THE specialist cheap-air- ticket business this week took another step towards professional respectability with the announcement that it is planning to set up its own trade association.

John Whittle of the leading consolidator Major Travel, based in north London, said that the setting up of the Association of Airline Consolidators was an indication of how far the cheap- ticket business had developed in the past 10 years.

'At one time airlines pretended that the sale of cheap tickets didn't exist. But all airlines were dumping tickets through bucket shops - they had to do it to get the business,' he said.

The old-style bucket shops traded in a commercial twilight zone, usually operating from shady back- street offices. Airlines supplied the agencies with tickets but officially denied dealing with them. The result was that consumers were often duped by traders who cashed in on the uncertainty that surrounded the sale of unofficially discounted tickets - sometimes selling stolen tickets to unsuspecting clients.

But with the emergence of fully-bonded and slickly run specialist ticket agencies such as Trailfinders and STA Travel, the back-street bucket shop has been replaced by a new breed of high street agencies which trade openly as consolidators for airlines.

Travellers in search of a 'consolidation' fare should phone the appropriate airline direct and ask for the name of its consolidator. Most high street travel agencies have direct access to consolidation fares information through their viewdata systems. If your local agencies can't help, telephone the specialist cheap ticket agencies that advertise in national newspapers.

VISITORS to China should be ready to deal with sexual harassment and an increase in muggings in the main cities, warns the Foreign Office's Travel Advice Unit (071-270

4129). 'Visitors should guard their money and valuables in public areas and hotels. Women travelling alone should exercise caution,' says the unit.

THE Geest Line (0703 334415) has published its 1994 programme of passenger trips on its regular fortnightly banana boat sailings between Southampton and the Caribbean. Each ship has five double cabins and two single cabins, on-board facilities include a plunge pool, sun deck, games, a lounge and library. Caribbean islands visited include Barbados, St Lucia, Grenada, St Vincent, Antigua, St Kitts and Dominica. Prices for the 26-day cruises range from pounds 2,360 per person in a double cabin.

THE EDUCATIONAL tour specialist Interchange (081- 681 3612) is organising a 16- night trip to China for people keen to learn more about the Chinese legal system. The tour will provide an insight into everything 'from the supreme law-making body of the Presidium in Beijing to the handling of day-to-day matters by the neighbourhood committee at local


The trip, which departs on 11 May, includes a visit to a law school, police station, solicitors' office and a court room. It costs pounds 2,095 including sightseeing tours and visits to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

Armchair travelling for Christmas:

1. Everest: The best writing & pictures from 70 years of human endeavour (Little, Brown & Co, pounds 25) edited by Peter Gillman

2. The Oxford Book of Exploration (Oxford University Press, pounds 17.95) selected by Robin Hanbury-Tenison

3. The High Mountains of the Alps (Diadem Books, pounds 30) by Helmut Dulmer and Willi P Burkhardt

4. The Travel of Ibn Battuta (Darf, pounds 20) translated by the Rev Samuel Lee

5. Gertrude Bell (Constable, pounds 12.95) by H V F Winstone

6. On the Edge of Europe: Mountaineering in the Caucasus (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 18.99) by Audrey Salkeld and Jose Luis Bermudez

7. A Thousand Miles up the Nile (Parkway Publishing, pounds 7.99) by Amelia Edwards

8. My Life as an Explorer (Oxford University Press, pounds 22.50) by Sven Hedin

9. Rivers Running Free: Canoeing Stories by Adventurous Women (Seal Press, pounds 12.99) edited by Judith Niemi and Barbara Wieser

10. Pecked to Death by Ducks (Fourth Estate, pounds 7.99) by Tim Cahill

Last-minute flights

Avro (0293 567916): 19 December Luton to Alicante, seven/14 nights, pounds 85; 22 December Gatwick to Lisbon, 10 nights, pounds 159.

Travel Bug (061-721 4000): Until 14 December and from 25 December to 16 March, weekender fares to the US offering a maximum stay of five days including at least one Saturday night - destinations featured include New York pounds 191 and Los Angeles pounds 262; until March, Heathrow to Paris, pounds 79 and Heathrow to Nice, pounds 124.

Owners Abroad (061-745 7000): 8 December Gatwick to Cyprus, 14 nights self-catering, pounds 169; 11 December Gatwick to Orlando, 12 nights room only, pounds 269; 23 December Gatwick to Orlando, 14 nights self-catering, pounds 469.

Inspirations (0293 822244): 9 December Manchester to Goa, seven nights bed and breakfast, pounds 371; 10 December Gatwick to Agadir, seven nights self-catering, pounds 149.

Tjaereborg (0293 554444): 8 December Birmingham to Cyprus, seven nights self-

catering, pounds 119; 11 December Gatwick to the Algarve, seven nights self-catering, pounds 89.