Travel: Buy, fly ..but beware: Nicole Bridel on flight discounts that come with high-street goods

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The Independent Culture
TWO FREE flights to America] Buy one ticket to Australia, get one free] Forty per cent off Virgin Atlantic fares] All this reads like the ultimate travel agency window display. Only it isn't. Flight discounts are the latest sales tactic used by manufacturers and retailers to shift everything from vacuum cleaners and televisions to cans of lager.

The most startling offer comes from Hoover, with a nationwide promotion offering two free tickets to America with every pounds 100-plus spent buying its appliances. Customers spending pounds 300 or more are also entitled to claim a pounds 60 accommodation and car-hire voucher. Hoover says you must spend either one or two weeks on the holiday.

The offer has been very successful: the company has recruited temporary staff at its manufacturing plants to fulfil a surge in customer demand. The offer is due to expire on 31 December, so don't be surprised if a vacuum cleaner or washing- machine turns up in your Christmas stocking.

Flights to Orlando and New York are being offered on charter carriers from Gatwick and Manchester, and on scheduled flights out of Glasgow for travel between February 1993 and April 1994. With the cheapest available published fare to Orlando being approximately pounds 299, the pounds 100-

plus deal begs the question: 'What is the catch?'

The first potential hiccup is finding a flight which will slot into your holiday plans. Hoover's flight leaflet warns that availability is very limited during peak holiday periods. There is no guarantee that you will fly when you want to.

If eligible, you will be asked to nominate three dates which the Warwick-based travel agent Your Leisure will attempt to match with a flight. If it is unable to provide flights on your preferred dates, you will be asked for three more. Finally, if Your Leisure still cannot provide flights, it will offer you three that are available.

Still not suitable? Too bad - Hoover's obligation has ended. By contrast, booking through a travel agency means access to hundreds of carriers on hundreds of dates. Charter carriers are also more prone to last-minute cancellations and often depart at unsociable hours. Also, don't be surprised if the flight makes several stop-overs on the way to Orlando or New York.

Hoover has said it will use scheduled carriers from Glasgow, including British Airways and Northwest Airlines. But these services are often heavily booked. If you don't live near Gatwick, Manchester or Glasgow, don't forget travelling costs to the airports. Northern Ireland participants must pay a pounds 65 supplement to fly from Belfast to the mainland.

On the plus side this deal does not oblige you to book the rest of the holiday through Your Leisure, so you can shop around for accommodation, car hire and insurance. However, Your Leisure offers to arrange accommodation from pounds 19.95 a night, plus discounted car hire and insurance.

The Hoover campaign follows in the heels of Sainsbury's 'Buy and Fly' promotion which ended last month. Sainsbury said the offer attracted up to a thousand responses a day. Virgin Atlantic has also caught the discount-travel bug, running two promotions with Texas Homecare and Toshiba Nicam. The Texas Homecare deal entitles customers spending more than pounds 20 in one visit to clip up to 40 per cent off Virgin's 'economy special' 21-day Apex fares to Boston, New York, Miami and Los Angeles. But you'll have to make your plans quickly, as the last booking will be taken on 9 January, with travel to be completed by 31 January 1993.

You still have until 31 January to buy a Toshiba Nicam television or video recorder to qualify for Virgin's 'two flights for the price of one' offer. Travel to Tokyo, Miami, Boston, New York or Los Angeles must be completed by 31 March - but don't expect to fly during the peak Christmas period of 17 December-5 January. Flights at other times are subject to availability.

The deal also gives limited flexibility with insurance, requiring participants to book through Sheridan Travel in London or any other travel agent nominated by Toshiba. Up to 17 days' cover is offered for pounds 34. Airport and security tax applies to all travellers, and currently costs pounds 20.

The Australian brewing company Foster's has also entered the ring. It is offering two-for-

the-price-of-one flights to 31 destinations including Sydney, Melbourne, Los Angeles and San Francisco, in exchange for 12-draught ring-pulls from cans bearing the free-flights promotion logo. Flights must be booked by 31 July 1993 for travel before 30 November 1993 - and must include one Saturday night stop-over. In this case too, travel insurance must be booked through Foster's appointed travel agents, from approximately pounds 12 per person.

The Scottish region chairman for the Association of British Travel Agents, Muir Anderson, warns of other hidden costs in buy-one-get-one- free deals. He quotes a case where someone was having difficulty getting a flight to match his holiday plans. 'He was finally told he would have to pay pounds 600 for one ticket to qualify for the free fare, so he went to a travel agent around the corner which was not participating in the deal,' Mr Anderson said. 'He managed to buy two tickets for pounds 300 each on the exact flights he wanted.'

Finally, Abta's corporate affairs spokesman, Keith Betton, warns people taking advantage of free-flight deals that they are not eligible for Abta financial protection if agencies organising the deals go bust: 'I wouldn't advise people to buy goods just with the aim of getting a discounted holiday. If the agency organising the flights goes under, Abta can only recompense if money has changed hands specifically for travel.'

People should also be wary of free accommodation-only offers, he says. They usually result in travellers fending off a time-share representative. Mr Betton added: 'The recession means holidays have never been so keenly priced.'

Full terms and conditions applying to any promotions mentioned in this article should be obtained from the relevant company.