Saturday, 29 August 2015

Sweden on the rocks


Ever in search of the offbeat my eye was caught by a walking package in West Sweden's Ramsvikslandet Nature Reserve. It's a small area (5km x 2.5km) but with fascinating glacial rock formations including the granite Giants' Kettles, the burial cairn of a Viking king, hardy coastal flora and a wide variety of seabirds. You spent a night close to the shore in a fisherman's cabin that has a sauna with a view of the sea. That, plus dinner and breakfast in the nearby restaurant and a packed lunch are included in the price of approximately £200 for two people (you have to get yourself there. Gotherburg is the nearest airport). So is a map of the walking trails, a folder with details of the area's plants - and the loan of walking poles. The package is available until September 27. You have to get yourself there. Gotherburg is the nearest airport. Flights there from the UK are available with several airlines including British Airways, and Norwegian from Gatwick.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Ten things I hate about air travel



Whenever I'm getting close to departure on a long flight my thoughts turn to the many frustrations of air travel. Some, such as the hassle at security and the invariable kicking of heels in terminals, are unavoidable. Other's aren't - or ought not to be. Here are ten of my recurring gripes:

Those persistent airport updates that blame delays on the late arrival of the incoming aircraft. Why can’t they tell us the reason, whether it’s air traffic congestion, bad weather, a technical fault or some other problem? It wouldn’t get you away any more quickly but it might soothe our irritation a little and make us a bit more sympathetic if the problem is out of their hands.

Rip off rates at airport currency exchanges. The cost of changing money is already an unfair burden on leisure travellers – without penalising them for leaving it until just before departure.

Being asked for my boarding pass in airport shops - particularly for something costing peanuts such a bottle of mineral water or a snack - and that was before I learned the VAT discount I was supposed to get was going straight on to the retailer's bottom line.

Cabin staff who announce that you are about to arrive into your destination. It’s an abominable abuse of language and, sadly, its use is spreading like Japanese knotweed.

People who carry on ludicrous amounts of cabin baggage - in defiance of the maximum dimensions set by airlines.

Passengers who ram their seats back, especially on short flights, with no regard for the person behind. How I cheered when the traveller opposite me, who had falling victim to a particularly aggressive recline assault, shoved the woman in front’s seat upright again twice – first when she went to the lavatory, then when she leant forward to get something out of her bag. Long legged sympathisers – please copy.

Parents who don’t stop their kids kicking your seat back.

Passengers who hog the in flight lavatories. The toilets should not be used for shaving or applying make up.

Travellers who insist on moving as far as possible towards the exit while they wait for the doors to open – making it difficult to get your carry on bags out of the overhead bin.

And - probably worst of all - people who crowd close to the baggage carousel forcing you to squeeze between them when you luggage arrives before theirs.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Wild mushrooms: learn to identify what's edible

Alert for fellow fungus fanciers: the Forestry Commission is organising an outing to learn about wild mushrooms in Alice Holt Forest, just south west of Farnham in Hampshire, on October 20. It runs from 10am - midday and costs £9 per adult. Booking is essential as spaces are limited - and no dogs are allowed.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Indian city breaks launched as E-visa cuts travel costs

Gujarat (courtesy incredibleindia.org)
Tempted by the thought of a winter trip to India? The cost of travel there has fallen following the country's decision to launch of new e-visas. The price of US$60 - or about £40 - is more than than 50% less than than of the paper version. It's valid for citizens of the UK, US, and over 30 other countries. You need to apply at least four days before departure - and once you've been approved you can depart at any time in the following 30 days. Applications can be made at https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/index.html. The move has prompted tour operator Western & Oriental to launch four night short breaks in Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad at prices from £749, £849 and £999 per person respectively, based on two sharing.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Antwerp: the perfect city break

Antwerp's Central Station

Antwerp may not leap instantly to mind as a short break destination - but there are few more rewarding choices. Go for the lovely old city centre and the paintings of its favourite son, Peter Paul Rubens. Go for the excellent museums, the huge choice of restaurants and pubs and – of course – the frites and the beer. And go by train. 


