Autie Friendly Holiday Planning: 1. Coping with a Break from the Norm

Effective holiday planning for young adults on the autism spectrum

Scarborough Grand Hotel and the Futurist Theatre
Scarborough, looking towards the Grand Hotel and The Futurist Theatre.

We all need a break from the norm every now and then. We all need to go somewhere new for a week or two. For a bit, it might mean a change of routine, something which could be frightening.

There is more to planning a holiday than deciding where to go. We need to make other preparations prior to setting off, and afterwards. Hotels and transport arrangements need to be booked. Sometimes if we go abroad, we need to apply for a passport and/or get a visa before booking. That could be just as daunting as spending a week in Torquay, Turkey or Tennessee.

And I can testify myself having been wound up by interruptions to my rail journey, or disorientated by certain noises. I remember being scared in my early years when retiring to the loo. At the time, I think I was passing Cheltenham en route to Barry Island before reaching Gloucester and Chepstow. More recently, I was upset when a Manchester Piccadilly bound train was held up in Sheffield for three hours (thanks to a security alert at Piccadilly).

Learning how to use public transport is an important life skill for everyone, whether on the autism spectrum or not. Planning a holiday, equally so, and making sure that all the connections are right.

Common Factors

Package holidays, accommodation and some transport fares are priced in accordance to supply and demand. For example, late July to early September is often the most expensive time for a holiday. This period is popular with families as that coincides with schools’ summertime holidays. Therefore, anything outside that period is cheaper. There are some exceptions where prices over Christmas are just as expensive as in mid-August.

Some hotels charge more for rooms during the weekdays than on weekends, or vice versa. With the former, such hotels may be located in towns or cities where most travellers are businesspeople on overnight stays. The latter is more applicable to seaside resorts or in and around National Parks like the Lake District or the Peak District.

In the weekends, transport fares may be more expensive if all the cheaper fares have gone. It may be cheaper to travel from weekday to weekday but you need to plan your journeys outside the morning and evening peak hours.

The Easy Way

The easiest way to plan a holiday is to opt for a package holiday. These would sometimes be called ‘All-Inclusive’ holidays, and include travel as well as your hotel, guest house or self-catering accommodation. Some include extras like free newspapers or savings on drinks purchased at the hotel’s or guest house’s bar. It is a less overloading option if you wish to:

  • Be sure of travel to and from your chosen destination;
  • Discover an unfamiliar area;
  • Be sure of a hotel room, holiday flat or cottage;
  • Spend less on public transport;
  • Be sure of a reserved seat to and from your journey.

From past experience, I would consider a coach holiday a more relaxing alternative to travelling by train, if staying in the United Kingdom. Today’s coaches are as comfortable as today’s trains, or even surpass them. Usually, you have a choice of meeting up with your coach by driving to the company’s coach station, boarding a feeder coach from your local bus station or stop, or being driven to the coach station by the company.

A feeder coach would call at other places before or after your stop prior to reaching the company’s coach station. Sometimes, a small fee may be charged on top of your holiday’s cost. Some operators offer a door-to-door service from your home to their coach station. Though more expensive (though good if you cannot use the local bus station or stop), it may be cheaper than getting a taxi from your home.

If you’re not sure about the area, a coach holiday is a good way to see new places. You often find trips to other places included in the price of your break. Over, for example a week long break, there may be a free day or two so you can explore more of the area yourself on public transport.

If you need a sense of routine, a coach holiday would suit you. Excursions depart at set times and stops en route are set to certain times. As well as listening to the coach driver’s announcements, times for each excursion are published in a printed itinerary. This would either be on the wall of your hotel or guest house, or sent to your home by post after booking. Meal times too are also published, again on paper or on the hotel’s notice board.

Part of the problem of booking a holiday involves booking accommodation. An inclusive holiday solves that for you, and it may be a cheaper option than booking train/coach/air fares and hotels separately. Even more so if you don’t have a Concessionary Travel Pass or a Railcard of some description.

