Wednesday, 15 December 2010

A lousy welcome at Gatwick

Competition works for the consumer - right? Arrived last night at Gatwick Airport,under new ownership. Hardly any of the half dozen or so moving walkways, which might have eased the dreary 10 minutes hike from our aircraft's parking stand, were in operation. Our bags appeared on the carousel approximately 45 minutes after we left the aircraft. This correspondent has always been sceptical that breaking BAA's dominance of the London airport system would do much for the poor benighted passenger. Maybe the new owners need more time to improve things. But don't hold your breath,

Praise for easyJet

Praise where praise is due. After we were diverted from Innsbruck to Munich on Saturday conditions which made landing risky at the Austrian airport, easyJet reacted with impressive speed and efficiency. Within an hour of touching down passengers were on their way back to Innsbruck in chartered coaches and given that we had planned a stop of about 30 minutes on between there are our final destination in the Oeztal were arrived, effectively, only about 2hrs 45min behind schedule.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Currency exchange - do the maths

This site's fight against outrageous exchange rates continues. At Heathrow early this month I was offered a miserable US$1.43 to the £ despite the fact that the commercial rate that day was comfortably above $1.50. I've just checked my credit card statement for the trip to find that at least two of my biggest payments in New England had been converted at almost exactly $1.50. In the past I have sometimes thought that life was too short to fuss over how to change sterling or which way to pay bills abroad. No longer. Based on the amount added to my statement in sterling, using a credit card saved me nearly 10%.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Airlines must show extras - pressure builds

A huge head of steam is building up to persuade airlines to show extra charges on travel agents' booking screens. It's easy to see why. Figures out today show Ryanair earned 22.2% of its revenue last year from baggage and other charges - and easyJet earned 19.4%.

The problem is that although you can see those extra fairly quickly if you book on line, High Street travel agents find it more difficult. The aforementioned revenue percentages come from a report by Amadeus, one the major Global Distribution Systems which provide agents with the terminals used for booking.

So far pressure for change has built mainly in the US, where a couple of carriers earn even bigger proportions of their income from ancillary charges.

Many people in the travel business accept that the relatively new practice of "unbundling" - charging a fare for the basic flight and charging extra for anything from check in at the desk to in flight meals - is helping airlines survive in a hostile economic environment

Today the American Society of Travel Agents and the and Business Travel Coalition presented Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood with a letter signed by more than 300 of the world’s largest agents, companies and travel management companies and corporations and by travel associations urging him "to require airlines to fully disclose ancillary fees to all sales outlets in which they participate". Included among the signatories were companies such as McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Merck, Deltek, BASF, Goodrich, Ingersoll Rand, GlaxoSmithKline and Campbell Soup.

Expect that pressure to increase on this side of the Atlantic, too.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Fight the foreign exchange rip off

Sterling creeps up against the US dollar. Yesterday's commercial rate was almost $1.59 to The £. You wouldn't have got that at your bank of course. The tourist rate shown in my morning paper was $1.50. Think about it. Two of you, say, want to spend a fairly modest £1500 on holiday in America. That's the best part of £90 you're handing over just for the privilege of getting your money changed. Come on - join my campaign aganst this blatant rip off.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Leopard restored

To the British Film Insitute, for a screening of the Luchino Visconti's classic The Leopard (Il Gattopardi), which has been restored to its sumptuous glory. If this doesn't make you want to visit, or re-visit, Sicily, I doubt anything can.

I had wondered why this sprawling, slow moving study of political and social change seemed to have vanished from cinema and television. The reason was that it become badly scratched and worn with time. The impressive digital restoration involved over 12,000 hours of manual work.

