I wound up going to England on a bit of a budget compared to my previous two trips abroad (See: The Oxford Experience). However, I still wanted to see as much of the UK as I could while I was there. UK bus tours became the most economical option for me, despite my nature of wanting to do everything by myself. Train tickets to all of the places I wanted to go were either expensive compared to the all-inclusive packages or did not get close enough to the areas I wanted to go for ease of access.
I‘ve named the names of the three bus tours I would recommend and have not named the one I probably wouldn’t recommend. Per usual, I’m a bit of a mess and the last one was partially my own idiocy.
Hairy Coo Loch Ness and Highlands Bus Tour, Edinburgh
I started off with a bang for this tour. It is the bus company I would recommend the most out of all the ones I did. This Hairy Coo option is the longest tour I did, lasting from 8AM to 8:30PM. I did fall asleep about twice, which is a habit I apparently developed here as it plagued me for all the other tours. As a person who does not generally partake of naps, particularly in a moving vehicle, this was a shocking discovery.
The weather was ideal, although I was the underdressed idiot who wound up digging into her bags for a pair of pants halfway through. Misty, but not super cold, when we arrived in the Highlands it was as if we had landed on another planet. My Scottish ancestry was apparently crowing with joy because even the “liquid sunshine” (as our tour driver referred to the mist covering our faces and sometimes the views) filled me with happiness.
Deanston whiskey distillery
We went to the Deanston whiskey distillery for a tour first, along with a tasting. They had a café and it was here I realized my English friend in London had absolutely lied to me about the British having “bacon.” My bacon roll was certainly not bacon, it was a relative of ham. As far as I’m concerned, this was the most disappointing part of my entire trip. I guess that means it was pretty good 😛
I actually think the whiskey tasting at 10AM was a good idea, even if it involved a trip back to the bus to get my ID (I quickly learned my baby face was to be a problem). The added buzz made the magic just a little more real. The whiskey was good, I suppose. It was my first time trying it and I quickly realized why sailors were required to have a ration of alcohol back in the day – the warmth stuck with me for an hour.
We proceeded to have a series of quick stops. First we visited famous Hairy Coos (the Scottish Highland Cows), then Glencoe which was devastatingly, eerily beautiful.
The Comando Memorial from the World Wars is set in some of the most ridiculous scenery. Here, the mist obscured Ben Nevis-tallest-mountain-in-the-British-Isles (I didn’t mind, it was still amazing), until we arrived in Loch Ness.
I was incredibly startled by how small the town of Loch Ness was. I would actually say all the views of the Highlands were the highlight of the tour over Loch Ness. Although, the boat tour was actually wonderful. We passed a tiny mountain goat on the side of a mountain on the boat trip and I went well, that’s me as an animal. A spirit animal had finally been found.
Druim an Aird
My favorite stop is sort of silly, in comparison to all these big names. It was just a rest stop for us to stretch our legs for about 20 minutes, but if ever I were to hide out somewhere in the world, this would be it. If someone ever gets the urge to propose to me, it’d best be here at Pattack Falls and Druim an Aird. From the moss-covered tree stumps to the rocky waterfall, I was quite content to live there forever and I was the last one back to the bus. There’s a reason I chose the main image for this post to be from this idyllic spot!
Finally, Pitlochry, which was primarily a rest and ice-cream stop as we were not there for too long. Then back to Edinburgh! As I’ll detail in my account of Edinburgh and the rest of the UK, in the summer it does not get dark until around 9:30-10PM, so even though you arrive back a bit later you still have more than enough time to find your way home.
- Comfort: the bus was very comfortable with large windows, so even if you weren’t beside one you would be able to see a lot, and spacious for luggage (larger items could go under the bus which was very handy for me)
- Driver: Hilarious! Graham gets my full recommendation, the guy loves Christmas and sounds (as he pointed out) exactly like Shrek. I now want to come back and take a Christmas tour with him as it sounds like an absolute blast.
- Locations: All very worth it
- Price: For what you get, this bus tour was really incredible. Hairy Coo even offers a free version where you pay what you feel it was worth after the tour, although you don’t get to see as much. If you’re nervous about a bus tour this would be a great option. If you’re looking for something longer, they do have a 3 day bus tour option although accommodation is not included in the stops.
This is a smaller bus tour of about 16 people via Mad Max Bus Tours, so it’s a tad more intimate and less spacious on the bus (so if you need to store luggage this isn’t the tour). I wanted to leave from Bath as I both wanted to spend time in Bath and also not be a part of the massive groups leaving from London. I think this was perhaps the best planned bus tour of all, as the timing was ideal to avoid tourist crowds at each stop.
