Where to find the best deals for a last-minute holiday

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The Independent Online
SO YOU haven't booked a holiday, even in the most unfashionable place; what should you do? Despite the break-up of the travel industry and the rapid growth of alternative means of booking, the high street travel agent probably remains the best source of finding a last-minute holiday.

There are, however, exceptions: the no-frills airlines such as Go (0845 605 4321) and easyJet (0870 600 0000) are direct-sell only and offer incentives to book on the Internet. Indeed, the Internet can occasionally be a valid source of cheap travel fares but, generally, online offers in the UK are not nearly as comprehensive as in the United States. This is partly because of the British tradition of travel agents offering discounts.

However, a much more useful source of cheap deals, which now make up as many as one in five last-minute holiday bookings, are advertisements on ITV's Teletext service.

As Jeremy Skidmore, editor of Travel Weekly, says: "When it comes to package holidays, telephone sales companies and high street travel agents are a good bet but Teletext is the specialist in last-minute availability."

So what exactly can you expect to find? Mr Skidmore suggests that, thanks to a rather flat market, this is a good time to find deals to Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean.

"If you're looking for a holiday today and you can travel within the next day or so," he says, "you can find deals to Turkey for pounds 149 for a week and packages to the Canaries for pounds 179." And the less fashionable the destination, the easier it is to avoid the crowds.

t The Passport Agency yesterday became the first body to be stripped of a government-awarded Charter Mark for good service following the chaos caused to travellers by this summer's delays in issuing new documents.

The agency had held its Charter Mark since 1992 and had it renewed for a further three years last year despite growing concerns that a major new computer system was causing problems.

Jack Cunningham, Minister for the Cabinet Office which administers the scheme, said the public had "not been well served" in recent months. "A Charter Mark is awarded in recognition of outstanding service to the public," he said. "The agency's service has clearly fallen far below the required Charter Mark standard."

Although bodies have failed to have Charter Marks renewed, this is the first time an organisation has been stripped of the award mid-term. In 1996, British Gas voluntarily relinquished its membership of the scheme before it could suffer the humiliation of having the award taken away.

The problems at the agency, blamed on the introduction of a pounds 230m computer system and new regulations requiring children to have their own passports, left a backlog of 500,000 applications. Instead of the target of 10-day turnaround for documents, travellers have faced delays of six weeks.

The chief executive of the Passport Agency, David Gatenby, said he very much regretted the loss of the Charter Mark and was committed to working to regain it.

"Our customers have not received the high standards of service they rightly expect of us - and which we expect of ourselves - for which I apologise," he said.