Thursday, 17 December 2009

New call to protect air passengers as Scottish carrier founders

The collapse of the Globespan group will strengthen claims that the suggested shake up of traveller protection just put out for consultation by the Department for Transport does not go far enough.

Part of the Scottish group's operations was the airline Flyglobespan, which is thought to have some 3400 passengers abroad in Spain (including the Balearics and Canaries), Portugal, Cyprus and Egypt.and another 90,000 with forward bookings.

While the group's package holiday customers will be repatriated if necessary - and get refunds if they have yet to travel - under the Civil Aviation Authority's ATOL scheme, customers buying only flights may not be so lucky. Those abroad will need to make their own way home, perhaps paying special fares offered by other carriers. Those still to fly should be able to get their money back if they paid by credit card - provided the payment was over £100 - or by some debits cards. Some may have airline insolvency cover in their travel insurance. But many will undoubtedly be left out of pocket.

The Department's consultation document does not suggest extending the ATOL scheme to scheduled airline passengers. It says: "The Government decided against this in 2005 and still believes it would be disproportionate regulation. It might distort competition with foreign airlines and be open to challenge under European law, unless achieved through European legislation. Many airline 'flight only' sales are low cost - but if passengers know their money is unprotected against airline insolvency they can choose to bear the risk or seek protection from a credit card or insurance policy."

There was an immediate demand today that the Government should rethink its position. The trade association ABTA said it had "repeatedly raised the issue of this double standard of financial protection and recommended that airlines be required to offer the same level of financial protection as package tour operators."

This would ensure airline customers would be provided with flights home free of charge or refunds for future bookings if an airline collapsed. ABTA urged both the Department and the European Commission, which is looking into the lack of financial protection for scheduled passengers, to take urgent action.

Mark Tanzer, chief executive said "Once more a bankrupt airline has left customers stranded abroad and out of pocket. The Government must take action so that airline customers are no longer treated as second class citizens and have the same level of protection that tour operators have provided to their customers for over 30 years"

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Flying and global warming - the unknowns

The most striking aspect of the Committee on Climate Change report on the impact on air travel on global warming is the uncertainty of forecasting.

Its underlying premise is that the number of passengers using UK airports could increase by 200%* by 2050. That alone raises many questions? Is the market for low cost flights becoming saturated? How will the demographic of an ageing population and the looming pensions crisis affect demand? Do we have the infrastructure for a massive rise in incoming tourism?

Then there's the issue of how much alternative means of communication could alleviate carbon emissions from flying. They include the impact of video-conferencing on business travel which, says the report, could reduce it by anything from a few percentage points to almost one third.

The potential development of alternative fuels for aircraft is also shrouded in unknowns. How much land will be available for the production of biofuels. How practical will it prove to produce biofuels that would not require agricultural land for growth – such as those base on algae, or grown with water from low-carbon desalination? This “must be considered speculative today”, admits the committee.

In addition there is the impact of other emissions besides CO2 (the committee was not tasked with looking at there – only with gases covered by the Kyoto agreement) such as mono-nitrogen oxides. The report says they are almost certain to result in some additional warming. But in sharp contrast with some of the anti-flying lobby it notes there remains “considerable scientific uncertainty over their precise magnitude.”

These then, form part of the shifting sands on which the committee concludes that demand growth of around 60% would be compatible with meeting the Government's aims of keeping CO2 emissions in 2050 no higher than in 2005.

That could leave room for a new runway at Heathrow, whose impact will in any case be mitigated, if only by about 1,5%, by the reduction in emission from aircraft forced, by congestion, to stack.

It might mean, eventually, an increase in fares as demand is constrained. But suppose technology allows more significant increases in aircraft engine efficiency than the committee predicts – or biofuels represent consumption greater than the committees'aaumtion of 10%. And suppose demand doesn't increase by anywhere near as much as 200% by 2050. Then the impact on travelling habits might not be as severe as some have feared.

*Unconstrained - with no inhibiting penalty for carbon emissions.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Hong Kong hotel boasts six Michelin stars

A positive culinary firmament at the Four Seasons, Hong Kong, which claims to be the only hotel in the world boasting two restaurants with three stars in the Michelin Guide. Its Cantonese restaurant, Lung King Heen, already had three. Now its French restaurant Caprice has been rated similarly.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

CAA battery fire warning

Think twice before ordering or posting lithium batteries and battery-powered devices if they're going top arrive by air. The Civil Aviation Authority says lithium batteries, such as those installed in lap tops or video cameras, rarely pose a safety problem. But there is a danger of fire if they are posted loose or the equipment is inadvertently activated. The CAA has found a growing trend in the transportation of inappropriately packed batteries, partly because of the growth on on line auction sites, which have caused a number of fires. It is also concerned that large numbers of counterfeit batteries, without the necessary inbuilt safety features, are in circulation. The Authority's warning came as part of its pre-Christmas advice which included reminders that matches and lights must not be left in hold baggage and toy gun caps are banned on flights.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Air France unveils cooling off period for economy passengers

Air France is putting its money where its mouth is in the battle against no frills carriers. For a charge of €10 it will allow passengers booking economy tickets on European flights to hold their reservations for ten days. This will enable them to search for a cheaper deal elsewhere. It gets over the problem, encountered by many travellers, of finding a fare that looks attractive, checking what a couple of other carriers are offering - and then finding that the price they looked at first has increased. The French airline will also allow passengers on such flights to request an aisle or window seat without charge. British Airways please note.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Bear watching in Slovenia


Watch brown bears in Slovenia - that's the intriguing offer from a specialist tour operator. Around 600 of them live in the south of the country. And that, says tour operator Just Slovenia, makes for a good chance of spotting them.

It is offering bear spotting excursions between April and August to guests staying at the Villa Lavanda, a traditional Slovene property on the outskirts of Fijeroga, an hilltop hamlet not far from the historic coastal towns of Koper, Izola and Piran, close to Croatia.

