Travel: Britain's train companies are running a free bus service for weary journalists

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The Independent Culture
THE LAST couple of months of each year are happy days for the travel journalist. On Thursday, many of my colleagues will be flown over to southern Spain courtesy of the Association of British Travel Agents, to attend ABTA's annual convention in the resort of Marbella.

Everything has been taken care of: Manchester airport has even chipped in by posting the hacks a 100-peseta coin with the message "Don't get your trolleys in a twist". The coin is what you need to rent a trolley at Malaga airport, though the donor has got its flight plans into something of a twist by suggesting you use it at Marbella airport - a facility that has yet to be built.

The ladies and gentlemen of the press are then taken to the five-star Hotel Don Pepe, and can pick from a wide range of social activities offered by travel companies eager to ply them with hospitality: one invitation requests an RSVP because "you know how much people in travel drink". If you need help getting back to your hotel, catch the free shuttle bus provided by, wait for it, the Association of Train Operating Companies. Money that ATOC could be spending on getting your train to run on time is being diverted to provide a bus service for tired and emotional journalis.

Then, as November gets into its stride, so too does the travel industry. The World Travel Market, starting in London on 16 November, offers another few dozen excuses for a binge. Malaysia has come up with a handy solution to the problem of how to make its event stand out from all the others. Journalists who attend the press conference given by the Minister of Tourism "will be nominated to participate in press trips to Malaysia" - a more enticing prospect for some than, say, the home-grown wines offered by the Tunisian tourist office.

The problem with all this generosity: when are we poor hacks supposed to find time to write? Happily, the travel industry provides a solution: "I thought you might like to use the enclosed feature", reads a discreet letter from a posh London B&B agency, Uptown Reservations. "Feel free to use it with your own byline." So if you read a story extolling the virtues of "a chocolate-box Georgian cottage in a quiet by-way a short walk from Harrod's", you will know that the writer has succumbed to the excess of travel hospitality.

BAD LUCK if you were flying from Luton to Sanford in Florida earlier this year. The Civil Aviation Authority's latest punctuality figures show the average delay on these holiday charters was over three hours. Scheduled flights from the Bedfordshire airport fared little better: easyJet's timekeeping was dismal on its flights to Edinburgh and Amsterdam, with delays of half an hour and 40 minutes respectively - in the case of Amsterdam, as long as the flight time.

Debonair's route between Luton and Madrid suffered an average hold-up of 71 minutes. If this were a train service, the company would have to compensate passengers one-fifth of the fare paid for each hour of tardiness. But since a booking on a particular flight is little more than a vague promise to get you from A to B, possibly via C, at sometime in the future, air travellers get nothing.

The worst record of all was on El Al from Stansted to New York: regularly more than two hours late, with no flights at all on time.