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London to Paris for pounds 62 return on British Airways - excellent value, but what shall we do with all the Sainsbury's orange squash?

The most bizarre travel bargain of the year is on offer until the supermarkets close tonight. If you buy enough of the aforesaid cordial (or, indeed, lemon squash), you qualify for 480 Air Miles under the Sainsbury Reward scheme.

Buy 60 one-litre bottles of the drink at 75p each. This will cost a total of pounds 45 - less than half the lowest London-Paris fare currently available on BA. You have to add taxes of pounds 17 to both these fares, but a total of pounds 62 to fly between the British and French capitals is excellent value. And you'll still have 30 Air Miles left over, together with a bathful of sticky fruit concentrate.

One of our writers, David Woodworth, first revealed the absurd generosity of some Sainsbury's/Air Miles promotions. He calculated that spending pounds 97 on 14kg of own-label coffee could earn enough for a London-Amsterdam flight. (David says he is getting through the coffee apace, which could explain his astonishing productivity at present.)

One of our readers, Richard Madge of Bexhill, drew my attention to the orange juice anomaly. "Someone at Sainsbury's has got their sums wrong," he says, and I agree.

For British Airways, which owns the Air Miles brand, the scheme is a good way to profit from plane seats that would otherwise be empty. The airline sells Air Miles, for about 10 pence each, to traders who use them to help promote sales of suits or squash.

Collectors then "spend" the miles on BA flights. On the 450-mile round trip from London to Paris, the airline earns pounds 67.50, not a bad return for an otherwise vacant seat.

From your point of view, the art is in buying low and spending high - to minimise the amount you "pay" for each Air Mile, while maximising the value you get when you "spend" them. Anyone foolish enough to fly to Australia using Air Miles would effectively be giving BA pounds 3,000 for the privilege, about six times the going rate were you to buy a ticket through a travel agent. On a flight down under, each Air Mile works out to be worth just four pence.

Where you really start to benefit is on short-haul flights, such as the London-Paris trip where each Air Mile is worth 20p. Suppose you need to travel only one way: the cheapest method is to buy a return for pounds 91 plus tax, and throw the return half away.

Two secrets of Air Miles: you can use them for one-way trips, and the usual "Saturday night minimum stay" restriction doesn't apply to return journeys. So business travellers, or anyone else needing just a one-way flight to Paris, can increase the value of each Air Mile to more than 40p. And buying the right kind of squash at Sainsbury's could earn you Air Miles for less than 10p each.

The loss of revenue for British Airways that this could trigger is known in the travel trade, appropriately enough, as dilution - and it's certainly to my taste. See you by the soft drinks shelves this morning. But be warned: this is such a good deal, there could be a squash.

We get lots of invitations to submit entries for travel-writing awards, and sometimes take them up - witness Harriet O'Brien, editor of the Time Off section, winning the Travelex award in 1996 for the best national newspaper travel story. That competition is sponsored by a company running foreign exchange bureaux, whose main interest is in promoting travel in the broadest terms. We are rather more circumspect when holiday companies or tourist boards get involved in country-specific competitions.

The Scottish Thistle Awards for Tourism, for example, are not necessarily concerned with rewarding the best travel story about the country. The judges are looking for someone who has succeeded in "encouraging the reader, viewer or listener to visit Scotland".

When you've written a suitably laudatory story, there's one more before you send it in to the Scottish Tourist Board: "On a separate A4 sheet and in no more than 750 words can you please describe how you feel you have contributed to the promotion of Scotland as a tourism destination." Nothing there about the enlightenment or entertainment of the reader.

I have nevertheless submitted Bob Carter's excellent tale of touring the wintry Highlands in a 1959 Rover, which appeared in these pages in February. Accompanying it, instead of the requisite 750 words, is a sniffy note saying that the sole concern of this section is the reader, not the travel industry. So we won't win. Sorry, Bob.

The US car hire saga cruises on, with tales of travellers being charged for upgrades that weren't agreed, the Sussex family whose sub-compact turned into a Ford Aerostar, and the Boston rental depot that ran out of cars. More tales of the road next week.

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