With a local guide, guests travel by 4 x 4 vehicle to an observation deck on a forested karst plateau. No children under 10 are allowed on the excursions.

The villa has two double bedrooms, a terrace and pool and is surrounded by vineyards. Prices for seven nights, including flights from Stansted, car hire, accommodation and bear excursion, start from £830 per person, based on four people travelling in June. 

Pressure for holiday protection update intensifies - landmark court judgement

Update (26 November, 2009) The CAA has confirmed it will appeal against the judgement reported below

Pressure for a change in the law on financial protection for customers if holiday firms which go bust has intensified with a landmark London court decision.

A Judge at Westminster Magistrates Court has ruled that on line company Travel Republic was not breaking the law by selling flights, hotels and other holiday components without an ATOL )air travel organisers licence).

Under existing regulations, firms selling packages must take out ATOLs, to ensure customers do not lose money if they go under. The issue before the court was one which has long vexed the travel business and its regulators: what exactly constitutes a package?

District Judge Nicholas Evans ruled Travel Republic was not selling packages as currently defined by law. The firm's customers were free to book a flight or a hotel room from its website or go away and try to find a better deal on either – or both – somewhere else.

He said the Civil Aviation Authority, which brought the prosecution, had failed to prove Travel Republic offered or sold anything other than separate components. Nor had it satisfied him beyond reasonable doubt that the company had made available - to any of the customers named in the charge - flights which qualified as components of packages.

The problem underlying this case is that the present law, drawn up almost two decades ago, is designed to cover traditional, pre-arranged brochure based package holidays sold direct or through bricks and mortar High Street travel agencies. The spread of on line availability, which has prompted more and more holidaymakers to use web sites which allow them marry flights and accommodation a la carte has rendered the law partly obsolete. One area of contention is low cost airline sites where passengers can click through from a home page and book extras – not just hotels but other important service such as car hire. Many observers think such arrangements should always be covered – as they are if you select a flight plus hotel on British Airways' home page, for example.

ABTA ( Association of British Travel Agents) has already proposed a “flight plus” regulation designed to solve the problem. The travel industry is about to embark on a consultation which may persuade the Government to update the law. At the same time the EU is looking at revising the rules which led to present law being enacted. As a result of all this the regulations may be changed to get ride of the requirement that a package must pre-arranged and sold at an inclusive price.

In his decision the Judge noted: “I sense there is a widespread view, held throughout the travel industry, that the current regulations are unsatisfactory”.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Government must reform air duty and financial protection urges senior travel trade figure

The Government should charge air passenger duty on a per plane basis - and sort out the absurd geographical anomalies which mean travellers to the Caribbean pay more than those flying to Los Angeles.

That was just part of a shopping list presented to MPs and Peers at the House of Commons yesterday by Peter Long, chief executive of TUI Travel - which owns Thomson and other tour operating brands.

Long, travel industry elder statesman, also called for the scrapping of next year's planned, further rise in APD and argued that the higher rate should not be applied to premium economy passengers - such as those flying in BA's World Traveller Plus cabin.

Turning to financial protection for consumers he urged Ministers to extend the ATOL (air travel organiser's licence)financial safety net to all passengers buying through interest or High Street retailers - or clicking through to accommodation sites after booking flights.

None of this is without self interest. Package tour charters generally fly fuller than scheduled services. And your operators don't see why they - or their passengers - should have to fork out to support the financial protection system when others get away without contributing.

But he makes perfect sense. Charging APD per plane encourages efficient burning of fuel. There can be no argument that the banding system, based on the distance of a capital city from the UK, badly needs revising (there was some hope this week that the case of the Caribbean islands, which consequently fall into the same band as whole of the US and Canada - including their West Coast cities - might be resolved by the Government. I will not repeat my earlier tirade against the imposition of the higher APD rate on premium economy passengers, which remains grossly unfair.

So far as the ATOL system is concerned there it looks likely the issue of gaps in the protection net may be addressed in a consultation paper due soon from the Department for Transport. Other voices, besides Long's, will then be added to the chorus of support for reform.

The Government got its fingers burnt after last year's Excel collapse when it insisted travellers who were not covered by an ATOL should be repatriated along with those who were, leaving the Civil Aviation Authority - not with 100% success - to bill them for the special fares they agreed to pay at the time.

At a time when every penny counts, the threat that the Treasury might have to stump up after future collapses might just be enough to prod Ministers into action at last. Let's hope so.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Let's hear it for the slow twitch

Skiers of a certain age – take heart. There's reason you can't dazzle in the powder, dance around tight moguls or thread a turbo-charged path between trees - and it's not necessarily lack of technique. It's also got to do with muscle twitch.

Slow twitch muscle fibres deteriorate much later in life than the fast twitch sort, which sprinters rely on. I am indebted for this information to today's Guardian sports section, which provided it in order to explain why female marathon runners improve with age.

I was musing on it while out running today. It will console me when younger runners flash past and next time I take a head plant in new snow. And it will help me cling to the illusion that my performance has nothing to do with ancient body parts, red wine – or a lifelong inability to get my balance right.

Ski Silver Star - British Columbia




A week, to misquote former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, is a long time in skiing. Too long, or so I thought, for Silver Star.

The British Columbia resort merited wider recognition. That much I remembered from a visit some ten years earlier, but that was as far as it went. Somehow the decade or so which had passed since my previous visit had diminished it in my recollection. Would there be enough to sustain my interest, even for the four and a bit days I had booked there last March?


Silver Star's main street

I must have been looking through the wrong end of the memory telescope. Re-acquaintance immediately dispelled such doubts. Even ten years ago Silver Star must have packed enough punch to keep a good skier happy for at least that long; but since then all but one of its chairlifts have been replaced and a whole new swathe of skiable terrain opened. And while I was perhaps correct when recalling that there were few places to eat when skiing was done, that is certainly not the case now.

