The Independent Traveller: Oh to be in Britain now September's here

The Man Who Pays His Way
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Indy Lifestyle Online
SEPTEMBER IS a month full of blessings for those who like to holiday in Britain without spending a fortune. The Heritage Open Days, where normally closed buildings are unlocked for a day or two of public viewing, begin this weekend in Scotland; Wales, Northern Ireland and England join in next weekend. (London, sniffily, detaches itself from the rest of the country by choosing another name, Open House, and the following weekend, 18 and 19 September.)

Then there's the annual free day of entry to many National Trust properties, such as Corfe Castle in Dorset, Shaw Corner in Hertfordshire and Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. "The elderly and families with low incomes are among those being invited," says the Trust. The day is aimed at visitors who would not normally be able to afford admission charges.

Certainly, the cost of admission to many National Trust properties is a considerable deterrent for families; two adults and two children visiting Sir Winston Churchill's former home at Chartwell in Kent would normally pay pounds 13.75.

Instead, thanks to the generosity of the day's sponsor, Cheltenham & Gloucester, they will pay nothing - so long as they skip off school and work to get there. Free Entry Day is Wednesday 15 September, by which time the schools will have been back for so long that everyone will have quite forgotten the holidays and will be worrying about homework instead of stately homes. The C&G's cash could be better invested on providing free admission at a weekend, or in lowering prices for families and less well-off individuals throughout the year.

If you have no pressing commitments a week on Wednesday, call the National Trust on 0181-315 1111 for details. The arrangements for Heritage Open Days are so convoluted that I suggest you consult some (free) internet sites: civic.trust.org.uk for England, scotnet.co.uk/sct for Scotland, civictrustwales. demon.co.uk for Wales; for Northern Ireland, you can use the good old-fashioned telephone to call 01232 543078.

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SUDAN AIRWAYS must agree that its once-a-week service from Heathrow to Khartoum makes it a minor airline. Georgian Airways, too, would be hard-pressed to argue that its two flights a week from London's leading airport to Tbilisi make it a major carrier in the overall scheme of things. But, according to Heathrow's owner, BAA, this pair of minnow airlines are joined by many others as also-rans (or should that be also-flews?).

Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Express are minor league, as are Aer Lingus, Air France, Air India, Alitalia and KLM, plus one of the world's top five airlines (in terms of size), Continental.

BAA dismisses them all, plus dozens of others, in the advertisements for its new Heathrow Express check-in facility: "With 27 check-in desks at London Paddington for all the major airlines, getting to Heathrow couldn't be easier." None of the airlines mentioned above has a check-in at Paddington, so BAA deems them not to be major airlines.

The people who run Heathrow Express say that seven out of 10 passengers using the airport are travelling with airlines with the Paddington check- in facility.

I called Paul Moore of Virgin Atlantic to tell him that his ad for the new route to Chicago appears, at Bank station at least, adjacent to a BAA 48-sheet poster demoting Virgin to the juniors. He laughed.

"We're pleased to note that the BAA ad was sitting next to ours for the new service, because with the addition of the Chicago flight we now operate to nine out of the top 10 long-haul destinations served from London. Not bad for a `minor' airline," said Mr Moore.

THE FARE for the 15-mile train journey on the Heathrow Express is about to increase from a challenging pounds 10 to an outrageous pounds 12. A worker at Heathrow, who says she wants to remain anonymous in order not to jeopardise her travel privileges, is appalled. She says the increase hardly squares with BAA's stated aim to increase the number of people who reach Britain's busiest airport by public transport. "Putting the price up by 20 per cent is sure to drive people back to their cars."

The airport (and train) operator says the new fares package is designed to attract more travellers, and points to a new "meeter and greeter" fare of pounds 13 for a day return. Or should that be a half-day return? The ticket is valid no later than 3pm, which is hardly a generous gesture in the direction of better, more popular public transport.

In comparison, the one-day travelcard allowing tube, bus and rail travel anywhere in Greater London - except on the Heathrow Express - costs a competitive pounds 4.50, and is valid any time after 9.30am.

Continental Airlines' response to the ad was to extend its free limousine offer, allowing business-class passengers a ride from anywhere within 100 miles, while BA is encouraging people to drive to Heathrow by revamping its Express Parking service.

In case you wondered, staff working at the airport qualify for half price on the Heathrow Express - but only at weekends. From Mondays to Fridays, when traditionally people in the western world go to work, the discount is a mere 25 per cent.

TWO-AND-A-HALF YEARS late: matching the Jubilee Line extension to the Millennium Dome for tardiness is a rail-air link that, like the Heathrow Express, seems intent on deterring passengers.

The new Luton Airport Parkway station missed its opening ceremony in May 1997, and is now scheduled to receive its first train in November, says Railtrack. When the new pounds 23m station finally opens, it will be notable for the absence of easyJet passengers. Luton's biggest airline used to offer a special pounds 6 return from London, but the contract expired in June and was not renewed.

Instead, easyJet's two million passengers each year can either spend pounds 20 on a standard train ticket, or just a fiver return for the Green Line bus from London.

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