Sunday 31 January 2021

Just Don't Call It a "Staycation": Holidaying in the UK

Taking the Train for Your Holiday

To read the newspapers in Britain at the moment you would think that holidays in the UK were a new idea. Perhaps they are for London-based journalists! But for various good reasons around the pandemic and the travel uncertainty arising from it, there are likely to be many more of us in Britain taking our holidays in Britain this year, and the newspapers are full of "advice" about "staycations" - although how many journalists are qualified to give this advice, considering they feel the need to call them something other than a holiday, I am not sure. So, having taken lots of these holidays in the recent past (and the distant past, too, come to that!), I thought I'd write some advice myself. I hope my readers find it helpful. You can find some ideas for destinations on my page, "UK Holidays".


Now at first it is easy to think that the greater number of British people holidaying in Britain will be balanced by the far fewer numbers of foreign visitors holidaying here, but I am not so sure about that. First, a lot of foreign visitors visit London (it is the most popular tourist destination in the world), and I suspect that few of us will take our main holiday there: we shall go the coast or to the lakes or forests, moorlands, etc.. Second, foreigners will tend not to bring their cars (some, from Europe, will, of course, and some will hire them when they get here), whereas most British people will tend to drive. Putting all this together, I predict that roads to the coast and rural resorts will be more than busy: it was already bad enough four years ago for me to declare that we were never going to Devon or Cornwall by car ever again, and if more are heading that way this year then I hope they have a LOT of patience. That is why I would recommend travelling by rail for UK holidays, and the advice I am offering concerns making the arrangements for train travel.


Cross Country's retro ad a few years
ago isnpired me to book a seaside
summer holiday by train!
One thing the newspapers have been hot on is the need to book in good time, because everyone else will be doing the same. Anticipating this, I have already booked hotels for our summer breaks, one in England, one in Scotland, so you can't get in front of me how ever soon you book: but you may need to hurry to get in front of each other! Look for hotel and B&B bookings that allow free cancellation so that if circumstances change and you need to back out for a reason not covered by your travel insurance (yes, you do need it for holidays in the UK unless you are happy to take all the risk yourself) your costs will be minimised.

Train Travel

While I have booked accommodation for my summer holidays, I have not yet booked travel, because even in normal times train tickets with seat reservations are not usually available until three months before the travel date, and in the current changing circumstances the train companies can have no idea what trains they will be running by the summer holiday season, so it is not worth even thinking about tickets just yet. But what I have done, and what I recommend for anyone thinking of travelling on holiday by train, is set up on the relevant companies' websites an advance ticket alert which will cause them to send me an email message to tell me when Advance tickets are available for my chosen dates. I could probably book open tickets now but (a) they are relatively expensive, (b) the trains I eventually choose may be too busy for me to get a seat and (c) in the current pandemic-dominated world it is anyone's guess what trains will be running.

One advantage of buying Advance tickets early in their availability is that First Class travel is usually available at a really good price - like London to the Isle of Wight, including ferry, for under £20 First Class one way - and on most lines Advance tickets come with seat reservations so you know you will get on the train you have chosen. They can only be used on a specific train, so some planning is needed, but then if you usually fly abroad you will be used to having to catch a specific flight. But rail travel is much less faff than flying: you don't have to be there ages before departure; you keep your luggage with you so when you arrive you're free to go; you can take food and drink with you and you can see things out of the window all the way!

I have written articles elsewhere on this website about Luggage and about Changing Trains, and if you are not used to rail travel, then please take a look at both of these pages. Which brings me to the question of planning ...

