Travel: One excellent attribute of the British travel industry is its sheer diversity

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The Independent Culture
PAUL SIMON boarded one in Pittsburgh to search for America; Wrigley chewing-gum depicted a freshly minted romance aboard another; and Dustin Hoffman dragged Katharine Ross from the altar on to one in The Graduate. The Greyhound bus is part of the American dream. And from next month, it is to be available from the UK's biggest holiday company.

The latest acquisition in the travel industry means that Thomson, the people who brought you cheap holidays in the Med, can now sell you a bus ticket across America, or indeed book you a hostel in Sydney. In the past year, Thomson has bought up Greyhound International and the long-haul specialist Austravel.

For all its many faults, one excellent attribute of the British travel industry is its sheer diversity. If you want to buy a car, your choice is limited to a handful of manufacturers. Need a holiday? The UK's travel agents and tour operators can offer you anything from a weekend at Butlins to a year on a truck going from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

These two experiences are the extremes of a continuum that embraces city breaks and skiing holidays as well as the Mediterranean package that 10 million of us take each summer. Thousands of companies sell the dreams that we avidly consume. But, like endangered species, the range of holiday firms is reducing with every week.

Crystal Holidays has built up its winter sports business to become the market leader in ski holidays, eclipsing Thomson. Last week, Britain's biggest tour operator bought Crystal. Travellers booked with either company this winter should notice no difference, as the coming season's plans will go ahead unchanged. But what will happen next year?

Thomson says the acquisition will enable it to provide even better value, thanks to cost savings that increasing scale generates on everything from computer systems to coach transfers. And after spending four years examining competition in Britain's travel industry, Whitehall has concluded that, by and large, it works well.

The Department of Trade and Industry is insisting on a few changes, like outlawing the practice of linking discounts to the sale of overpriced insurance from November. But there have been no objections to the flurry of takeovers that have seen Airtours swallow Direct Holidays, Sunworld acquire Flying Colours (purveyors of Club 18-30 frolics) and First Choice ingest Unijet and Hayes & Jarvis. Kuoni and Panorama are hot tips as the next targets for takeovers.

Yet Britain's travel industry got where it is today - selling holidays far cheaper than those sold in Continental Europe - through blistering competition. The risk with all these mergers is that less competition can mean higher prices and poorer service. That, after all, was the result when Continental Trailways ceased to be a serious rival to Greyhound.

WHEN YOU want to order big, expensive planes, the choice is limited to two companies: Airbus and Boeing. Could British Airways' decision on Tuesday to order Airbus aircraft for the first time have anything to do with the punctuality problems of its existing Boeing fleet?

The new edition of BA's Executive Club News unwittingly illustrates the scale of the challenge with a photograph of the domestic departures board at Heathrow, which shows two of the five flights, to Belfast and Manchester, as "delayed".

Meanwhile easyJet's brand new Boeing, the first of a dozen ordered by the no-frills airline for pounds 25m each, did not enjoy a happy debut.

The shiny new 737 first took to the skies with fare-paying passengers on Monday, but limped back to Luton airport from Nice with its tail figuratively between its legs in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

A combination of crew logistics and technical problems was blamed for the delay.

"FOR A modern, economical car it's not an unreasonable claim", says Michael Johnson of the AA. He refers to the assertion in the new Autumn Gold brochure from the Scottish Tourist Board that "It is possible to drive from London to Scotland on only a tank of petrol".

Two questions: do you know of a car that, however economically driven, would be unable to manage the 320 miles between the English capital and the Scottish border at Gretna? And, if you do, how would you rate the chances of the STB paying for you to be towed from the hard shoulder of the M6?

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