The Independent Traveller: Heard the one about the backpacker?

The Man Who Pays His Way
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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHICH PAIR of European capitals, I mused a fortnight ago, are closest together? I thought I knew the answer, too, which is why the prize was a copy of Lonely Planet's Central Europe. Surely, I thought, Vienna and Bratislava must provide the answer, as the Austrian and Slovakian capitals nestle in political proximity just 40 miles apart along the Danube.

Many of you agreed (though not the reader who interestingly suggested Vienna and Brno, the second Czech city). The card from Miss E Clarke of Oxford was first out of the sunhat to win the prize. She, and I, were wrong, though. As a few perceptive readers pointed out, the Vatican City and Rome co-exist much more cosily. The Reverend James Breslin of Newcastle- upon-Tyne begins his argument close to the birthplace of Christianity, and continues in ecclesiastical vein:

"With reference to your piece about national capitals, I would have thought that even if you ignore the extraterritorial status of the mother-house of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem on the grounds that a country that basically consists of one large house cannot claim to have a capital, the same cannot be said of the Vatican City state, which lies almost entirely within the city of Rome.

"As the capital of Italy is Rome, and that of the Vatican City is the Vatican City, I would have thought that they would qualify both as the two national and two European capitals closest together, being separated only by a legal fiction."

Rev Breslin wins a (hopefully) factual guide to Rome.

PLENTY OF British travellers will find themselves in Philadelphia this summer, a result of the new flights from Gatwick on US Air. These connect at the City of Brotherly Love for dozens of other destinations in the US and Canada - at prices that often beat the usual suspects, namely Continental, United and American Airlines.

The city itself is one of the finest in America, and demands a stopover - even if only to grab a cheese steak from Pat's King of Steaks on South Ninth Street. But anyone who has ever been tempted to exaggerate a claim on travel insurance may be alarmed by the billboard campaign being run by the US insurance industry.

The cheery invitation to visitors reads: "Commit Insurance Fraud - Get a New Outfit." This approach could alarm one (British) backpacker I met, who boasted that he had "lost', for insurance purposes, the same rucksack three times, along with his camera, wallet, etc.

Usually, the booty is on the other foot, and the backpacker is the victim. I asked for stories about scams against visitors, and David Jordan of Hampshire responded with a vivid memory of an American heist:

"One afternoon in 1976, while waiting to catch a bus from the Greyhound station in New Orleans, I met a fellow Englishman who had, minutes before, been "scammed".

"The guy had been approached by another backpacker (an American), who asked if he would look after his backpack while he went to the washroom. Minutes later, the "grateful" traveller appeared and offered to reciprocate. The psychology of trust having been established, the offer was accepted. His bags, and the custodian, disappeared.

"In the Seventies, we international backpackers were a relatively small number, and felt ourselves some kind of kindred spirits. How did I get talking to the victim? I approached him to ask if he'd look after my bags.

"The experience of that afternoon in New Orleans has stayed with me all these years. The tuk-tuk driver in Bangkok cannot possibly know why this middle-aged family man is so cautious when invited to save a few baht by visiting a tailor mid-journey: `You don't trust anyone, Dad.' `Well girls, it was like this. One afternoon in 1976 ...' "

STRANGE THINGS are happening to Britain's airports. At Edinburgh, the alignment of the runways has become so out of step with magnetic north that the huge numbers painted at each end are being changed. A much worse fate has befallen East Midlands airport: the whole thing disappeared.

The OAG Pocket Flight Guide listings hopped straight from East London (South Africa) to Eday (Orkney). Curiously, just as East Midlands airport vanished, a new airport popped up a couple of hundred pages later: Nottingham airport, which appeared to have taken over all the routes that once were operated by East Midlands.

To add insult to injury, the airport paid for the change to be made. "It was a mistake on the part of the publisher," says Linda Love of the Leicestershire airport. "What we wanted to do was to keep East Midlands in there but to have the key cities we serve listed separately."

The error has now been rectified. Overseas travellers, for whom the catchment area of East Midlands is not obvious, can now check out Derby, Leicester and Nottingham.

Surely, though, the airport deserves a less prosaic name - such as one borrowed from a nearby village, as the names Gatwick and Heathrow were? Even if you exclude some, such as Melbourne, on the grounds of duplication, there are dozens of suitable candidates. My favourites: Bunny, Foremark, Gotham, Thrumpton and Zouch.

ALONG WITH the new look for our travel section today, I must give you advance notice of a significant change in policy. In order to expand our coverage so radically, our strict (some say "Stalinist") no-freebies rules are being relaxed.

Rather than moping like a vegan at Pat's King of Steaks, I shall make sure that we continue to champion the consumer. It won't be easy, but then the last five years of shunning free travel has hardly been a holiday.

The core values of The Independent Traveller will remain. In my new capacity as senior travel editor, I shall be travelling much more, and will continue to decline free facilities. I intend to spend less time with my family, less time at my desk, and more time digging out the destinations and deals that make The Independent so different from its competitors.

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