Simon Calder column: Don't make a first-class fool out of me

The Man Who Pays His Way
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"YOUR RESERVATIONS are confirmed. That'll be a total of pounds 3,422, including tax, for your Envoy Class return from Gatwick to Philadelphia on US Airways."

Since I would rather cycle up Mount Kilimanjaro on my folding bike than shell out that sort of cash for a premium-class transatlantic flight, my travel agent will never be able to relay that sort of message. Which is a cause of some disappointment for the agent, since it deprives him of a free return ticket from London to any US Airways destination in America.

That's correct: you buy a business-class ticket to Philadelphia and, unknown to you, the agent gets a free transatlantic round trip. You can draw your own conclusions about how impartial that advice is likely to be.

Last week, Holiday Which? revealed a woeful absence of sensible advice among many of Britain's travel agents. Partly this is explained by low wages and poor training, and by the fact that so many agencies are owned by the big four holiday companies: Thomson, Airtours, Thomas Cook and First Choice. But the rising stakes in the incentives offered to staff is most worrying. Anyone who walks into the average High Street travel agency expecting accurate, professional, unbiased advice is sadly deluding themselves.

Virgin Atlantic, of course, originated the idea of giving away a free flight with every business class transatlantic ticket. The difference was that Richard Branson's Upper Class passengers could keep the free flight, or give it to the person of their choice, rather than the travel agent. Some disgruntled travellers found that the standby queues were just too long, and ended up trading the ticket for pounds 20 worth of Virgin Records, but plenty of others managed to travel for free.

A FORTNIGHT ago, Virgin Atlantic was dismissed as a "minor" airline by Heathrow's owner BAA, and responded by claiming that by November it will fly to nine out of the top 10 long-haul destinations from London. "Tell us what they are, then," requested a reader this week. The nine served by Virgin are New York Kennedy (the busiest international air route in the world), Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark, Orlando, Boston, San Francisco, Tokyo and Washington DC. A jar of maple syrup to the first person to name the missing city from the Virgin schedule; on second thoughts, I'll tell you: Toronto. No prizes for guessing Richard Branson's next long-haul target.

YOU WON'T be getting to the airport on Mr Branson's latest boating venture, introduced in a bid to capsize the fast train link. The Virgin Atlantic boss launched the new LimoBoat, a combined river and road link between Heathrow and the City of London, in the customary blaze of publicity. Virgin's Upper Class passengers could travel by boat direct from St Katherine's Dock in the City to Kew, where a limousine would be waiting to whisk them the few miles onwards to the airport. But the idea never caught on, and has now sunk without trace.

A FINAL word on the Heathrow Express: Peter Kettle of London says that because the railway's owner, BAA, also owns the airport, travellers are bombarded by advertising as soon as they step off the plane: "This continues to assault the eyes all the way to Immigration. Only then do other methods of getting to London come into play - by which time many jet-lagged travellers will have been seduced into using the Express."

Mr Kettle wonders if the pressure to use the world's most expensive airport-to-city link might impact adversely on the UK's image: "I wonder if any overseas visitors have reported this back in their own country and given yet another bleak picture of visiting here?"

"BOMB ATTACKS targeting minority groups occurred during the Spring of 1999. Americans were not singled out, but the incidents occurred in public areas frequented by residents and visitors alike."

US visitors who check out the latest State Department advice on visiting Britain do not get an inviting image of the country:

"Incidents of pickpocketing and theft of unattended bags in urban areas are common. Pickpockets are especially active at sites frequented by tourists, including restaurants, historic sites, buses, trains and the London Underground (subway). Thieves often target unattended cars parked at tourist sites."

STILL, AT least you can drink the (privatised) water. "Standards of hygiene in Spain are not high, and tourists have been known to contract dysentery and hepatitis." David Woodworth of Oxford e-mails to say that the BBC's warning about drinking the water in Ibiza, which I mentioned last week, is nothing new. He sent that extract from the original Travellers' Survival Kit Europe - published back in the mid-Seventies, when General Franco was still in power in Spain, and it was officially advised that care should be taken.

The extract continues:

"Don't drink tap water, and watch what you're eating. More serious illnesses, like smallpox, typhoid and cholera, occasionally find their way over from North Africa."

"LONDON TO Brazil via Paris? A perfect opportunity to stop off and sample the cuisine on the way... or shop for a haute couture outfit."

Which airline is urging us to stop off on the Rue de Rivoli en route to Rio? Not Air France, or Varig, but an airline new to Europe: TAM.

Travellers familiar with Latin America might be alarmed by this development, since several nations' air forces venture into civilian air transport by operating airlines whose initials are TAM (Transportes Aereos Militares): Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador - where the air force's airline is known as TAME.

It was one of this airline's planes that crashed on take-off from Bogota two years ago, while operating on behalf of Air France.

Thankfully, in this case TAM stands for Transportes Aereos Meridionais. The Brazilian airline promises seatback videos and extra legroom in economy class - not features prominent in military-run airlines.

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