Thursday, 29 May 2008

Take cover against airline failures

Booking a scheduled flight departing in the next few months? Pay by credit card, even if the airline demands a premium - or try to buy travel insurance which includes cover against carriers going bust.

Usually, scheduled airline failure insurance, which is available from some airlines and travel agents, is only available as part of a general travel insurance policy.

Remember, if the fare is over £100 you will get a refund is you use a credit card but not if you pay by debit card.

Why the warning? Rocketing oil prices. which have forced up jet fuel costs, are putting carriers under severe pressure. Disruption to travel plans is the least travellers can expect. Major airlines have begun axing routes which are loss making or marginal to their balance sheets.

Some industry experts believe current oil prices are the result partly of speculation by investors shifting from equities to commodities. One said yesterday that he believed the natural price per barrel was around $80 - around $50 below its level today.

Meanwhile, however, it will be surprising if there are no further causalties among the weaker airlines.

(See: And another one bites the dust, below)

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Car hire firms - you are the weakest link

Car hire remains the weakest link in the travel chain. Rental companies, it may be argued, have even more ways than airlines to alienate customers.

As we negotiated the tedious process of picking up a car at Thessaloniki aiport, in northern Greece, a French woman, at the desk of another company nearby,was arguing furiously about her booking. Apparently it had been changed - though she had not been notified - from kilometre inclusive to a per kilometre charge.

I say apparently because I had one ear on her conversation and one on the response of the man at Hertz, who was telling me the document I had given him was not a receipt and that they needed evidence I had paid in advance.

The car had been booked in London, on line, and the document was a cut and paste version of the receipt I had been emailed. In any case, I said, the booking would surely be in the system. His colleague found it. The car was due back at 10am, eight days later, she said. But my flight was at 2.35pm and I had booked to return the car at 12.30pm. The would, she said "extend" the return time until noon.

Would I like to pay up front for a full tank of petrol and return the car empty. I accept, though I wonder why rental firms can't simply top up when you take the car back and charge the going price for fuel. "There's always something left in the tank", says a woman tourist behind me. "It's just another way to make a bit more money."

She and her friend are complaining about a threatened charge for "a tiny scratch", even though there significantly greater damage, there when they collected the vehicle, which the company had not bothered to fix.

You might argue that this is the result of competition, the equivalent of airlines charging for checked bags, pre assigned seats etc. In my view, even if optional additional insurance is offered, rental companies should absorb the cost of very minor damage. Their current approach leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

I would not be writing this if my Thessaloniki expereince was isolated. Over many years of renting I have built up a dismal catalogue of such gripes.

Arriving in Calgary to collect a 4x4 I was told I had been assigned a much cheaper front wheel drive saloon. You will get me a 4X4, I retorted to my wife's embarassment, if you have to go out and steal one. They quickly discovered they had one after all, but it had not been washed. Fine, we were anxious to get away.

When we returned it we were told we might be charged for some tiny starburst marks, invisible to the naked eye, on the windscreen. We resisted, noting that the vehicle was so filthy when we drove off that we could not have known they were there even if we could have seen them. No charge was imposed.

In Namibia we suffered a spectacular blow out near the grteat dunes of Sossusvlei. The nearest garage did not have tyres suitable for our rented VW Polo. We could have hired an extra spare when we picked up the car, but the garage which supplied them was closed by the time our flight arrived. So we had no option but to drive some 80 miles to one which did. We later discovered that. although the Polo was a widely used hire car in Namibia, few garages stocked the relevent spare tyres.

When we returned to Windhoek an Avis inspector told us that the new tyre we had bought (at a cost of around £80) was not a brand used by the company - and we would have to pay for another. We refused. Avis staff gave in.

Collecting a car in Salzburg we were obliged to pay a supplement because the desk was not normally staffed on a Saturday.

I could cite other problems in other places, but by now you've got the picture. Rental companies beed to take a long hard look at the kind of service they provide - and sharpen up their acts.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Beware the Mating Hippo

The hippopotamus, if disturbed while mating, is not a happy bunny. Sugar almost learned the hard way, surprising a pair in the act while fishing from his mokoro in Botswana's Okavango Delta. One reared up in front of him, the other bore down from behind.
For a horrible moment or two he thought his time had come but he managed to manoeuvre his canoe into the thick, long grass and the hippos quickly lost interest. Had one gone for him, it could have bitten him in two as easily as if he were a swizzle stick.