A little geography: Silver Star is about 45 minutes from the Okanagan town of Vernon, about one hour's flight east of Vancouver, in the interior of British Columbia. The Okanagan is an extraordinary region, full of vineyards and orchards. It enjoys extraordinarily hot summers, when temperatures can reach the upper thirties. Part of it has a desert climate. Even in mid-winter it comes almost as a surprise to find snow at higher altitudes.

There was plenty. About 25 centimetres had fallen two days before my arrival and while a brief return to warm weather had set concrete on unpisted runs, conditions on groomed trails remained good – not least in the mainly intermediate area served by the Silver Woods Express chairlift, which opened only three years ago and is a little lower than the resort centre. Cloud Nine, a blue trail with a section steep enough to jolt anyone in search of a gentle cruise, was in great nick, while the snow between the trees in the black diamond Glade runner was too hard for my old knees to contemplate.

Guided by one of the resort's volunteer "Ski Partners" - they show visitors around the mountain in return for lift passes - we headed out towards the Attridge area on the Ridge Run from the 1915 metre summit. A black run there called Busback recalls the days before the opening of the Alpine Meadows chair, when skiers taking it would catch a shuttle back to base. On clear days the view from the ridge, or Okanagan Lake stretching to a mountain rimmed horizon, is hard to match,

Black diamond expert runs are strictly off limits for these guides but out at Putnam Creek ours pointed me down a couple and suggested I take off on my own.

For challenge seekers, Putnam Creek is Silver Star's jewel. I went swinging down a perfect pitch called Holy Smokes, which had been groomed by winch cat, though better of several precipitous double blacks and foolishly accepted an invitation to take Pipeline, which incorporated a very steep and tricky drop off. Next day I went back for more – Bon Diablo, Larch, and a satisfying work out on Caliper Ridge, where scrutiny from the Powder Gulch chair imposes discipline on wayward technique.

At first glance the resort's appearance is that of a Victorian gold or silver mining town – but it is entirely ersatz, No mining was ever done there, but a property covenant has ensured that houses there have largely conformed to the image. Think the Bates' home in Psycho – but more cheerful. They must be painted, resort services manager Robin Baycroft told me, in at least six colours. The result is a somewhat bizarre patchwork of pastel shaded façades and balconies, some right on the ski runs.

It's odd to think that this, an early example of such themed development, might have been acquired by the supreme creator of the homogeneous resort. According to Baycroft, Intrawest, developer of ski centres from Whistler to Arc 1950, was “sniffing around” Silver Star when it was up for grabs in 2001. The resort was bought, however, by the Schumann family, which owns Big White, not least to avoid that resort having to function in the shadow of such a powerful neighbour.

I had come to Silver Star via two other interior BC resorts – Sun Peaks and Big White. Sun Peaks has expanded, too. Its passionate promoter, Canadian national treasure Nancy Greene, who had just celebrated the 40th anniversary of her gold and silver medal triumphs in giant slalom and slalom at the Grenoble Olympics, showed us over its latest addition, Mount Morrisey. A new chair there leads to a few black runs which are, in local parlance, fairly “gnarly” but serves mainly intermediate territory. Nancy, who still skis regularly with guests, proudly noted how widely spaced trees had been left standing to add interest to these lovely, undemanding runs.

Most of my black diamond runs were above in treeless Crystal Bowl - still served by two tediously slow chairs - which I had missed out on during a previous visit because of poor visibility. For the same reason I had also suffered from a jaundiced but false impression of Big White, which shares a its lift pass with Silver Star. Higher than its stable mate it is famous for its characteristic “snow ghosts” - fir trees on its topmost slopes which storms cloth in frozen snow, creating spectral figures.

Big White had not added much, if any, terrain but was far more extensive than I had thought. Heavy snowfall followed by sunshine produced two of the finest days' skiing I had enjoyed for some time. While relatively few runs here are dauntingly steep there was delicious glade skiing in fresh powder and magnificent, energy sapping black diamond trails from the Powder, Falcon and Gem Lake Express lifts.


"Snow ghosts" in Big White

It was not difficult to take in all three resorts in a fortnight. In good conditions the drive from Sun Peaks to Big White is about 3hrs 30mins and from there to Silver Star takes a little over 2hrs. I enjoyed all three much more than memory had promised and a week in each, I concluded, would pass much more quickly than a week in Westminster.


*This article first appeared in Ski & Board magazine. My itinerary was organised by Ski Independence (www.ski-i.com)

Friday, 14 August 2009

ABTA right to slam APD plan

ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents) is right to slam the UK Government over its plan to levy the highest rate of air passenger duty on travellers booking premium economy seats.

The idea of premium economy - such as British Airways' World Traveller Plus cabin - is partly to provide long haul leisure passengers with a little extra leg room without charging them businss class fares.

The Government's plans will increase APD for all but normal economy class passengers on the longest flights - to Australia for example - to £110 per person from this November and a swingeing £170 from the same month next year. The current rate is £80.

ABTA has accused the Government of reducing consumer choice."In many cases, customers who buy premium economy tickets do so as they need extra leg room due to their size and can’t afford business or first class. However, these customers will pay the same rate of tax as those flying first class."

Monday, 10 August 2009

Price comparisons - treat with caution

I have commented before on the unwisdom of placing faith in holiday price "research". This weekend I spotting a table purporting to show how costs for travellers in the US had fallen as the £ regained some of its strength. It quoted the price of a bottle of beer at a touch under $6 or £3.43 (at last week's exchange rate of £1 = $1.70). Really? As I recalled it even in a US ski resort the going rate for a domestic beer was only about $4. And a quick check on line showed the average downtown bar price of draught or bottled beer at $2 - $3.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Debit cards may provide travel safety net

It was long assumed - until recently - that paying by debit card did not ensure you got your money back if an airline or other unlicensed travel company went bust.

