On the buses - Escorted coach holidays
We were told it would be a long day of travelling, with only a couple of stops and not to expect dinner until 9.30pm - over 12 hours away. I was already crossing my legs, although there was a toilet on board.
It was day two of a nine-day Leger Holidays coach tour called Verona Opera Experience, which we had joined near our home town in Oxford. Two nights would be spent on the way (the first was near Brussels); four nights at Lake Garda, near Verona; and two nights taking a different route back.
Day two was to be the killer, a slog along Germany's autobahns and over the Austrian border to a village near Innsbruck. It was boring, but there were three stops and we arrived in good time for dinner at 8pm. That's when I realised our two coach drivers were good at psychology - make it seem bad, and if it's better then you're happy.
I was in my mid-40s but I felt young, with all the other passengers over 50 and many well over 60. But we gelled well as a group, and plenty of names and addresses were exchanged on the return ferry trip across the Channel.
Many people would never think of joining a coach tour, but I enjoyed it even though I haven't yet repeated the experience. Coach tours are stuck with an old-fashioned image, just like holiday "camps" - especially among people who have never been.
A modern coach can cost up to £250,000 with all the latest comforts, and advanced safety and fuel-efficiency measures. Coach tour market leader Shearings has bought 45 new Setra coaches this year of the same type used for the England football team - no wonder it's saying "Bus it like Beckham"!
The hotels used are generally much improved too, and you may well stay at chain hotels such as Holiday Inn rather than McGrotty's - especially in cities. There are still plenty of seaside hotels in Britain where the floors creak as badly as their guests' joints, but most have been smartened up and make a genuine effort to please amid the faded grandeur.
The entertainment seems to belong to another age, but as the Baby Boomer generation hits 60 you are more likely to hear The Beatles in the ballroom rather than the Joe
The most popular destinations are the scenic countries of Europe - especially Austria, Italy and Switzerland. Some of the larger tour operators, including Cosmos Tourama, can also fly you out to join the coach abroad - cutting out some tiring travelling, but with airport hassle and luggage restrictions to be factored in. Eurostar is an increasingly-popular option, with highspeed rail travel as far as Paris or Brussels.
There's also a trend towards more easy-going itineraries, which Cosmos calls Leisurely. Rather than packing and unpacking every day, you will be based at one hotel for most of the holiday with the coach operating excursions.
But there's still a place for the grand tour, and with operators such as Cosmos, Insight Vacations and Trafalgar, that can be a very cosmopolitan experience with passengers from many parts of the world trying to "do Europe". Leger is also seeing ncreased demand for "Grand Explorer" tours like Arctic Circle and The Land ofthe Midnight Sun - once in a lifetime experiences that people want to take despite the credit crunch.
Many tours nowadays are themed, especially short breaks which are a good way of seeing if a coach tour is for you. Gardens, steam railways, castles, photography, painting and spas are examples, plus visiting places made popular by TV series such as Heartbeat or Last of the Summer Wine.
Leger is a leading operator of tours to the World War 1 and 2 European battlefields, with an expert guide to visit places such as Flanders, the Somme and Normandy (for the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings this year). Interest in battlefield tours is still increasing, but Leger has launched a website to encourage younger people to explore family history (www.keepthememoriesalive.co.uk).
Going for a song
Shorter and more-themed tours tend to attract a slightly younger age group, but within the UK most coach customers are still 60-plus. It's no coincidence that Shearings customers have voted Cliff Richard's hit, Summer Holiday (1963), as their favourite holiday song, and Shearings is making this and other holiday hits available as a download on online music store iTunes.
Shearings expects a lot of people to switch to a UK holiday this year, and has 49 of its own hotels which you can travel to independently ratherthan taking a coach tour. Grand UK Holidays has nine of its own hotels, in popular resorts such as Torquay, Skegness, Blackpool and Llandudno.
Grand UK operates exclusively for the over-55s and has a high volume of single travellers, with no single-room supplements payable on most holidays and a dedicated Solos programme so like-minded people can travel together. It offers a complete luggage handling service, taking this element of worry out of a holiday, and also offers tours of Europe including river cruise combinations. Grand UK offers Ruby and Golden wedding anniversary holidays for couples to renew their vows, and more than 500 couples have taken them so far.
As I journeyed back from Italy I wondered what kind of holidays I might fancy in 30 or 40 years' time, and I was reminded of a distant relative who remarried at the age of 90 after meeting his new "gal" on a coach.
The psychology was still going strong as we left the party, waved off by our cheery drivers who still had another 300 miles to go.
"If you had a good week, we're Roy and Ian," they said. "If you didn't, we're Bill and Ben."
I did, thanks partly to Roy and Ian. I'll be back on the road some day.
Coach tour facts
Most coach tour operators are small and local, with only a handful of national names.The Coach Tourism Council (0870 850 2839, www.coachtourismcouncil.co.uk) is a good way of finding them as it has nearly 150 operator members, both large and small. Wallace Arnold World choice (0845 365 6747) is an agency specialising in coach holidays and operates a
bookable website at www.coachholidays.com
Major operators include:
- Shearings 01942 824824, www.shearings.com
- Leger 0844 686 2478,www.escapeto-europe.co.uk
- Cosmos Tourama 0871 423 8647 www.cosmostourama.co.uk
- Grand UK 01603 619933 www.grandukholidays.com
- Travelsphere 0800 567 7372, www.travelsphere.co.uk
- National Holidays 08444779990, www.nationalholidays.com
- Leger's D-Day Landings in Normandy tour costs from £199 bed and breakfast for four days.A five-day tour from £299 is by luxury Silver Service coach, available on selected dates.
- Best of Western Canada is a 14-day holiday by Cosmos Tourama, costing from £2,015 including return flights. Visiting Vancouver and the Rockies, it includes many excursions plus rail and cruise trips, but not meals.
- Grand UK's NorthWales Coast holiday is based at its own Grand Ash Hotel in Llandudno, costing £269 for five days with half-board, including two full-day excursions.
All prices and details were correct when published, please check before you book a coaching holiday.