Characteristically, the British coach-tripper is seen as an old age pensioner seeing out their retirement with pleasant easy-going holidays to the Costa Del Sol or rural France. This "grey army" descends on Europe speaking in predominantly exaggerated, loud English, constantly complaining and being spoon-fed every inch of the way. I wanted to challenge the stereotype of the typical coach holiday to see if it has any place in the itinerary of a younger, generally more adventurous traveller.
In the three months I spent working for a coach tour operator (which shall remain nameless), my expectations were at rock bottom. Every week I had to fend at least two questions on whether passports were needed to go to Disneyland Paris. That’s Paris, France, not Paris, Scotland. A typical complaint received was from one couple on their tour to France who were extremely annoyed they could not eat when they got to their hotel because all the menus were in French. I hoped not to be sat next to the sixty-year old reprobate who got lost and thought it a good idea to alert the police by breaking into a parked car.
I was given two free places on a typical four-day Paris break – normally £159 per person – to see how the operation came together. My tour would start in Leeds in the north of England, travel down to Dover and cross the channel by ferry. This five-hundred mile journey was to take fifteen hours. And that was if everything was to go to plan. To put this in perspective, it takes fifteen hours to fly halfway across the globe from Chicago to Delhi, or to almost drive down the length of mainland Europe from Berlin to Naples.
This particular operator’s programme was geographically limited by single day journeys no further than western Germany or the middle reaches of France. Going for more than seventeen hours straight was rightly seen as madness. There are, however, other tour operators out there who combine flights and coach journeys to stretch to one- or two-week expeditions across the continent to Turkey, Poland, even Russia, like Ledger Holidays. There are also those who cater for specific age ranges. Topdeck aims for the 18-30 something market with greater emphasis on adventure activities and modern culture – a broad variety of coach trips available for all types of travellers, not just the elderly.
The epic journey started at 4:40 am in the city centre of Leeds. As my girlfriend and I stood waiting in the twilight hours, scores of post-club revellers constantly rolled on by pausing their kebab intake to catch a puzzled look at these two sensibly dressed arctic explorers with suitcases in tow. Our drivers turned out to be worryingly sprightly for this ungodly hour which led me to believe they may have been on some of the same substances as the clubbers they had passed. At least it could spice up the journey. The coach leisurely snaked down the spinal column of England calling in at Wakefield, Barnsley, Nottingham and Milton Keynes amongst other jewels, a list of places I never wished to go to – especially not if it was to slow my progress to my holiday destination.
I was buoyed by the early sight of a young couple in love in the seats in front of us stealing an occasional kiss. Surely that could be the new youthful face of budget transport as we hit these hard economic times. The new couple would not be under pressure to find those perfect sandy beaches in the far reaches of the world when a coach trip becomes socially and romantically acceptable. By Calais, as the floodgates opened and the stolen kiss became a constant fixture, I snapped out of this idealism and realised it had its place elsewhere.
The accompanying standard two-star accommodation is often reason for complaint as customers expect a better class of hotel for the money they pay. They don’t realise they are staying in Paris at an extremely reasonable price when a bunk bed of a dorm room in a mid-level Parisian hostel would cost around 25 Euros. After recovering from our exhausting journey at our basic but satisfactory Ibis-Novotel-Holiday Inn-Mercure identikit budget hotel, the second day was to be a guided tour of Paris.
It’s a surreal experience to be escorted around Europe by two middle-aged men from the northeast of England. They guided the party around the cultural and historical sights and nuances of the regal city centre with the recognisable accent and dialect familiar to a spit-and-sawdust pub in Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Bigg Market. But it was really unfair to judge a book by its cover; they were really good at their jobs. After fifteen years doing the same trips, they were adept at mixing titillating stories with interesting facts, all aimed at the level of their target audience. And of course, there was a light-hearted trip to the red light district, including the Moulin Rouge (in the Pigalle or "Pig Alley" district) and its iconic windmill appellation. Accompanying Carry On humour was lapped up by many of the middle-aged coachtrippers.
Alongside the coach aspect of the tour was a free (normally around 17 Euros) cruise down the River Seine. This gave another angle on the architectural wonders of Paris. Aside from the comically arrogant commentary – some would say authentically so – it was a nice relaxing change to be outside of a coach.
The drawback of this full day trip was that it left no room for independent exploration off the route. The Louvre and the Palace of Versailles would have to remain uncharted territory. Additionally, as it is a single-decker coach with a roof, it is only really possible to see the first few floors of every building, impossible to appreciate the full scope of the many marvellous buildings.
The Montparnasse Tower (on top of the Montparnasse-Bienvenue subway station), the largest skyscraper in France, offered a good alternative to the views from the Eiffel Tower without the queues and at only 10 Euros. Although not too kind on the eyes (voted the world’s second ugliest building by the Virtualtourist travel community), it offers superb panoramic views of the whole of central Paris and its sprawling suburbs, an excellent way to orientate oneself. Just check the weather around the tower before you hand over your money; a heavy fog can inhibit your view past the forty-second floor. The obvious downside is no matter how hard you close your eyes on the way up to the top, it is not the Eiffel Tower.
On the third day there was the opportunity to spend a day in Disneyland Paris – the Mecca for generations of Disney fans who can’t afford to go to the original over the Atlantic. This place is to Paris what The Sound of Music is to Salzburg. An Anglo-American export that creates a pull to millions of tourists a year, and completely bypasses thousands of years of history and culture of a classical city to instead hug a Frenchman dressed as duck. However, as this was going to be another free experienc, I felt compelled to accept.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a wonderful place to take children. There are enough rides, shows and snack bars to keep most children high on E-numbers and happy for days. The fast-ticket machine that allocates a time to return to a ride to avoid queuing is a brilliant idea for appeasing tetchy youngsters. The coach trip gives a family a cheap way to have a short break and go somewhere child orientated. I don’t think many people would envy keeping a small child occupied for the fifteen hours it takes to get there, though. The aspect that perplexed me was that even though this was children’s territory, most of the people on the coach were couples, mainly over 40, going to Paris especially to take in the magic of Disney.
I expected to return to the coach, to a nod, a wink between all the males that in an instant would portray the shared "God, that was an ordeal but at least she’s happy" outlook. Instead, I was met by a wall of authentic giddy satisfaction from everyone, male and female. When asked how I found it, as I struggled to find a diplomatic answer, the other person unanimously interjected with "Brilliant, wasn’t it?" It was a conspiracy
The hotels are adequate but not pleasant. The coach journey is tolerable if you are prepared for it. The clientele will generally remind you of your parents and grandparents. Overall though, if expectations are set fairly low, then one should be primarily satisfied, have an enjoyable and affordable short break.