Travellers using a credit cards, on the other hand, were protected under the Consumer Credit Act if they spent over £100.

Now it has emerged that you may, after all, be covered if you pay by debit card - though not under the Act. First evidence of this came to light after last year's XL collapse, when it turned out users of Visa debit cards were protected.

However, it appears holders of other debit cards may also have protection. You need to check the small print of your contract with the issuing bank. If you are covered and do need to claim - you should do so quickly.

And don't take no for an answer. Customer experience after the XL failure suggested some bank staff were unaware of such protection.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Keep your PIN out of sight

Be very careful not to let anyone see your pin when using a bank card. Consumer magazine Which? quotes the case of a Briton who lost over £2,000 stolen within 20 minutes of having his debit card stolen. It says Natwest turned down his fraud claim because his pin was used to withdraw the cash. The bank argued he must have been negligent, and when he appealed to the Financial Ombudsman Service, it also turned down his case.

Which? says card fraud at cash machines increased by 31% between 2007 and 2008, and around £609.9m was lost through card fraud last year. It expects that the Financial Services Authority (FSA, which takes over retail banking regulation in November, will provide more detailed guidance on the evidence that requjired from banks in card fraud cases. Which? will lobby the Authority to ensure that the process is fair and fully transparent for consumers.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

British Airways prunes Gatwick routes

British Airways is to axe flights from Gatwick to Alicante, Palma, Malta, Madrid, Barcelona and Krakow at the start of its winter schedules. It will also switch services to Pisa, Malaga and Gibraltar from Gatwick to Heathrow. The airline will continue to fly from Heathrow to Madrid and Barcelona. It will now operate to Varna, Bulgaria, only in summer.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Star Alliance airlines switch to Heathrow's T1

Five members of the Star Alliance group of airlines have moved from Terminal 2 to the refurbished Terminal 1 at Heathrow. They are Austrian, Croatia Airlines, Lufthansa, SWISS and TAP. The five join other members Air New Zealand, Asiana, bmi, LOT Polish Airlines, South African Airways, United and US Airways who were already operating from Terminal 1. As part of the switch a common Star Alliance branded check in are - used by Austrian, Croatia Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa and TAP - has opened.

Other Star members - Air Canada, Air China, ANA, Blue1, Egyptair, Scandinavian Airlines, Singapore, Thai and Turkish Airlines - will stay in Terminal 3 until 2013

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Two Greek hotel gems

Despite its economic woes. mainland Greece has polished its tourism act to brilliant effect in recent years. Finding a good hotel, once a lottery with the odds heavily stacked against winning, has become much easier.

A recent trip to the Zagori region, in the north west, and the Pelion peninsula on the east coast proved the point. Both the hotels, which I booked after an internet search, turned out to be gems.

Breakfast, often in the past a meagre affair of Nescafe, melba toast and thin orange juice, was perhaps the most vivid reminder of how much things have improved. At the Papaevangelou, in the Zagori mountain village of Megalo Papigo, along with the ham and local cheese there was a mouthwatering array of conserves made by the owner's mother - among them orange, fig, green tomato, strawberry and raspberry - to go with the bread abd croissants.

At the oddly named Lost Unicorn, in the Pelion village of Tsagarada, you could limit yourself to muesli and the most delicious yoghurt imaginable. But Christos Martzos, who runs the place with his English wife Clare, was close to disappointment if guests turned up the chance of a waist expanding start to the day. He had worked in UK hotel kitchens, and produced perfect scrambled eggs and bacon.

And the coffee at both, far removed from the old "zesto Nes", was excellent.

The Papaevangelou, at the end of a rough track has a magnificent view of the mountains:



The hotel:

has 10 rooms (doubles range from £55 - £62 in spring, for example, via booking.com)and 4 studios. We had one of the latter, wood beamed and incorporating a small kitchen, which, also in spring, would cost around £95. There are several superb walking routes close by.

The Lost Unicorn, an elegant converted mansion with lovely bedrooms and ab extensive library, also serves dinner (though not on Tuesday or Wednesday night during our stay. Christos' cooking is outstanding - try the Floriana peppers filled with goat's cheese. If it's warm enough you can dine on the terrace, by the village square which is shaded by a plane tree reputed to be 1000 years old or more.

Idyllic beaches, sometimes empty when we visited in mid - May, are a short drive or energetic walk away:



Rates vary according to season, but in summer - outside the school holiday peak - a week's b&b in a double room will cost around £410 at the current exchange rate.

This is not to claim it is now impossible to stumble on a hotel which is less than satisfactory - but it has become much less likely. Both these were blissful. We could find no fault with either.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Hike the pilgrims' route

Walkers fascinated by medieval pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela are being offered the opportunity to follow the final stages by a UK tour operator.

The eleven day, 100 kilometre hike - with an expert guide - starts in the city of Leon. The operator is Walks Worldwide and costs from £1865, including flights, accommodation and baggage transfer during days on the trail. Departures are on September 4 and October 11.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

ATOL protection - airlines must be included

If, as its chief executive Willie Walsh says, British Airways is in "a fight for survival", what possible objection can the airline have to the extension of the air travel financial protection to cover passengers who simply buy scheduled tickets?

Consumers buying package holidays are already protected by the ATOL (air travel organisers' licence) scheme, which ensures they get their money back - or get home without facing additional expense - when companies go bust. BA itself now offers ATOL protection to customers who take up its offer of scheduled flights plus other elements such as hotels, car hire or theatre tickets.

Why not go the full distance and fall in line with those of us who believe the system should be extended to protect all travellers?

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Could APD rise prompt leg room increases?

Swingeing planned increases in air passenger duty (APD)* raise an interesting question. Might it prove viable for an airline to offer a single class with extended legroom on long haul flights - on the grounds that standard class attracts the lowest duty?

You may recall that the Government had decided to iron out an earlier, similar anomaly which enabled passengers on business class only carriers to pay the lower charge. This move was quickly rendered unnecessary by the demise of the relevant airlines.

