Travel: Our man in Havana (well, eventually...)

Christmas Eve in Havana? Instead, I was checking in at Heathrow at 4.35am
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THE LAST time Cuba's national airline suffered a fatal accident was in August, on take-off from Quito in Ecuador. At the time, I explained that Cubana was the most dangerous airline for which reliable records exist - but reiterated my confidence in aviation safety standards by adding that I had bought a ticket on the airline to Havana for my Christmas holiday.

The good news: Tuesday's flight to Havana departed only three hours late and arrived safely. The bad news: a number of independent travellers who'd been hoping to spend the festive season in Cuba were not on board. Shortly before departure, we had our reservations cancelled by the airline.

A fortnight ago, the travel agent - Journey Latin America - called me to say that Cubana had cancelled all independent travellers' flight plans. Rather than repeat the sort of overbookings that have been revealed in these pages and on the BBC's weekend Watchdog, the airline took a close look at its bookings over Christmas and decided to reduce the pressure on its planes.

Cubana says that the way it did this was to ask the agent to confirm a batch of bookings, by issuing tickets and placing the ticket number in the reservations system. The airline claims that Journey Latin America failed to respond in time, and the reservations were duly cancelled.

The agent provides evidence, in the form of print-outs from the Amadeus computer reservations system, that appears to show that bookings had been cancelled with no warning.

For the punter, perhaps the most maddening aspect is that because of a loophole in consumer protection legislation, neither the airline nor the agent has any liability beyond that of returning the cash paid (without interest).

The lesson to be learnt from this Christmas kerfuffle is that the paying customers who got the chop were those who had booked only a flight. In an age when travellers are finally getting the consumer protection they deserve, you might imagine that we grounded travellers are entitled to some compensation for having our Christmas plans jeopardised.

To avoid finding yourself in the same position as me, whenever you book a flight, book something else at the same time through the agent that sells you the ticket. This can be as modest as a single night at a hotel, or a day's car rental. Legally, this converts your air ticket into a package - and instantly the provisions of the Package Travel Regulations come into effect. These give passengers redress if a holiday is cancelled shortly before departure. But if you have booked only a flight, then all you can do is hope that the agent will help you find some other way of getting to your destination.

Even so close to Christmas, Journey Latin America somehow managed to find space on an alternative flight on the French airline Air Outre Mer. But it meant losing the first two days of the trip, then flying out in the small hours of 24 December and seven hours of hanging around at Orly airport in Paris to change planes. If you happened to be checking in at Heathrow at 4.35am on Christmas Eve, I hope I wasn't too grumpy.

ON MONDAY morning, Britain's travel agents will begin in earnest the annual battle for the hearts and credit cards of holiday-makers.

In your local high street you can expect some good discount deals on summer 1999 holidays, without the old catch of having to buy overpriced insurance - the Government outlawed this technique last month. So take advantage of all the current competition between travel agents, and shop around.

One agency you won't find on the high street is Carlson Wagonlit, because it is a purely business travel agent. Six months ago, the company won the lucrative BBC account - and triggered an extraordinary amount of correspondence in the Beeb's in-house journal, Ariel.

"My cat could have come up with a better offer," complains one hard-pressed staff member - just part of the half-page tirade about Carlson Wagonlit in a recent issue. "I asked for a return flight, Heathrow to Amsterdam, leaving Wednesday, returning Thursday. They could pick times and flights." The company quoted pounds 260; the prospective passenger found a fare of pounds 70 elsewhere - and he took it.

Another unhappy customer is the radio presenter (and contributor to these pages) Nicola Barranger. She had to travel to Vienna for an important interview, at a time when the Austrian capital was hosting a conference of 20,000 cardiologists. (And what should the collective noun for such a gathering be: a ventricle? a pulse? a Valentine?)

"I headed for the Hotel Imperial where I had a ticket for a 2,300 schilling [about pounds 115] room. The room was in keeping with the name of the hotel, but when the butler appeared, I got worried. `Yes, we did confirm with Carlson that you wanted the 23,000-schilling room,' said young Heidi on the front desk. The room I was booked into at the licence-payer's expense cost a mere pounds 1,115 a night - not including breakfast."

Ms Barranger managed to extricate herself from the Imperial and found an alternative that was a lot less likely to give licence-payers heart failure. "The full version of my Carlson Wagonlit cock-up I now reserve for dinner parties only," she says.

ST PETERSBURG has been voted the world's best party city by the staff of British Airways. In a survey in High Life magazine, the airline's employees rated it above Madrid, Dublin and New York. And the hottest venue in Russia's second city? The Valhalla bar, where customers are given free use of Viking tunics and helmets.