The Man Who Pays His Way

Lose money, that's what travellers will do four months from now, when the euro replaces 12 individual currencies. New Year's Day 2002 will be a sad moment for sad people like me, who get a cheap thrill from new currencies.

The European travellers of tomorrow will never know the thrill of that first creased and torn Italian note with an unbelievable number of zeroes, nor the thin jangle of small change whose metal content is almost as low as its purchasing power. Don't worry, though: there are other arcane currencies that can add interest to the traveller's wallet.

Start with the Special Drawing Right, one unit of which will set you back 88p. It is an International Monetary Fund concept bound up with all manner of legal treaties. Then move on to the Neutral Unit of Currency, which to all intents and purposes matches the US dollar. But because not every nation in the world is on friendly terms with America, airline tickets maintain the fiction that the NUC is a separate currency. When a reservations system spits out a fare quote, it will be in NUCs, which are converted instantly to whichever currency you wish, be it US dollars, pounds sterling or Cuban pesos.

The Cuban economy runs on three currencies, of which the dodgiest is the convertible peso. This is on a par with the US dollar ­ at least while you're on the island. It turns out to be not convertible anywhere this side of Havana. By comparison, the euro has the status of the gold standard.

* In case you have been out of Britain for the whole of August, let me assure you that little has changed in the wonderful world of travel. The railways continue to be a subject of utter befuddlement. The closest station to the sea on the now-discredited West Coast Main Line is Carnforth. It was immortalised in black and white in the film Brief Encounter, but it has now incurred a second tragedy: not only do West Coast trains no longer call, but the station is being demolished.

And the Blairs have tried no-frills flying on Ryanair. I trust now that the Prime Minister understands the concept, he will be instructing his cabinet colleagues and MPs on fact-finding missions to switch to low-cost airlines whenever possible, saving taxpayers millions. But perhaps not; one business travel agent insisted, no doubt scurrilously, that everyone in Whitehall and Westminster refuses to fly anything other than full-fare British Airways, "so they can get the [Air] Miles". He added that the reason the government does not tax frequent-flyer points is because "they've all got their noses in the trough". I trust someone in power will correct this wild assertion.

* Currencies get no stranger than Air Miles. BA's frequent-flyer scheme was set up to provide free flights on BA for loyal passengers. It no longer rewards frequent flyers; its flights are no longer free; and it even declines to offer travel on BA.

Any of the six million Air Miles collectors can prove this to themselves by requesting a seat on flight BA 6671 from London Heathrow to Basel. "We can't offer you that flight," I was told. "BA don't fly there anymore." This came as a surprise to me, and to BA's timetable, and to the staff who run the BA Air Miles scheme. This is the new frequent-flyer programme that does actually reward people for flying on BA. They happily deducted 6,500 miles for the one-way flight to the Swiss city.

Back at Air Miles, a different reservations assistant explained that the currency is no longer accepted for "less popular" destinations ­ bad news for anyone who uses Air Miles at maximum efficiency, for one-way or short trips to business destinations where fares are normally high. But a company spokesperson says there is no policy of removing such cities from the list of available destinations ­ it's just that the Basel route, part of a codeshare operation, is not covered by the contract Air Miles has with its parent company.

* Strange surroundings are part of the joy of travelling, and I find myself writing this in a most unusual location: the Diamond Euroclass lounge at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, and in the unfamiliar position to offer some advice, from experience, on the business of getting upgraded. For complicated reasons I found myself with a full economy ticket, price £112, for the brief journey back to Heathrow, and over two hours to spare before the flight I was booked on took off.

"It's already taken off," was the frosty response from the British Midland (BMI) lady at check-in when I enquired if I might travel on the earlier departure.

"But the screen above your head says that it's still boarding," I offer.

"No, it's taken off."

There was, however, a British Airways flight due to leave before the next BMI one. So I wandered over to the ticket desk for an endorsement. This involves a big rubber stamp that says ENDORSED AT FACE VALUE. Thus franked, it means BMI has promised to hand over all the cash it had earned for your ticket to any airline you choose.

The endorsement I was seeking would mean BMI paying over £100 to BA. The official on the ticket desk realised this. So he came up with an instant loyalty scheme: "If you keep your reservation with us, I could upgrade you to business class." Although the flight takes less than an hour, I accepted gratefully.

Along with an upgrade comes admission to BMI's lounge. From the window I can see that the earlier flight has still not taken off. But I don't mind ­ offers of upgrades come along regrettably infrequently. But in future, on the rare occasions when I find myself with a full-fare ticket, I will try the same manoeuvre ­ demand an endorsement and hope they take the bait. If you are upfront enough, instead of waiting for a smart airline official to suggest it, try the "upgrade-me-or-lose-me" line.

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