But there would be no need to market extra leg room as a carrot for business travellers. Airlines could just sell it as a superior economy. I don't see anything in the plan which relates duty to seat pitch.

Would this business model work? I don't know. But there should be demand, particularly from passengers currently booking seats in premium economy cabins, who would surely be happier to fork out more for extra leg room than pay the extra APD.

*APD will rise in bands from next November - and again from November 2010 - depending on the length of the flight. For economy passengers flying to New York (around 3500 miles), for example is rises from £40 now to £50, then £75 the following year. In premium economy, business or first class cabins it will go up from £80 to £110 and £150. Travellers on the longest flights - eg to Australia or New Zealand - will see the charge increase to £55, then £85 in economy and to £110, then £170 in other classes.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Blocked cash cards - time for action

How often do travellers have to complain before Natwest stops automatically blocking debit cards the moment they are used at foreign cash machines? It is now happening with monotonous frequency.

The bank, to be fair, provides an emergency telephone number which customers can call when it happens. I have used it and it works. But calling is not always convenient - if your mobile phone battery has run down, for example, or if you are in a hurry at an airport.

The computerised system, says the bank, is programmed to respond to "unusual activity". There is a lot of fraud, it says. The aim is to protect the customer. But when does unusual become unusual? Using the card at a different branch of Sainsbury's, in another British city? Elsewhere in the EU? And is it churlish to suggest the purpose, in reality, is to protect the bank?

Surely the system could also be set up to allow customers to record the destinations they are travelling to so that using the card abroad does not automatically trigger an alarm.

Come on Natwest. This is becoming tedious. How about showing some initiative and tackling the issue?

Car rental - another moan

This correspondent has often commented on the problems of car rental. Here's another: I picked up a car recently to be told, as expected, that it should be returned with a full tank to avoid a premium fuel charge. The gauge showed full as I drove away but dipped rapidly. Subsequent observation indicated that, for the car in question, it hovers around the full marker for maybe 100 - 150 kilometres.

I'm not suggesting any deliberate attempt to chisel extra revenue - and even if I though there had been it would be impossible to prove. But the lesson, I suppose, is that you should keep an eye on consumption and if you think you have been provided with less than a full tank to start with, don't be too conscientious about refuelling at the very last service station before returning the car.

Of course, the problem would be solved if car hire firms simply refuelled at normal petrol/diesel prices - or built a small premium into their rates for any inconvenience. But despite improvements in recent years, simplicity is still something they struggle with

Friday, 1 May 2009

Holiday cost comparisons - be sceptical

Another of those meaningless holiday price comparisons which appear every spring - this time from Post Office Travel Services.

Its Holiday Costs Barometer shows prices for a basket of goods in various popular tourist countries, showing, for example, the relative price of a three course meal for two with a bottle of house wine - and a cup of coffee,

But how to compare like with like? Is that £3.83 coffee cited by the barometer in Greece a cappuccino at an outside table on the seafront - or a small, strong Greek coffee which might cost 90 pence. And is that £1.91 coffee in the US a single cup - or the unlimited supply often available for the price?

And how about that three course meal. How can you possibly compare a Greek salad and a moussaka with a French prix fixe? Not to say that one is better than the other - that depends on your taste and mood at the time - just that they are totally different experiences.

Does it matter? In that newspapers tend to report such surveys dutifully - and in that these comparisons may exaggerate the real price of one country vis a vis another, I think it does.

Besides, isn't a fool someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing?

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Many holidaymakers unaware of financial risks survey shows

One in ten travellers wrongly believe they will always get a free flights home if their holiday company or airline goes bust, according to a YouGov survey organised by the Department for Transport.

And 28% percent of assume their travel insurance automatically covers them if they book flights directly with an airline when some policies do not include such protection.

Two thirds (66%) know that if they book an trip with a company holding an ATOL (air travel organiser's licence) they will get their money back and - of they are abroad when the firm goes under - be brought home at no extra cost. But a surprising 30% are unaware of this protection.

Younger people (aged 18-34) tend to have less understanding of their rights and options for financial protection than those aged over 35, the survey found.

It suggests almost one third of holiday travellers could be vulnerable if an airline of other company essential to their trip collapsed. The problem has been made more cut by the fact that so many people - 55% says the survey - now organise their trips on line. They may not realise that when they click through from one site to another - from an airline to a hotel or car hire site for example - they may not be booking an ATOL protected package.

The Government is urging travellers to think more carefully about financial protection. It is offering further advice at www.direct.gov.uk/holidayprotection It has been prompted to concentrate on the issue partly by last year's XL collapse, when Ministers were keen that unprotected travellers should not be left stranded but should be brought home along with those who had travelled under the ATOL scheme provided they repay the cost later. The Civil Aviation Authority, which arranges such bail outs, has been trying to get the money back from these passengers -but it is not always easy.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Holiday protection levy set to treble

The levy to protect package holiday customers from losing money or being left stranded abroad when tour operators go broke should increase from £1 to £3 per passenger, the Civil Aviation Authority proposed today.

In a consultation paper sent to the travel industry it blames last summer's collapse of airline and tour firm XL and the likely downturn in travel.

The XL crash devastated the fund which the levy was designed to establish - and which had only just begun to be built up. Reluctance to travel, partly because of the weak £, looks likely to reduce the amount of cash coming in at a time when the recession threatens to push more tour firms out of business.

The CAA anticipates a decision on the increase from Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon by summer. If it gets the go ahead it will increase the levy from October 1.

The levy is used under the ATOL system to ensure passengers are not left out of pocket and to pay for their repatriation.

The Authority and the Government are also reviewing the still unresolved issue of what exactly should be covered by the ATOL scheme. It is looking at the possibility of exending cover to any flight sold with some other travel do not form part of a pre-arranged package. It may also bring bring into the net holidays by surface transport - such as those including ferry travel.

