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A few weeks ago, I wrote about how much I loved exploring the Hebrides with Haggis Adventures. Scotland was already one of my favourite places in the world and a place where I spent some of the best vacations of my childhood, and my trip to the Hebrides with Haggis Adventures just validated that Deep Scottish Love.
My time in Hebrides was only the beginning of my travels with Haggis Adventures this summer. Overall, I spent ten days exploring the furthest reaches of Scotland and an additional five days in the Welsh countryside.
I shared the tours with at least 50 other people — fortunately not all at the same time — and four tour guides.
We rode on one yellow bus that shouted “AWESOME!” across one side, a big blue coach that seated 43 people, a small white bus, and our favourite, a bright yellow bus that told everyone how “Wild & Sexy!” we were.
We covered nearly 2,000 miles of some of the most scenic regions in Britain, and we only occasionally burst our drivers’ eardrums with ear-splitting renditions of Bohemian Rhapsody.
While I’m sure listening to fellow travellers belting out Queen classics is at the top of your to-do list on any trip, why should you pick Haggis Adventures for your trip around Scotland? What’s it like to travel with them?
Haggis describe their guides as “Legendary…unique characters all with bags of energy, enthusiasm and a breath-taking knowledge of their homeland,” and I would say this is pretty accurate.
It was sometimes difficult to take in the sheer amount of information we were being taught about Scottish history; I’m fairly sure that at the end of the tour, we could have written a small book about the clans of Scotland, the Jacobite rebellion, and the Highland clearances.
It wasn’t just Scottish history we learned about; the guides delved into pop culture and made sure we listened to plenty of The Proclaimers (the Scottish band best known for 500 Miles) as well.
It was interesting to be on a tour that involved so many changes of tour guide; in our ten days on the Compass Buster, we had three different guides. They were all unique and entertaining, but were very different characters. You have to expect that each guide will stamp his own personality on the tour, whether it’s the exuberance and never-ending energy of Jamie, the guide I wrote about in my Hebrides post, or the wicked dry sense of humour of our Orkney guide Nick.
However, what I found jarring was that, as soon as we were used to one guide, he was replaced with someone new. Due to the lack of continuity, it was like doing three separate tours in a row instead of one cohesive tour. I know it would be too much to ask that one guide work the whole ten day tour, but our group all agreed that it would have been much better to have two guides for five days each than three guides for three to four days each.
Haggis Adventures trips are aimed squarely at the budget travel market, and their trips are good value for money considering how much they pack into every day on tour.
The 10-day Compass Buster costs £499 and 5-day tours, such as the Highland Fling or the Hebridean Hopper, cost £239. It’s worth noting, though, that this price DOES NOT cover accommodation, food costs, or optional activities.
While these prices may seem like a lot initially — especially since they do not include accommodation — they are good value compared to how much it would cost to do the same tour otherwise.
Public transport to many of the places on the tour is downright impossible; while you can take buses and trains between the major cities, you’d struggle to find regular transport around places like the Isle of Lewis and Orkney. Even if you did, you’d only be able to bus between towns and cities, so you’d miss all the interesting scenic and cultural sites that can be found on the way.
You could rent a car and drive around Scotland, but you wouldn’t necessarily know all the best places to stop, and when you did, you wouldn’t have a guide telling you exactly why it’s the best place to stop. Having the guides feed us a constant stream of Scottish history and pop culture was one of the best parts of the trip, and I really enjoyed it after having spent the two months prior in a car on my own as I explored Scandinavia.
A pre-paid bundle is available to cover accommodation for an additional £229 for the 10-day trip or £104 for the 5-day trips. I highly recommend that you purchase this bundle. While it does mean there is more outlay at the beginning of the trip, it means that there is significantly less hassle through the course of the trip. For instance, if you don’t have a pre-paid bundle, it means you have to wait in line to pay for a hostel bed at each nightly stop (since chances are you’ll just choose the hostel everyone else is staying in rather than looking for a better deal elsewhere).
The pre-paid bundle also covers some attractions, such as the Tomb of the Eagles and Skara Brae on Orkney. These stops are extended and there are no other options in the area, so you will end up paying for them anyway; the difference with the bundle is that you have a ticket handed to you rather than having to wait in line (again).