Now the parched summer interior of Sicily, the choking heat, the architecture, lavish fixtures and furnishings are all sharply defined again. Scenes stick in the mind. The opening shots, moving in on the Prince of Salina's (the eponymous Leopard) seat near Palermo with a light, hot breeze stirring the trees; the morning hunting near the family's palace at Donnafugata, with golden views of the distant hill town (this is not the Donnafugata you will find on Sicilian maps, though Giuseppe Thomaso di Lampedusa, who wrote the magnificent novel on which the movie is based, may have based aspects of his description on it); and of course, the final ball scene, lasting some 45 minutes. Many scenes have your eyes urgently ranging the screen as you try to take in every detail and nuance of expression.

This is not the shorter, dubbed version I saw long ago. It lasts 3hrs 5mins and is in Italian, with sub titles. Burt Lancaster, who took the title role, was apparently third choice after Nicolai Cherkasov, who played the lead in Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky - and Laurence Olivier. He was contracted behind Visconti's back but it turned out to be an inspired piece of casting.

The long solo, wordless scene, shortly before the end, in which the Prince, contemplates his own mortality while studying the deathbed portrayed in Jean-Baptiste Greuze's painting, The Punishment of the Son" is a rivetting tour de force.

The film opens to the public on 27 August at the British Film Institute on the Southbank, the Curzon Mayfair, Richmond Filmhouse, Filmhouse Edinburgh,
Cambridge Arts Picturehouse and the Irish Film Institute in Dublin

Shanghai's Peace Hotel reborn

Shanghai's Art Deco Peace Hotel, long famous for ts aging jazz band, has reopened under the luxury Fairmont banner.

The hotel, on the riverfront Bund, opened in 1929, before the Communist takeover. Its illustrious guests included Charlie Chaplin. George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward, who wrote Private Lives there.

But the Japanese damaged it during their wartime occupation and the city's authorities then neglected it. By the time I visited in the 1990s, mainly to hear the band play its nostalgic mix of jazz and dance swing with an oriental tinge, its art deco glories had become sadly run down.

Now it has been restored, complete with Lalique glass, Italian marble, the sprung dance floor on the eight floor and, of course, the jazz bar.

When it opened it was called the Cathay. It became known as "Number One mansion in the Far East". The hotel had been built to amaze. Original guests marvelled at its advanced plumbing and Shanghai's first electric lift. Bur how could they have foreseen that nearly hree quarters of a century later, their successors would be able to watch "bath side" LCD television screens as they soaked after a hard day?

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Goldtrail collapse - control the knee jerks

The collapse of package tour operator Goldtrail has prompted some predictably ill informed responses.

First: the inevitable complaint that someone should have seen this coming and prevented customers booking right up until the last minute before the company ceased trading.

Think it through. If that had happened,the company would have folded earlier. Obviously more customers would have avoided the frustration of claiming deposits or full payments via the Civil Aviaton Authority's ATOL protection system or from credit or debit card issuers. But,equally, more would have been left without summer holidays.

Even when travel industry leaders and the CAA are aware a tour operator is in difficulty every effort is made to keep it afloat. And if there is no hope of longer term survival the aim is to nurse the company through until the end of summer, when the damage will be less severe.

Which brings me to a second point. So far as I can recall there has been only one other significant collapse in high summer since the Court Line crash in 1974. That is worth noting before those who monitor the financial health of the industry come in for too much vilification.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Flight levy to bail out ash victims?

The Government is considering whether an emergency fund can be set up to cover the hotel bills and other unavoidable expenses of passengers delayed by future ash clouds or other natural disasters.

The money would be raised through a levy on passengers. Ministers have noted that a mechanism for this already exists as part of the ATOL (air travel organiser's licence) system, which ensures holidaymakers are not left out of pocket or stranded abroad when package tour operators go bust, and are understood to have floated the suggestion that this scheme could be widened. But the major trade organisation, ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents) will argue strongly that any new fund should be kept separate.

In either event is is inevitable that such a move would encompass passengers buying scheduled flights independently - they are not covered by the ATOL umbrella - requiring them to pay a similar levy to that already paid by package holiday customers.

