Small holiday firms offer best deals

Glenda Cooper

People are more happy with their holidays if they book through small specialist tour operators, while some of the largest names are among the worst in delivering customer satisfaction.

According to a survey of 11,500 Consumers' Association members for Holiday Which? the high street giants Airtours, First Choice and Inspirations came bottom of more than 50 tour operators.

The small independents Swiss Travel Service and VFB Holidays were the most popular. Value for money was not only about cost, said holidaymakers. They rated some top names, who tend to be cheaper, lower down the league.

Thomson, which owns the companies through which 60 per cent of all package holidays are booked, beat its two main rivals for customer satisfaction. About 48 per cent of its customers would recommend the company, compared to 28 per cent for First Choice and 25 per cent for Airtours.

Accommodation was often a source of dissatisfaction: one in 14 readers thought standards could have been better. And while three-quarters who travelled with Swiss Travel Service, P&O Cruises, Style and Hayes & Jarvis were satisfied, less than half were satisfied with Airtours, First Choice, Sunworld, Cosmos and Skytours.

The survey also found that one in seven people were unhappy with their holiday representative, and in the worst cases the figure rose to one in five. One in 25 felt they had been misled by brochures.

For long-haul travel, Virgin Holidays remains the favourite, followed by Travelsphere, Titan HiTours and Kuoni. Airtours, Unijet, First Choice and Thomson trailed.

Patricia Yates, editor of Holiday Which?, said: "These results show again that your choice of tour operator is just as crucial as your choice of resort and you are more likely to get a holiday that matches your expectations if you stick to an independent tour operator.''

But Airtours accused Holiday Which? of "applying pop science to holidays". It argued that the people that responded to the survey represented 0.03 per cent of holidaymakers who choose to travel with the company.

n Despite tragedies such as the Lockerbie bombing, many countries have not introduced legislation requiring screening of all hold baggage on international flights, said Holiday Which? About 8,000 unaccompanied bags find their way onto international flights every year.

The UK, however, is leading the way in airport technology. Ten of the world's 25 CTX5000 screening machines, used to detect plastic explosives, are installed in Manchester Airport.