But one problem is that some changes may need primary legislation. It is hard to see Government making passenger protection a priority with the country still deep in recession and a General Election looming unless there are votes in it.

And the whole vexed issue of consumer protection for leisure travels remains so labyrinthine that it is unlike to make the most compelling of campaign material.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Mobile phones as boarding passes

A system allowing passengers to use mobile phones as boarding passes is being tested

Travellers use phones carrying their frequent flyer information and fitted with short range wireless communication technology. This recognises them and provides an electronic boarding pass when they swipe it across a reader in the terminal.

The service is available to members of frequent flyer schemes operated by the airport and Air France travelling on the Nice - Paris Orly route. The trial is a joint iniative between the airport, the airline, computer reservations giant Amadeus and hardware provider IER.

Its backers claim the system works even when a phone is switched off or out of battery power.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Time to cut exchange rate profits

Do not pass up any opportunity to whinge to your bank about the iniquity of tourist exchange rates.

Yesterday the official rate was almost €1.14 to the £. The Guardian newspaper's tourist rate table this morning showed "bank sells" at €1.07. That's a charge of about 6% on the transaction. And when you wanted to cash in any unspent Euros, banks were buying them at €1.18

When tour firms, airlines and hotels are hit by recession they respond by offering better deals. Not the money changers. Cutting the percentages would encourage spending and keep more people in tourism jobs. It would also go a little way towards raising our credit crunch jaded spirits.

At a time when everyone is feeling the pain - how about a little less profiteering?

Car hire - excess excess

Renting a car for a forthcoming trip I am offered extra insurance of €20 a day to wipe out a potential €650 excess on the cost of any damage. I need the car for 13 days, so at the current exchange rate that's roughly £240 to cover a possible loss of £585. Further comment is unnecessary.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Free helmet offer for skiers and snowboarders

Tour operators Ski Dream and Made to Measure are offering free helmets as an incentive to early bookers for next winter.

The helmets, which would usually retail for around £50 are available to customers booking by June 10. They will be provided for each member of a group booking, including adults and children.

Meanwhile, as a further riposte to those who question the efficacy of helmets, I am in full agreement with my ski writing colleague Peter Hardy when he notes: "It amazes me that the once-a-year skier who wouldn't contemplate sitting on a horse or riding a bike down a country lane without wearing a helmet, is prepared to whizz around crowded runs in Méribel or St Anton with just a headband, hat or beanie for brain protection."

Thursday, 26 March 2009

New London - Nantes flights

Heading for the Loire Valley or La Rochelle? New flights from London City Airport to Nantes take off on April 27.

The service will be operated by VLM in cooperation with parent Air France - UK and CityJet, a subsidiary of the French carrier.

Flights from the Docklands airport will depart at 8.25am arriving at 11.10am on weekdays and Saturdays, and at 5.45pm - arriving 8.30pm on - weekdays and Sundays. Flights from Nantes will leave at 7.45am arriving at 8.30am on weekdays and Saturdays, and at 5.30pm - arriving at 6.15pm on weekdays and Sundays.

The beauty of London City, of course, is that you can check in as late as 20 minutes before departure (15mins with hand luggage only) and be out of the airport in under 30 minutes delay on your return.

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Cool response to travel cliches

There's nothing quite like travel promotion to get the cliches flowing. Here are a few pet hates.

Nothing and nowhere should ever "nestle"; eg "a pretty village nestling in the heart of the Tirol".

"Shop 'til you drop" has been so over used it's got holes in its soles.

If, in relation to music related holidays, I read the words "all that jazz" again, objects may be hurled at the computer screen.

And then there's "cool". In recent months I have read that even camping and caravaning have "got cool".

Spare me.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Fewer bags go missing

The amount of checked baggage delayed, damaged or pilfered dropped by over a fifth last year, according to SITA, the air transport communications and IT specialists.

It says the total number of "mishandled" bags fell to to 32.8 million from 42.4 million bags in 2007.

Improvements in systems are part of the reason. It is also likely that new airline charges for checked baggage, notably in the US, have persuaded more passengers to fly with carry on bags only.

The figures cover a year when passenger numbers worldwide showed hardly any growth but before the recession began to drive travellers away.

SITA operates WorldTracer, an automated system for tracing missing bags which is used by over 440 airlines and ground handling companies worldwide. Last year the WorldTracer database showed a mishandling rate of 14.28 bags per thousand passengers worldwide, compared to 18.86 per thousand in 2007.

The vast majority of these bags were returned to their owners in less than 48 hours and only a small fraction - 0.32 bags per thousand passengers, or 736,000 bags, - failed to show up at all. That compared with 0.57 per thousand passengers, or 1.28 million bags the previous year.

SITA claims this improvement reduced industry losses by some £550 million last year.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Case for ski helmets is cut and dried

The lesson from the tragic death of Natasha Richardson is clear: wear a helmet on the ski slopes.

There is as yet no evidence to indicate whether the actor would have survived had she been wearing one. It has also been argued that widespread helmet use in North America has not cut the death rate among skiers and snowboarders, though the numbers are in any case so small as to make that argument unconvincing.

But there seems little doubt that helmets, which are still less prevalent in Europe, reduce the risk of serious head injuries in collisions or the kind of whiplash fall where the back of the skier's head strikes the ground.

Helmets are comfortable, they don't get soaked and cold in snowstorms - and I do not accept that they affect your ability to hear approaching skiers and boarders.

As to the suggestion that they encourage more reckless behaviour, that smacks of another argument advanced this week - that the availability of condoms encourages promiscuity. Neither view should be taken seriously.


Monday, 9 March 2009

Action needed to speed up airport baggage collection

Tough new measures must be introduced to prod airlines into cutting he time they take to deliver bags to arriving passengers.

That is a key conclusion to be drawn from a report published today by the Civil Aviation Authority on passengers' experience at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester airports.