A rethink of current consumer protection has been prompted by the inadequacy of existing schemes to deal with the volcanic eruption. Airlines were compelled by EU rules to foot hotel bills of passengers grounded by the ash. But they have complained, with some justification, that those rules were designed to help passengers who are bumped off flights after overbooking or hit by cancellations, and were never intended to cover the huge cost of a crisis which delayed thousands of passengers for several days or even weeks.

British tour firms have called on the Government to reimburse the expenses they incurred looking after delayed customers. ABTA alone is seeking £80 million in compensation for its members. It would rather see a Europe wide scheme to guard against potential repeats. But European legislation is always a slow process – and tour operators themselves recognise that the likelihood of the Treasury refunding all or part of their unforeseen costs against a background of severe cuts in public spending is remote in the extreme.

The ash crisis occurred just as the previous Government and the industry were thrashing out a badly needed reform of the present ATOL scheme, raising the question whether the fund could be extended simultaneously. Some travel industry leaders are concerned that bundling up a new levy with the existing scheme might delay that reform already in the pipeline, which aims to clarify the definition of a package holiday.

Even if Britain took action independently of Brussels the changes could not be made overnight. They would require primary legislation at a time when the coalition's timetable is chock full. And there could be resistance from major scheduled airlines. ABTA is among those in the travel business to have pushed for the inclusion of passengers buying scheduled air tickets in the present ATOL protection scheme. It says that is the only way to simplify a system, designed to reimburse and repatriate customers booking conventional packages from brochures, which has been overtaken by so called “dynamic packaging” - the piecing together of separate holiday elements via the internet. But British Airways, for example, argues its passengers should not pay a levy to bail out people booking with weaker airlines which may be more vulnerable to financial failure.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Unhelpful banking

If there is one current TV campaign that makes my hackles rise it is Natwest's "helpful banking" ad. Helpful banking - and here I generalise for all money exchangers are culpable - would be not offering travellers a rate some 4% lower than the commercial rate to convert sterling into Euros. I emailed Natwest asking what justification they could offer. I await an answer.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Kipling's home and a perfect Sussex walk

A group of French teenagers is touring Batemans, former Sussex home of Rudyard Kipling. I wonder, as with the Japanese and Shakespeare, what they make of a writer so indelibly linked with the last hurrahs of empire.

Then it occurs to me that the Jungle Book - in its Disney adaptation - must have played in France, that Clemenceau, lion rather than tiger, came here to visit - and that in any case, there are fascinations in these rooms whoever their original owner.

The French party is in the dining room, where the Kiplings dressed for dinner, eating bland food in deference to Rudyard's duodenal ulcer but enjoying fine wines. The group's teacher is explaining how he would always sit with back to the window, which didn't much matter as he was myopic. The wallpaper is calf's leather, elaborately decorated according to a Moorish technique, found by the Kipling on the Isle of Wight, rolled up and brought back here.

Upstairs is Kipling's Nobel Prize certificate, the old Imperial his secretary used to type up his manuscripts, the beads on which his Just So alphabet story is based - and the drawing he made of them. There is a diary showing regular visits by the Baldwins and there are mementos of his war graves work, sad reminders that he lost his son in France. All over the house are the books he bought - from local histories to Gibbon's Decline and Fall.

Apart from anything else, it is a most beautiful house, built in the late 17th century and now owned by the National Trust, with wonderful gardens, formal and wild, where at this time of year spring blossom explodes, daffodils, narcissi, ladies smock and snakes head fritillary abound.

We walk from there into nearby Burwash, for an impeccably kept pint of Harvey's bitter and a bite of lunch at the low beamed Rose & Crown. Then we follow the rest of a five mile route included in the Ordnance Survey Surrey and Sussex Pathfinder guide. (Memo to self: must see if there's a more up to date edition. Descriptions are ok but some need revision. At any rate, must not attempt such walks without an accompanying OS map).

The blubells are disappointing but it is an excellent itinerary, the occasional splash of primroses, the light green of early foliage against the darker gloss of meadows - a rich, kind landscape basking under an unusually hot April sun.

