A pair of playas

One traveller, two trips. Simon Calder visited the Costa Blanca's star resort as a package tourist, and independently
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The Independent Travel
The package holiday: an outdated institution, or the happy conclusion of 30 years of mass-market foreign travel? The way to make a reasoned judgement was to take two short breaks in a single place: one as an independent traveller, the other on an off-the-shelf package. The destination had to be the single favourite resort for British holiday-makers: Benidorm, on Spain's Costa Blanca.

Now, there are some parts in the world where taking sequential holidays in the same location may not appeal, but as a duplicate destination the Costa Blanca is ideal. Deliberately, the two trips diverged at certain points - notably on the choice and location of accommodation. Almost all the rooms in Benidorm itself are block-booked by tour operators, but the fine city of Alicante offers an equally good base for visiting Benidorm and exploring the coast further.

In a moment, the match report, complete with match-play results. But first, the setting.

The resort

A lot of people scoff about Benidorm, but not, in my experience, people who have been there. What more could you want? Benidorm has arguably the finest beach in the Mediterranean - or rather, a brace of them, poised eloquently like a pair of wings between two rocky promontories. And, unlike the norm in many resorts, the closer you get to the sun and sea, the more civilised things become. The promenade is really quite prim, and like the beach is spotlessly clean. The promenader is rewarded with some elaborate sand sculptures, from a crucifixion (rendered horizontally, for reasons of gravity) to representations of assorted Spanish monuments to save you the bother of travelling to Barcelona or Seville.

Benidorm's old town presides over this whole splendid affair from a central outcrop: if the beaches are wings, this is the body of the bird. True, the vista reveals about two dozen high-rises too many, but the formidable mountain range behind the town dwarf man's feebleattempts at altitude. The spaces between the blocks are filled mostly with shops, restaurants and bars. The latter compete so intensely that you need never pay more than pounds 1 for a pint of lager (and, yes, it will be a pint; British drinkers need not fret about troublesome quantities like pesetas and litres).

Its million visitors a year means Benidorm is one of the richest communities in Spain. And some of the earnings are spent on the town's finest municipal moment: the Parque de l'Alguera. This broad, green scar carves a course for a kilometre inland, and is a finely manicured modernist concoction whose lavish trimmings - a small quarry's worth of marble, for a start - are entirely thanks to tourists like me.

The area

Follow the park to its logical conclusion, and you end up at the railway station which is the key to any happy holiday on the Costa Blanca. The neat little yellow-and-white Costa Blanca Express shuttles back and forth along the coast. Almost every station on its modest run deserves a visit: Vilajoyosa, the thoroughly Spanish antithesis to Benidorm; Alicante itself, draped across the foothills, where the old town resonates with layers of history, yet houses a powerful modern art museum. And Calpe, an upmarket resort which unravels magnificently into the Med then culminates in a sore old tooth of a hill perched at the end of the peninsula.

The booking

Both trips were selected in the spirit of generations of British tourists, ie as cheaply as possible. For the independent trip, I found a cut-price flight from Gatwick to the gateway airport of Alicante through the small ads. Everything else was arranged as I went along.

The great thing about booking a package holiday, so the travel industry maintains, is that it is the easiest purchase in the world. Everything can, in theory, be fixed in a single transaction. So it can - but only after you have done enough studying of brochures to earn an A-level in Hyperbole with Tricky Sums. After working through an entire syllabus- worth of brochures and infinite combinations of dates/times/supplements, I concluded that the cheapest holiday of the summer in Benidorm was offered by Skytours, the budget brand of Thomson. After much study on my part, the travel agent had the easy bit - I asked for the precise holiday, and she tapped into the Thomson reservation system to book it. Result: a tie.

The flight

Almost all Thomson holiday-makers fly with the company's in-house airline, Britannia. On Election Day this year, the Seventies image of Britannia's Royal Service was thrown out as emphatically as the Major government, and replaced by a smooth, Nineties version called 360 Class. The cabin service, in common with that on all the leading British charter airlines, was excellent: good meals and free in-flight entertainment even on a two- hour hop (which was right on schedule, outbound and in).

