It is fashionable to sneer at the imagined financial and intellectual bankruptcy of a fortnight on some Costa or other. Many people see themselves as Travellers, not Tourists, who would never get embroiled in something so tacky. But as a nation of voyagers, we all benefit from the unique conditions created by the annual exodus to the Mediterranean. If you have never browsed the brochures or surfed through Teletext to find your place in the sun, - how would you know how wrong your outdated stereotypes are?
Few would argue that Gatwick's South Terminal was a pleasant place to be over the weekend, but the option of pre-assigned seats means queues move faster. And there is no need to sweat it out in a departure lounge cluttered with children and crisp packets: for pounds 10 you can buy your way into an executive lounge, where the only shrieks are from the jets taking off outside the window. The noisiest and most elderly specimens are unlikely to be charter planes taking package tourists to the Mediterranean. But the leading British charter airlines such as Airtours International, Britannia and Air 2000 have more modern fleets than many scheduled carriers. Next time you fly on the scheduled airline Ryanair look for a brass plate near the door of the Boeing 737 showing the original owner to be Britannia, Thomson's in-house airline. Britannia uses much newer, cleaner and quieter aircraft.
With the new planes comes the latest inflight entertainment: if you fly to Malaga on Airtours International or Britannia, you will be treated to Blackadder on screen or Blur on audio; on the Spanish scheduled airline Iberia, passengers are lucky if they get a newspaper. Further evidence that charter flights are more fun arrives with the inflight meal, more substantial and appetising than the scheduled equivalent. On the margins of the business, however, unusual and exotic aircraft sometimes crop up. In past summers, ex-Soviet aircraft complete with Latvian crew have helped cope with demand in peak times from Gatwick.
But mostly well fed and looked after, you are met at the airport by a "holiday services executive" (no reps any more) who directs you to the transfer coach - and the tender care of the tour operator. No irony is intended: package holidaymakers are offered an extraordinary amount of legal protection. The chance of your hotel being half-built is almost nil, since the holiday company cannot risk a string of claims for non- delivery of promised facilities. The tour operator is responsible for your well-being throughout your stay, and will even intervene in a dispute with a third party. Suppose you slip on the seafront at Benimolinos: your holiday company will pay up to pounds 5,000 to help you sue the local council. The Airtours '97 brochure, for example, promises "provision of translation services, communication with authorities and others in foreign resorts and recommending foreign lawyers". It is hard to think of any other product where the buyer is accorded such protection.
Buried in the same small print, though, you read that not everything is swinging the consumer's way. Britain's tour operators are presently trying to sell us holidays 15 months ahead. If you book now for a week in Majorca in October 1997, the company can decide to send you to a different part of Spain or, indeed, an entirely different country without paying compensation. After an appalling year in 1995, when the top 30 operators lost pounds 10m between them, companies have trimmed their sales. Now some of the proposed flights - planned by the operators a year ago - are cancelled, and the passengers transferred to other departures. In my case, for example, a departure time was shifted six hours later on the outbound and four hours earlier inbound, shaving nearly half a day from a four- day Easter break.
My grumbles stopped at the resort, where I was reminded of the exceptional value the UK package tourist enjoys. Leaving aside the ludicrously cheap last-minute bargains of last summer, British tourists typically pay one- third less than other nationalities. Minimal management and maximised utilisation of aircraft means you reach the resort more cheaply, and hard bargaining with property owners ensures relatively low prices.
You can enrage your fellow Europeans around the pool by reminding them that they are probably subsidising your holiday. For some big tour operators, a loss on holidays sold in Britain has been cancelled out by profits from Scandinavian subsidiaries. So people in Stockholm are helping holidaymakers from Stockton enjoy cheap vacations in Skiathos.
But how can this benefit the "independent" traveller? Well, suppose you shun the big boys like Thomson, Airtours and First Choice, and sign up with a smaller, specialist travel company - perhaps one of the member companies of the Association of Independent Tour Operators. A wildlife trip in the Peloponnese or hiking through the Pyrenees can cost little more than a beach holiday. But one reason the price offered can be so competitive is because the cost of getting to Greece or Spain is so low - because seats are booked on an existing sunseekers' charter flight to Gerona or Athens.
For those who insist on going it alone to the other side of the world the cheapest way to get to the Far East or Australia is on an Airtours or Britannia charter. These airlines have invested in big and expensive Boeing 767s to cater for the summer peak. In winter, the planes and crew have to earn their keep in some way. Flying down to Bali or Brisbane helps to defray heavy capital costs, and helps keep fares to Australasia to preposterously low levels - starting at about pounds 500 return. Ten years ago, before charters started up, the lowest fare was twice as much. Independent travellers, like the Independent travel section, have the package holiday to thank.
The package holiday will continue to prosper. This year, the market has probably got it about right: no more than 9 million summer holidays will be sold (which means, incidentally, that five out of six British people will not enjoy one). Prices have stabilised to levels where tour operators can start to earn a profit from selling holidays - rather than making money on cash-flow and Scandinavian subsidiaries. But future growth will be in two directions: by one group of people becoming more adventurous, and another group less so. The first are those package holidaymakers who have learned that the world should hold no fears. So this winter, the Indonesian island of Bali will experience the first wave of Airtours charter flights from Manchester, and when Thomson unveils its brochures on Thursday you can expect more exotic new destinations for summer '97.
The other growth dynamic may well be among people like you. People who backpacked through the world in the 1970s and Eighties find themselves in the uncomfortable position of possessing more money than time. They want adventure in exotic places, but haven't the time to organise it. So the woman on the Chichicastenengo omnibus, who spent the summer of '86 trekking through Central America, may this year book a two-week truck trip around Zimbabwe and Botswana. She has been there, done that and is back at her desk on Monday morning with sun tan and jet lag to prove it. A package holiday, generically no different from a fortnight in Palma Nova.
A variant on this theme is to buy a package because it is the cheapest way to reach a destination. So in May, I spent pounds 139 for a holiday in Turkey. I jettisoned the self-catering apartment (though it was clean, comfortable and fully built) and spent most of the week hitch-hiking around Capodoccia.
If you need another holiday as much as me, then I am afraid you will have to fight me for a place in the sun. At dawn on Thursday, I will be loitering outside a travel agency with intent to book with Thomson, Britain's largest tour operator. When the company puts next summer's holidays on sale, I shall be chasing the dream of every package holidaymaker - the loss-leader. The chances are that the cover of Thomson's downmarket Skytours brochure will carry the message "1 week from pounds 99 - see page xx". With luck, I shall fly from Gatwick and spend a week next May at a resort on the Costa Brava or Costa Dorada for less than the price of a night at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. See you there.
What do you think?
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