School coach hire: ‘The low-cost days are gone for good’

School coach hire rates rising rapidly

While work has come back well to many members of the coach industry, a lot of them continue to suffer from high diesel costs and a difficult landscape for driver recruitment and retention. 

In place of the usual UK Coach Operators Association (UKCOA) interview, this month routeone features the results of a survey undertaken by the Association of its members looking at the impact that both elements have had on coach hire for schools. 

All coach operators have, in some way or other, been affected by the significant rise in diesel costs over the past few months. In many cases, that has been compounded by a crippling staff shortage. The latter has led to a further increase in costs to retain staff and attract a new intake. 

Given that we are now at the time of year that school trips during the operating day reach their peak – and especially given that for many educational establishments, they have been on hold for two years – we asked UKCOA members what impact fuel and driver costs have had on the price of coach hire for schools. 

Rates up by as much as 40% for some school coach hire

For the 14 UKCOA members involved in the survey, a 25% rise in the cost of a coach hire compared to the rates charged before the pandemic was typical. Some operators quoted only a 10% rise, while others have increased them by as much as 40%.

School coach hire rates rising rapidly
Considerations such as PSVAR, emission control zones and many other increased costs mean cheap hires are gone, says Richard Slack

Richard Slack, Director of Matlock-based Slacks Coaches, says that the days of schools getting cheap coach hire are gone. 

“Fuel increases are only a part of it. Clean Air Zones, PSVAR and increased general running costs (tyres, windscreens and other parts) have all played their part,” says Mr Slack. He concludes that “there is nothing wrong with charging a good price, as long as the quality of the operator’s service backs it up.” 

The value of coach travel, and its environmental credentials, are both things that should be stressed, adds York Pullman Managing Director Tom James. “We should emphasise to schools that coach travel is still the cheapest form of transport and very environmentally friendly,” he explains. 

“Rates are still being compared to those we charged pre-pandemic. The world has moved on since then.” 

Excessive parking costs must be factored into rates

Parking costs must also be factored into rates. Applegates Coaches Director Ceri Taylor highlights the price of such when taking a school party to a seaside resort recently. “£85 for four hours is pretty steep when you think of the benefits that a coach has in bringing custom to the town in question – and the amount of fuel and emissions saved compared to if all those students were taken in cars,” he observes. 

UKCOA also asked members for ideas on keeping the cost of coach travel down for schools. Here we were met with an enthusiastic response. 

Bridgnorth Bus and Coach Company Director Snake Ambrose, Leoline Travel Director Amy Baker-McCormack and Stanley Travel Director Andrew Scott (among others) suggested that, if possible, the hire is contained within the school day. That would allow the same vehicle used for home-to-school duties to be utilised, although it was recognised that distance travelled often makes that impractical.

School coach hire rates continue to rise
Do students and pupils always need to travel a long way on trips? Probably not, suggests Centurion Travel Director Steve Spiller

That said, Centurion Travel Director Steve Spiller came up with a solution. He suggests that schools consider transport before finalising the venue.

“There is sometimes no need to drive three hours to some awkward to get to place when there is an alternative much closer. Often it is the ‘getting away’ that matters to students – not where they go.” 

How else to reduce the costs of school coach hire?

Other suggestions from UKCOA coach operator members on how schools could reduce the cost of hires include: 

  • Encourage them to book further in advance (from both Nathan Hadley of Prospect Coaches and Anthony Marett of Maretts Chariots). A comment was made that some schools have been booking coaches much later this year that they would prior to the pandemic, but perhaps for some very understandable reasons 
  • Suggest to schools that they could spread trips throughout the year, especially to indoor venues, and to bear in mind the quieter months for coach operators, such as November, January and February (from Kevin Wilde of Mitcham Belle) 
  • Check with schools the exact size of their party. Wattsway Travel Director Mark Watts noted that some schools always ask for a 53-seat coach but often there are many spare spaces 
  • Finally, encourage schools to work together, especially on residential trips, which often involve empty legs. 

UKCOA believes that the results delivered by this survey are fascinating. Hopefully they will assist all coach operators in engaging with schools to assist in keeping costs down – but importantly, without under-charging for the work that they do.