Four minutes and counting

Simon Calder's user-friendly guide to travel telephone services
Click to follow
The Independent Travel
With the introduction of new telephone numbers, the Independent Traveller is providing a phone directory with a difference. The travel information numbers on this cut-out-and-keep guide have all been tried and tested. Not only do you have up-to-date numbers for a range of travel providers - we used the occasion to compare waiting times on a range of telephone services.

Clicks and buzzes: all calls were made on a Monday afternoon. The response time shown is between the moment ringing commenced and when we finally got to speak to a live human being (as opposed to a recording). One exception was made for British Airways' interactive flight information numbers at Gatwick and Heathrow, where callers with touch-tone phones may obtain arrival times at the press of a few buttons. If we encountered an engaged signal, we started the clock and redialled until we got an answer.

Codes and charges: 0891 is a premium-rate service, costing 49p per minute peak rate, 39p per minute off-peak. Numbers beginning 0345 or 0990 are charged at local rates. Numbers prefixed 0800 cost the caller nothing.

Winners and losers: the good news is that half the numbers called responded instantaneously. This included BR's Rail Direct line, but note that this is predominantly intended for credit card telephone sales rather than train information.

If you get stuck in a phone queue, it seems you are likely to be there for a while. Joint second-slowest were Air UK and Holiday Inn, each taking 3 minutes 30 seconds. In a phone-off, Air UK shaved two minutes off its time while Hilton's time increased by a minute; at least while you are being asked "please continue to hold", Hilton is paying for the call.

Eurostar's response was easily the tardiest, at 4 minutes 45 seconds. Hitting the last-number re-dial key elicited a response time of almost 10 minutes, all but the first 30 seconds of which was charged at long- distance rates. The price of knowledge can be high, but at least you get some information from Eurostar in the end. The United States Travel and Tourism Administration refuses to provide telephone access to a real human being, no matter how long you hang on.

Music while you wait: to hear Elton John call Thomas Cook Direct, though a recorded "thank you for holding" interrupts every 23 seconds. Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" is the choice of Hilton's worldwide reservations centre. Budget Rent-a-Car prefers light opera, while Eurostar shows a worrying preference for schmaltzy quasi-soul of the early 1970s. The almost total silence of Air UK and Holiday Inn was preferable.

Car hire central reservations numbers

Avis 0181-848 8733 - 10 seconds

Budget 0800 181181 - 2 minutes 15 seconds

EuroDollar 01895 233300 - instant

Hertz 0345 555888 - 3 minutes

Road and rail transport

BR Rail Direct 0800 450450 - instant

Eurostar 01233 617575 - 4 minutes 45 seconds

London Transport information 0171-222 1234 - 25 seconds

National Express 0171-730 0202 - 2 minutes

Travel Information Masters 0891 700600 - instant

UK-based airlines

Air UK 0345 666777 - 3 minutes 30 seconds

British Midland 0345 554554 - instant

British Airways 0345 222111 - instant

Virgin Atlantic 01293 747747 - instant

Crossing the Channel

Britanny Ferries 01705 827701 - instant

Le Shuttle 0990 353535 - instant

P&O Ferries 01304 212121 - instant

Stena Sealink 01233 647047 - instant

Airport flight information

Birmingham 0121 767 5511 - 30 seconds

Gatwick (BA-handled flights) 01293 525555 - instant

Gatwick (other flights) 01293 535353 - instant

Glasgow 0141-887 1111 - 20 seconds

Heathrow (BA flights) 0181-759 2525 - instant

(other flights) 0181-759 4321 - 1 minute

Manchester 0161 489 3000 - 1 minute

Stansted 01279 680 500 - 2 seconds

Tourist offices

Australia 0181-780 2227 - 30 seconds

France 0891 244123 - instant

Greece 0171-734 5997 - 1 minute 10 seconds

Spain 0171-499 0901 - 1 minute

United States 0171-495 4466 - no human help available

Hotel chains' central booking numbers

Forte 0800 404040 - instant

Hilton 0345 581595 - 3 minutes

Holiday Inn 0800 897121 - 3 minutes 30 seconds

Swallow Hotels 0191-419 4666 - instant

Travel agents' late-booking numbers

First Choice 0161-745 7000 - instant

Going Places 0161-477 6835 - 45 seconds

Lunn Poly 01203 225888 - instant

Thomas Cook Direct 01733 335588 - 3 minutes and 20 seconds

Thomson Direct 0171-707 9000 - 10 seconds

Comments