Stonehenge was our first stop, and my main draw to this along with Avebury, as I’m a neolithic nerd. I was very worried before getting here that I would be disappointed. I already knew from my Paris Experience that massive amounts of inane tourists can really dampen my enthusiasm for places. Most of the reviews online were of two camps “a pile of rocks” or “a magical place.” I decided against the evening tours which allow you to actually go into the stones because I wasn’t sure which camp I would fall under.
This is where the excellent timing comes in. Because we got there as soon as Stonehenge opened, I had enough time to enjoy the stones without hearing nattering parents and squalling children. I enjoying walking slowly around the stones from one direction to the other, observing how the stones blocked and revealed the light and sky. By the time I’d finished my second walk around the masses had arrived and I skedaddled out and over to walk by the burial mounds where absolutely no one was, and walked back to the tour bus. This was a part I hadn’t known about Stonehenge, and due to the 2 hours we had there I got to more fully experience the other areas the Stonehenge park has to offer.
On to Avebury! This was also a lot of fun, as you can actually walk among the stones and it is much larger. You can lean up against the stones and our tour guide had brought along copper rods so we could experience the bizarre wobbling action of the non-conducting metal when near the stones. There was a lovely energy about the place and it was near Silbury Hill (we stopped for photos) that I would like to come back and further explore someday.
While leaving we also stopped for one of the White Chalk Horses of which several are carved into the surrounding countryside. While not terribly old compared to Stonehenge and Avebury, the 300 year old carvings felt kind of magical, as though stemming from some ancient tradition (which they were).
Upon concluding the Neolithic portion of our tour we moved to the small village of Lacock. It has come to my mind that apparently everywhere in England was, at one point, a Harry Potter set. This village was as well. It truly does feel like a village locked in time, even in the local craft fair occurring at the same time. In a way, it made me a tad sad to be in this village, for some reason, despite how sweet it was.
I stopped to dip my toes in the creek where local children were playing, and admired the trust of the village where many items are apparently sold by leaving them lying about and hoping someone puts money in your mailbox. I do wish I had gone to see the abbey, in retrospect, so if you go on your tour I think you would have sufficient time to see both the village and the Lacock Abbey although there is an additional cost.
Finally, Castle Combe. The gardens of the hotel are beyond beautiful and feel a lot like some kind of secret garden. As there isn’t a ton to see otherwise, I recommend exploring the gardens as much as you can as there were a lot of hidden paths and nooks. I can’t say this was my favorite location ever, but it’s nice to know that maybe a tour of the Cotswolds is not in my future. Back to Bath with plenty of time for dinner and exploring!
- Comfort: If you’re a solo traveler, this is fantastic as you can score one of the solo seats by arriving early. Nice windows.
- Driver: Super nice, took the time to learn each of our names, although I can’t remember his and I wish they would have a list of their guides on the website. Very personable 🙂
- Locations: Well timed and giving attention to the smaller, more quaint villages.
- Price: It does not include the entrance to Stonehenge and that’s something to consider. However, for the ability to be with a small group of people instead of the giant 100+ groups especially for Stonehenge, I think it’s worth it.
See Wales Romans & Ruins Bus Tour, Cardiff
I do not have as many photos of this tour as my phone, which hates the cold, decided to punish me by quitting about halfway through the tour. It was here I was finally suckered into buying a tapestry, which I can’t really regret but I did spend an inordinate amount of time agonizing over. Much like Mad Max Tours this was a smaller, 16 people tour.
Caerleon and Roman Baths
The See Wales tour started with Caerleon. I loved it here! It was amazing to see a Roman amphitheater outside the Italian weather. It was lush and completely empty so I got to hop around without worry. We also went to see the Roman Bath Ruins nearby. It was here I realized my dream of one day having a mini Roman/Korean bath system in my dream home. I bought the guidebook from the giftshop.
We moved on to Tinturn Abbey. Amazing. Absolutely amazing, there was something about the abbey completely missing its roof and glass that made the experience otherworldly. I don’t think I can even describe it but to give you all some pictures. It was here I dithered for a half hour over whether to buy the tapestry. There’s something about UK giftshops, they have items you actually want to buy? They are very different from the average tourist shop, by far.
Next, we moved on to the nearby Abbey Mill Craft Center where I was nearly tempted into buying a sheepskin, but I abstained due to fear of not fitting it into luggage. I didn’t buy lunch here, but most everyone else did and it looked pretty good although I knew the portion sizes would be too large for me. I instead wandered around the woods and the more distant village, which was quite enjoyable.
Finally, Raglan Castle. This was the only real castle I visited in my entire trip, and I do hold by the idea that once you’ve seen one of each type (this being in the Norman style) you’ve probably seen the rest. This one was particularly interesting as it was difficult to figure out how to get to different levels of the castle, and that prompted a lot of fun exploring! We finished up the tour and headed back to Cardiff, a very enjoyable trip.
