Travel: Student card? That'll do nicely

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The Independent Culture
HOWEVER empty their wallets and poor their employment prospects, students keep travelling. 'Talking to students all over the country,' says Carmen Barrett of Campus Travel, 'it seems many of them are prepared to take out loans in order to travel.' Recognising the freedom bestowed by student status, undergraduates place a high value on seeing the world. To help them, a wide range of cut-price deals is available on trains, boats and planes. The best bargains are not available direct from air, rail and ferry operators, but are sold only through agents.

The value of an International Student Identity Card (Isic) is indicated by the thriving black market in Isics in such places as Bangkok. The real thing makes students of any age eligible for cheap fares worldwide. Students no longer have a monopoly on the best deals, however; anyone under 26 qualifies for an almost identical range of discounts. Stiffer competition among competing operators, particularly for air travel, means the differential between student fares and prices paid by 'normal' travellers is narrowing. Yet the Isic can still save many times its cost, not least by securing discounts at museums, restaurants and hostels.

Insurance is essential, particularly as students tend to be more adventurous than most travellers. All the student travel organisations offer good-value policies; Council Travel's might appeal to those planning to fly on some of the cheaper and less reliable airlines; it includes up to pounds 400 for 'catch-up' expenses after a missed connection.

TRAINS: The Inter-Rail card, allowing a month's unlimited travel on the railways of Europe, has come of age. Yet the value of the pass looks questionable in its 21st summer. The price is pounds 249, to which you must add the cost of getting to the Continent. Another problem is that Inter-Railers are prone to a mania whereby they seek maximum value by travelling incessantly. A cheaper and more relaxed approach is to buy a round-trip on a specific routing. An itinerary taking you from London to Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Zurich and Brussels costs pounds 190 from Eurotrain. You can stop off anywhere you like, and spend two months on the circuit.

Eurotrain also offers Explorer passes for specific countries. For pounds 13, for example, you can get unlimited travel for a week in the Baltic republics. In my experience you could travel every inch of the railways of the Baltics and still have change from ten quid, but the pass means you do not need to learn how to say 'two singles to Kaliningrad' in Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian.

BOATS: International train tickets from the UK include the cost of the Channel ferry, but this summer motoring students can get discounts on Stena Sealink routes. Two students and a car can travel from Newhaven to Dieppe and back for pounds 98. A student card can secure discounts on dozens of other services, notably the network of ferries in the Baltic, and on some Mediterranean routes.

The craftiest travellers wanting to save on a Channel crossing dispense with booking in advance. They simply turn up at a Channel port and buy a day return ticket - invariably cheaper than the one-way fare - and throw away the return half. The catch is that bulky baggage is forbidden, in a bid to stamp out such abuse of cheap fares.

PLANES: Why, when the airline industry is losing so much money, should carriers offer outstandingly cheap deals for students? One answer is that they recognise today's students are tomorrow's business travellers, and want to engender brand loyalty. A more realistic explanation is that airlines will seek to fill seats at virtually any price, and selling tickets at hefty discounts to students is a good way to attract discretionary travellers.

Charter fares to Mediterranean destinations are open to everyone. For cut-price deals on scheduled routes, however, student travel agents offer unbeatable prices. Long-haul, the picture is rather different. Some splendid bargains, especially to North America, are open only to students. But more and more airlines offer excellent fares for all.

Bridge The World offers one of the best-value fares ever: from London to Australia for pounds 278 one-way. The cost per mile is just 2p, but the routing is unusual. It begins at Gatwick with a flight to Boston, then a connecting flight to New York's La Guardia airport. You are invited to spend the night at your own expense in Manhattan, checking in next day at Kennedy airport. From here you head to the Japanese city of Osaka, losing a day at the international date line on the way, followed by the last long leg to Sydney. Cheap, but you might not necessarily be cheerful when you finally arrive.

USEFUL NUMBERS

Bridge The World: 071-911 0900.

Campus Travel / Eurotrain: 071- 730 3402.

Council Travel: Europe 071-287 1565, worldwide 071-437 7767.

STA Travel: Europe 071-937 9921, North America 071-937 9971, rest of the world 071-937 9962.

Travel Cuts: Europe 071-255 1944, worldwide 071-637 3161.

The International Student Identity Card is available to full-time students from student travel offices for pounds 5, or by post for pounds 5.50 from Isic Mail Order, Bleaklow House, Howard Town Mills, Mill Street, Glossop SK13 8PT.

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