Travel: Something to Declare

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The Independent Culture
Trouble spots: Rome

WE HAD been warned about handbag-snatchers in Rome, but expected this to be a come-past-you-on-a-scooter-and-pull-it-off-your-shoulder scenario. What happened was more of the jostle-you-in-the-Tube-and-remove-the-contents- of-your-handbag-before-nipping-out-the-door-as-it-closes variety.

What really annoyed me about the way it happened was that in the crowded carriage I had shifted my grip to try to be more considerate to a young woman nearby and not force my armpit into her face. Now I swayed more, and my wife took her attention from her bag to prevent my falling. And - you've guessed it - the woman was the pickpocket! We were obviously prime targets: straight off the plane, loaded with currency, still encumbered by a suitcase. We should have been paying more attention, and had all valuables stashed away further from reach. But we weren't the first to make this mistake, nor will we be the last. The police station virtually has a special office for "English tourists who have been pickpocketed".

When planning your trip abroad, think about what will happen if one of you loses everything. Our mistake was to have a shared Access/Mastercard account. You can't cancel one card and keep using the other. We had to place a security status check on the account, so that we could continue to use the remaining card to pay for meals and the hotel.

But the prospect of explaining away at the end of a meal why your transaction has been suspended, and that the patron must phone Britain so that you can answer some security questions, did not appeal. We paid off the hotel early, then cancelled the card and applied for some emergency cash, which we finally got hold of the next day. At least in Rome you can find a McDonald's in some pretty wonderful locations.

Martin Scudamore

True or false

VENEZUELAN DEPARTURE tax is negotiable. True, if you are skint. Since the collapse of the Venezuelan airline Viasa at the beginning of 1997, travellers have been benefiting from fierce competition to fill the gaps left on the country's domestic routes.

Most notable has been the growing number of small operators flying light aircraft and offering significantly lower fares. The 40-minute flight, for example, between Caracas and the island of Margarita with Avensa/Servivensa (Venezuela's principal airline, and often the only operator bookable through UK agents) costs Bs32,000 (pounds 35.60) one way. Shop around and book the flight in Venezuela and you can fly the same route on an eight-seat light aircraft with LTA for just Bs12,000 (pounds 13.20).

However, flying with Air Venezuela to Caracas last month to connect with a flight to London highlighted some of the pitfalls of Venezuelan air travel. While we queued to pay for our tickets at Porlamar airport, the flight was cancelled without explanation. Despite having made a telephone reservation and waving a booking reference, only those who had paid for their tickets were offered help by the airline. The rest of us were left trying to secure a seat on a flight with a different airline just 10 minutes before its scheduled departure.

The new fare, with Aeropostal, was considerably more expensive and, owing to the rush, it had to be paid for in cash. This had the knock-on effect that we arrived at Caracas airport for our Iberia connection to London without enough of the correct currency for the departure tax of Bs17,000 (pounds 19), which is payable only in cash in Venezuelan bolivars or US dollars.

Sunday banking hours, not one working ATM machine in both terminals and unhelpful Iberia staff conspired to deprive us of the necessary cash to board our plane. As our departure time fast approached we raised the stakes and asked to speak to someone more senior, which resulted in us being asking: "OK, how much have you got, then?" We ended up paying Bs6,000(pounds 6.60) for the two of us in a transaction more commonly seen at a Venezuelan flea market than at an international airport.

Jon Winter