collette takes a similar tack on rail trips through the Canadian Rockies.
But surely the food and hotels on escorted tours are crummy and standardised? Well, it probably hasn’t escaped your notice that standards can be crummy however you travel. It depends on where you choose, and your budget. If you’re paying five bob for a week in Italy, you’re unlikely to received the same consideration as those paying £1,500. And, having noticed that food can be a seller, some companies are now going the extra mile. Peter Sommer, a specialist in archaeo-historical trips to Turkey, Greece and Italy, takes smaller groups into villagers’ homes. “We work with them, preparing the meal, and then eat altogether on the village square,” says Sommer.
So the logistics are under control. Undertaking them yourself would have meant head-banging hours of preparation, especially for exotic spots such as Vietnam or Honduras.
All that means that you’re free to concentrate on what you’re meant to be concentrating on: enjoyment, and the sites - where, crucially, there will be some clever person on hand to explain what you’re seeing. Guides are commonly part of the deal. They are vital. “Knowledge is the key,” says Peter Sommer. “Most of our leaders are archaeologists from universities. Their job is to bring a place to life.”
Good mainstream companies do the same - initially round the headline sites. If you’re in Rome, you want to see the Colosseum and Vatican museums. They’ll get you to the head of the queue (which, for the Vatican museums, typically stretches to Naples) and supply someone to make sense of it all. But they’ll also get you to places you’d probably never find alone.
Trafalgar has made this consideration a cornerstone of its policy. The company reckons to get travellers into the heart of local life. One of its San Francisco guides is a woman who lived through the hippie era. “When she’s finished taking you round Haight-Ashbury, “ says Gavin Tollman, “you can practically smell the cannabis smoke.”
Still, though, critics charge that because you’re mob-handed, you miss what one woman on a discussion forum called “opportunities for serendipitous interaction with locals”. This is the kind of nonsense people post on discussion forums. In truth, locals are often overrated. Some want to mug you, many serve appalling muck and - unless you’re fluent in Turkish or Mandarin Chinese - “serendipitous interaction” reduces to pointing, silly grins and the purchase of a carpet.
How much better for tour companies to sift out some decent locals for you, set up proper encounters where everyone’s prepared - and be on hand to translate, lest you inadvertently cause mortal offence to nearby womenfolk. Most decent outfits will provide such a convivial context. Some, such as Peter Sommer (above), make it one of their specialities. Trafalgar’s “Be My Guest” scheme also takes travellers into the heart of the matter - say, a hands-on visit to, and dinner at, an aristocrat’s Tuscan olive-grove or an Irish family farm. “You’d never get into such places on your own,” claims Gavin Tollman. And no one gets stabbed.
We’re on the terrace of a hotel in Orange - perhaps eight or nine of us, midway through a Provençal tour run by Bibby’s, a family firm from Ingleton, North Yorkshire. Conversation covers the day’s events - notably, a bull round-up in the Camargue - but also Newcastle United, golf, sheep-farming and, unexpectedly, the views of Richard Dawkins. Drinking is moderate, jollity less so. Elsewhere on the terrace, lone couples look across, clearly as jealous as hell. They are perhaps people who would never contemplate escorted tours. They’re now realising that they’re missing one of the tours’ greatest joys: built-in company.
That rules out the misanthropic. Otherwise ... well, the perceived “undifferentiated mass” of coach tourists soon dissolves into its constituent individuals, and I’ve met some wonderful ones. (You can easily avoid the less wonderful. Spot where they’re sitting and sit somewhere else.)
Of course, they have mainly been older - companies suggest average customer ages are 50-plus. That’s good news for the tour operators. The grey market has bought its houses and cars and bade the children farewell, so it often has cash available. But it’s better news for the traveller. Older people are more interesting than youth. They have more to recount and less to prove. They’re also often well-travelled and, as Peter Traynor of Collette says, “well-travelled people tend to be tolerant and good to get on with.”
Escorted tours provide an appropriate environment. On a Saga trip I took to Greece (the company lowered the minimum age for me, but only by minutes), there were several senior single women present. From them, I learned of the traumas of war-time evacuation to Canada, of top-class flat-green bowling in Sussex, of living rough with Bedouins, and of lost love in 1950s Kenya. (“I gave up everything - home, job, friends - then learned he was already married.”) Only an organised tour could offer (a) such women the security they needed for happy travelling and (b) the pleasure of their company for someone like me.
I’ve said it before but it’s maybe worth repeating that, on all the escorted trips I’ve been on, I’ve found myself among the Best of Britain on tour - civilised and funny, tolerant indeed, erudite and well-mannered.
Nor do you absolutely have to be of mature years to benefit. For the past five decades, Contiki has been taking holidaymakers aged from 18 to 35 all over the place (46 countries at the last count), sending them up mountains, on to boats, into the sea, museums and, most recently, rock festivals.
Shouldn’t young people be doing this stuff on their own? “We don’t take out the sense of adventure,” says Alexis Sitaropoulos, the marketing director. “What we do is mitigate the practical hassles - and then provide a large amount of freedom but in the context of also providing local expertise and really great experiences. Ones they’d not get on their own.” The 12-day Vietnam trip, for instance, takes in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, boating the Mekong, visiting Viet Cong tunnels - and then a centre producing prosthetic limbs for landmine victims.
And when things risk getting out of hand, what with 35 twenty-somethings on the loose in foreign parts? “Our guides know the ground,” says Sitaropoulos. “They act as the voice of reason.”
If your grown-up children are anything like mine, we should probably book them one of these trips pronto. They could certainly use a voice of reason. That would leave us free for an escorted tour with a civilised age group to Spain, France, China, pretty much anywhere these days. I’ve heard of very much worse holiday plans.