One other gripe about using public transport in the summer months (besides the lack of cheap advance purchase fares perhaps) is overcrowding. If for example you’re boarding a train from Manchester Piccadilly to Scarborough, Cleethorpes or Blackpool North, getting a seat isn’t the easiest of things to do – and less so if boarding from an intermediate station like Stalybridge, Stockport or Bolton.

And one great joy of coach holidays is a guaranteed seat. For the whole of your break.

The Hard Way

Anyone who boards a train during the summer months to a popular seaside resort is either brave, daft or not researched their train times properly. I know myself where self-indulgence took preference over logic when I mistakenly changed trains at Chester in 1997. I was on the way back from Bangor (after getting a coach from the Starcoast World Butlins resort near Pwllheli) and decided to change at Chester instead of Llandudno Junction (for North Western Trains’ Llandudno – Manchester Piccadilly train).

The reason was, the Bangor train was hauled by a Class 37 diesel locomotive (it was 37418, East Lancashire Railway in Regional Railways livery) with Mark 1 and Mark 2 coaches. By contrast, the one from Llandudno was a Class 158 Diesel Multiple Unit. Yours truly wanted more Class 37 engine thrash at the expense of being sat together at a table seat from Llandudno Junction. Instead, we were on odd seats; Mum and Dad had to guard the luggage. Cue a miffed rail enthusiast in his late teens.

Here’s how not to plan a rail connection.

Sometimes, the ‘Do-It-Yourself’ way may be cheaper, though it can be more complicated than the easy way stated above. You need to be sure that:

  • Your passport has been renewed or applied for;
  • You have researched your desired destination;
  • Your hotel, guest house or holiday flat is booked;
  • There are suitable rail, coach, ferry or air fares available.

The Her Majesty’s Passport Office website recommends renewing or applying for your passport well before you set off. They recommend making your application three weeks before your holiday. I personally recommend allowing a longer period – three months instead of three weeks. In doing so it also allows you more time to pay for your holiday. A standard adult passport costs £72.50 (2013 prices), which over a ten year period works out at £7.25 per year. Applications can be made online or through your nearest main (non-sub) Post Office. With the latter, they can check if your passport photo is right and go through your application.

Before deciding on your destination, what sort of holiday would you prefer? Do you prefer scenery and quiet nights in the hotel bar? Or a bustling seaside resort with excellent night life? It is always best to research the area in terms of:

  • Personal security: for example, is it rough or not? Can you eat your fish and chips without somebody asking for spare change?
  • Transport access: are the local buses and trains suitable for visiting other places or travel within your area? Are distances from airports, ferry ports, bus, coach or railway stations close enough to your hotel or self catering flat;
  • Attractions: is there one place you most wish to visit? Are there any good theatres, cinemas or amusement parks for example?
  • Personal recommendations: your relatives or friends may be able to recommend potential destinations through personal experience;
  • Recommendations on the internet: I would prefer to ask my friends or relatives for a more definitive answer. Sometimes, recommendations on sites like may not be truthful. A negative opinion of one hotel could come from a nearby rival.

When booking any form of accommodation, look carefully at the location as detailed in the above points. You can use a tool like Google Maps to find your future hotel, guest house, holiday flat or caravan site.

Hotels and Guest Houses tend to charge by the night, though some may have special offers for a week’s stay. They also charge by the following rates:

  • Room Only: rates apply to the room itself;
  • Bed and Breakfast: often for the price of a room per person per night including Breakfast. Commonly abbreviated as ‘B&B’ – itself used to describe a hotel or guest house where no evening meals are served;
  • Half Board: often for the price of a room per person per night including Breakfast and an evening meal. Sometimes known as ‘BBEM’;
  • Full Board: as above, though also with a midday meal.

As well as the above, we also have:

  • Single Rooms: a room for one person;
  • Double Room: a room for a couple with a double bed;
  • Twin Room: a room for two people with two single beds;
  • Single Room Supplements: where single occupancy of a double room may mean an additional charge;
  • En-Suites: a small bathroom or wet room within each hotel room. Most hotels used to have communal bathrooms on each floor.

