Saturday, 30 April 2016

US budget flights spat highlights Brexit fares threat

Old Ironsides - USS Constitution in Boston Harbour. Norwegian waste to fly there from Cork
The battle over low cost airline Norwegian's bid to launch cheap trans-atlantic flights operated by an EU based subsidiary provides a timely illustration of the risks travellers face if the UK votes for Brexit. Open skies remain, if you'll pardon a clunky metaphor, a delicate flower. Airlines profess to welcome competition but - as the chair of a UK carrier told me decades ago - they would really love a monopoly. Norway, of course, is not an EU member. But the airline seeks to launch an subsidiary based in Ireland - which is and where labour costs are lower. After dragging its feet for months the Department of Transportation in Washington has given the plan a tentative green light. American unions are up in arms. A bill aimed at blocking Norwegian's project has been introduced in the House of Representatives. The Business Travel Coalition has it back, describing the bill as "another vivid example of why voters are white-hot-mad as Washington and special interests collude to undermine consumers’ interests.” Forget the fact that this is a business travel lobbying organisation. Low fares are low fares whoever pushes for them. What this opaque seeming spat highlights is that whatever the rights and wrongs of employing cheaper labour by flying under flags of convenience, the UK might not get an easy ride outside the EU where civil aviation is concerned. Supposing we are unable to secure an arrangement to remain party to Brussels' Open Skies agreement with Washington after an exit. Vested interests will not just roll over and allow the UK the same rights secured by the EU. Negotiations are likely to be long and tricky with tedious horse trading - and the Americans will inevitably hold the whip hand. Reduced opportunities for new services and competition on routes to and from the UK could mean higher fares. Remember that EU airlines still don't have the right to operate onward flights within the US beyond gateway airports. We should not see the whole, labyrinthine referendum issue solely in terms of leisure travel but with foreign holidays now widely regarded as a right than a luxury, it's worth bearing in mind that Brexit could make them more expensive.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Running - the best way to fight jet lag

Once upon a time, decades ago when the word jogging hadn't been invented, it was faintly embarrassing to be seen running in the street. "You're a bit late for the Olympics mate", people would yell at you from passing cars weeks after the closing ceremony, or "Come on Brendan Foster". To avoid looking too conspicuous I would run in corduroy trousers and - until my first knee injury sent e shopping for some purpose designed footwear - a pair of Hush Puppies. But, as a frequent long haul traveller, I quickly twigged that a bit of vigorous exercise was the best way to combat jet lag. No sooner had I checked into a hotel in Los Angeles following an afternoon arrival, say, than I would pull on the gear and hit the pavements for a half hour or so. The worst thing about jet leg is not feeling like dinner when, wherever you are, it's dinner time. Exercise is a short, sharp, corrective shock to the body clock. And even if it's a short haul trip, running blows away the cobwebs and loosens muscles atrophied by confinement in a cramped aircraft seat. Modern running shoes weigh only a few ounces. OK - I know far more hotels now have fitness rooms than when I started - and swimming is an alternative - but running on a treadmill is boring and getting out in the streets can represent a quick and efficient introduction to a destination. This has been recognised in many cities by small tourism operators who have launched organised jogging tours taking the local sights. There's a long list at but in case your destination isn't covered just Google running tours in whichever city you're planning to visit. I've run in well over 300 places around the world. From Hawaii to Delhi I have braved the embarrassment of crossing posh hotel lobbies in shorts and a T-shirt and sharing lifts later, lathered in sweat, with guests who wished they could put clothes pegs on their noses. I have been tracked by a dingo in the outback of Australia's Northern Territory, laboured through yielding white sand around Bird Island in the Seychelles, encountered a poisonous snake in Tasmania and what I took to be a bear (admittedly at fairly safe distance) in Ontario. After astonishing the locals in sub zero temperatures during a visit to Beijing in 1980, not long after China opened its doors to foreign tourists, I discovered to my dismay that the water was off in my hotel. There was nothing for it but to wash with the water left in a flask for tea making. While on the subject of water I've learned, the hard way, the importance of hydration. On a fearsomely hot and humid summer day Tennessee, I was forced to drag my feet slowly for at least two miles back to my hotel (where else but a train carriage at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel?) after a sudden, dramatic draining of energy. I've also learned, after feeling my heart rate zoom in the US Rocky Mountains, that even if you're conditioned to ski at altitude, you might find running a bridge too far. Occasionally as in Petra, Jordan, dogs have driven me off the streets or potholed, uneven pavements - as in Sofia and Puebla, Mexico - have forced me on to hotel treadmills. But I've run some lovely routes, which I plan to describe in a later article.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Air fares fall but Brexit threat casts shadow

