Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Last of the summer whines
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The Independent Online

Anyone for breakfast? If you happen to be reading this in Brussels, this morning, try your luck and turn up at the Thomas Cook restaurant of the Hotel Bedford on the Avenue du Midi. Just arrive sometime between 6.45am and 10.30am; pretend to be my sister Penny and/or her son, Nicholas; and tuck into the expansive buffet.

I know for a fact that Penny and Nicholas will not be there, because instead they are in Amsterdam. Yet, for the last two nights they have had a room, with breakfast, booked at this opulent four-star hotel in central Brussels. They booked and paid for a hotel in which they had no intention of staying for one reason: it saved them a small fortune. This baffling state of affairs prevails because Eurostar stubbornly refuses to join the rest of the travel industry, here in the 21st century. Read on, because it may save you some cash, too.

Genes do not distribute every trait successfully among siblings. Proof: my sisters and brother are the most thoughtful, kind people you could ever hope to meet. Indeed, you will meet one of them if you happen to be on the 2.26 from Amsterdam Centraal to Brussels this afternoon. My sister Penny has taken my nephew Nicholas for an end-of-school-holidays city break to the beautiful Dutch capital. Furthermore, she took the planet into consideration in her choice of transport.

Unlike me (and, as I revealed last Saturday, many MEPs), Penny doesn't hop aboard the nearest plane, given half a chance. Instead, she opts for the train, despite the extra time and cost. If you have the wrong side of 12 hours to devote to a point-to-point trip of barely 200 miles, you can get from London to Amsterdam by train and the Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry for as little as £50 return (as recommended here last week). To halve the time, take the Eurostar to Brussels Midi, and make a simple change to the Amsterdam train.

The trouble is, while airlines try to make their fares look attractive, Eurostar seems to do its best to deter travellers from taking the train. The Channel Tunnel train operator boasts of a lowest fare of £59 return. But the combined fare for an adult and a teenager on the London-Brussels leg, travelling out two days ago and back tonight, came in at an astonishing £438. You could fly the entire Calder brood there and back for less.

Penny, though, knows that the travel industry does not always obey the rational rules of business. So she did not turn immediately to the easyJet or British Airways website. Instead, she persevered, delving deeper into the Eurostar options. Thinking laterally, she enquired what the identical rail trip would cost if she bought it as part of a package with a hotel thrown in. The answer: £175 less.

A couple of clicks later, and they were booked on to the train they wanted and into a hotel they had no intention of staying in.

Eurostar may be on the verge of moving into a spectacularly renovated St Pancras station, and running on the first true high-speed line from London, but its pricing structure is still languishing in the sidings of the early Nineties. In those high-fare days, airlines segregated leisure and business travellers using the blunt weapon of a "Saturday-night stay".

To qualify for a reasonable fare, you could return no earlier than the Sunday morning following your outbound departure. Business travellers, or anyone else with the temerity to want a short break during the week, had to pay a punitive fare that bore no relation to the economic cost of providing a seat.

Stelios rained on the profiteering parade: the easyJet founder declared himself indifferent to travellers flying out and back on the same day, out to one city and back from another, or out by air and back by thumb or pogo stick. Once the traditional airlines saw their market melting away, they abandoned the Saturday-night rule. Nowadays, almost all short-haul airlines offer one-way fares that you can stitch together at will.

Eurostar, though, has stuck to its over-priced, under-flexible guns. Yet it also wants to be in the short-break game. So it has a contract with the online agency Expedia to provide train-plus-hotel "dynamically packaged" deals in Brussels, Lille and Paris. Expedia demands a reliable allocation of seats on Eurostar trains at reasonable fares, and because it recognises that we often want to travel during the week, applies no penalty for stays that don't include a Saturday night.

The upshot: my sister gets a train she does want and a hotel she doesn't want for £263 all-in. You can profit from this, too: if you are quoted what you regard as an absurd fare by Eurostar, ask for the price of a package involving a hotel and using the same trains. "The saving in this case seems very extreme, but certainly, on our website, we tell people that if you book a hotel you may save money," says Gareth Headon of Eurostar.

The last time I wanted to travel by Eurostar, my starting point was Gare du Nord, the line's Paris terminus. My destination was London Waterloo, where I happen to live. But the operator's prehistoric pricing structure meant it would cost me nearly four times as much to take the train one way as to fly. So while British Airways gained, Eurostar and the environment lost. "We think we've got a pricing structure that's right at present," says Headon. "Ninety-seven per cent of our customers want return trips." Dare I suggest that the reason only 3 per cent book one-way trips is because the fares are so high?

Pilgrims' choice

Starting an airline is a supreme act of faith: most such ventures fall, expensively, on the stoniest of ground. But at least the Vatican, which has just launched its own pilgrimage plane, can expect divine assistance. Its Boeing 737 is operated by Mistral Air (a charter carrier owned, implausibly, by the Italian post office) but painted yellow and white, the Vatican colours.

Now, pilgrimages traditionally involve a certain amount of suffering, which is perhaps why Ryanair's flights from Stansted to Pau, in the Pyrenees, prove so popular among Catholics heading for Lourdes. But the HQ of the Roman Catholic Church has decided to provide pilgrims in Rome with a low-cost short-hop alternative to the long walk to places such as Santiago de Compostela in Spain or Fatima in Portugal. Later, the Holy Land is expected to feature in flight plans, as well as shrines in Latin America.

The inflight experience has a spiritual aspect – not in the sense of "In the event of a landing on water, just walk to safety", but with biblical quotes on the headrest covers. The new airline also has a slogan – "We are searching for your face, Lord" – though I much prefer "On a wing and a prayer". But what it does not appear to have is a name. If the new airline needs extra 737s in a hurry, it could always borrow them from Bournemouth-based Palmair, and simply insert an "s" after the first letter. Other ideas: you've heard of Ryanair, now try Shrine Air; CruciJet could outclass easyJet; and to describe the concept of shifting 150,000 pilgrims around Europe: Mass Transit.

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