- Comfort: An older bus but plenty of space for all of us and I managed to snag a solo seat again! The early bird gets the worm 😛
- Driver: Incredibly involved and excited to show us everything, I believe his name was Adrian. I highly recommend him as he was the most knowledgable about the history and details behind every place we visited. Also incredibly nice as the aforementioned phone died on me and I had no way of telling time, he lent me his flip phone so I didn’t miss the bus.
- Locations: All super lovely! This is probably my second favorite tour in terms of locations.
- Price: This tour also does not include the admission fees (which are all reasonable for the locations), however it is a smaller tour and it was really nice to get the more personable experience.
The One That Didn’t Go As Well, Liverpool
The entire time I was planning my trip to Cardiff I was highly annoyed at not finding reasonably priced tours to northern Wales. Since looking at stunning pictures, I found in myself a fierce desire to visit Snowdonia. Snowdonia is one of the national parks in Wales and I was sure it would be breathtaking (Spoiler: the good part of the trip is that it was!). I left from Liverpool as the only tours I could find that included Snowdonia that weren’t $300+ left from England as opposed to southern Wales.
The website was highly misleading and I was naive, primarily. When it said “Cruise tour” and based on some of the information on the website, I was somehow lead to believe it was a little boat cruise to various locations where we would then get a bus inland. Okay, this is completely my fault, obviously not. No, they meant it was for people getting off cruises who wanted to see more of Wales. Ah. Cruise people.
Here was the crux of the matter. I had never met cruise folks besides one of my aunts. If this is an example I’m not sure I’ll ever be tempted to take a cruise in my life. Spoiled families abound, and the guide was honestly awful. The guide found a way to say everything three times in slightly varied ways and got very testy about time. We all arrived back within the reasonable time frame the website gave but the guide actually scolded a couple who returned on the dot instead of two minutes early. All-in-all, not great. But I digress, onto the stops.
Conwy was the first stop, and really, what an idyllic little seaside town. It was at this point that I completely (already) gave up on having anything to do with the guide and cruise people. I ran off by myself, completely ignoring any attempts to gather the 50+ people together to go to the castle. I did not go to the castle because I had already seen Raglan and it did not look terribly different. Instead, I spent my time wandering atop the fortress walls (SO MUCH FUN!!), snacking on delicious cheese from a cheese shop, and purchasing a bottle of mead for myself and my father. I recommend Conwy, well worth the stop.
Snowdonia National Park was seriously beautiful. It was one of those moments in myself where I felt completely at peace. As the crowd wandered up the carefully stoned path, complaining about everything and sighing that “well, I guess it’ll make a good photo,” I saw a divergence in the path which lead to this:
Guess which way I went? The rocky climb took me first to an amazing gorge where silence reigned, and then to the top where I found sheep and grassy knolls with an unparalleled view of the mountains. I could see the group in the distance and considered fording the shallow stream that would eventually take me to them, but decided that could potentially end in disaster and instead made my little mountain-goat way back down. Wonderful. Despite the people, this was fully worth it.
Betws-Y-Coed, While this is technically a village in Snowdonia I honestly can’t say it feels it. It was by far the worst and saddest location I have ever been to in any country. I found myself wondering if anyone actually lives in the village or if people just commuted to serve the massive amounts of tourists. Hundreds of people crowded into a tiny village, constantly being dropped off and picked up – by the time I made it to the little prayer house the village is named after the graveyard actually felt angry. I couldn’t blame it. I actually gave up and went to sit in the bus 15 minutes early. As such, I can’t really recommend this village.
Pontcysyllte Canal Aqueduct, this stop was cool, walking across a canal bridge (literally, a canal going over a bridge) it did not feel like a full stop. Most bus tours that I have now been on feature at least four full stops and then a few photos. This trip did not have any photo stops and we were rushed through the Aqueduct so I didn’t even have time to get to the other side despite being the first one on it. We didn’t have any time for anything else and back to Liverpool we went.
In conclusion, I recommend paying for longer UK bus tours to northern Wales because it is absolutely worth seeing, perhaps a two-day tour to really explore. This is the location that I think is most suited to renting a car if you are able.
All-in-All, if you are someone who cannot rent a car for whatever reason, I think UK bus tours offer some of the most affordable options. For all but Snowdonia, I honestly think the bus tours are a better idea. You don’t have to be focused on the road and you don’t tend to get bored because you have a guide (hopefully) giving you interesting facts about the areas you are seeing. Even taking trains to the various locations is not as cost effective as taking a bus that goes to several. From this experience, I’ve found the majority of the UK bus tours to really be quite lovely and I recommend them!
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