Image courtesy Gatwick Airport
The average price of flights from UK airports to the top 20 destinations searched by Britons using the search engine fell by 10% in the first three months of this year, compared with the same period in 2015, according to the company. But can these halcyon days of cheap travel survive Brexit?The figures corroborate my earlier report that this promised to be something of a vintage year for bargain fares following a remarkable increase in new low cost routes and a general sharpening of competition between airlines. Falling fuel prices are also likely to have made an impact. Within Kayak's average prices to 16 of those 20 destinations fell, some by significantly more than 10%. Unsurprisingly in the light of recent terrorist attacks those to Istanbul plummeted by 31%. It seems contradictory, therefore, that those to Paris actually rose by 1%. Fares to to Berlin were down by 23%, to Dubai by 17% and New York by 15%. Those to a clutch of cities - Los Angeles, Dublin, Hong Kong, San Francisco - dropped by 13%. However, prices to Barcelona rose by 5% and it was also 5% more expensive to fly to London from other UK airports. The threat of a decision by the UK electorate to leave the EU casts a long shadow over the current, rich choice of cheap flights. After an initial transition period following Brexit, the UK Government would need to renegotiate its open skies agreement with the EU. As William Keegan noted in a cogent Observer newspaper column, our current European partners are fed up to the back teeth with Britain's ambivalent attitude to the EU and would n to give us an easy ride if we pulled out. From long experience I can assure readers that there is no political football more worn by kicking than civil aviation. If we want to preserve the right of UK based airlines to operate freely anywhere in the EU, as they can now, it is extremely unlikely it will be granted without quid pro quos. Loss of that right would his airlines' finances and could mean the withdrawal of some routes. The huge range of flights launched to destinations in central and eastern Europe would also be at risk if free movement of labour were ended. Many of those routes - such as those to and from some Polish cities - are sustained by migrant workers. Finally the US has an open skies agreement with Brussels. This allows airlines on either side to operate between any airport in the EU and any airport in the US. It's far from an ideal treaty because it favours American carriers, which are able to operate intra-European services while EU airline may not do the same on US domestic routes - long a sore point this side of the Atlantic. Nor are EU carriers able to buy controlling stakes in US carriers. But in the event of Brexit Britain would need to renegotiate with Washington and the EU either the maintenance of the states quo or some entirely new treaty. And, again, renegotiation could reduce opportunities for new trans-Atlantic routes. These are uncertain days indeed.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