Taking advantage of a deal from Eurostar allowing travel to any station in Belgium we started at St Pancras International and switched smoothly to Belgian Railways at Brussels Midi/Zuid (note that Eurostar does not run to Brussels Central). It took maybe 6hrs from home to the hotel lobby against a realistic 4hrs if we had flown from London City Airport but that extra 2hrs was spent relaxing, reading, watching the countryside flash past and – as we were travelling in Standard Premier – enjoying continental breakfast at our seats in both directions. You could take a tram from Antwerp's breathtaking central station but a taxi to our hotel, the Rubens-Grote Market - a short step from the cathedral - cost around €10Eurostar has just launched a range of new fare deals, including travel to any Belgian station for £35 in Standard class or £87 in Standard Premier. Tickets will be on sale from August 27 until September 8 and will be valid for travel between September 25 and April 25 next year. A word of advice: Eurostar’s website says you may travel on any service except those by high speed Thalys or ICE (Inter City Express) trains. You may be confused by the designation of Belgian trains as IC.  Don’t let this fox you. Tickets to Antwerp or any other Belgian destinations are valid on those trains.

Airlines extend delay payouts

Two UK budget airlines have agreed to compensate passengers for delays caused by ordinary technical faults, says the Civil Aviation Authority. Jet2 and Wizz Air are no longer limiting payouts to flights disrupted by unforeseen problems. The Authority announced in March that it would take action against them. It was concerned they were not compensating customers for hold ups caused by routine technical problems despite an earlier Court of Appeal decision that they should. The authority said Jet2 had also addressed another issue, by no longer refusing to process claims more than two years old - in defiance of another Court of Appeal ruling. The airline is now processing claims dating back six years. But, said the Authority's chief executive Andrew Haines, "Hungarian airline, Wizz Air, has refused to remove its two-year limit on claims, and the CAA has now referred this matter to the Hungarian Authority for Consumer Protection (HACP), which is the local regulator best placed to take forward this enforcement action." The HACP had greed to take up the case. “We are determined to stand up for passengers and will continue to review how airlines are treating, and responding to, their customers in practice. “Furthermore, while we recognise not every claim for compensation will be eligible, we are keen to hear from people who feel they have not been treated fairly and where we believe airlines are not complying with the law, we will pursue all available enforcement options.”

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Car rental warning - don't risk damage charges

Car hire remains one of the weakest links in the travel chain. It should come as little surprise that more than one in four travellers (28%) in a new survey claimed to have spotted damage that wasn’t recorded on the sheet handed them at check out. Six per cent said that after they retuned their vehicles they had been wrongly accused of causing damage. These statistics serve as a sharp reminder to inspect the vehicle meticulously before driving it away – mentioning the tiniest mark or dent if it's not shown on the sheet and even looking at the wheels and tyres. It would be only a slight exaggeration to suggest using a magnifying glass. The survey reminded me of an experience at Calgary Airport when I was informed that the four wheel drive vehicle I had booked well in advance – at significant expense – was not available. I was visiting five different ski resorts quick succession and a conventional front wheel drive just wouldn’t have cut it. Cue controlled rant. I believe I told the employee at the desk they would get me one if they had top go out and steal it. He then said there was a 4x4 I could take – but it hadn’t been cleaned. With bad grace, I gave in. When I returned the vehicle they pointed to some tiny pockmarks on the windscreen – for which I might be charged. The damage hadn’t been there when I drove the vehicle away, they claimed. But the windscreen had been so dirty I could hardly have checked, Foolish, maybe, but I had just flown in from London, was tired, and had a long drive to my hotel. I refused to sign anything – and nothing came of it but was left fuming. More recently I found on checking my credit card that a rental firm in Sicily and docked the full excess of £750 for a couple of tiny scratches you would have rubbed out with T-Cut on your own car. Call me an old cynic but I don’t believe they would have bothered to send the car to a body shop, waiting instead for some other unfortunate customer to return it with more minor damage – and upping their rake off to £1500. The survey I mentioned above was commissioned from YouGov by icarinsurance.com, which covers drivers against the often heavy excess fees charged by rental firms. Since the Sicilian trip I’ve used Insurance4carehire, though I’ve not yet needed to make a claim.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

BA clamps down on excessive hand luggage




British Airways has responded to an increase in the amount of baggage economy passengers are taking on board by imposing a new limit. The size of the main carry on bag allowed is unchanged at 56x45x25cms, anything else will soon have to be no bigger than the average handbag or laptop at a maximum 40x30x15cms*. Provided it doesn’t exceed those dimensions, it will qualify for a yellow tag that will guarantee it can be carried on boar. If cabin bags exceed the limits travellers will be asked to check them into the hold. 

