Friday, 29 May 2015

EU holiday protection rules threaten problems

Will Europe’s proposed new package holiday rules make it more or less likely that you’ll get your money back – or get home as planned – if a travel company goes bust? Will they be easier to understand or even more labyrinthine than at present? 

The revised Package Travel Directive, which could take effect in 2017, is designed to reflect radical changes in the way we book our trips since the original was drawn up some 25 years ago. The most dramatic of those changes have been the rise of low cost airlines and the advent of online booking.

One key problem created by these changes has been the increasing tendency among consumers to book a flight online and click through to add accommodation or car hire – usually provided by a separate operator. They may think they are buying packages, which are covered by the package travel rules – but often they are not. 

The proposed new rules – which are almost certain to be implemented in full by the British Government, do not appear to go far enough to end this confusing state of affairs. It comes down again to the definition of a package.   A “click though” will be regarded as a package if the airline transfers details including the passenger’s name and email address to the hotel booking or car rental company. However, it’s not though that many airlines do provide such information – and if they do now, the rule will be mighty easy to circumvent.  As one expert observer notes, Brussels has “ended up with something which is more confusing to the consumer because most people won’t be covered and in any case the conditions which make it a package won’t be visible to them”.

But the change that is causing most anxiety is that governing the jurisdiction under which holidaymakers will now be protected. At present, if you book a holiday in the UK you are covered by the Civil Aviation Authority’s ATOL (air travel organisers) scheme if your package includes a flight. That means the CAA will organise refunds if you have yet to travel and alternative transport home if you’re abroad when the collapse happens. If the holiday includes train or sea travel the CAA won’t be involved but you will still be sorted out in the UK.

The EU now proposes cover should be provided under the protection regime in country where the tour operator is based. Consider what this means: a UK tour company might elect to be based somewhere else in the EU – most likely because it’s cheaper to operate there - so you could be fighting for your money back anywhere from Lithuania to Spain.  And what about firms that take all their bookings via the internet? How easy will it be even to discover where they are based?

I foresee trouble.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Foreign currency exchange - a nice little earner

How much do banks and credit card companies profit from soaking holidaymakers? I have often railed against the iniquities of currency exchange on this site. Scanning my latest credit card purchase list again raised my blood pressure. The amount charged on my bill for two nights at a hotel in France came to just over €584. At the full commercial exchange rate when I checked out this would have worked out at approximately £424. OK, I know travellers never get that rate but stay with me. VISA calculated the bill at 1.378 to the pound , which worked out at just under £436. On top of that my statement showed a £12.66 transaction fee, calculated at 2.99%. That's a total of some £25 more than I would have paid had I been able to buy euros at that day's full exchange rate. There is a less galling outcome than I might have suffered in that it appears that as a result of some administrative glitch the transaction fee wasn't charged. But the principle remains. You may agree with me that it's way too much. (I have excluded dedicated currency exchange companies from this attack  only because it is generally their sole source of revenues - not because they are wholly without fault, notably when it comes to rates offered at airports.) You might also argue that it's the price we have to pay for the sensible political decision to stay out of the Eurozone, which has possibly left us better off. But consider this hypothetical statistic: if UK travellers were charged £25 on each of the estimated 38.5 million holiday visits they made abroad last year the total would have come to some £960 millions.   

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Half price ski passes on offer: deal of the week

Seems a little early to be thinking about skiing again but Inghams is out to divert our attention from spring blossom, asparagus and Jersey Royals, test cricket and the impending white knuckle ride that is Andy Murray's progress at Wimbledon. The tour operator is offering adult lift passes at half price for customers booking a wide selection of  next season's holidays between now and June 28. Inevitably, there's some small print: the offer is valid only to passengers on Inghams' charter flights and excludes some dates. But with passes in the Trois Vallees, for example, costing up to £208 for six days, the deal is certainly worth considering.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Butterfly spotting in the Brenne

Home to the rare Lulworth Skipper and Berger's Clouded yellow, the Regional Park of La Brenne is fertile hunting ground for wildlife watchers. Having written about walking there elsewhere on this site I am intrigued to note that specialist tour operator Naturetrek is offering a butterfly spotting trip there, with a local guide who has access to private land. Expect to see blues, coppers, fritilleries and much more. it says. The park. which as not far to the east of Poitiers and roughly south of Tours, on the Loire, is known locally as "the land of a thousand lakes". It is also a great place to see water fowl. The trip departs on June 25 and costs from £995 for each of two sharing a hotel room and including rail travel from London and most meals.

Monday, 25 May 2015

John Wayne museum may prove fast on the draw

Iowa might be a bit off the beaten track - but lovers of Western movies may now be tempted to make pilgrimages there. From Stagecoach and Red River to True Grit and The Shootist, the 50 year career of Marion Robert Morrison - aka John Wayne - is celebrated at a new museum which has just opened there. The museum is in the town of his birth, Winterset, Madison County. The county is famous for its covered bridges, which gave their name to another film in which Big John did not star. On show will be memorabilia including original film posters and outfits the Duke wore on screen.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Newcastle - New York flights take off

Non stop flights from Newcastle to New York took off for the first time today. United Airlines will operate five times round trips a week to and from Newark, New Jersey, an alternative to JF Kennedy Airport as a gateway to the Big Apple. The service will run until September 7. David Laws, Newcastle Airport chief executive says the flights have not only proved popular with passengers heading for New York itself but to destinations across the US - from Boston to San Francisco. His staff have also been working with partners in the US to promote travel to the North East of England, Cumbria and North Yorkshire. Newcastle is a convenient jumping off point for Americans who have already done London and are keen to see areas such as the Northumberland coast and the Holy Island of  Lindisfarne, the Lake District and the North Yorks Moors.