The way they manage to provide so much is, of course, because so many holiday-makers are packed in. But miserly legroom apart, standards on UK charter carriers exceed those on most scheduled airlines.

The cheap, seat-only deal I found was at the other end of the spectrum, on a Spanish charter airline. This was air-travel-as-commodity. But it arrived in the right place on about the right day.

Winner: package, by an air mile or more.

The transfer

However good or gruelling the flight, arriving at Alicante airport is an awakening of the ruder kind. The only way to escape the feeling that you are being processed with as little dignity as a tin of beans is to make good your escape as an independent traveller, carrying only hand baggage. That way, you can be installed in your hotel room long before the last wayward passenger has collected his errant bag and been shepherded from the wrong airport exit to the right tour bus. Independently, touchdown to hotel by taxi was effortless.

As a packaged person, the bus meandered through Benidorm pausing at miscellaneous hotels; equally aggravating was the "welcome commentary" by the resort rep; when I first went on a Thomson package in 1980, the opening gambit was "Welcome to Majorca - an island of contrasts", and the script has not improved since then.

In the reverse direction, the balance shifted; the bus driver, who arrived 10 minutes early, actually came and plucked me from the pool. This was less stressful than having to track down the right bus-stop in Alicante, when I decided to offset the extravagance of the taxi and catch the local bus. Winner: independent travel.

The accommodation

In accordance with the freestyle nature of independent travel, I asked the taxi driver to drop me in the main square of Alicante. Two reasons: the Hotel Gran Sol is not a pretty sight but has a close-to-the-action site, a block south of the square. A comfortable room cost pounds 20 per night.

The Eva Mar apartment block in Benidorm is much bigger and much uglier, but the people who run it are equally welcoming. The view from the 11th- floor balcony - whence, local legend has it, a double bed was hurled last summer - is mostly of other thin concrete blocks poking into the brochure-blue sky. "Planning regulations" and "Benidorm" do not regularly feature in the same sentence. That body of water in the far distance is the Mediterranean; proximity to the beach is not always a feature of rock- bottom package holidays.

Winner: independence - but earlier this month the Gran Sol closed for three months' refurbishment.

The law

Buying a package brings you an astonishing degree of consumer protection, far beyond getting your money back if the operator goes out of business. Had I tripped over a wonky pavement in Benidorm, injured myself, and decided to sue the local authority, Thomson would have stumped up the first pounds 5,000 of my legal bill. Independently, booking a flight separately from a room, means the benevolent Package Travel Regulations do not apply.

Winner: package, by a knock-out (incurred while tripping over pavement?).

The price

Independently, I found a real bargain flight for pounds 79 return (a more usual figure would be around pounds 150). Two nights in the Gran Sol added pounds 40, and transfers added pounds 15. Total, without a modest amount of spending money, pounds 134. A bargain - of sorts.

The good news about the two-night package was that it was a real loss- leader: just pounds 85.

The bad news was that an "under-occupancy supplement" of pounds 7.50 was charged because I preferred not to share a small apartment with three other people.

The almost unbelievably fortunate follow-up was that thanks to Thomson's "fluid pricing" strategy, designed to reward early bookers, pounds 50 was knocked off the price. Result: a Mediterranean holiday for a grand total of pounds 42.50.

My travel agent was remarkably sanguine about earning just pounds 4.25 commission on the deal, representing 10 per cent of the total. The British and Spanish governments collected pounds 6.25 between them, which leaves Messrs Thomson with just pounds 32 to pay for return flights, transfers and accommodation. The secret was to book at the cusp of the season: when the winter flight schedule ends and the summer timetable begins, tour operators are left with uncomfortable combinations of rooms and seats, which they sell off for whatever they can get.

Overall winner: the package. And Benidorm.

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