As you may have noticed, the hotel and guest house industries have their own language which may be confusing for first time travellers, either on the autism spectrum or otherwise.

And of course, we not only have hotels, we also have:

  • Motels: like hotels, though aimed at drivers. Often low-rise buildings close to motorways or on Motorway Services;
  • Lodges: either another name to describe a motel, country club or a budget hotel. One example of this is the Travelodge chain of hotels. Some lodges can be prestigious and, for example, be part of a golf club in a rural area;
  • Inns: before Motorway Services appeared, roadside inns were a precursor. They would be situated in town centres offering accommodation for weary travellers and have public bars. Today’s bus and coach services have roots in stagecoaches which called at the roadside inns (hence the number of bus stops outside pubs);
  • Guest Houses: like hotels though without full time staff;
  • Self-Catering Accommodation: usually flats or private houses with a small kitchen or full size kitchen facilities. An ideal option for people on restricted diets (i.e. Gluten Free, Casein Free, low salicylate, etc);
  • Youth Hostels: often a cheaper option than a hotel, guest house and motel. Popular with people who enjoy outdoor pursuits and offers a choice of communal bedrooms or individual rooms.

For many, the internet is a commonplace source for booking accommodation. I have used sites like and, though checked with friends and relatives for secondary opinions. Such sites are a boon if you can find a more expensive place at a reduced price, and if you book early at that. You could also visit the hotel’s website and book through there (where facilities are available).

Once you’ve found your ideal place for the night, weekend or week, it may be a good idea to research local transport arrangements. Therefore:

  • Research local bus operators: there’s a good chance that FirstGroup, Stagecoach or Arriva may be in the area. If so, check their websites and choose the relevant area. Alternatively, research the area’s local authority and look for the ‘Transport’ section of their website. You may find timetables of services funded by local authorities. That way, you can also find out more on independent operators which may be in the area;
  • Research local rail franchises (where applicable): National Rail’s journey planner is a great tool for local (UK) rail services. Their smartphone app is well worth downloading too. Or you could pop in to a local public library’s reference section and see if they’ve got the Great Britain Train Times in book form;
  • Research local taxi companies: enables you to find out taxi fares within the UK. The highest fare is quoted, but all fares are estimates as they vary according to traffic conditions. Local authorities’ websites may have details of licensed taxi companies.

Once that’s been sorted out, we go towards the harder part – booking suitable fares…

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Booking Affordable Fares

Several years ago, a fellow called Fred Pontin used to implore wannabe holidaymakers to ‘book early’ if they wanted to stay in one of his holiday camps. This maxim is a truism of long distance rail, ferry, air and coach travel. In this case, saving a considerable amount on the ordinary single or return fare by booking as early as possible as well as getting a seat.

If you’re on a tight budget, and able to make your outward and return journeys at fixed times, go for the advance purchase option. Tickets would be released about 12 weeks in advance of your desired day of departure and return. If you prefer flexibility, go for the cheapest possible bought-on-the-day fare. Discounts may be available if you have a Railcard or a concessionary Coachcard on National Express’ routes.

Transport Fare Types Explained:

Advance Purchase Fares:

  • Cheapest fare available – cheaper if booked well in advance;
  • Limited stock – a limited number of advance purchase fares are allocated, so be quick!
  • Guaranteed seat – no anxieties over finding a suitable seat;
  • Little or no flexibility – often on selected journeys, and no break of journey;
  • Ideal for long distance travel – a good option if your coach, train, ferry or aeroplane has a long direct journey;
  • Limited booking options – can only be booked online, via telephone bureaux (like The Trainline), at operators’ ticket offices and travel agencies.