*On flights to Brazil - exceptionally - it's 45x36x20cms.

For more news visit silvertraveladvisor.com

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Travel insurance - time for revolt

My car insurer has just demanded a premium renewal increase of some 40%. I'm hardly a boy racer and have made no claims since I took out the policy. Inflation is forecast to enter negative territory. How can they justify such a huge rise?  The answer, of course, is that this is one of those mysterious actuarial calculations whose workings we are never allowed to see. Take or leave it. It's time the Competition and Markets Authority cracked down on this scandalous lack of transparency.

OK - apart from the fact that I do affair amount of travelling by car, this policy is not, strictly speaking, a subject for these pages. But exactly the same thing has happened in the not too distant past to my year round travel insurance. Out of the blue my renewal premium was jacked up by something like 40%. In that instance the insurance company - I won't name and shame because I believe they are all the same - at least offered an explanation, albeit a fatuous one. I was told the increase had been prompted by heavy claims from skiers suffering injuries in the US. Given that the US and Canada attract only around 3% of the wintersports market between them - and that ski holidays in turn represent a relatively small proportion of the total taken - you may understand why I snorted in disbelief.


Off piste yes - heliskiing no


My deep scepticism towards travel insurers began many years ago when I discovered that a new life insurance policy wouldn't pay out if I was killed in a charter plane crash. There was not the tiniest speck of statistical evidence that the safety record of charter operators was more suspect than that of scheduled airlines.

I have since encountered other absurd anomalies, some of which I have already reported on this site, such as upper age limits as low as 69 - 74 for skiing cover when one company will insure you up to 100. Or the refusal of one firm to cover me to go heliskiing. Would they cover me to fly be helicopter to a remote snowfield? Certainly. Was I covered for off piste skiing? Indeed I was. But was I covered if I stepped out of the helicopter and skied off? No I wasn't. That was more dangerous, they said. But was it ok if I hiked to the same spot and skied down? Yes it was. Bonkers, don't you think?

One colleague, a highly regarded travel writing writer and broadcaster, says he switches travel insurance policies pretty well every year. But why should this be necessary?

I have no doubt many other consumers have gripes similar to mine - especially senior travellers who run into upper age limits and see their premiums rise because of highly suspect statistics purported to show that they are more likely to claim than younger travellers.
Oh yes, I nearly forgot. When I called the car insurance company to complain they instantly wiped £40 (about 40% of the premium increase) off the price. Well I never. Rise up and put pressure on the authorities until something is done

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Airport VAT: should you kick up a fuss?

The Government is annoyed that some airport shops are failing to pass on VAT discounts to passengers heading for countries outside the EU. Question is, if you're travelling to one of those destinations, should you kick up a fuss? You could at least refuse to show your boarding card when requested as a measure of protest. Bet your bottom dollar they'll give you a disingenuous answer if you ask why they need to. The shop needs to see the pass in order to claim back the VAT. Why should it get the benefit? After all, the Government says the relief is supposed to go to the purchaser rather than the vendor. I find it a bit hard to believe the claim it would be impossibly complicated to charge passengers to Morocco, say, 20% less for the same item than those flying to Spain. But if retailers were forced into line by passenger power, that would raise a further question. Would they simply up prices overall to reflect the loss of what many travellers will see as an unfair windfall. This may just be one of those battle the consumer can't win.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

10 reasons to visit Estonia


Tallinn’s historic centre:
The upper town (Toompea) and the narrow streets at its feet incorporate some of the best preserved medieval buildings in Europe. They make up a delicious cocktail with a generous glug of baroque with dashes of Russian revival and art nouveau.
Tallinn's oldest cafe



Museums:
The Estonian History Museum has been created beautifully in a building dating from 1410, originally the Gothic style HQ of the Great Guild of Hanseatic merchants. It’s many fascinations include a boot supposedly worn by Peter the Great, who long desired and eventually acquired Tallinn as it was ice free for longer periods than other Baltic ports – plus exhibits from the Second World War and the Soviet era.