Planning and Preparation

Inverness: hotel next to station
Planning the travel needs to be part of the early planning of the whole holiday. I usually start with an idea of whereabouts I want to go in the country and then look at accommodation and train route together so that I do not end up needing to hire a car or taxi to get from the station to the hotel, as if I were on one of those inconvenient holidays by air! Sometimes we stay right next to the station, usually within reasonable walking distance, and now-and-again we use a bus or a boat (!) to complete the trip - it is all part of the adventure of travel. Take this summer's planned trip to the Isle of Wight: we are booked at a hotel right beside Yarmouth Castle, about a minute walk from the ferry terminal, and our train will take us right to the ferry - it is an official connection and the train tickets will be booked to Yarmouth. We did the same trip two years ago and it worked like a dream. When we went to South Wales a few years ago we soon found that our options were very limited: unlike North Wales, few of the southern resorts are on a railway route, but we did have a great time in Tenby!

View from our bus on board the ferry at Poole
While I would encourage anyone not to be afraid of changing trains to reach their destination (the Tenby trip involved several changes), sometimes it is more convenient to minimise changes at the cost of taking a little longer, especially if changing stations in London can be avoided, no matter how convenient the Underground makes this. From our home in Stamford, Lincolnshire, we often travel via Birmingham (which is on a direct line from Stamford) when travelling to the south-west, or sometimes even to the south coast in Dorset or Hampshire, which takes longer than going via London but just needs the one change at Birmingham New Street, the hub of the inter-city rail network. We did this last year when we went to Studland Bay.

Unless you do go, as we often have, to a resort with the station right there, then the trip will probably be completed by bus or some other means. This used to work when I was a toddler with my parents going to Margate (everyone went on holiday in Britain and by train in those days, unless they were very rich, and even they probably went by train!) and it still works now but needs a tad more planning. The Studland Bay trip last year was brilliant for this, with a bus right from Bournemouth station taking us to the door of the hotel, and it was an open-top tour bus, too, with some wonderful views along the way, including the ferry across Poole Harbour! When we have been to Dartmouth, which we have done twice, the last leg of the trip was by steam train to Kingswear and then ferry across the River Dart. All part of the adventure.


I don't buy the "door-to-door convenience" angle of car travel, especially for holidays. Yes, I have a car, and it is a good car and it has its uses (it is questionable whether those uses are frankly a good enough reason to spend all those thousands of pounds buying and maintaining it, but that is a whole other discussion!), but unless one is mobility-impaired there is no need to travel between doors, and for us when we go by train the adventure starts when we walk out of the door and trundle our cases to the station, pockets full of tickets. We know our train times and our meal arrangements and we look forward to what we shall watch going by our windows. We can drink wine and/or beer if we like, the loo is a short walk down the carriage, and if we are held up someone else will sort it out, but hold-ups are rare. We get exercise on our walks to and from the stations, and we do not have to park the car. Some will say the they need the car when they get to their destination, and I know that those who fly abroad often hire one when they get there, but although we are open to hiring a car we have never yet done so, always having found that bus services are more than adequate for our needs - but then for us walking is an important part of our holiday. In the autumn, just before the second UK lockdown, we revisited Studland Bay by car. We parked it at the hotel and never used it again until we left - all our local travel was on foot, boat and bus, and on the way back we were held up by a serious accident on the M1 ... train delays are nothing compared with this.

I think we have great holidays, not in spite of leaving the car at home but partly BECAUSE we leave the car at home. We see, hear and smell our surroundings, we actually LIVE in the places we visit and are not sealed off from them; travelling on the same buses as shoppers and business people in the towns we visit, and walking through the countryside, experiencing nature - people pay for safari holidays in remote places, but with our network of public footpaths you can do your own British safari all on your own - and get the bus back to your hotel.

Don't be misled by the newspapers' put-down of UK holidays as an inferior thing called a "staycation" as if it were not a real holiday. I do have holidays abroad (although usually still by train!) and have two booked for later this year, but they are not superior to the English, Welsh and Scottish ones, they just need a passport as well as a ticket, and different money, and different language. But all are great fun, wherever they are, and I reckon more fun without the car.

Do have a browse through the summer holidays I have blogged on this website: they are all my own experiences, paid for out of my own pocket and completely unfettered by allegiance to any company or product. and do ask questions in the comments, here or on any other page, and I shall try to answer.

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