Thursday, 22 December 2011

IAG deal reflects runway squeeze

Why has the International Airlines Group agreed to pay Lufthansa £172.5 million for British Midland*? Take off and landing slots at Heathrow, that's why. And while that's not immediately bad news for passengers it may prove to have been a symptom of higher fares to come. The deal brings IAG, which includes British Airways, slots for 56 extra round trips and day. Slots are precious because the Government has set its face against the building of another runway at the airport. I'm not being judgmental but you can't have it both ways. Either you expand airport capacity to keep pace with demand or you pay more, eventually, to fly.

*The agreement leaves Lufthansa the option of selling BMI Regional and low cost bmi baby separately

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Currency deal misses main target

The agreement by banks to scrap the fees they charge travellers who use debit cards to buy foreign currency in the UK – announced by the Office of Fair Trading today – misses the bull's eye. It will do nothing the reduce the huge gap between the rates offered to individual travellers and the commercial rate. Today, for example, you might have received €1.14 to the £, though the commercial rate was over €1.19 – a difference of 4.3%. Agreement to scrap charges, typically between 1.5 and 2% for credit cards purchases in the UK was reached with Lloyds/HBOS, Barclays, RBS/Natwest, Santander and the Co-operative Bank. Together with other card companies they have promised to provide clearer information on charges to customers buying currency abroad. The agreement was secured by the Office of Fair Trading after a super complaint by Consumer Focus. A spokeswoman for the OFT said the gap between rates had not been part of its investigation. It had tried to ensure travellers could make clearer comparisons between foreign currency providers, not least when they advertised 0% commissions. The OFT found that last year travellers spent around £32 billion abroad - of which £27 billion was holiday spending, That total included currency bought before departure and spending on cards while abroad. It resulted in estimated revenue of £1.1 billion for UK travel money providers.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Cathay to launch premium economy

Good news for long legged travellers who don't want to pay the full whack for business class. Cathay Pacific is the latest airline to launch a premium economy cabin on its long haul flights. Seats will have six inches more leg room than those in economy. They will also be wider and will recline further and will be equipped with 10.6in entertainment screens and laptop power points. Passengers will be able to connect personal devices and view content on the screens. The new class will be available for booking from March and the first flights equipped with the seats will take off in April. The airline plans to have fitted them on 87 aircraft by the end of 2013. They will appear first on services between its Hong Kong base and Sydney, Toronto, Vancouver and New York routes. Next will come those to London,other European cities, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the rest of Cathay's long haul network.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Worldwide live TV on Gulf Air

Gulf Air says is has launched the first jet with worldwide live television reception. Programmes will include coverage of Barclay's Premier League matches. The aircraft is an Airbus A300-200 which has been retrofitted with the latest communications equipment developed by the Panasonic' Avionics Corporation. The technology also provides passengers with in flight broadband internet access and mobile phone connections.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Holidaymakers rank safety, financial security above price

Travellers value personal and financial security above low prices when booking holidays, according to a survey by industry organisation ABTA. Asked to rate essential or important elements of a trip, 86% cited safe and secure accommodation and 79% listed financial protection of any sort – with 74% specifying the ATOL (air travel organiser's licence) scheme. Almost as many (74%) cited membership of ABTA. Knowledgeable staff at travel companies were mentioned by 67%. The fact that a company offered the lowest prices was crucial to a surprisingly small 53%. The figures emerged from ABTA's 2011 Consumer Trends Survey, which also found that the UK was regarded as the most “family friendly” holiday destination by those aged 55 or over.

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Thursday, 29 September 2011

Travel agents confused by consumer protection

More than a quarter of travel companies gave customers flawed information about financial protection in a “mystery shopper” probe. In 18% of cases the callers were given inaccurate details and in a further 10% the information dished out was potentially misleading. The survey was conducted by Which? Travel. Its researchers called High Street travel agents and on line and traditional tour operators. Only in three instances were they told without asking whether their payments were protected if a company they were booking with collapsed and whether they would be repatriated if it happened while they were abroad. And only 34% gave a good explanation of what was covered and by who”. The survey was carried out as the Government worked out final details of shake up in protection for air holidaymakers which is intended to extend cover for travellers buying flights and other key holiday elements – such as accommodation – separately rather than as part of a conventional package.