US move promises cheap flights bonanza

Razzmatazz as Norwegian launches London-Boston flights

The remarkable rise of low cost carrier Norwegian has gathered fresh pace following an amber light from the US Government for trans-Atlantic flights by its Irish based subsidiary, Norwegian Air International. The move paves the way for a new surge in the growth of cheap travel between Europe and America. In the face of fierce opposition from pilots and other workers, the Department of Transportation has issued an order proposing to grant it a foreign air carrier permit. This should allow it to launch services from countries outside Norway, starting with flights between Cork in Ireland and Boston. Confusingly, its parent airline (Norwegian Air) already had permission to fly to American from London under the EU's air agreement with Washington. It flies long haul from Gatwick to destinations including Boston, New York and Los Angeles. But the US had been dragging its feet over approval of its plans for global expansion. The DoT said it couldn't find any legal grounds to bar Norwegian Air International. It has given opponents such as the US Airline Pilots Association three weeks to file objections. While the Icelandic airline WOW has been marketing cheap flights cleverly via its Reykjavik hub, Norwegian is attempting to succeed with non stop low cost services where many others have failed. The reason success has proved so elusive is that the amount of expenditure airlines can trim from their budgets diminishes as a proportion of total operating costs the further they fly. Norwegian's enthusiasm continues to raise the question why Ryanair, one of the major pioneers of cut price air travel, still hasn't joined the trans-Atlantic fray. Last year it appeared to have decided to take the plunge, only to deny that it had any plans to do so. There's little doubt that in the medium term, at least, consumers can expect a bonanza. And it won't just be a mushrooming of direct services. The more European airports that Norwegian adds, the more the potential for indirect deals. Following the US decision, Bjorn Kjos, CEO of Norwegian Group, said: "A final approval, based on the Open Skies Agreement between the U.S. and EU, will be win-win for consumers and the economy on both sides of the Atlantic. It will allow Norwegian to expand our USoperations. Our continued presence in the US will create thousands of jobs and generate tens of millions of dollars of economic activity for the Group’s US destinations,” The company said it intended 'to continue hiring hundreds of American based crew members. It noted that it had placed US$18.5 billions worth of orders for aircrafts from American manufacturer Boeing.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Will EU demand North Americans get visas?

Tourists at Notre Dame (image by Gideon, Creative Commons)
Is there a real threat that the EU might demand US and Canadian citizens apply for visas before entering the Schengen area - or is it just sabre rattling? An absurd impasse has arisen because of unwillingness in Washington and Ottawa to extend visa waiver states to travellers from some European countries on the one hand and the EU's principle that all its citizens must be treated link on the other. The Commission first acted to counter the failure of of some countries to offer visa free travel to citizens of all all EU member states 24 months ago. The non-reciprocity problem with Australia and Japan was resolved. But The US still requires visas for citizens of Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Cyprus and Croatia, and Canada still requires them for citizens of Bulgaria and Romania. If such problems have still not been cleared up 24 months after the relevant governments have been notified the Commission must propose suspension of visa free admission for their citizens, too. Discounting some obscure legal loophole, it appear to have no option. But tourism from North America - and especially that from the US - is immensely valuable to the European economy. It helps support millions of jobs. It's reckoned to be worth some €57 billion a year. And while the threat of suspension does not apply directly to the UK and Ireland - they have an opt out from visa decisions - it would clearly affect both if carried out. Many North Americans spend time there as well as visiting France and Italy, for example. Tourism from the US and Canada contributes around £3.4bn to the UK economy alone. Mario Bodini, chair of the European Tour Operators Association, said it was difficult to estimate the impact of a suspension but " we would expect leisure travel which, including visiting friends and relatives, makes up over 80% of the total, to suffer a fall in magnitude of roughly 30%. Mercifully both the Council and European Parliament has to take into consideration the economic impact and the practicalities of any mov. Even if the numbers were to drop, it would leave the main Schengen entry countries with a 10 million visa processing task. That alone should sink this idea. What should now happen? According to reports, Washington officials insist countries such as Romania haven't met the necessary requirements to join the visa waiver programme. Just what this means is not clear. Why can't citizens of those countries be obliged to apply for ESTA (electronic system for travel authorisation) in the same way that other EU citizens are? That system doesn't guarantee acceptance - or even admission to the US once accepted. Applicants can surely be vetted to ensure they don't pose security risks in the same way they are checked when applying for visas. Does the problem lie in the failure of the some of the relevant member states to issue electronic passports or to comply with international agreed specifications for them? I don't have the answer to that question. It seems on face value that the first move to end the stands off is down the Americans. But if there is a genuine reason why reciprocity can't be extended, European governments must take a pragmatic approach. While I noted flippantly in an earlier article that the silver lining would be a huge crop of cut price European holidays, the reality could be financial difficulties for many operators dependent on tourism and, in the longer term, that would be bad for the whole continent of Europe.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Of heron, rock stars and float planes - fascinations of the Thames Path

A grey heron appears to take a shower while watching for fish under a sluice gate. Apologies for the poor quality of the image, taken with a soon to be discarded mobile phone. That'll teach me to forget my camera. There's usually something to grab to attention on the Thames Path in London and its suburbs. We walk from Kew Bridge to Kingston, a stretch of around 8 miles along the south bank of the river (you may take either side). It's a Sunday at the tail end of the school Easter break, the day has dawned chilly but sunny and the crowds are out. cycling, running, hiking intently. You must check the times of high tide on this part of the path, especially in spring, or you may have to make diversions to avoid flooding. There's plenty of evidence of this, notably at Old Deer Park, where the grass is submerged for maybe 50 metres inland. A deep ditch to the left of the path acts as a drain but in places it has proved inadequate. It's crossed by a little drawbridge that has been used to land plants bound for Kew Gardens, glimpsed beyond, between trees. Not far from the start of the walk we pass the red brick Kew Palace, built in the 17th century for a Flemish merchant and used in the 18th by George II and Queen Caroline, There's a little drawbridge across it, that has been used to land plants bound for Kew Gardens, glimpsed beyond, between trees. 

We pass under Richmond Bridge, London's oldest, opened in 1777 and walk along the margin of Petersham Meadows, below the Star and Garter Home that once housed injured servicemen. The Belted Galloway cattle - this has been grazing ground for well over a century - have don't appear to have returned there from their winter retreat yet. Save at Richmond and shortly before Kingston, there aren't many pubs on this stretch,though you may walk across a footbridge at Teddington Lock to The Anglers, a pleasant, busy Fuller's pub where you may drink and lunch outside in good weather. It's right next door to the former Teddington Studios, now being demolished. where Errol Flynn began his screen career, and the Beatles and Morecambe and Wise performed for the cameras. The pub counts Johnny Depp, Tommy Cooper and the cast of The Office among its past regulars. If you would rather picnic, there are benches and tables by the lock. Though it's only a few steps from our route we don't have time or energy for a return visit to the wonderful Ham House, a superb, rare, example of 17th century architecture run by the National Trust . On then past Eel Pie Island, formerly home to a major jazz, blues and rock venue where stars from Acker Bilk to the Rolling Stones played. Just before Kingston, where we spot a pair of Mandarin ducks among the coots, moorhens, mallard and swans, is a tableau I haven't noticed before. It shows Sopwith floatplanes being tested on the placid waters just over a century ago. As we head through Kingston to the station, a band entertains shoppers with La Cucaracha on pedestrianised Clarence Street. I am reminded of Tom Lehrer's lyric about fiesta tim,e in Guadalajara "the mariachis would serenade - and they would not shut up 'til they were paid". I drop a tip into their hat but I don't want them to shut up. Their blaring music, which lingers long after we've left them out of sight, seems a suitable crescendo to another walk on the path that never fails to satisfy.

The official National Trail Guide to the Thames Path in London, by Phoebe Clapham, is available from book shops, Published by Aurum Press it covers the path from Hampton Court in the west to Crayford Ness in the east.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

New taxes and £ slide pile on holiday price woes

Palma, Mallorca (courtesy Holiday Extras)
As if the slide in the value of sterling wasn't enough to take some gloss off your holidays, two major destinations are to introduce new taxes on travellers. At the time of writing the £ was worth approximately 12.7%l less against the euro than at its peak at the start of December. Blames the threat of Brexit for much of that. It presents those planning holidays after June 23 with a dilemma: should you buy now as insurance against a further potential weakening of the £ following a vote to leave - or hang on in the hope that a vote to remain will boost sterlings buying power? While you ponder this it it has emerged that the Balearic islands government plans to impose a tax of up €2 a day from July 1, to pay for various environmental and tourism infrastructure improvements. Not a fortune, maybe. but another £40 or so on a fortnight for two. To add insult to injury, it is now reported that VAT at Spain's lower rate of 10% will be added to the tax. I used the qualifying g words "up to" because the tax decreases with the level of accommodation. The €2 levy will apply only to five star and four star superior hotels. And Dubai, whose main airport handles more international passengers than any other in the world, will impose a new departure tax from the end of June. The charge of 35 dirhams - nearly £7 and the current exchange rate - will also apply to passengers in transit. This writer objects to tourist or airport taxes. Why should a one off or occasional visitor pay for developments that benefit their destinations? If the tx is necessary it should be paid by the host travel industry. A tax per head on visitors remains in place whatever happens to national or global economies. Obviously a tax paid by host industries will probably be passed on to visitors in good times - and the Balearics may argue with some justification that hey are currently benefiting from the ill winds which have buffeted Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia. But a tax on hoteliers, for example, may at least be absorbed during downturns. Meanwhile the European Tour Operators Association has reacted to talk of requiring US and Canadian visitors to apply for visas. According to an unidentified source this is a real risk. The story goes that the EU is upset that the US doesn't include citizens of newly joined countries - Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Poland - in its via waiver scheme. Tom Jenkins, ETOA's CEO, says: "At first glance this seems an act of shocking stupidity. The value of North American tourism to Europe is approximately $60 billion: it is equivalent in importance to entire export value of Europe’s automotive industry. It is wholly in Europe’s interest to ensure that this continues.Whilst the obligation of the European Union is to seek full reciprocity in visa treatment for all member states, even the chance that a visa regime will be imposed may cause real alarm. And alarm can destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs.Even at second glance, the reciprocity being sought is absurd: because some Europeans are being denied the chance to freely access American services, we will impose the same restrictions on Americans spending money in Europe. It would be an act of commercial self-mutilation on an epic scale." I agree. Mind you - there would be a silver lining for European holidaymakers, in that a dearth pf North American visitors would put heavy downward pressure on prices, especially in he most popular tourist honeypots.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Favourite hotels: new lease of life for Welsh star

Plas Bodegroes on the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales, is a lovely, tranquil place to stay. Its an elegant Georgian house with a canopied, wisteria hung terrace where you may enjoy tea and a buttered slice of that delicious Welsh cake Barra Brith after a day's walking . Beyond the lawn a great avenue of beeches, shading ground bright in spring with bluebells, stretches into the countryside. It's not far inland from Pwllheli, though no hint of that seaside resort encroaches, and within fairly easy reach of Caernarfon Castle and Snowdonia. Superb hiking routes along a wild, undeveloped coastline are a short drive away, as is the stunning curved sweep of the Whistling Sands (so called because of the sound the you walk on them) where I have swum in surprisingly warm water. To the dismay of its frequent guests, owners Chris and Gunna Chown put it up for sale last year, thinking to retire. Recently it has operated as a b&b only. Now it is to function as a fully fledged hotel again. It's been taken off the market and the Chowns have taken on a former head chef at Bath's Royal Crescent Hotel, Chris Lovell, and his French wife Camille, who run the hotel from April 21. Rooms, which overlook the gardens, have free wi fi. Dinner, bed and breakfast prices for a minimum stay of two nights start at £225 a night per room.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