He tells me this story as we glide across the inland delta in the brilliant light of early morning. It taught him, he says, to steer clear of the deeper channels, where hippos are more likely to be concealed. They copulate, give birth and nurse their young under water. We have to cross several such channels, however. So I ask him, when is the mating season? “Now”, he replies.

We are on our way to one of the many islands formed as the flood which begins as torrential rain on Angola's Benguela Plateau ends its journey months as a shimmering network of rivers and lagoons in the Kalahari Desert, where most of it evaporates. This year's water levels are among the highest in 25 years.

Sugar is our guide's Anglicised name, English being Botswana's official language. In Tswana is it Sukiri. He has been polling mokoros since he was seven, balancing at the rear like a gondolier. Traditionally, mokoros are dug outs, made using the whole trunk of a tree such as the mopane. But such trees can take 200 years to reach sufficient maturity and the government has been trying to discourage deforestation – so this one is fibreglass.

The delta is a place of intense beauty. Lilies dot its placid surface. Their pads support the chestnut and white African jacana which stalks delicately on feet which evolution has stretched to spread their weight, appearing to walk on water. Hence its alternative name – the Jesus bird. The eye is caught suddenly by a tiny malachite kingfisher, with scarlet bills and flashing blue plumage. Crocodiles slide furtively from view at our approach. Hippos, observed from a respectful distance, feed noisily, on great bundles of grass.

Sunset is a sudden fire, quickly extinguished. We watch it from the waterside bar at Eagle Island before being escorted back to our “tent” by a staff member, in case a dangerous animal has slipped into the camp. Tent is a loose description. It is an en suite thatched hut with a bed under a mosquito net, his and hers wash basins, air conditioning, a phone and a wooden balcony with loungers. This is not for those who feel camping should involve an element of hardship.
The camp is one of three in Botswana run by Belmond Safaris. To reach them we fly overnight to Johannesburg, spending a day there and a night at their sister hotel, the tranquil and luxurious Westcliff, flying north next morning to the small delta gateway town of Maun and completing the journey by light aircraft.

First stop is Elephant Camp, which is outside the delta on the enigmatic Savute Channel, which fills with water every 25m - 30 years or so. It is about due but during our visit it is dust dry and the herds of huge elephants which give the camp its name gather at artificial waterholes.

On an afternoon game drive a keen eyed fellow traveller spots lion tracks and after a long search our guide spots a big male, lazing beneath a bush about 50 metres away. But male lions are the animal equivalents of couch potatoes and this one is true to form. We wait silently for maybe ten minutes in fading light before he deigns to raise his great head, allowing us a proper sighting.

A short flight takes us to Khwai River Lodge, a camp on the edge of the delta. Sitting by the pool there with binoculars alone makes the stay worthwhile. A purple heron waits motionless for the flicker of fish. Red lechwe (antelopes) graze on the flood plain and the inevitable hippos lumber and snort through the long grass just a few metres away.

Excursions with a guide known as KG and his dreadlocked trainee assistant Bob – after Marley, that is – prove even more rewarding. Towards dusk we find our first leopard, a female. slinking cooperatively close in the undergrowth with a cub. She seems totally unfazed by our presence or the clicking of cameras.

Early next morning drive across a rackety wooden causeway into the Moremi Game Reserve, where we sight wild dogs stalking impala. “One of those impala is going to be someone's breakfast”, says KG, but they are too fleet of foot. They show the dogs, their black and white rump M markings – which guides call “bush McDonalds” - and go leaping off among the trees and scrub. The dogs turn their attention to a group of lechwe but are frustrated again as their intended prey splash into a small lagoon and stay there, defying their reluctant pursuers to brave the crocodiles.

Days in camp begin at 6am, with coffee and biscuits delivered to our tent. Then it's a light breakfast at 6.30, of porridge, perhaps or the universal African staple, mealie meal, a game drive and a huge late morning brunch. Mornings are very chilly but by now it is hot and there are three hours or so to relax or swim before afternoon tea and another drive. 

Drinks after dark are served around a fire of mopane wood, which is so hard and heavy it will burn all night. Dinners, under a blaze of stars, are memorable. Besides delicious dishes such as sweet potato soup and Cape Malay chicken curry, we choose warthog stew a

Before each evening drive, evoking shades of colonialism, we are asked to order sundowners. One evening , as we stand by the vehicle watching two hippos scrapping in the river, KG pours an American lady companion an enormous beaker of white wine.
“Now”, he tells her, “you will see pinky elephants”.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared in Scotland on Sunday's Spectrum Magazine