The man who pays his way

It is Monday morning. You are standing at Heathrow airport in London with £535 to spend on a plane ticket. Which will you choose: SYD or SYY?

Don't ponder for long; it has to be SYD, Sydney in Australia, flying with Japan Airlines via Tokyo, booked through Airline Network by next Tuesday. Generous old JAL will even throw in a night in a Tokyo hotel on your way home, to keep you comfortable while you wait for the connecting flight. You'll cover 20,000 miles, enjoy plenty of interesting in-flight meals and movies, and get a glimpse of Japanese life – plus the chance to see Sydney, the world's most indulgent city. And you can buy a cup of tea at Heathrow with the change.

That's SYD. SYY is, unfortunately, beyond your budget unless you can panhandle the odd 50p. What a difference a letter makes. So where is this strange and exotic destination?

Britain. SYY is the airport code for Stornoway, the capital of the Western Isles, 524 miles from Heathrow. From London, it costs more to reach northern Scotland than New South Wales.

In return for £535.50, British Airways will take you to Glasgow, serving a snack and a cup of tea. Remember that Tokyo hotel that JAL throws in? Forget any hospitality during the wait for the Stornoway connection; BA's lounge is off-limits even to people paying astronomic fares, unless you have the right colour executive card.

Let's hope the kettle in the galley has been mended by now, or the next one-hour hop to the Isle of Lewis will be tea-less, too.

¿ Evidently someone must believe the Stornoway flight is worth more than a trip to Australia or, indeed, South Africa (a week's fly-drive from Heathrow with Cox & Kings, with three-star accommodation, £499 all in). But I declined BA's ticket offer pending, as they say, further enquiries.

I called a tour operator in Glasgow, Scotia Travel. The company created a short-break package by adding two nights' dinner, bed and breakfast to the same BA flights. Magically, these extras managed to cut the price by a couple of hundred pounds, to £329. Hurray: the future of Scottish tourism is secure. You can barely get a decent long weekend in New York or Dubai for that sort of cash.

The "inclusive tour" deal that I procured meant the air travel element was not the same entity as the fully flexible ticket originally quoted by BA. But a degree of flexibility is usually attached to all but the cheapest of flights; even easyJet and Ryanair let you switch flights for £10 or £15. So when I turned up at Stornoway airport for the trip home in time for an earlier flight, I asked to change planes.

Certainly, sir, that'll be £255. And 50 pence.

Some senior executives may value their time at over £4 a minute, just as some companies and governments are content to pay for their staff to travel to the Hebrides aboard a flight that matches Concorde in price-per-mile if not speed or service. But rather than blowing the price of a week's holiday in the Med on the flight change, I chose to wander around the now-deserted airport and wait for the flight I was booked on (which, with a certain inevitability, was late).

During my meanderings it appeared that SYY can match SYD for runway length as well as fares. You could probably land a Jumbo on the Isle of Lewis airport. Perhaps Japan Airlines, which seems to offer a pretty good product at a pretty good fare, could extend its Tokyo-Heathrow flights to Stornoway. Alternatively, a no-frills airline could pack a Boeing 737 with people who want to reach the priceless scenery of the Western Isles for a sensible price. Indeed, a bunch of us could club together to buy a secondhand jet for the price of a few trips to Stornoway.


TODAY, EAST Midlands becomes the fourth UK airport to be connected to Nice by a no-frills carrier. The new flight from Bmibaby will make the Promenade des Anglais live up to its name even more.

But if you plan to make use of the excellent local bus network, be warned that it could be a slow and crowded experience.

SunBus, the city's innovative transport enterprise, has invented a frequent bus traveller scheme to coax more Nicois off the roads. Season-ticket holders are issued with a "smart card" that tracks every bus they catch and rewards their loyalty.

A rush-hour ride earns one point while an off-peak journey gets two. After 150 trips of the latter, you earn enough points for... a euro pocket calculator. Big deal, when loyal travellers on other forms of transport could look forward to something as valuable as a flight to Stornoway. But a promotion that started at the beginning of the year awards a DVD player to the first 10 people to amass 5,000 points.

You can guess the rest. That equates to 2,500 off-peak journeys. For people with time on their hands – and there are plenty in that position in Nice – the most efficient way to gather points is to take a succession of trips for one stop. You hop on, hop off and board the next bus. This does wonders for your points tally but makes the network run like treacle.


ONE CORNER of Britain is doing more than merely spout the "UKOK" slogan – Hull, where the new "submarium" known as The Deep opens to the public today. The city is aggressively targeting tourists who would think of the Seine or the Loire before the Humber. Hull Trains and a couple of hotels have come up with first-rate packages that are designed to tempt visitors away from Continental competition.

For £24.50 each, a couple can get rail travel to Hull and back, a taxi to the Portland Hotel or Holiday Inn for a night's stay with breakfast – and admission to The Deep. That beats anything on offer to continental Europe or Scotland.

Indeed, for the price of a one-person package to Stornoway, you could send an entire Rugby League team to Hull for the weekend, and still have enough change to buy the first round.

One short-term irritation is that Railtrack has chosen the inaugural weekend to work on the East Coast Main Line, forcing Hull Trains to cancel all its services today and tomorrow; longer-term, the annoyance is that you can embark on one of these bargain packages from anywhere you like – so long as it's London or Grantham.


Airline Network: 01772 727272

Cox & Kings: 020-7873 5000

Scotia Travel: 0141-305 5050

Bmibaby: 0870 264 2229

The Deep package: 08456 50 70 70