Travel: Simon Calder's column

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The Independent Online
Our favourite foreign country, France, yesterday staged an open day at the new French Travel Centre in Piccadilly, central London. But while Saturday opening, refurbished premises and the addition of ferry operators is to be welcomed, anyone planning to visit the country in June or July this year could encounter a series of nasty surprises.

You could blame football, because the World Cup finals will take place around France from 10 June to 12 July. But even with the addition of a million soccer fans there should be room for everyone; France is the biggest tourist destination in the world, with 60 million visitors a year, and the tournament carefully avoids peak holiday season in Europe. From previous experience, such as Italy in 1990, many people who would otherwise visit the country will be deterred by the prospect of football frenzy. But those of us who go to France face higher prices and discrimination against single- sex groups.

The best way to travel around western Europe's largest country, for both soccer fans or non-footballing Francophiles, is by train. The excellent Euro Domino ticket allows 10 days of unlimited rail travel for pounds 200. In June and July, though, the price increases by pounds 20; it falls again on 1 August.

Deterred by such profiteering, many travellers will instead take advantage of low cross-Channel fares, and pack four or five people into a car for a jaunt to and around France. But if you're hoping to keep down costs by staying at some of the country's excellent campsites, make sure you take at least one member of the opposite gender along.

"ABTOF takes action on World Cup hooligans", reads a headline in the industry journal Travel Weekly. The story reveals how members of the Association of British Tour Operators to France plan to prevent trouble: by banning single-sex group bookings during the event. So anyone who happens to prefer to holiday with people of the same gender will have problems finding somewhere cheap and cheerful to stay.

The tour operators' real worry is that bunches of drunken lads will cause problems, but equal opportunity legislation means that women-only groups have to be banned too.

Determined "World Cup hooligans" will find it easy to circumvent the rule, just by taking along a token woman supporter (there are some pretty terrifying ones to be found on the terraces of my team, Crawley Town). But groups of nuns (or monks) visiting France will be barred from campsites, as will gay or lesbian holidaymakers.

How can you find out more about such arbitrary rules and price rises? By contacting the new French Travel Centre. Since the vast majority of British travellers to France do not live within easy reach of central London, most will have to rely on the phone.

France, you may recall, began the fashion for premium-rate numbers when it replaced its normal London line by 0891 244123, costing 49 pence a minute. Many other tourist offices have followed suit; Australia is the latest to introduce premium-rate lines, though until July you can still call the Tourist Commission on the non-premium 0990 561434.

The strangest policy of all is operated by Holland. The Netherlands Board of Tourism runs a helpful and efficient service using a London number, but says it is not for publication.

The board insists you can find out the number only by first dialling the premium-rate recorded information line 0891 717777. It cost me pounds 3. Living in London, I would have visited in person - except that the office is open to visitors only from 1pm-3pm, Monday to Friday.

The new French Travel Centre is at 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL.

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