While a recent survey by the Authority found 75% of travellers waited less than 20 minutes, an unacceptably large proportion (16% - or nearly one in six) waited for 21 – 45 minutes and and unlucky 4% had to hang around for even longer.

Passengers at Stansted or those flying with a no frills airline were most likely to receive their bags in less than 20 minutes. More passengers travelling through Heathrow said that baggage
reclaim was what they liked least about the airport (10 per cent as compared with
seven per cent at other airports).

Typically, airport operator BAA provides the facilities for baggage despatch and collection, while airlines do the handling themselves. This means delivery times to carousels are not covered by the “service quality rebate scheme” under which carriers get money back from BAA if its performance is not up to scratch.

Today;s report says and inconsistencies in baggage data shows that its handling is not as closely monitored as required.: It adds: “BAA found it difficult to influence the airlines to improve their performance on baggage delivery and voiced concerns over the lack of incentive airlines have to improve baggage delivery as compared with the pre-departure experience (where punctuality is a major airline concern).”

BAA agreed that procedures could be developed to improve baggage delivery standards and that its own records of baggage delivery reports should be improved.

One way to ensure passengers were not made to endure horrendous delays after sometime long flights would be to penalise airlines (or airport operators if the hold ups were deemed to be their fault). Another would be to force them to compensate their customers

Friday, 6 March 2009

Brits still want to get away despite economic gloom

With the economy in deep freeze and the £ still weak against the Euro and the US$, should you book your summer holiday soon or is it worth hanging on for a bargain? holiday.

Most tour companies agree that more customers will leave it late to commit themselves this year. There will certainly be more price cuts than usual, not least because airlines continue to suffer and some overseas hoteliers have responded to the crisis by offering operators better deals.

But deciding when to book remains a fine balancing act. Latest intelligence from the travel industry suggests that despite the steady drip of gloomy news, British consumers are less likely to relinquish their holidays than they were last summer - before the trickle of gloomy news became a torrent.

A survey carried out last month by PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that 17% intended to take fewer holidays this year, compared with 21% when the same question was asked last July. Then, one in five said they would axe holidays altogether, compared to 16%.

Six months ago, 17% said they would take a cheaper holiday in the same location, compared to 13% in February. Meanwhile the proportion who said they would not be cutting back at all on this year’s holiday plans had risen from 12% to 15%.

It is also worth remembering that major tour operators have pruned capacity severely in expectation of slower business. So I repeat my earlier warning: do not linger so long that you find you cannot get what you want.

Watch travel websites to see whether prices start to rise. Watch the weather - because nothing will fuel desire for summer sun so much as a cold wet spring. My guess is that, come May or early June, there will be a late rush to escape.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Travel agents to nip holiday grumbles in the bud

Managers of High Street travel agencies operated by Thomson and First Choice are to be empowered to resolve all but the most complicated customers gripes - nipping them in the bud without referring them to their central complaints department. Since a commonly cited cause of problems is failure to sell the right holiday to the right customer in the first place the results of this policy will be interesting.

Monday, 2 March 2009

In sunshine or on plateaux - walking in la France profonde

For walkers, small town French tourist offices can be a precious source of information. Ask staff to recommend a route and invariably - sometimes for a nominal sum, sometimes free - they will provide a leaflet with details of a suitable ballade.

If you catch them open, that is. They keep frustratingly bureaucratic hours. Hoping to make an early start you seek one out after breakfast, only to learn it doesn't open until 10am. Arriving somewhere in time for an afternoon walk you find they won't be back from their midday break until 3pm. On Sundays they may not open at all.

At Mezieres-en-Brenne we sneaked under the wire. Staff could already smell lunch but before they locked the door they came up with a neatly laminated map. It was just as well, for the area was new to us. Our decision to detour there had been made on a whim. The sun was shining, we had bought a picnic of fresh goat's cheese from a farm and pork rillettes from a market stall and we didn't fancy wasting any more of the day driving.

The Parc Regional de La Brenne, is an hour or so south of Tours in the Loire Valley and west of the autoroute from Paris to Limoges. We had driven there from Dover after a crossing with P&O Ferries from Dover, stopping for a couple of nights not fare from Amboise (see earlier blog: French hotel pick: the Loire). You could go straight there in a day from Calais but you would need to catch an early ferry.

The park is a mozaic of glittering lakes, man made in the Middle Ages, widely used for fish farming and more recently recognised as an important wetland complex, rich in birds, among them egrets, bitterns and marsh harriers. It is tranquil, magical and a little mysterious.



Armed with the tourist office map we found the start of an itinerary which skirted the Etang de Piegu. We could have sat at its margin for hours, watching a distant heron and a huge flock of fitful lapwings, but dinner called, with a cassolette - a mixed haul from the lakes including crayfish and carp - back at the 17th century inn where we spent the night.

At Nasbinals, much further south in the Departement of Lozere we missed the boat. Lunch was already well advanced. If we waited for the tourist office to reopen there would be no time for a worthwhile afternoon walk. A different solution emerged, however. This is one of an apparently increasing number of towns erecting information boards showing the length of hikes and the their colour codes. Follow the markers with care and you can dispense with a map altogether.

Nasbinals lies on the on the causse, or plateau, of Aubrac.



The plateau is high, sometimes windy and cold enough in winter for skiing. In spring, garlanded, long horned cattle are driven up from the valleys, an annual transhumance ritual watched by thousands of sightseers. We picked an itinerary which took us around 3hrs 30mins and finished, intoxicated by sweeping views, in time to drive down to the Lot Valley where we had booked into an auberge in the lovely riverside town of Estaing.

Next morning we dropped into the tourist office in nearby Espalion and were provided with details of several walks, including on of 5hrs 30mins which took us on long climb back to the same causse on one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela.