Don’t miss the KGB Museum in the Hotel Viru with its collection of paranoid spy equipment – including a purse that exploded red powder when opened, to catch out members of staff tempted to steal.

And spare time for the stunning modern KUMU art gallery, where Soviet realism sits alongside work by artists who subtly thumbed their noses at Moscow’s apparatchiks.
KUMU


Hotels:
There’s no shortage of comfortable places to stay. See my review of the Savoy Boutique hotel in Tallinn.  I can also recommend another excellent boutique hotel, the Frost in the seaside resort of Pärnu – lovely rooms with coffee machines – mine had a pine writing table and a tree cross section as sculpture – good reading lights, huge breakfast.
Hotel Frost
Also the Hedon, on the seafront, with an extensive spa based in the old mud baths and a highly recommended restaurant – see next reason.


The food:


A real surprise if you fear the often poor quality of pre-perestroika east Europe. The Hedon’s young chef, for example, has worked at Noma in Copenhagen and produces the likes of wild boar with celery and juniper sauce (for a modest £14 or so) bass in cider sauce and hare roulade with smoked black plums. At the Café Mahednik, also in  Pärnu, I ate delicious smoked salmon marinated in lime juice and beech vodka. At NOP, and informal eaterie serving organic food in Tallinn’s Kadriorg district, I ate a one of the finest risottos I had tasted. Besides the usual parmesan its ingredients included rufous milk caps (wild fungus) and spicy cladonia, lichen loved by reindeer. As you might expect on the Baltic there’s very good fresh fish to be had.


Drink:
Plenty of decent beers with small independent breweries increasingly challenging the big boys such as Viru Õlu (see this useful website). Sea buckthorn liqueur (astelpajunaps) has a distinctive flavor for those in search of something different. Wines are very reasonably priced in some restaurants, among them the Café Pegasus in Tallinn.

The people:
Independence has created an enthusiasm which is palpable everywhere. You hope it won’t become jaded with time but for now it’s infectious .

Tradition:




Take the boat to Kihnu Island for a glimpse of the past. Older women still wear woven, colour coded skirts to indicate their status – single, married, widowed. In deep winter people drive to and from the mainland across the ice. See my full Silver Travel Advisor article on the island here.

The beaches:




Great stretches of white sand that shelves gently into the Baltic. That keeps water temperatures at an average 18 – 20 degrees C. in summer. Pärnu waters are particularly shallow and warm – and it even preserves a women only beach, harking back to the 19th century when men and women bathed from piers a mile apart. See my full Silver Travel Advisor article on Pärnu article here.

Wildlife and nature:
OK – I didn’t see any wild beasts but I’m assured that in Soomaa National Park there are elk, wild boar, lynx, wolves and even bears. I walked a wooden trail across one of the park’s immense bogs, where beavers build dams. A huge variety of plants, trees and fungus grows there, including blueberries, cloudberries and lingonberries.

Shopping:
Interesting handicrafts such as juniper wood kitchen utensils, woolen goods – such as the hand woven scatter cushions sold in the Kihnu museum – any of countless types of black bread, cloudberry (maruka) or sea buckthorn jam (moos) or liqueur. Hää EESTI ASI on Viru street sells a wonderful range including Estonian style adult and kids’ clothes. Head for the supermarket in the basement of the Viru Keskus shopping centre, which sells all manner of vacuum packed, smoked or marinated fish. Don’t be misled into thinking amber is Estonian. You’ll see it in shops but it mostly comes from Lithuania.

Top guidebook: get Neil Taylor's superb Estonia guide, published by Bradt (£16.99)



Thursday, 6 August 2015

Acadia: best hiking in New England?





It's generally reckoned that the best time to go hiking in New England is between Labour Day - the first Monday in September when Americans return in droves from their summer holidays - and the fall, when leaf peepers turn out in their thousands to watch the landscape turning gold and flaming scarlet. The trails are quiet and the weather is usually good. And there's no better place to hike than Maine's Acadia National Park, where you can get above the trees for sweeping views of the Atlantic coast and islands. Lobster rolls for picnic lunches, lobster for dinner - See my full article here. Meanwhile here are some images to whet the appetite: