Simon Calder's travel column

Putting up with the same humiliating photograph could make the difference between staying or going
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The Independent Culture
THE WATCHERS in Astral Towers know a great deal about me, and probably you. Astral Towers is the headquarters of the Air Miles organisation. It is a gleaming glass building in one of the nicer parts of Crawley, housing several hundred staff, plus an extremely sophisticated computer system that tracks our travelling and spending habits.

The Air Miles computer knows, for example, how much I spend on my credit card; how often I fly with the company's owner, British Airways; and the fares I pay (never expensive enough to qualify for Air Miles, sadly). The digital deity also knows that in March I booked a short break with the holidays branch of Air Miles to Amsterdam; that I flew out at 8.40pm on Thursday; and that shortly before midnight I would arrive at the Hotel Lancaster, for which I had paid pounds 60.

So it was a bit of a surprise to wake up yesterday morning at the Eden Hotel, a mile or two away. This had nothing to do with indulgence in any of the substances for which Amsterdam is famed, such as Heineken and dope; it was overbooking, pure and simple. When I arrived at the Lancaster, I smiled smugly as I saw the "No Vacancies" sign on the door, safe in the knowledge that I had a voucher for a room in my cold little hand.

No room at the inn. After 20 minutes of the receptionist phoning around, I was dispatched to the Eden. When I mildly enquired what had happened to my confirmed reservation, I was told "Just be glad there's a room for you here". Has anyone else in the galaxy of Independent readers suffered an ill-starred trip at the hands of Astral Towers?

LAST YEAR at this time, British Airways launched the aviation sale of the century, with two million flights at ridiculous prices. This weekend, the airline is offering a "sale of the end of the century" - but be warned that the deals are not nearly so good as last time.

The best deal to Perth in Western Australia, for example, is pounds 495 return - rather more than the fare levels available on the discount market. Similarly, Rio at pounds 350 and Buenos Aires at pounds 399 would have been news five years ago, but are now run-of-the- mill prices.

European fares are rather more favourable. You can fly from London, Manchester or Birmingham to Brussels for pounds 69 return, while for a tenner more you can travel London-Luxembourg and back. The best deals in this promotion, though, are for inclusive breaks with British Airways Holidays, which is offering a flight and two nights in various European cities: Barcelona for pounds 175, Vienna for pounds 179 and Paris for an impressive pounds 99. (These deals are all being organised, by the way, from good old Astral Towers - British Airways Holidays shares space with Air Miles.)

The sale starts at 9am today (Saturday) and runs for 60 hours, expiring at 9pm Monday evening. The offers are for travel outbound between 12 June and 15 July; flights require a minimum two-night stay. You can book with British Airways on 0345 222111 or through a travel agent.

ALL THIS talk of overseas travel may be academic for those whose applications for passports are stuck in the queue at the Passport Agency. The normal waiting time at this time of year is a fortnight or so, but delays - blamed on "teething problems" with a new computer system - have built up to as much as 10 weeks. Three hundred emergency staff have been taken on to deal with the backlog, but the simple solution used during industrial action at the Home Office a decade ago has so far not been adopted to deal with the present crisis: people whose passports were about to expire could call in at their local office and get an instant, free extension of a year.

Most of us would put up with another 12 months with a humiliating passport photograph (see the example above), if it meant the difference between staying home or getting away.

You can call the Passport Agency on 0990 210 410 for more information, but don't hold your breath; I've tried a dozen calls at different times from Tuesday to Thursday, and hit the engaged tone every time.

IT'S COST pounds 100m, and some people have described it as "building the Taj Mahal in Bedfordshire" - but you and I will be unable to sample its manifold glories until "some time in the autumn". I refer, of course, to Sir Norman Foster's splendid new terminal at Luton Airport. The structure was due to open this week, giving summer holidaymakers nearly twice as much check-in space as before. But the airport now says the opening has been postponed until after the busy summer season has finished.

Luton ceased to be an aviation joke on 10 November 1995, when the first easyJet flight took off from Luton bound for Edinburgh. Since then, no- frills airlines have helped boost passenger numbers from fewer than two million in 1995 to five million this year. Now that summer charter passengers are crossing baggage trolleys with the scheduled regulars, Luton may not be a happy place this summer.

Arch-rival Stansted, 30 miles away in Essex, is delighted - not least because Luton Airport's own railway station is running more than two years late, and is not now expected to open until November.

TOURISM-BASED businesses in Cornwall - which, these days, means most enterprises in the South West - are hoping for a late pick-up in bookings for the week of the eclipse, which takes place at 11.11am on 11 August. But the National Trust, which owns a lot of land in the area, is not helping the cause with its plans to restrict opening hours. The trust says that its properties in the track of the eclipse will open late on 11 August because of "safety and access issues related to the prolonged period of darkness during the morning of the eclipse". Perhaps the staff can use the time off to pursue their passport applications.

THE LATEST edition of Lonely Planet's on-line newsletter poses an intriguing quiz: which two national capitals are closest together? The answer is Brazzaville in Congo and Kinshasa in Democratic Congo, separated by 14 miles.

You may wish to suggest the most proximate pair of European capitals. Two clues: the result is not affected if you regard England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as separate countries; and the prize for the first correct answer is LP's Central Europe on a Shoestring - that's Central Europe.

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