Laid-Back Travel on the Slow Coach

This year, special budget-priced backpacker bus services will be covering circular routes in England, Scotland and, for the first time, Ireland.

Slow Coach offers independent travelers an economical yet flexible service for visiting Britain and Ireland. What makes the service ideal for independent travelers is that Slow Coach passengers don't have to lug their packs to and from bus stations. The bus drops off and picks up at hostel doors. On the bus you also have the opportunity to meet other like-minded adventurers, and you have the advantage of a driver-guide who can offer insights on what to see and where to stay when you're touring on limited funds.

The original Slow Coach "Round Britain Budget Bus" continues on a route that connects London to Windsor, Bath, Stratford, the Lake District, Edinburgh, York and Cambridge before returning to London. The fare for this trip is $141, and passengers can get on and off as they choose, taking as long as they want to complete their journey. In the winter, the service operates three times a week. During the peak summer holiday period, buses depart from each major stop daily.

Travelers taking this route would have the opportunity to visit Windsor Castle and the grounds of Eton College, explore the ancient sites of Stonehenge, Avebury and Glastonbury, visit Shakespeare's birthplace, hike in the mountains of the Lake District, investigate Edinburgh Castle, take a guided "ghost walk" in the ancient walled city of York, and to spend an afternoon punting on the river in Cambridge.

Last summer, Slow Coach added a new route called "Slow Coach Goes West." It takes travelers from Bath to Land's End along the north coast, stopping at 16 hostels along the way. Stops along the route include: Lynton, where you can see the highest cliffs in England; Boscastle, Newquay and Perranporth, where surfing is popular; Penzance; Plymouth, where the first British settlers set off to North America; and Street, which is near mystical Glastonbury, believed by some to be the ancient site of Avalon. This summer, the service will operate from May 1 until the end of September. The fare is $78. Tickets for this route are only sold in Britain.

The service that Slow Coach is offering in Scotland has been operating under the name of "Go Blue Banana" for several years. This bus covers a circular route that links Edinburgh to Inverness, Skye, Fort William, Loch Ness and Glasgow, offering travelers activities that range from distillery tours and visiting ancient stone circles to checking out a monster at Loch Ness.

Buses pick up at stops along the Scotland route every three days. The cost to travel the whole route is $103. A quick three-day guided tour is also available for the same price.

This will be the first year for a Slow Coach service in Ireland. It's scheduled to operate from May to October. The route links Dublin to Galway, Connemara, Killarney, Cork, Waterford and Tralee. Travelers can explore the ancient giant burial mound at New Grange, kiss the Blarney Stone and ask the driver for tips on the most likely pubs to find impromptu traditional music. Tickets cost $204. The bus will pick up and drop off passengers at hostels and ferry ports.

This year, for the first time, photographs are required for the tickets. You can resell unused portions, but the new user will have to supply a photograph and have it stamped.

You can purchase the tickets at participating youth hostels. If you buy several at the same time in Britain, a discount coupon book is provided. In London, Slow Coach tickets are sold at YHA Travel Shop, 14 Southampton St., Covent Garden, and Earl's Court Hostel (this is also where the Slow Coach departs from) at 38 Bolton Gardens, Earl's Court. In Edinburgh tickets can be purchased at the Go Blue Banana Travel Co., Suite 8, North Bridge House, 28 North Bridge. You can contact Slow Coach by telephone at 011-44-249-891959. North American student travel bureaus are offering special discount coupon booklets to travelers who buy any of the three main passes before they travel abroad. Vouchers are for discounts and deals valued up to $300, including free T-shirts and even free nights at hostels (when you purchase a minimum number).

In the United States three types of Slow Coach passes are available through Council Travel offices. The "All Britain" costs $135, the Scotland is $99 and the Ireland is $135. For details, contact Council Travel at 10904 Lindbrook Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90024; tel. (310) 208-3551.

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