It’s not such a small world after all

Thomas Cook – or, as they were known then, Thos. Cook & Son Ltd. – used to be able to get you almost anywhere. You could walk into one of their travel agencies and they’d thumb through their Continental Timetable to find the times of connecting trains anywhere in Europe. If you were going further afield, they’d find out train, ferry, and air schedules for countries that you’d barely heard of.

These days, you can of course do it all from the comfort of your own computer or device, thanks to websites and even some helpful apps. So when we wanted to travel almost the length of the UK, it should have been easy. Shouldn’t it?

Later this summer, we are heading up to the Outer Hebrides, to celebrate one of the proudest moments in any parents’ life, the graduation of one of their children. We live on the southernmost substantial island in the British Isles, and she lives (and graduates from) one of its furthest north, the island of Lewis.

By any international comparison, this is not a long distance, and we could have flown from an airport just a few miles from here to one just a few miles from her. Of course there are no direct flights, and the cheapest that I could find for the pair of us would have cost well over £700 by the time we had travelled a little at each end. I wasn’t happy to pay that much.

Travelling by road is quite a marathon. Those who live in England forget that it often takes longer to drive the length of the Scottish mainland, that it does the length of England. And when you have done that, you have to arrive at just the right time before the departure of the ferry to take you over to Lewis.

The best option, at reasonable cost, was therefore to travel by train. Or, rather, road to the ferry from the Isle of Wight to the mainland, ferry to Southampton, train from Southampton to Inverness, bus from Inverness to Ullapool, and ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway on Lewis. With the limits imposed by the sparse timetable of ferries to and from Lewis, and our endurance, we decided to stay overnight in Inverness.

That much would probably have emerged very quickly from one of Thos. Cook’s travel guides. There is, of course, no integrated travel booking system which would take care of all the legs of our journey, and the hotel accommodation.

It took me well over an hour to book the train journeys, as several of the major booking systems kept returning faults, errors, and warnings that the national booking system was not working properly and timetables and prices could be incorrect. It was then a matter of retrying, and eventually being more imaginative in the choice of booking system, although that incurred me a small charge for paying with a credit card, and another to have the tickets sent by post. Second class.

Having secured our times of arrival and departure from Inverness, I then booked the hotels. As we wanted two bookings of one night separated by about a week, that meant two separate bookings. And, because of demand, two different hotels in the same national chain.

By now I was over two hours into my mission, and was beginning to think that I might get the whole trip settled before dark. Thankfully, being midsummer, it doesn’t get dark until very late, so I thought that should be achievable.

The final lap was to get us by bus from Inverness to Ullapool, then across on the ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway, and return. Being summer still, the bus and ferry are often full to capacity, so it was essential not just to buy the tickets in advance, but to book our places. But neither the bus company nor the ferry provider have seen fit to make life easy, by offering a single integrated booking service, nor even by letting the traveller know of the times of the other’s services.

First I had to work out which bus connected with which ferry, so I knew which of each to book. Then I discovered that the bus company’s website was a throwback to the late 1990s, with calendars that looked as if they had been coded using ASCII characters. I duly entered the details, specifying two passengers, and right at the end was amazed to see that the bookings, and email confirmation, all referred to one passenger. I had just started to go through the whole process a second time when I realised that their booking system had sent me two concatenated return bookings each for one adult, instead of just one booking for two adults. I hope.

The ferry service was last. That could have been a bad decision on my part, because if we couldn’t get the ferries that linked with the buses, that linked with the hotels, that linked with the trains, the whole plan could have rapidly unravelled. Thankfully it didn’t, although it was entertaining having to enter my wife’s full name, title, gender, and date of birth in order for her to travel.

When I came out of the fourth completely different online booking system, having successfully negotiated four completely different payment systems, I felt a real sense of achievement. The sun was still reasonably high above the horizon, and when my wife asked what I had done today, I could hold my head up in pride and tell her that I had booked our travel to Scotland. OK, it wasn’t the whole day’s work, just most of the afternoon and the early part of the evening.

To think that a few decades ago I would have had to have gone to Thos. Cook & Son Ltd. and it would all have been done for me. We really didn’t know what we were missing then.