The independent traveller: Something to Declare

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Bargain of the week:

cheap flights from Heathrow

"Lowest prices ever" is the claim from British Midland (0870 240 7042 or britishmidland.com), and it appears to be justified. To offload spare seats between now and the end of January, the airline is offering eight destinations at below pounds 50 return.

Belfast and Edinburgh are on sale for pounds 39 return; for a 700-mile round- trip on a full-service airline from Britain's biggest airport, that is an astonishing fare, especially since more than half of the price goes on tax and charges.

Flights to Europe's three closest capitals - Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris - are being sold for pounds 45 each. Frankfurt is available for pounds 49 return, as is Hanover. This latter city is an odd one out, because there is little competition on the route.

Further afield, Nice looks almost overpriced at pounds 69 return, while Prague is a good deal at pounds 89.

All these fares must be purchased by next Wednesday, 8 December, with a minimum two night stay - unless you are travelling out on a Saturday, in which case there is no minimum. Day-trips are allowed, which could be handy for last-minute shopping.

Warning of the week: Australian driving laws get tighter

Australia is one of the world's more dangerous countries in terms of road accident rates. One reason is that, until now, traffic rules have varied considerably from one state to another. From this month, laws are being made more uniform and simultaneously tightened.

Initial observations suggest there is some way to go before all road users comply with the new rules, which include the following:

It is illegal for drivers to use a mobile telephone, even when they have stopped at traffic lights.

Drivers must indicate for at least five seconds before moving off or turning.

Inline skaters are banned from roads that have a dividing line.

A yellow line on the roadside means "no stopping".

Currency of the week:

the Indian rupee

Mahatma Gandhi smiles out from every Indian banknote - or at least those that are not too besmirched by overcirculation in the ultimate cash economy.

An unsullied rupee bill is a rare thing, because the average note takes one heck of a battering. Banks insist on stapling bundles of them together, seriously weakening the fabric. There is an unwritten law that states that holes and tears within the note are acceptable, while those that extend all the way to the edge are not.

The hapless tourist finds this out only gradually, at about the same rate as he or she discovers the perennial shortage of change that characterises India. If you do not have the right money, a trader may offer a handful of sweets instead, or just shrug and wait for you to resolve the problem.

Some travellers become obsessive hoarders of small-denomination notes, but you could be more relaxed about this; after all, the buying power of the pound has increased substantially since draconian foreign exchange controls were relaxed during the early 1990s. There is no longer any advantage to dealing on the black market, and there is a considerable risk that you will be ripped off - or given ripped notes.

Response of the week:

the Hotel Seaweed, Kovalam, Kerala, mentioned last week

"Delighted to see someone else has enjoyed the pleasures of one of the best named hotels in India - against some very strong competition," writes Mark Rowe.

"Sounds like you got a bargain, though. I paid pounds 7 for a sea-view double. My most vivid memory of Kovalam is of westerners smoking dope while watching Midnight Express in a video bar. If that film isn't a deterrent I don't know what is."

Christmas corner:

Chateaux et Hotels de France Gift Certificates

If someone gives you one of these, writes Margaret Kemp in Paris, it means they like you. The 487 Chateaux Hotels and Abbayes de France arose when the aristocratic owners of once-crumbling medieval hotels devised a support group to advise and market them. The Chateaux Guide rates hotels and restaurants with two, three or four plumed helmets. The gift vouchers start at 250F, but the average price of a double room is 682F. The booking office in Paris is on 00 33 1 40 07 00; there is also a website in English, www.chateauxethotels.com

Millennium Bugwatch:

These members of the International Civil Aviation Organisation have not yet reported on their Y2K status: Albania, Angola, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burma, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Lesotho, Libya, various Pacific islands, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone... and San Marino.

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