As we headed up we were passed by a steady trickle of modern day pilgrims heading down, going all or part of the way to Spain. The route started and ended in St. Chely d'Aubrac, the stones of whose narrow, medieval bridge have been worn by centuries of worshippers. It is worth standing there for a moment to consider them, carrying the scallop shell symbol of St. James, penitent or merely curious, anxious to register credit for a comfortable afterlife or perhaps even journeying as mercenaries, paid to make the trip on behalf of those seeking to buy their escape from the divine naughty step.

But on most walks we encountered hardly another soul. Thus it was above Meyrueis in the Cevennes, where where we followed an airy track along the limestone rampart of the Causse Mejean.



Northward lay a grassy plateau grazed by sheep whose milk is used to make Roquefort and other blue cheeses. The the south the ground fell away to a valley, rising again as thickly wooded slopes. As we rested in a sort of rocky theatre box a hawk, targeting some unseen prey below the rocky lip, plunged only a few feet over our heads, wings swept back, like a heat seeking missile. Griffon vultures circled low, as if checking us out.

Meyrueis, is an atmospheric little town, with a photogenic sweep of old terraced houses, built at the eastern end of the spectacular Jonte gorge. It is a superb walking base – but that was not the only reason we stayed there longer than intended. Daniel Lagrange's cooking at the Hotel de Mont Aigoual was consistently stunning. On the first evening they brought me duck instead the dish I had ordered. It was a happy mistake. The duck breast, cooked a point, or medium rare, and accompanied by an intriguing little compote of pineapple and ginger, was tender and delicious. Whether it was a starter of snails or a main course of guinea fowl or lamb cooked for seven hours, the magnificent local cheeses, a trio of sorbets enlivened by slivers of citrus peel or the home made plum jam for breakfast, nothing disappointed.

The local Office de Tourisme provided another reason to linger, a whole folder full of walks, modestly priced and clearly described (in French, though fellow hikers said they had been offered the same in English) and designed as a series of separate leaflets). And for the record, it opens at 9am.

(This article appeared in Scotland on Sunday's Spectrum magazine)

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Friday, 27 February 2009

Laugh? I nearly....................................

Ryanair to charge passengers to use the on board toilets? You can see why print advertising revenue is down if it's this easy to get a free mention. Michael O'Leary must have laughed so hard he had to press the call button.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

New design hotel to open in Acapulco

Acapulco's recent renaissance continues next month with the opening of a newly revamped design hotel. Fittingly, it has a Hollywood connection.

The resort, on Mexico's Pacific coast, had become a time worn place which had seen better days. A couple of decades ago it could best be described as seedy but fascinating, its appeal resting on images of the showbiz stars who flew there for R&R. Say the word and Frank Sinatra - with the rest of the Rat Pack - would beat the birds down to Acapulco's magnificent bay.

The Hotel Los Flamingos became an exclusive bolt hole for John Wayne, who bought it in 1954 with a group of friends Johnny Weissmuller and Errol Flynn, using it to entertain the likes of Richard Widmark and Roy Rogers.

As the glamour faded the celebrated divers who plunge into a roiling sea from its high cliffs of La Quebrada, scampering back up like geckos to collect tips from watching tourists, continued to provide a spectacle etched on the mind.

The hotel re-opening in March is the Boca Chica, which was once favoured by Rita Hayworth. Scenes from The Lady from Shanghai, in which she starred and which was made by her former husband Orson Welles, were filmed there.

It has been been made over by Mexico's Grupo Habita, which is attracting a growing reputation for stunnning "design" hotels, including properties in Mexico City and Playa Carmen. The Boca Chica has been redesigned from top to bottom - and all its 36 rooms have a private terrace or garden.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Cash machines in the US - a warning

Travellers to the US who plan to use cash machines - beware. Debit card withdrawals may be blocked by your bank.

My Natwest card ceased to function after I had withdrawn about $140 from ATMs in Colorado last month. The explanation from the bank's security and fraud department was that its system had detected an "unusual" pattern of withdrawals.

No account was taken of the fact that I am a frequent traveller, that a couple of small withdrawals in January, in a ski resort, were perhaps not very unusual, or that, on this occasion, my wife was using her card to access a joint account - making it extremely unlikely that cloning had occurred.

However, there is no reason to doubt the Natwest's claim that cloning is a major risk in the US, which lags behind the UK and those other European countries where chip and pin technology has been introduced. Its rationale is that its system was designed to protect its customers from being cleaned out.

One bank employee - I spoke to several - said an attempt had been made to contact me, though clearly, unless my calls were being diverted I could not have answered as I was out of the country. And I had not provided the bank with a mobile number.

Whichever bank you use, it is worth checking whether there is anything you can do to head off the inconvenience. Natwest says I should carry its emergency telephone number with me in future - I can reverse the charges if I need to call - so that I can get my card unblocked.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Beware the exploding deodorant

A British holidaymaker tells me she needed hospital treatment after a roll on deodorant exploded following a long haul flight.

The ball flew out and hit her in the eye. She was also affected by the accompanying chemical spray. The woman had crossed the Atlantic and had just arrived in a high ski resort.

I have not heard of such a thing happening before. However, though sealed items can be affected by pressure imbalance at altitude, and the incident suggests caution when opening them is prudent.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Why do hotels play hide and seek?

When it comes to hotels design should not triumph over practicality. A colleague describes searching for an hour before finding the boutique property he had booked in Venice. He had arrived in the small hours, just before Christmas, after being delayed by a flight diversion.

He tried to phone the hotel for directions but it was on voice mail. A Venetian with satnav on his mobile phone generously came to his aid - but while the technology located the hotel, there was no name on its outer doors nor any other indication that this was the right place.

Eventually my colleague, fearing he might be disturbing a private resident at 3am but by this time cold and annoyed, plucked up courage and rang the bell. It was indeed the hotel.

I have had a similar experience in London - though not in such discomforting circumstances. It is time designers realised that while making hotels and restaurants hard to find may appeal to customers who cherish exclusivity, to the rest of us it is just plain irritating.