Travel: Simon Calder column

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The Independent Culture
YOU ARE probably a public-spirited sort of person, keen to enhance the enjoyment of people who follow in your holiday footsteps. So when, on the plane home from your package holiday, you are given a questionnaire to fill in, you dutifully appraise everything from the hotel check-in to the in-flight service, in the hope that your views will lead to happier travels for others.

But if you have done this on a Thomson holiday, prepare to be directed to a new travel agent. Britain's biggest holiday company has built up a mailing list of people who have filled in a "customer satisfaction questionnaire" on their holidays in recent years. This week, the database was put to use when half a million households were sent mailshots urging people to change their travel agent - in my case, recommending that I try one 200 miles away.

The "Thomson Preferred Agent" is Miss Ellie's International of Heaton Chapel, in Greater Manchester. No doubt it is a fine agency. But I like my local branch of Going Places; the agency is staffed with friendly, capable people, and it has the great advantage of being on my cycle route to and from work. In the last few years I have booked holidays through them, with Going Places' parent company, Airtours; with another big operator, First Choice; and, on several occasions, with Thomson.

Given that I have spent about pounds 2,000 on its holidays through Going Places in the last three years, why should Thomson want me to move? Is it because I will get better service from the staff in Manchester, or is it simply that Miss Ellie's International sells more Thomson holidays? I look forward to hearing from the company.

Going Places may also wish to respond over the way that its customers are being poached by its arch-rival Thomson. And you may wish to consider whether or not to fill in one of those customer service questionnaires, given that it may lead to unsolicited mail directing you 200 miles away.

In a spirit of encouraging competition, I shall be paying a visit to Miss Ellie's International in the next couple of weeks. So far, the best deal to reach it is on Virgin Trains, for pounds 19 return. I wonder if there's anything cheaper? It's at times like this that you need a good travel agent.

NIC STUBBS, of Northampton, had a less happy experience with a branch of Going Places. Referring to last week's story about airlines pretending that taxes will rise from Monday, he writes: "If you think airlines are being sneaky about price rises, Going Places are pretty blatant about it. Last week I went to book a return flight for one from Birmingham to Dublin, for the end of April. I was quoted a reasonable price of pounds 70, plus pounds 10 tax and pounds 1 SAR (whatever that is).

"Then the assistant said `Oh, that comes to less than pounds 100, so we charge you pounds 10 extra.' I went to an independent travel agent the following day and booked my flight without any surcharge.

"I can appreciate that they may not have made a huge amount from my booking at either travel agent, but I know which one I shall do business with in the future."

Mr Stubbs also hints that the second agent may have been rather more knowledgeable: "The independent travel agent knew the code for Dublin airport without having to ask me."

The code in question is the tricky-to-remember DUB.

FIVE MONTHS from tonight, expect wailing from cigarette and drink manufacturers. Duty-free sales on intra-EU flights and ferries come to an end on 30 June. The demise of duty-frees within Europe influenced P&O Stena Line's decision to end the ferry link between Newhaven and Dieppe. As Gerard Gilbert predicted in these pages last month, the plug has now been pulled and the last ship will sail tomorrow.

Happily, a rival ferry company thinks it can make a go of the historic route. Hoverspeed (0990 240241) starts a summer-only service on 10 April.

This is excellent news for eclipse fans, who will be able to watch the sun's disappearance on 11 August from Normandy The ferry is already booked for that date, but three- and five-day return tickets are available.

I'd love to view the eclipse from west Cornwall instead, but Great Western Trains yesterday said it was still unable to take bookings for the event. The train operator said Railtrack has not yet revealed what services it will allow to Penzance& in August.