Oman gets new boutique hotel

A new boutique hotel has opened in Oman. The Sifawy is on the coast at at Jebel, less than an hour's drive from the capital, Muscat. Its backdrop is the Hajar mountain rang. The hotel has 55 rooms and suites, all with private balconies. It Marina Suites come with private butlers. Besides a large pool there is an ourdoor Jacuzzi and a fitness centre and a beachside restaurant, which serves locally caught seafood.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Currency exchange charges investigated

The Office of Fair Trading is to investigate charges imposed by banks and other currency exchanges for changing money abroad. The move follows a “super complaint” from watchdog Consumer Focus, which believes a mix of complex fees and poor or misleading information means travellers are paying too much. It says charges for using debit or credit cards overseas are unnecessarily confusing for consumers. They vary significantly and make it difficult for people to establish the full costs and shop around for better deals. Cash withdrawal fees imposed by banks and credit card providers on customers using plastic to buy travel money in the UK do not reflect costs. Consumer Focus says debit and credit card payments cost an average 9p and 37p respectively to process but typical charges to customers are 1.5% - 2% of the amount withdrawn, up to a ceiling of £4.50. And offers of “0 per cent commission” can be misleading as the rate m ay include a mark up to reflect the supposed saving. Mike O'Connor, Consumer Focus's chief executive says: “Almost half of us travel abroad every year and we face a confusing array of often hidden charges every time we buy currency. Converting £500 into euros can cost from under £10 to over £30 depending on where you switch your money. This is a huge difference for essentially providing the same service and typically banks offer the worst deals.”

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Staycations? Beware the stats

Beware tourism statistics. According to a newspaper report, research shows UK seaside resorts are enjoying a huge bounce, with visits up 16% in two years. This is taken as a symptom of the “trend” towards so called for staycations. But according to the Great Britain Tourism Survey the number of domestic overnight trips to the seaside fell last year by 11% - representing a big reversal of fortunes on the previous year. You pays your money and takes your choice. But as I have noted previously, despite the weakness of sterling against the euro the boom in staycations is mostly myth.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

French holiday leaves sour aftertaste

Great holiday – shame about the aftertaste. Our pleasant memories of a summer break in France have been soured by an extraordinary letter from the owners of the house we rented.The property was in Charente, not far from the Cognac vineyards. It was superbly maintained and equipped and, fair to say, not unreasonably priced. We rented it for a week with our son and daughter in law and two small granddaughters. We liked it so much that on the drive home we discussed a repeat booking for next year – this time for for two or three weeks.I had paid a £200 security deposit. The owners warned, unsurprisingly, that there would be a charge if the place was not left clean and tidy. And so it was. But they deducted £50 from the deposit, claimed, ludicrously, that it took two of them three hours to render the property fit for the next guests and that it would not have been ready for those guests had they not been late – even though they were not scheduled to arrive for six hours after we departed.

The catalogue of justification from the owners was mind boggling. OK, hands up, we may have missed a couple of things in the scramble to get out with kids by the 10am deadline. We did forget to clean the gas barbecue and there might have been the odd wine stain somewhere (though not on anything which couldn't have been wiped clean in a flash). And we did forget to mention breaking a small, very cheap wine glass, a slip about which I immediately emailed and apologised on return. But to suggest there was food and crumbs through the ground floor, when we had vacuum cleaned and mopped, was fatuous. And fingers marks on top of the TV? Do me a favour.

We didn't care about the £50, even if we did feel it had been deducted under false pretences. But we were upset and outraged by the pettiness of it all. You'll just have accept on trust the truth of what I write. However it is worth noting that we have rented upwards of 30 self catering properties for holidays over the years – the latest before this a lovely house on a lake in Maine (north east US) – and have never hear a whisper of complaint.

The question we asked most often as this nastiness festered in our minds was: how do they ever expect to get any repeat business. We would have reurned. We would have told our friends and relatives. Though they weren't to know this, I would have given them a glowing testimony. All lost. We remain bewildered.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Annoying extras earn airlines billions

