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.


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)