Bargain of the week

Summer in Canada for a song

Competition between charter airlines and scheduled carriers is so intense this summer that fares for peak season flights are staying low. The main charter players are all Canadian airlines: Canada 3000, Royal Airlines and Air Transat.

My flight yesterday from Gatwick to Toronto cost just pounds 217 return, which works out at four pence a mile. If you are prepared to wait until the very last minute, the fare may fall still further: this month, tickets have been on sale for as little as pounds 137 return. Most travel agents should have access to these fares; to go direct, Canadian Affair (0171-616 9999) and Globespan (0990 561522) are two leading operators.

Warning of the week

The US State Department has urged against travel to Colombia, saying there is a greater risk of being kidnapped there than in any other country in the world

"Violence by narcotraffickers, guerrillas, paramilitary groups and other criminal elements affects all parts of the country. Citizens of the United States and other countries have been the victims of recent threats, kidnappings, domestic airline hijackings and murders. More than a dozen US citizens were kidnapped in Colombia in the first five months of 1999, twice as many as in all of 1998. In some cases, the victims have been murdered."

Read of the week

`Railway World', July 1999 edition

Your attention may not be seized by a magazine whose lead story begins: "As one whose youth was mis-spent hunting narrow gauge light railways on the Continent...", but it is worth persevering with the new edition of this magazine.

You discover that old London Underground carriages are in service on the Channel Islands' only railway, a two-mile stretch on Alderney; that the railway station in Singapore is technically Malaysian territory on Singaporean soil; and that not all is well in the state of Cuba, one of the last remaining repositories of steam locomotion:

"Reports of the 1999 zafra (sugar-cane cutting season) in Cuba indicate considerable friction between three very different styles of gricer [trainspotter]: true railway enthusiasts, seeking photos of `natural' steam hard at work hauling cane, were regularly frustrated by small parties who offered financial incentives (US$) to train crews and demanded huge volumes of oily smoke from stationary locos to obtain their `master shot'; everyone suffered throughout the season from car-gricers whose hire perhaps included a beautiful, but icy-eyed Cuban lady of the night for each occupant."

Railway World is published monthly by Ian Allan (01932 266600), price pounds 2.60.

Currency of the week

The Cuban peso

The symbol used to represent a peso is $, the same as for the US dollar. And, according to the official line, they are worth the same, too.

As in many less developed countries, Cuba maintains an artificially high official value for its currency. But in the past decade, the black market value - a much more reliable indication of worth - has veered between five and 120 pesos to $1. Lately the market rate has settled at a value of 22 pesos to $1.

The authorities say the average foreign holidaymaker will have no need for Cuban pesos at all. The theory is that every enterprise that the Westerner is likely to encounter demands hard currency. But the independent traveller in Cuba will find plenty of opportunities for spending pesos: for stamps, a shave, ice cream, coffee, books and newspapers, records, a trip to the cinema, pizzas from street vendors, or a local bus fare.

You will lose out if you have only dollars to offer. A good example is postcard stamps, which will cost the equivalent of either 40p or 2p, depending on whether you pay in dollars or pesos. And the drivers or conductors of some local buses will not allow you on board unless you have necessary 20 centavos (less than a penny).

Happily, more and more venues are ready to accept either dollars or pesos at a conversion rate of around 1:20. In particular, the Dona Yulla chain of restaurants - which the Food Ministry set up to counteract the number of private eating places - takes either currency.

You can obtain pesos for dollars at any of the dozens of Cadeca bureaux de change around the country, including one at Havana airport's flashy new terminal 3.

The black-marketeers who thrived in the years when it was illegal to hold dollars have virtually disappeared; if anyone offers you a rate better than Cadeca gives, they definitely intend to defraud you.

Some entrepreneurs in Havana sell three-peso notes or coins for a dollar each - only one-seventh of the market rate - yet find plenty of buyers. The reason is not that three is an unusual denomination in any currency; the coins and notes show the smiling visage of Ernesto Guevara, better known as Che.