London's best lunch? Perfection in Pollen Street

Lunch is the most economical time to enjoy London's Michelin starred restaurants. That's when you get set menus at reasonable prices. And the best I have eaten in a long time - perhaps ever - was this week at Jason Atherton's Pollen Street Social, near Oxford Circus. It wasn't just the menu itself (2 courses for £32, 3 for £37) but the of little extras: an array of amuse gueules including tiny tartlets of beetroot and blackberry, a light mushroom drink with powder and a palate cleansing pre-dessert of courgette yoghurt and basil. And the main menu? My starter and dessert, respectively a slow cooked Burford Brown egg, turnip purée, parmesan, sage & kombu crumb,and chicken gravy - irresistibly reminiscent of a rich dish of eggs cooked with red wine that I kept drawing me back to a small restaurant in Montparnasse - and a dark chocolate marquise, milk mousse and honey ice cream were both impressive enough. But the star course was the main of roasted Cornish cod, flageolet beans, courgette and cockle chowder. This was simply stunning. The fish was just cooked so that it was flaky, delicate and near translucent . The chowder that remained the it was gone outgunned any I have eaten on the coast of New England - and that's saying something. It was excellent value, though the wine list wasn't for those on tight budgets. That said one doesn't consume irresponsibly at lunchtime and I could not begrudge paying £9.50 for a glass of delicious dryish Loire chenin blanc from a producer who had not exported to the UK before doing a deal with the restaurant. Add in pre dinner cocktails (this was by way of a minor celebration), coffees and 12.5% for service which could only be described as outstanding, and the total bill for four people came to approximately £280.And for those with a phobia of packed eateries with diners cheek by jowl, it's worth adding that this is the polar opposite. It's obvious;y popular with the business community but tables are sufficiently spaced that you'e unlikely to overhear any handy investment information. Is this the capital's best star lunch deal? I can't answer that of course, not having eaten my way through all of them. But it would be hard to beat.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Turkey holiday specialist fails

Antalya (image courtesy Turkish Culture & Tourism Office)
As holiday bookings to Turkey tumble, a UK tour operator specialising in travel there has ceased trading. Jewel in the Crown Holidays, based in Crawley, was licensed under the ATOL (Air Travel Organisers Licence) scheme run by the Civil Aviation Authority. That means customers with forward bookings will be refunded payments they have already made and any customers abroad when the company folded will be brought home. The firm also operated to other destinations including Cyprus, Greece, Sri Lanka and Egypt. It was not immediately clear how many customers had been hit by the collapse. The firm's demise will inevitably deepen concern at the impact on the travel industry of recent suicide bomb attacks in Istanbul and the downing of a Russian jet following its departure from Sharm el Sheikh on the Red Sea. It serves as a reminder that, especially in volatile times, it is important to ensure you are either covered by the ATOL umbrella or at the very least - if you are travelling independently - that you pay with a credit or charge card that provides refunds if an airline or other travel operator goes under. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is using Britons to take extra care in Turkey, where it says the threat from terrorism remains high. They should be extra vigilant in public places - particularly those frequented by tourists. One UK travel agency chain recently reported bookings to Turkey were almost 60% down compared with those taken by the same time last year. Meanwhile flights to Sharm remain grounded. Last week low cost airline Monarch announced that, in the absence of any Government relaxation of the flight ban, it was cancelling services there up to and including October 30. However, it said it would reassess the situation if the Government changed its view in the meantime.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Do holiday habits reveal EU voting intentions?

Portugal's Alentejo coast - does exploring make you more likely to be pre-EU?
How much do holiday habits tell us about who's like to vote to stay in the EU, and who's in favour of Brexit? If research commissioned by the trade publication Travel Weekly is to be believed, quite a lot. Those who detect an underlying tendency towards chauvinism among Brexiteers will have their prejudices confirmed by the finding that among Brits planning to holiday abroad this year the proportion in favour of staying in is ten percentage points higher than that rooting for an exit. Interestingly, the proportion likely to vote to remain increases among those intending to take more than one foreign trip. It may be simplistic but one could be forgiven for thinking that the more people travel abroad, the more pro-European they are. It is also reasonable to assume that, while conventional package holidays remain popular, faster growth in independent, DIY holiday arrangements reflects increased confidence in and familiarity with the European ethos. Certainly these frequent, inquisitive travellers, who are keen to explorer the less visited corners of European countries, are likely to be more acutely aware of the advantages of membership to travellers. Most noteworthy of these pluses have been an increase in the choice of low cost flights, compensation for air travellers delayed or overbooked, financial protection for people booking packages involving road or sea travel - and the European Health Insurance Card. Within the two groups highlighted as for or against Brexit there are inevitably nuances. The survey, which was carried out by research company TNS, found that older travellers were more likely to vote to leave but that wealthier holidaymakers and young adults were biased un favour of remaining.