Off-Peak ‘bought-on-the-day’ fares:

  • Cheapest fare available on day of travel – not quite as cheap as an Advance Purchase fare, but ideal if you cannot book well in advance;
  • Available certain hours – usually after 9.30am on Monday to Friday and all day weekends and Bank Holidays.
  • Best option on short distance routes – ideal where trains, buses and coaches run very often (i.e. commuter routes, urban areas);
  • Break of journey permitted – if a certain train, bus or coach can be overloading, you can break your journey anywhere en route and catch the next train, bus or coach (where available);
  • No guarantee of a seat – separate seat reservations need to be made at operators’ ticket offices;
  • Can be bought on the bus, coach or train – with the last two modes, often outside operators’ ticket office hours.

Standard Fares:

  • The most expensive fare – available all hours, though sometimes the only fares available (particularly so on local bus routes);
  • No guarantee of a seat – as with off-peak ‘bought-on-the-day’ fares, separate seat reservations need to be made;
  • Break of journey permitted – if a certain train, bus or coach can be overloading, you can break your journey anywhere en route and catch the next train, bus or coach (where available);
  • Can be bought on all modes, on the day of travel – even so, in the case of ferries and scheduled flights, passengers need to arrive several minutes before departure.

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Local Travel

Once you’ve sorted out the long distance part of your holiday, we go on to arranging what is your most important journey. Not so much the journey from, for example, Manchester Piccadilly to Blackpool North, but more so the journey which connects with our Blackpool train.

I’ve often opted for a taxi to my nearest bus or railway station. The cheapness of the local bus could be attractive, but whilst you’re trying to connect with the coach or train, it can lead to panic if our bus is stuck at temporary traffic lights. Or if there’s a lot of passengers boarding who choose your departure date as a time to renew their single operator season tickets.

If you’re lucky to live in an urban area like Greater Manchester, you should have plenty of taxi companies to choose from. I always choose the one nearest to my home as he or she has less driving to do. Or, choose a local one you find the most reliable. Better still, go for one which has a ‘ringback’ facility: when they ring back, this means your taxi is on its way, and you don’t need to answer the call.

I always make sure I’m at the bus or railway station some 15 – 30 minutes before my coach or train departs. If I allow 30 minutes, and the taxi is held up in traffic for 15 minutes, I still have enough time to switch from taxi to coach or train. If there’s a newsagent nearby, I pick up a copy of the Daily Mirror and The Guardian.

Then I hope the coach or train arrives in good time…

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Before You Go…

  • If you have any newspapers or milk delivered to your doorstep, cancel them for the time you’ll be away;
  • If your dog or cat needs to go to a boarding kennels or cattery, ask fellow pet owners for recommendations and make sure you book them around the same time as you book your own holiday;
  • Lock all windows and doors before you leave (important!);
  • Try not to mention your holiday too much on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter. You do not know who could be reading your messages. One of them could be an intruder;
  • If possible, another relative may be able to look after your home. This is most important if you have pets to look after. It saves you the hassle of cancelling newspapers and missing postal deliveries. He or she could help with refuse collection dates;
  • Most importantly, remember any tickets, boarding passes, passports and concessionary travel cards prior to leaving home.

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Autie Friendly Tour Operators and Useful Information

Throughout the UK, there is also a few Autism Spectrum Condition friendly tour operators. A lot of them are stated on the National Autistic Society’s website.

  • Autism-Friendly Venues: National Autistic Society’s list of autie-friendly tour operators and accommodation;
  • Travelling With Autism: three useful guides from Manchester Airport’s website for travellers on the autism spectrum;
  • Holidays for Children with Autism: the Disabled Holiday Directory’s article on autie-friendly holiday bookings. The publishers of this fact sheet are part of Mossley’s independent travel agent Discover Holidays;
  • FINCA Supported Holidays: Wigan based tour operator offering UK and overseas holidays for neurodiverse travellers, their friends and families.

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Before I go…

If you have any more tips you would like to share, please add your comments.

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Coming Soon in Part Two

We shall talk about enjoying the holiday itself. This will also include reference to the journey to and from your destination.

S.V., 17 July 2013.


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