Hermione - Lafayette ship reborn - nears Virginia

Hermione, the ship that sailed "like a bird" according to the Marquis de Lafayette, is scheduled to make landfall in Yorktown, Virginia, less than two weeks from now. Her astonishing replica, that is, built in France and now recreating a voyage made 245 years ago. She set sail last month from Port des Barques, at the mouth of the River Charente, where Lafayette departed in 1780 after persuading the French King Louis XV1 to back the cause of American independence.

Like the original, the reconstructed, three masted frigate was built in the former Royal Dockyard at Rochefort in the French Poitou-Charentes region. She measures more than 200 feet and has a mainmast towering 177ft above the bottom of the hull. Built of oak from French forests, she deploys 16,000 square feet of sail. One tonne oft oakum was needed for the caulking. Twenty six canon were installed.

The ship is due in Yorktown from June 5 -7. After that she will sail up the north east coast of the United States, calling at Mount Vernon, Alexandria and Annapolis (all in Virginia), Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York Greenpot (NY) Newport (Rhode Island), Boston, Castine in Maine and finally to Canada and Luneburg in Nova Scotia. Dates and full details can be found on the project website. The Hermione will be back in Rochefort at the end of August.

Friday, 22 May 2015

BA flights to Kuala Lumpur set to start

British Airways  will start flying direct to Kuala Lumpur again on Wednesday (May 27). The airline last operated the route in 2001. It  will operate daily flights to the Malaysian capital from Heathrow's Terminal 5,  using extended range Boeing 777-200 aircraft with first, business, premium economy and economy cabins. Outbound flights will depart at 8.15pm, arriving 12hrs 45mins later at 4pm local time. London-bound services will leave at 11.05pm, arriving at 5.25am next morning. BA has a long history of flying Malaysia. It first operated to the then Malaya as Imperial Airways from Croydon Airport in 1933 The flight made 22 stops on the way to Alor Star (now Alor Setar). Its inaugural service to Kuala Lumpur was in 1956 - outbound by Canadair Argonaut in 1956, back by Lockheed Constellation.

More than a pinch of salt: must see in Krakow

Going down a salt mine may sound like a dour, take it or leave it experience. But if you get the opportunity to visit the Wieliczca mine near Krakow in Poland, take it. You won’t regret it. Trust me   this is one of Europe’s most riveting attractions.

And if you’re there on June 7 your visit will coincide with the Salt Festival. The Saltworks Castle courtyard will become a medieval town centre. The history of salt and its present uses will be explored. There will be salt evaporation demonstrations, beer brewing and rope making workshops.

The Wieliczca mine was among the first sites to be accorded World Heritage status. It produced salt from the 13th century until the 1990s and has been open to tourists for over 200 years.

Salt was once brought to the surface by a lift system powered by horses plodding in a circle. The walls of its galleries glisten with salt. There are underground lakes in which visitors floated until a accident persuaded a switch to boats on rails laid beneath the water. There’s even a chapel made entirely of salt – altar, reliefs, floor tiles, everything.

Among its celebrity visitors have been the German polymath Goethe and the composer Chopin. That latter may have come because his respiratory problems. The air in the mine is full of micro elements. There’s a rehabilitation and treatment centre 135 metres down where people come to exercise and breathe it.

British Airways recently launched a new service from Heathrow to Krakow.

Quebec - where a foodie gold strike is always on the cards

For foodies, Quebec is full of surprises. I had come to expect the innovative and delicious in the capital of French Canada, where there so many good restaurants you could stay a week and barely scratch the surface. But now I know you may also strike gold in the boondocks. So it was in Tadoussac.

Tadoussac is some three hours’ drive from Quebec City along the north bank of the wide St. Lawrence river, navigated so brilliantly by Wolfe’s fleet in 1759, and a short car ferry ride across the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord.

It’s well established on the tourist map. The orginal Tadoussac Hotel, opened in 1864, not long after the future King Edward VII was carried to safety when caught out by the tide while salmon fishing on the nearby Sainte Marguerite river. The hotel’s more recent, red roofed incarnation is still the town’s centerpiece. Visitors come for the whale watching and some, like us, for the walking.

We combined both at Baie Ste Marguerite, not far from where the King got into trouble, in the Sagenay Fjord park. Well, we think we did. You can see the glinting backs of beluga whales from a look out platform there, though it can be to distinguish them from the whitecaps of chopped waves. This is the southernmost concentration of the mammals, whose ancestors became isolated from their Arctic cousins some 8000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age. 

Hiking high above the fjord I disturbed a bull moose, complete with majestic antlers, browsing by the trail. Before I could alert my companions it took fright, clattering off into the forest, defying our prolonged attempts to track it down.

A little further up the St Lawrence from Tadoussac we descended a mighty sand dune and hiked back to town on the shore. The receptionist at the small hotel where we stayed had checked that the tide would be out. It was a walk of only about one hour but was memorable. The wind whipped our faces, rock pools shimmered on the sand and shingle.

Fresh air and exertion sharpened the appetite for a second visit to Chez Mathilde. 
A couple of nights earlier we had eaten there by chance. At first we were turned away (it pays to book) but having found nowhere else that had space or took our fancy we returned later, when a table had become free. It proved a worthwhile wait. My starter of lobster.  shrimp and yellow beet, topped with smoked salmon was followed by a wild mushroom risotto so wonderful it had me purring with delight. My enjoyment was heightened when I asked the waiter to identify the fungus: two kinds of chanterelle and pieds de mouton, known in the UK as hedgehog mushrooms, she replied without a moment's hesitation.

Other visitors have praised the crab, the lobster, the steak and stuffed quail. Me? After that hike by the St Lawrence I insisted we went back - just so I could eat that risotto again.