Millennium joys - and disasters

The Man Who Pays His Way

"TICKETS pounds 25", says an advertisement for a turn-of-the-millennium event, ending with the warning "In the event of cancellation, our liability is limited to the price of admission." For once, this is not a member of the travel trade seeking to curb its obligation, but a notice I saw in a pub in Crawley last week advertising a New Year's Eve disco.

Forty days from now, we shall know whether the end-of-the-year hype has resulted in the windfalls hoped for by the travel industry - or if irritation about all the profiteering, and uncertainty about the millennium bug, has led us to postpone trips until after 31 December. Judging by the gloomy faces at the World Travel Market this week, it looks as though the travelling public has voted by keeping its feet firmly at home on the big night.

"The industry believed they were in for a bonanza over the turn of the millennium," says Nigel Wright, of Cosmos. "That was partly driven by hoteliers overseas being very greedy, so it didn't necessarily mean our margins were going up. But consumers have resisted paying those prices."

But another tour operator, Palmair, must be feeling smug. "At a board meeting," says managing director, David Skillicorn, "we compared our plans for New Year's Eve. Every one of us said we were planning to be with family and friends. So we took the decision not to offer anything special." The current wave of late offers suggests that was the right call. Members of the travel trade have been circulated by a leading airline, offering the last London-New York flight out on New Year's Eve, and the first one back next morning, for just pounds 99 return.

"You have been warned", reads a notice in a Midlands travel agency. "Millennium flights are filling up fast."

At those prices, I'd say it's hardly surprising.

WHAT A shame the deal was restricted to industry insiders. Normal people can console themselves with New Year's Day at the Dome.

Or should that be half-day? Initially, the public was not allowed to buy tickets for the Dome for 1 January; the plan was for companies and privileged invitees to take up the allocation of 10,000 places. A pity, I thought; it would be fun to be there on day one. So I was astonished to hear a Dome spokesman revealing on the Today programme that tickets had been put on general sale.

Immediately, I called and booked 20 places for 1 January, and looked forward to the prospect of eight hours investigating the latest addition to the nation's tourism stock. But the tickets have now arrived, and reveal that the place opens two hours later, and closes 30 minutes earlier, than the normal 10am-6pm hours. You have been warned; I wish I had been, before I ran up a pounds 300-plus bill on my credit card.

NON-SMOKERS CAN breathe more easily this month, as Iberia has become the latest all-smoke-free airline. The carrier is falling in line with the other members of the Oneworld alliance in banning smoking worldwide. But the smokers' pressure group Forest is fuming: the biennial gathering of smokers' rights groups takes place in Seville, a city that is most easily accessible on Iberia.

THE BEST hostel in Europe - as I mentioned last week, that was the honour won by Stratford-upon-Avon Youth Hostel in the first-ever Golden Backpack awards. This week, I checked the place out and could see not a single backpack in sight. What I did see was a procession of guests with those natty wheelable cases beloved of airline cabin crew, proceeding towards the car park to board their tourist coach. It was not so long ago that every hosteller was obliged to arrive under his or her own steam (or at least pretend to - there was a fair amount of parking the car down the lane and walking the last couple of hundred yards).

Purists will be relieved that there are still some old-style places in the YHA book - such as Lovesome Hill, a YHA camping barn in North Yorkshire, sleeping 15 in "basic communal accommodation". And there could soon be a new generation of eco-hostels, if Hugh Ransom of Edinburgh wins approval for his design. Mr Ranson is an architecture student who is working on hostels for the 21st century. He writes: "I am at present considering a scheme based on sleeping-platforms forming a cluster around a communal area on each floor, similar to the bothies found around Scotland."

I've suggested that finding a way of filtering out the entire Australian snoring team would be handy, and I'm happy to pass on other suggestions.

IT IS gratifying when someone's genuine talent and hard work is recognised.

So it was greatly heartening this week when my colleague, Rhiannon Batten, was awarded the title of Young Travel Writer of the Year. This nationwide competition is run jointly by Travel Trade Gazette and Travel South in memory of the writer Barbara Land.

Rhiannon won the closely fought contest for a splendid story she wrote about the Indian city of Varanasi. She has been writing for The Independent since 1996, and was recently appointed as commissioning editor for travel. Her award is a credit to her consummate ability and professionalism.

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