How much money do airlines make out of those irritating extra charges for anything from checked bags to advance seat selection? New research shows that last year 47 of them earned a collective €15.11 billions – an increase of 38% over 2009 and almost double the total in 2008. It may not surprise you that These extras are known in the industry as ancillary revenue. When this is calculated as of as a percentage of total revenues airline flying from the UK figure prominently. Irish carrier Ryanair was third biggest earner among the airlines surveyed, making 22.6% of its income from ancillaries. was fourth with 22.1%, easyJet sixth with 19.2% and Flybe ninth with 15.7%. US airline Southwest, the grandfather of low cost carriers, was way down the list at 4.3%. But when it comes to extras per passenger beat its UK based rivals out of sight, earning €24.20 for every e more obvious cash cows such as sales of in flight food and drink. ticket it sold. Flybe and easyjet made €14.84 and €13.42 respectively. Surprisingly Ryanair earned only €10.90 per customer. One important footnote: the report, conducted by Wisconsin-based IdeaWorks and published by the computer reservations giant Amadeus, notes that they can include advertising sales, commission on hotel or care rental bookings, the sale of frequent flyer points to partner companies and other non fare income as well as the more obvious cash cows such as sales of in flight food and drink.

Monday, 11 July 2011

New hotel in Porto

Porto has a new luxury hotel. The InterContinental Porto-Palacio das Cardosas, which has just opened, is housed in a 200 years old palace on the city's main Liberdade square. It incorporates the Cafe Astoria – replicating the cafe which was part of the palace's ground floor at the start of the last century – with an outdoor terrace where guests can drink coffee and eat pastries. The hotel has 105 bedrooms, 16 suites, a gym and a “wellness centre”. Porto, Portgual's second city, lies on the Douro. Among its attractions are tours and tastings in the great Port lodges such as Sandeman, Cockburn and Taylor's.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Major tour firm offers skiing in Russia

Britain's biggest ski holiday operator, Crystal, is to offer packages to Sochi in Russia, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics for the coming season. Skiing there is on the slopes of three nearby resorts: Gazprom - as in the oil giant - Rosa Khutor and Mountain Carousel. Watch out for details in Crystal's new brochure, due to be published later this month

Friday, 24 June 2011

Skiing on the longest day

With Wimbledon in full swing - this was skiing on the longest day. Former British Olympic racer and Ski Sunday presenter Martin Bell skied on Monte Rosa in Italy's Aosta Valley. With a photographers and two guides he was dropped by helicopter at 6.15am at Punta Gnifetti, the temperature -25 degrees. The skied over 1200 vertical feet towards the Col du Lys - more than you could manage in some resorts in mid-winter. "We were so lucky to get the most beautiful morning to take on this challenge", said Bell. "Bad weather at the weekend had laid down some fresh snow but strong winds had packed this down into tough, icy ridges. But the views made up for the poor snow. We were actually looking down on the Matterhorn to the north and to the south there was an almost sheer drop all the way down to Alagna - Gressoney's sister resort".

Monday, 13 June 2011

Travel stats - a minefield

Foreign travel is up as Brits tire of staycations, trumpets the Independent. More of us went abroad in the February – April quarter compared with the same three month last year, official figures show. Consumer confidence is returning. Ah what a minefield are travel stats. Remember a little black cloud of volcanic ash? And even if your memory won't stretch that far you might just recall the extra Bank Holiday last month.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Don't get caught out on Portugal's motorways

Planning to drive in Portugal? You now need an electronic device loaded with pre-payment on some sections of motorway. Temporary devices are available for €27 and top it up with deposit of €10 payments which expire after 90 days. You can get it at motorway service areas or post offices. If you're renting a car, best check whether it is fitted with such a device already. Alternatively you could just avoid the following stretches:

Norte Litoral - A28: Auto-estrada do Litoral Norte (Littoral North-highway - between Porto and Vilar de Mouros/Caminha)

Grande Porto - - A4: Porto/Amarante-highway (between Matosinhos and Águas Santas); A41: Circular Regional exterior do Porto (Porto Regional Outer Circular); A42: Alfena-Lousada-highway

Centro - A17: Littoral Center-highway (between Mira and Aveiro); A25: only on the sections between Esgueira and Angeja (Aveiro area); A29: Auto-estrada da Costa de Prata (Costa de Prata highway between Estarreja and Vila Nova de Gaia).

