Great Britain via a budget-friendly coach tour

Pickering, in North Yorkshire, as seen from a

Pickering, in North Yorkshire, as seen from a Shearings Holidays coach. (Credit: Handout)

In the course of three windswept days in early March, I explored a deserted beach in Scarborough, ate fish and chips in Whitby, browsed strange little shops in the villages of Pickering and Goathland, and walked the Roman walls of York. This might seem like an unremarkable itinerary -- after all, these places are within 40 miles of one another in the northeast of England -- but I'm too much of a coward to drive when overseas and too cheap to ride Britain's extensive but expensive rail network. That means that when I visit Great Britain, my explorations rarely take me far from central London.

But on my most recent trip, I was able to expand my horizons by taking advantage of one of Britain's best-kept travel secrets: a coach holiday. My mother, who lives in Manchester, often takes such trips, which may be why I thought they were strictly for retirees. This time, I accompanied her and discovered they're a great option for anyone looking to explore Britain on a budget.

No-frills but comfortable

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For less than 150 pounds a person -- around $225 -- our holiday package included coach travel to and from Scarborough, four nights in a plain but spotlessly clean two-star hotel, breakfast and dinner, two full-day excursions and entertainment each evening. This would be a bargain just about anywhere, but in pricey Britain, it's a real steal. Even at the height of the summer holiday season, this Monday-to-Friday itinerary costs just 235 pounds, around $350.

The facilities were no-frills but comfortable. Coach-travel companies manage to keep prices down not by patronizing low-quality establishments, but by operating with tremendous efficiency. Many coach companies have exclusive arrangements with hotel chains, so, for example, the tour operator we used, Alfa Travel, usually lodges guests in hotels owned by Leisureplex, a sister company. During our stay, Scarborough's Cumberland Hotel was hosting two Alfa coaches. (Other companies, such as Shearings Holidays and National Holidays, have similar arrangements.)

Meals are served by friendly young waiters, and while the food is somewhat institutional, there's plenty of it. Dishes like the "full English breakfast" (with optional black pudding), roast pork with roast potatoes and parsnips, and syrup sponge and custard might not be everyone's idea of culinary heaven, but they represent English cuisine at its most traditional. Our hotel also had a bar that was the venue for the evening entertainment -- a different comedian or singer performed each night -- but as a lover of British television, I preferred to spend the after-dinner hours glued to the old-fashioned portable TV set in our room.

Magical Mystery Tour

The cold March weather may have discouraged me from exploring Scarborough by night, but I wouldn't have missed the daytime excursions. If your image of coach travel comes from the ramshackle bus seen in The Beatles' 1967 film "Magical Mystery Tour," think again. We traveled in a luxury vehicle that provided clear sight lines and had lots of luggage room for impulse purchases. The coach driver provided a running commentary about points of interest along the way, and while I didn't always laugh at his jokes, I appreciated his effort.

Once we arrived at a destination, we were free to explore on our own. Some of the stops seemed too long: 90 minutes in Pickering, North Yorkshire, would probably have made sense on a Monday when the famous market is held, but we were there on Tuesday. As a U.S. resident, I missed the cultural significance of other locations, as when we spent 45 minutes in Goathland, a village that was the setting of "Heartbeat," a long-running British TV show. Since I never saw it, I wasn't terribly interested in buying commemorative souvenirs or posing for photographs in its distinctive locations.

Other stops seemed too short, but at least I saw enough of those places to know I want to return some day. The port of Whitby is famous for its fish and chips, so naturally we had to make time for cod, chips and mushy peas. That meant we couldn't do justice to the Captain Cook Memorial Museum (in the house where the famous explorer lodged during his apprenticeship), explore the cliff-top ruins of 13th century Whitby Abbey or partake of the Bram Stoker Dracula Experience. (In Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula washes up in Whitby, which has turned the town into a pilgrimage site for Goths.)

Shopping the Shambles

Similarly, although we spent 41/2 hours in York, the city's history is so rich, and so well preserved, we had to make some difficult decisions. On previous visits, we had seen York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, and the Jorvik Viking Center, a reconstruction of York's Viking-era streets, so we reluctantly gave those attractions a miss. Instead, we had a drink at the Three Tuns, a 230-year-old pub on Coppergate, poked around the shops on the 14th century street known as the Shambles and explored the Roman walls surrounding the city.

The fair that Simon and Garfunkel sang about was held in Scarborough for 500 years, between the 13th and 18th centuries, and in 1626 the town became Britain's first seaside resort when a local woman claimed the waters had medicinal effects. These days, the seafront is overrun with gift shops and tacky arcades, and in March the donkeys that ferry children up and down the beach were still enjoying their off-season grazing. For me, Scarborough's big draw was the Stephen Joseph Theatre, which has been home base for prolific playwright Alan Ayckbourn for more than 40 years. I can see myself repeating this tour as a cost-effective way to take a theater holiday one summer.

Next time I'm in London, I plan to supplement my urban vacation with a coach holiday in Cornwall or on the South Coast. Companies like Alfa, Shearings and National also offer trips to continental Europe, but I'd recommend trying a British destination first. A coach trip is a great option if you're visiting a friend or distant relative and don't want to impose on their hospitality, but it's also a low-cost way to experience Britain in the company of strangers, the same way savvy Brits do.

If you go

The writer went on a coach holiday offered by Alfa Travel (alfatravel.co.uk; sales@alfatravel.co.uk; 08451 305666). The company's website, which lists all available dates and destinations and provides information on hotels and excursions, is the best place to start. You may need to communicate via email or phone to work out where to be picked up at the beginning of your journey.

Shearings Holidays (shearings.com/our-holidays/coach-holidays/uk; 0844 824 6351) also offers coach holidays with pickup points all around Great Britain.

For travelers interested in a more specialized -- and slightly pricier -- itinerary, Travel Editions (traveleditions.co.uk; 020 7251 0045) offers short breaks focused on art, history and culture, such as "Art Treasures of the North" or "The Secret War," which includes a visit to the World War II code-breaking center at Bletchley Park.

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