Monday, 28 March 2016

New budget flights to Spain planned

Norwegian (courtesy Kristin S Lilllerud)
With demand for summer holidays in Spain soaring, low cost airlines are launching new services there. Rapidly expanding Norwegian will start from Manchester and Edinburgh to Barcelona at the end of April and in mid June respectively. Then in the first week of June it will launch services from the Scottish capital to Malaga and Alicante. Also in June the low cost Spanish airline Vueling will start flying from Birmingham and Manchester to Tenerife South. As I reported on this site last week, Spanish holiday bookings are up significantly as Turkey suffers from the impact of recent terrorist attacks.

Meanwhile Berlin is to get a clutch of new flights from the UK. British Airways will start flying to the German capital in June from London City Airport. And Flybe is to launch services there from Cardiff when it switches to its winter schedule on October 30.

For more travel news and travel ideas visit

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Mussels - the new pub grub of choice?

Moules frites and a glass or two of white are part of the ritual that is a weekend in northern France. Is it about to become part of the ritual that is the British pub lunch? This Easter weekend I ate Devon mussels in cider and cream sauce at Bel & the Dragon in the Surrey village of Churt. It was a late lunch. We had walked first with the grandchildren up the sandy rise known as the Devil's Jumps, for a grand view over that large stretch of heathland that embraces Frensham Ponds. Skylarks burbled but failed to drown the monotonous, two note, bicycle pump call of a chiffchaff. Vivid splashes of yellow gorse were already brightening a landscape darkened by rain clouds, but the storm held off until we had made it safely to the hotel restaurant. It's not, perhaps, a pub in the purist purists who like to grab a bar stool and down a been while hiking. It's one of a small chain of Home Counties inns with rooms,that concentrate on food, as such establishments must now in order to survive. It's certainly not the sort of place you would tramp into with mud caked boots. But the food is good and the service pleasant. Forsaking the usual mussels accompaniment of a Muscadet or something similarly crisp and dry, I had a beautifully kept pint of excellent T.E.A bitter from the Hogs Back brewery, not far away in Farnham. Ubiquitous though they are on the French coasts, mussels have remained something of a rarity on UK menus. These were delicious and as they came from northern waters (and there was an R in the month) I felt confident they wouldn't produce the dire reaction once suffered by the Mediterranean. It all led to a wandering chain of thought about how eating in Britain has changed in my lifetime, from the days when a terrine or a guinea fowl or a decent goat's cheese were pretty well impossible to find the side of the Channel. The fisherman who come to our local farmer's market already sell Dorset mussels. Might they become as commonplace as oysters in Dickensian London? Maybe it's better if they don't. Wonderful thought it is to get 50 kinds of French cheese at the supermarket it's good there's still the occasional treat you have to go abroad to find. Moles frites - mussels and chips just don't have the same ring.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Brussels, Turkey and Brexit - cocktail of confusion for travellers

The Brussels attacks have added to an already risk laced cocktail of doubts and fears for travellers and the travel industry. Last year’s Paris atrocities had already heightened tensions. Those in Turkey and Tunisia, plus the grounding of flights to Sharm el Sheikh following the downing of a tourist flight bound for St Petersburg in October, have narrowed the options for summer sun seekers. And uncertainty over the UK’s continued membership of the European Union may result in further short term increases in holiday costs. 

The Lleyn Peninsula - a good year for a staycation?

Past claims that international volatility enhanced the popularity of the so called “staycation” left me somewhat unconvinced. Like all north Europeans, Brits like to take long odds against having their annual break wipes out by grey skies and rain. Besides, despite the protestations of the domestic travel industry, holidaying at home is still relatively pricey, compared with many popular destinations across the Channel. As I reported earlier, unease caused by the EU referendum has helped reduce the value of the £ sharply against the euro and the US dollar, losing about 10% to date against the former. There’s no knowing whether that means traders have already discounted the impact of a Brexit. If opinion polls start showing increased support for the out movement, sterling could take further hits. But combine this unknown with fear of terrorism and if ever there were a year in which staying taking a holiday somewhere deep in the domestic countryside appealed this is surely it. So if such a break is in your sights – even if it’s outside the school summer holidays – it would be unwise to delay booking for too long.

Britain's glories - don't wait to book
It is tempting to give the same play safe advice to those still planning to travel abroad. The travel bookings report bookings to Spain soaring as interest in Turkey evaporates. One UK travel agency chain reports business to the former up by 48% while bookings to the latter have plummeted by 58%. Bulgaria, Italy, Malta and Portugal have all seen double digit rises. This suggests the choicest properties – whether hotel rooms or self catering villas and apartments – will be harder to find. But set against that a huge expansion in low cost flights – both within Europe and across the Atlantic, combined with ongoing nervousness over terrorism, and there are bound to be some deals around. So if you enjoy the flexibility of the senior traveller, keep your eye on the ball. Or if you have a local High Street travel agent you know and trust, get them to do it for you.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Beat the currency rip off