Monday, 30 May 2011

On loon lake

Schoodic Head

“Acadia”, said the man who served us at the Ellsworth outdoor equipment store, “is a hikers' paradise”. As we climbed the Cannon Brook Trail on a brilliant late summer morning it was impossible to disagree.
The path wove back and and forth up the steep course of the brook, which danced and sparkled in the morning sunlight. Boulders provided stepping stones. Towards the top, where the water slid like molten glass over smooth pink granite, we rested on a rock shelf and lunched sumptuously on crab meat rolls, freshly prepared at a roadside sandwich bar on our way there.
Later we toiled up the south ridge of Cadillac Mountain, across a windy, rocky gradient where even the stunted pitch pine petered out, drinking in huge views of distant islands. On the crowded summit, feeling smugly superior, we mingled briefly with the sedentary classes who had driven up before picking our way down the east face.
Acadia is in the New England State of Maine. It was the first National Park east of the Mississippi. Linked by a bridge to the mainland it lies mostly on an Atlantic island shaped like a giant baseball glove. Its bare granite upper reaches prompted the French explorer Samuel de Champlain to name this body of land Mount Desert Island. Cadillac - in the nineteenth century a cog railway carried sightseers to the top - is the highest of its several mountains.

On Cannon Brook Trail
While the name Acadia comes from the French La Cadie, itself a corruption of a Native American trem meaning “the place”, Cadillac has a more curious provenance. Another early French arrival gave himself the phoney title Sieur de Cadillac, after a village near his former home in Gascony. His equally spurious coat of arms forms the basis of the crest which now adorns the bonnet of the eponymous, luxury car.
You can stay close to the main part of the park, in bustling Bar Harbor, for example with its many shops and restaurants. We chose to rent a property about an hour's drive to the north. The process of renting was remarkably smooth and although we harboured inevitable concerns that the images sent on line by its owners might have flattered to deceive, reality, if anything, proved the reverse.
Summer home owners in this neck of the woods, where early vacationers became known as “rusticators”, lean towards the diminutive. Thus the house was called a “cottage”, though it had five bedrooms, two bathrooms, an enormous downstairs sitting room. Separated from a well equipped open plan kitchen by a breakfast bar. And the lake on which it sat was a “pond”, though it measured some five miles by 1½. Shortly before we arrived, temperatures had hit record highs, soaring above 32C . so it was no surprise that the water was comfortably warm to swim in.
View from the house
Some mornings a resident pair of loons came by, handsome birds with coral eyes and chequered backs. After dark we heard their eerie calls and devilish chortling. Russet headed mergansers passed our private beach, leaping and and diving like dolphins. There was no light pollution. On a clear night the stars commanded awestruck silence.
The house was about 25 minutes from Ellsworth partly on some four miles of dirt road. Driving along it we often encountered wild turkey but while were assured there were black bear in the forest locals said they were rarely seen, and so it proved. It was so remote and tranquil that we tended to hurry back there after hiking, to drink chilled wine by the lake and cook on the gas barbecue. We bought freshly dug clams from a house by the road, steaming them until they yawned open, rinsing off the sand in hot water and dipping them in clarified butter. They were sweetly delicious.
But leaving Maine without eating at a lobster pound would be like visiting Cairo and ignoring the Pyramids. We settled on one at Trenton Bridge, near the park entrance. Diners queued to choose their live lobsters – small, medium or large - which were then marked with identifying numbers, bundled into stout rope bags and consigned to one of a half dozen steaming cauldrons of sea water, heated by wood fires. Some leading chefs argue that Scottish lobster is vastly superior to that caught in North American waters. Maybe, but these were hard to beat.
Do we have to go walking?
We walked outside the park, picking wild blueberries along the way, but it was Acadia which exercised the strongest magnetism. Its paths are richly varied and can be combined easily to suit each hiker's preference, or stamina. Some meander gently along the coast or by lakes. Others are steep and involve mild scrambling over rocks with occasional use of the hands. One demands a short ascent or descent on rungs set into the rock. In some difficult places boulders, heaved into new positions by the early trail builders, form improvised staircases.
Do not on any account miss the particularly beautiful Schoodic Point, on a separate offshoot of the park, where eider ducks bob in the swell off the granite slabbed shore. Save a clear day for it. Amble on a grassy track between apple trees and alder to where the path climbs and take it to Schoodic Head. It's only a modest 440ft above sea level but the grand panorama of mountains and island dotted Frenchman Bay make it seem much more higher. Paradise, you may decide, is no mere hyperbole.

How: We flew to Boston with Virgin Atlantic. The drive to Acadia takes around 5hrs so you need to overnight on the way and, ideally, on your return. September, after the main American summer holiday period ends on Labour Day, is a good time to go) The lakeside house slept up to ten though there were only four of us. It was rented through This year it will cost $1600 (about £1070 - including tax) for a week in mid September. We also paid a refundable $250 security deposit. 

The article first appeared in Scotland on Sunday's Spectrum magazine
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