Travel: The representatives of Belgium are engaged in a custody battle over Brussels

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The Independent Culture
"MY MOTHER will be celebrating her 65th birthday on 16 December", writes Tracey Smith, of Hertfordshire. "We both wish to do something special to commemorate the day." Mother and daughter hatched several plans for treats by train. The British end of the Orient Express was first on the list, but the company could offer only a lunch-time trip to nowhere, lasting three hours.

"Plan B was to take Eurostar to Lille and find a super restaurant for lunch. Sounded great, until I found from their latest brochure that the fare would be pounds 180 for me, pounds 89 for my mother - a rather exorbitant price for a day return. We then had to lower our sights somewhat, and are considering a day return via King's Cross to York, price pounds 50.60."

The pair's preferred option is Eurostar; the pounds 180 fare to Lille and back could be reduced by pounds 42 by buying two cheap, restricted return tickets and using half of each. Can anyone suggest a better money-saver?

BECAUSE LILLE is on the French side of the Franco-Belgian border, you can get tourist information by asking the French tourist office. If you planned to visit Brussels, the next stop on the Eurostar line, you might think it would be a simple matter of contacting the Belgian tourist office. The trouble is, it has disappeared. Belgium's representatives in Britain have divorced, and are currently engaged in a custody battle over the capital.

The linguistic divide between the French in the south and the Flemish in the north means that there are now two representatives in London. The "Belgian Tourist Office, Brussels and Ardennes" is the French one, while "Tourism Flanders Brussels" looks after the Flemish-speaking part of the country.

Yes, Brussels crops up twice. The Flemish say it falls within their territory, while the French maintain that they form the linguistic majority in the capital, and naturellement must represent it. And pity the poor traveller wanting to visit the German-speaking regions in the east of the country.

"WE ARE arranging overnight accommodation within the local area." Those words from an airline are guaranteed to spoil the start of a holiday, when a plane is so delayed that the crew cannot legally complete the flight in the hours available. Passengers on Leisure International's charter from Gatwick to Cuba earlier this month suffered a 24-hour wait after their plane "went technical". What dismayed prospective holiday-makers even more than the delay was the airline's definition of "the local area". Not Crawley, within whose borders Gatwick lies, and which has almost as many hotels as the whole of Cuba; nor London. Leisure International's idea of a local hotel is 25 miles away on the south coast, in Brighton.

LAST WEEK I mentioned that flights to Madrid on the Luton-based airline Debonair were delayed, on average, by 71 minutes in the second quarter of this year. The airline says the delay was "only" 48 minutes. Why the discrepancy? It seems to be that the CAA is measuring the departure time from Luton, while Debonair measures time according to the arrival in Madrid. Because the schedule is "padded" by extra time, it is entirely possible that a flight leaving Luton 71 minutes late could arrive at the Spanish capital "only" 48 minutes after the scheduled time.

In the last few months, says Debonair, the delay has fallen to 28 minutes. Why not add half-an-hour to the official times, and achieve instant punctuality?