Currency exchange, this website has long contended, is too often a rip off. Some exchange rates available to individual travellers, particularly at airports, are some far out of line with those available to business as to be outrageous. So I’m intrigued to learn about WeSwap, a new system of “social currency”, which cuts out the need to pay for so called 0% commission deals which are funded by such rates. I’m all the more intrigued to find I’m way behind the curve here, as WeSWap has been in existence for over two years and is now live in ten European countries. I haven’t tested it, so must emphasize that this is not a recommendation. Basically it matches travellers with others coming to their countries. Users get a WeSwap Mastercard which they load with the amount they want to exchange – either with a debit card or via an online bank transfer. Currency swaps cost 1% with a week’s notice, 1.3% if you need the money in three days or 1.4% if you need it immediately. The firm says it uses the real mid-market exchange rate – the best there is. I plan to try it. Meanwhile I’d welcome reports from anyone who has – and can compare it for value with other methods.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

French Alps - plane or train?

La Plagne

Independent ski holidays invariably present a dilemma. Should you fly or drive? I hadn’t seriously considered taking the train, mainly because my trips rarely begin and end with weekends – the only days when direct services run to the French Alps from London. But this season, despite needing to travel in midweek, my wife and I decided to bite the bullet.

We were heading for La Plagne, in the Tarentaise. Flying would necessitate a surprisingly expensive airport bus transfer or eight days’ car hire, with most of the cost wasted as the vehicle sat, unused, parked in the resort. The thought of driving from London, which we did many times when or sons were learning to ski, invoked the usual dread of having to fit snow chains. So the train it was.

An early morning taxi to St Pancras took less time than we had feared, after the that day’s threatened tube strike was called off. There was time for breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien before checking in for the 7.55am Eurostar to Paris. Panic set in briefly when 45 minute delays were announced – but the warning was quickly rescinded. Somehow the start of a rail journey conjures a comforting sensation, Newspaper, crossword, novel: time stretches out through cuttings, across embankments.

Lack of a direct service means you have to cross Paris from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon. No problem, It takes only about 30 minutes by RER train, you may buy the exact number of tickets you need at the bar on Eurostar – and you shouldn’t encounter any need to lug your bags up or down stairs. There’s a useful guide on how to go about it on the excellent website Our booking allowed us a generous time buffer before we boarded a TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) for a leg of about 3hrs to Chambery, at the doorstep of the Alps. At Chambery it was necessary to change platforms using stairs, which left my wife less than ecstatic. From there is was just over 2hrs to Landry, a snowy station about 15 minutes by taxi from Montchavin, where we were staying.

How did it compare with flying? Home London to hotel took approximately around 12hrs 30mins Just how long it would have taken by air would have depended on our departure and destination airports and our mode of resort transfer. Certainly it would have been several hours quicker – but it wouldn’t have created any extra skiing time.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Flight deals - a good summer in prospect?

New England - budget flights planned from Edinburgh

It looks like being a very good year for cheap flights. Not only are low cost carriers continuing to add new destinations but also statistics from the Association of European Airlines show the number of seats available this summer is up by 5.5%. That figure relates to all services within Europe and further afield – not just those from the UK – but it’s a fair indication of airlines’ recovering confidence. New routes announced since my last round up include a further expansion of services from the UK to the US via Reykjavik, by Icelandic budget carrier WOW. Its latest move is to launch connecting flights from Edinburgh to Boston, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto and Montreal. They start on July 13. On April 24 Iberia Express will start operating from Heathrow to Asturias Airport in Northern Spain. The airport is close to Oviedo and is a great gateway to so called Green Spain – notably the Picos de Europa mountains, whose excellent walking routes include the dramatic Cares Gorge. Regional airline Flybe is to connect Southampton with Lyon. It will operate a daily service on the route from May 23 – October 29. It will also launch summer flights from Birmingham to Limoges, Nantes and Rennes. At the end of March low cost central and European airline Wizz will also start a new service from Birmingham, flying twice a week to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. British Airways will launch new routes to Mahon, Palermo, Biarritz Chania and Kalamata from Heathrow, Bergerac from London City and Ibiza, Malaga and Palma from Stansted as well as increasing the number of services it operates to sunshine destinations including Nice and the Canaries. The AEA stats show an increase of 5.1% in the total number of seats available on flights within Europe with 200 new routes planned. Many cut out the need to use major airports. The only fly in this ointment is the reduction in capacity to Tunisia and Sharm el Sheikh following recent terrorist attacks. Major tour operators including Thomson and Thomas Cook have cancelled flights to the former. And in the absence of any change in the Government’s advice not to fly to the latter, easyJet has axed almost all its summer flights the latter. If the advice is softened it is ready to operate to Sharm el Sheikh from Stansted, however.

Just hold on a minute........

Careless use of the word “just” in marketing missives has long provoked me into Victor Meldrew splutterings. Today I received one that took the biscuit. A night in an admittedly very upmarket French hotel, with a Michelin starred dinner, for “just” €882 per person. Good grief - that's more the most people pay for a week's holiday.