Your ticket to the sun

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The Independent Online
This year's summer holidays are probably a distant memory. But the good news is that for millions of people next year's trip could in effect be paid for, given the number of windfalls now pencilled in for customers of building societies and insurance firms.

This week it is expected that Norwich Union will confirm a shares bonanza averaging pounds 500 for 3 million policyholders. If all goes to plan, that should turn up in June or thereabouts. This should broadly coincide with the Halifax flotation - worth another pounds 900 a head for up to 10 million savers and borrowers with the society - and another pounds 570 share handout for 350,000 policyholders with the insurer Colonial Mutual.

Before then, however, the Alliance & Leicester should be doling out free shares to its 3 million members. In this case the average handout is expected to be worth closer to pounds 800.

All the other windfalls announced so far are likely to turn up later in the year - but still perhaps in time to pay the holiday credit card bill.

If all that doesn't help with your feelgood factor, there's a good chance of more windfall announcements this autumn.

The building society world may have gone a little quiet, but keep an ear open for moves at Birmingham Midshires or even one of the smaller names.

The expected Norwich Union announcement will whip up speculation about other mutual insurers, with Friends Provident, Scottish Amicable and Scottish Provident likely to be re-tipped. But, as we warn in the article on the Norwich Union conversion on page 20, insurance windfalls are different to those of their building society brethren.

If you've already got a policy with an insurer, good luck. If you've already decided that a pension plan or life insurance savings plan is for you, and you can't choose between two insurers' offerings, then picking one with windfall potential may seem a reasonable way to proceed. But beware of taking out a particular policy simply on account of the potential sweeteners. In case you hadn't heard, there are plenty of duff deals in the world of life insurance and pensions.

PRUDENT savers won't bank with the Prudential. As we report opposite, its new accounts, far from promising the savings market a long-overdue shake-up, are nothing special. Its "interest rate guarantee" - that it will aim to beat equivalent branch-based accounts from the leading high- street names - rings hollow. It ignores the better-paying postal accounts with which its own products should be compared. There's nothing particularly special about the insurer's new mortgage rates, either.

That said, it would be good to see other institutions sit up and take note of some parts of the Pru's initiative.

First, a better version of the interest-rate guarantee. The mutuals claim they pay better rates than the banks and would-be banks - why not guarantee it? Admittedly there are such guarantees around - the Bradford & Bingley has one, for example - but they are by no means universal, and some existing promises seem a bit weedy.

The Pru is also talking about a "clean sweep" on the hidden charges made by mortgage lenders. It may seem outrageous (and is) that if you make a one-off payment to reduce your mortgage, or "overpay" by keeping your payments at the same level after mortgage rates have been cut, then many lenders will avoid crediting you for these extra monies for up to a year - so costing you more in interest. The Pru promises instant crediting.

It also says that come the end of the lock-in period on its mortgages it will not leave borrowers languishing on its standard rate, waiting until they threaten to remortgage elsewhere before being offered a better deal. The Pru promises to take the initiative and offer its borrowers a new deal as soon as their lock-in period is up. Again, isn't that the sort of combination of customer service and good business that the societies would have us believe they espouse?