Q&A Travel Unravelled: Why do Madeira flights require an early check-in?

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The Independent Travel

Q. Anyone going to Madeira this winter will be expected to check in 4-6am or face much longer flights via Lisbon if they want to visit the island in coming months. What's going on? Susan Weir

A. A dismal combination of the usual winter-season cutbacks between the end of October and the end of March, and the need for some "slot-warming" at Heath- row by the Portuguese national airline.

At present, the most convenient outbound option is TAP Portugal's daily early afternoon departure from Gatwick to Funchal (pictured above). Coming home, there is an equally appealing noon take-off from the island, arriving mid-afternoon at Gatwick. The timings are perfect for connecting journeys.

From the end of October, TAP Portugal will still have daily flights from London – but from Heathrow, at uncomfortable times. The outbound departure is one of the first of the day, at 6.40am, and the inbound one of the last of the day, at 10.05pm. The switch is to protect TAP Portugal's entitlement to a couple of precious slots at Britain's most desirable airport. And, as many have realised, the new timings are lousy for connections.

While easyJet continues to fly from Gatwick, its four departures a week each take off at 8.05am or earlier, again way too early for connections. The other option is to fly via Lisbon or Oporto, but it makes the journey slow and expensive.

Q I'm planning a trip to San Diego in California for Comic Con, which takes place 12-15 July next year. I want the cheapest possible flights.

Sam Ballard

ANot good news, I'm afraid. The only airline with non-stop flights is British Airways, with a daily departure from Heathrow. Fares next July are running at a minimum of £833 return. The next obvious options are to fly to Los Angeles – from where San Diego is an easy two- to three-hour journey – or to change planes en route. But fares from London on BA, Virgin and United are also above the £800 mark. We also checked connecting flights to San Diego via another North American city; there were some options for around £780 mark, but these are only worth contemplating if you want to stop en route.