It's nearly a decade since I last stepped into a travel agency.
I wanted a week in the sun, with a handy time flight, hotel by a beach but nowhere near the Magalufs, Falirakis and Ibizas of this world. But I was a single traveller and that was a problem. Holiday availability was limited, as were hotels, and supplements would be due and this was even out of season, when seats were going begging. Frankly I was viewed as a bit weird for wanting to go on my own. So I, like thousands of others, went and booked my first holiday online.
A decade without travel agents has been liberating. Those single travellers that the holiday companies disdained (it was club 18-30 or families everywhere) eventually grew into partnerships and families but by then had found another way of booking their holidays. Now I do the flights, hotels and car hire separately. For instance, I'm off to the Ashes this winter with a friend and every component of the holiday was booked within half an hour.
The August bank holiday is the biggest travel weekend of the year – with two million people crowding into Britain's airports – but a pall of fear hangs over the industry as thick as any volcanic ash cloud. How many holiday companies will survive? Already this summer, we have had several high-profile failures with travellers stranded and I wonder how many more will go as the cashflow dries up in the autumn.
It's always been a big sales point that travel companies gave you protection through Atol and Abta membership, but just ask the holidaymakers of Kiss or Goldtrail who were asked to fork out extra by angry hoteliers what that means to the holiday experience. What's more, whenever I've been to a resort in recent years, the worst hotel there – and there is always one absolute dive – is packed to the rafters (or should that be roaches?) with package holiday customers. Whereas, as an internet booker, I get to traverse virtual walk-throughs and see precisely what customers think of the hotels. Sure, I run the limited risk of my airline going bust – and booking with a well-established carrier sorts that – but other problems can be protected through a combination of cheap annual travel insurance cover and using a credit card.
Don't go soft on benefit reform
Those on the lowest incomes suffered the most in the Budget, says the Institute of Fiscal Studies. There is something sickening about the idea of a Budget which penalises the poorest the most. But the root of the problem is that many of these individuals have been shunted on to benefits in the first place – which are now being cut – rather than being involved in the economy. Prozac and disability allowance have been the twin pillars of social policy in this country to all of our shame since the 1980s. This makes it more important than ever that the coalition Government finds the money to back Iain Duncan Smith's proposed reforms to benefits which will see people for the first time genuinely rewarded for getting back to work. It will be expensive – about £4bn a year for starters – and the jobs will be hard to find. But what precisely is the purpose of this Government if it doesn't try to tackle this most pressing of problems? I wouldn't mind paying more tax for that – just leave those on the lowest incomes out of it next time.
Pedalling for Macmillan
Regular readers will know I'm no fan of the financial services industry – nor what passes in these organisations for customer service – but next week a host of senior executive from some of Britain's top banks, building societies and insurers will be cycling 584 miles in eight days across the breadth of the UK and Ireland in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support. Anyone who has dealings with Macmillan knows what an amazing job it does for those with cancer and their loved ones. If you can, do give generously to this cause at www.moneyspinners.org.uk