There are a number of additional attractions that are not included in the bundle, such as entry to Eilean Donan Castle and the Jacobite Steam Train (aka the Hogwarts Express). Unlike the activities mentioned above, these are not required and there is always a free option available if you would prefer to stick to a budget. Rather than going into Eilean Donan, the guide can take you up to a lookout above Loch Duich; instead of riding the Jacobite steam train, you can chase the train on the bus.
If you do think you’ll want to do these optional extras, I would recommend paying for them when booking the tour if possible. While extra people that had not pre-paid the Jacobite were able to get tickets and join the group, during busy times of year, this may not be possible. On my Wales tour, a number of people wanted to book the horseback riding trip on the day but were told there were no horses available.
Finally, it’s well worth noting that food can make or break your budget. Haggis does its best to make sure that you’re always provided with a budget option, and there are always stops at supermarkets to get both lunch and dinner. You’ll also find that many breakfasts are covered in hostel costs. However, if you go out to eat with the rest of the group — and I recommend doing this at least once because there are so many great options, particularly for seafood — money can really start slipping through your fingers.
Haggis advertises their tours as being small group tours, and for the most part, that’s the case. The majority of buses in their fleet are brilliantly yellow 29-seat buses similar to the “Wild and Sexy” bus we had in the Hebrides. Even when this bus was full, the tour still seemed small.
With the 29 of us on the Hebrides and Orkney sections of the Compass Buster, we never really felt like we were having to wait in line. The group often splintered into smaller groups at each site (based on who was doing which activity) and because the majority of us had the pre-paid bundle, all we had to do was wait for the guide to run inside, pick up all our tickets, and then hand them out rather than queuing up to pick them up one by one. Plus, the bus never took long to load or unload.
However, that drastically changed on the last three days of the tour, when we were picked up by the Highland Fling bus. This was no “small tour” bus. It was a 43-seater full-size coach that required a separate driver and guide (unlike in the little yellow buses, where we had driver-guides).
Suddenly, it felt like we spent most of our time at each stop just getting on and off the bus, and it made those stops feel like they were reduced to simple photo stops rather than us having the chance to really get out and explore. Those extra 14 people really tipped the scale and made it feel like we were travelling everywhere in a large herd.
From talking to many of the people that had been on the Orkney leg of the tour before joining the Highland Fling, no one was happy with the change. We understood that the Highland Fling was an incredibly popular tour and that, being August, it was one of the busiest times of the year to travel in Scotland. However, after having enjoyed the first two legs of our tour so much and getting used to the “small tour” dynamic, we really struggled for the last three days.
While it would have cost a lot more on Haggis’ behalf, I think it would have been much better to split the tour into two separate buses with the same itinerary but the option for each driver-guide to add in his own favourite spots (as Jamie and Nick were able to do). That would have been much truer to the ideal of a “small group tour.”
Like everything, there are pros and cons about travelling around Scotland with Haggis Adventures, but the benefits outweigh the negatives (particularly if you choose one of the 5-day tours instead of the slightly disjointed 10-day). Their trips will give you a much more in-depth view of Scotland than would be possible travelling on your own, and you’ll get this perspective while travelling with a bunch of other fun, like-minded travellers. There’s no better way to get a good dose of that Deep Scottish Love!
What do you think? If you were travelling in Scotland, would you choose Haggis?
Update, 10 December 2015: After getting in touch with Haggis Adventures, I found out that they took all the feedback from this year’s tours on board and have changed the format of the 10-day Compass Buster significantly. As I suggested above, the tour will now only have two guides for 5 days each instead of the current 3-guide format. This is definitely a huge step forward and will make the trip much less scattered for all involved.
The Compass Buster will still be combined with the Hebridean Hopper for the first four days of the trip, and then on day five it will pick up the new Coast to Coast tour. These two tours seem to combine much better than previously, and it appears that there will be no more retracing footsteps like we did (we visited places like Eilean Donan and the Isle of Skye twice, once on Day 4 and again on Day 8).
It’s great to see some of the suggestions fellow passengers had be put into practice, and it will result in even better tours in the year ahead.
My Compass Buster tour was provided by HAGGiS Adventures, but all opinions stated in this article are my own. The full 10-day tour (the other sections of which I will be writing about in another post) costs £499 plus accommodation. Accommodation can be pre-paid at an additional cost. It departs weekly between May and September from the HAGGiS Adventures office at 60 High St in Edinburgh.