The walk takes us past a memorial plaque to a Battle of Britain pilot, RF Rimmer, who crashed there in 1940 after being shot down in his Hurricane. It acts as a sobering elbow jerk, accentuating the peaceful loveliness of a drowsing English afternoon; and that sense of timelessness breathed by an English landscape which has seen the waste of men in the Great War mud, desperate dogfights in the skies, and the passing greatness of Kipling.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Swiss bliss in Wengen

After a fortnight in the Utah Rockies, a chance to renew acquaintance with their antithesis. The peaks above Wengen and Grindelwald could not be more different than the mountains of the American west. Nor could the experince of skiing.

Where the Rockies, for the most part, present a softer profile, the Eiger, Jungfrau and Monch brood behind their curtains of drifting cloud like some great triumvirate, deliberating the fate of mortals below. While mountain eateries in US ski areas are mostly self service and often cavernous, those above the Swiss resorts are more intimate, with waiter service.

On the long, delightful intermediate descent from the Mannlichen to Grindelwald the piste winds past bars and restaurants which - especially on a sunny spring day - seem to defy you to ski past without stopping for a coffee. And when the weather socks in, what could be more warming than a dish of bubbling cheese ad spatzle at the Kleine Scheidegg station restaurant.

Wengen, reached by a spectacular cog railway from Lauterbrunnen, has the feel of tradition. It appeals to UK skiers of a certain age. Snowboarders do not rule here. Aside from taxis, some of which are electric, its streets are blissfully traffic free.

I stayed at the comfortable and very welcoming Wengenerhof,a 5-10 minute walk from the centre, past the spired church with its commanding view of the valley.
Buffet breakfast stretched from bircher muesli to scrambled eggs and bacon. I are dinner there and elsewhere, most impressively at the Baren restaurant, where a rustic menu included sour cream soup and delicious veal with courgettes. I drank apres ski beer at the Tanne and watched a football match at the Rocks bar. While they were hardly sedate, neither presented music at levels which made conversation impossible.

The skiing was as I remembered it - agreeable rather than adrenalin pumping. Big, wide boulevards above the treeline; that marvellous run to Grindelwald for which it was worth tolerating the dreadfully slow ride back on the Mannlichen gondola; the telegenic Lauberhorn downhill course, which serves as an energy sapping through hardly frightening black piste (but watch out you don't hit the narrow passage left and right too fast; and the gentle blue run home to Wengen, partly a winding path through the forest.

I travelled with Inghams, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year

Monday, 1 March 2010

Refusing breakfast won't bring home bacon

A young woman guest came down for breakfast at a hotel in North Wales on Saturday to be told she was too late. It was 9.45 am. Yet this same hotel, clearly battling the twin impact of recession and nasty winter weather, was courting passing trade with a poster offering rooms at £10 a night b&b (provided guests dined in the restaurant). Such deals are all very tempting - but unless they are accompanied by good food and service the customers they attract won't come back. That could be particularly damaging in future economic downturns.Visitors to this site may have noticed that I am not entirely convinced by reports that recession has prompted an increase in "staycations". This sort of contradictory failure to provide flexible service helps explain why.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Evening light in Alta

After a great day's skiing in the Rockies at the Utah resort of Alta the setting sun casts a golden light - matched only by the unseen glow of satisfaction on skiers' faces - across the porcelain white of the mountain rim.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Come on BA - pick up the phone

It's all very well migrating service on line - but there are some problems a traveller can iron out only by direct contact. Before returning from the US last week on British Airways I needed to sort out a seating glitch which could not be resolved via the airline's web site. It took me approximately 40 minutes on the phone from my hotel. There was no obvious reason - such as disruption caused recently by snow in the UK - which might have brought a deluge of inquiries. I spent the best part of 30 minutes just waiting for someone to pick up my call. This is simply not good enough.

Oz visits up

Another sign that the economic crisis has eased? The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show a 5% increase in the number of visitors from the UK in November, compared with the same month in 2008. Iver 12 months to November 30 there was a drop of 2%