Simon Calder: Lakes & Mountains ... and passport confusion

The man who pays his way

Summer in the city? Late July on the beach? While I plan to be among the hordes at the airport this weekend, to share in the impatient anticipation of precious time away, personally I prefer to escape the peak-season heat (if not prices) and aim for lakes, rivers and mountains.

You need not venture far to find fresh air, sparkling water and spectacular scenery. The Alps, Dolomites and Tatra mountains are waiting patiently and prettily in the postcard-perfect pages of Thomson's Lakes & Mountains programme. The eight beautiful European countries on offer are Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and Switzerland. All nations, bar the last of these, are in the European Union, meaning your passport is valid up to its final breath on expiry day. And even though Switzerland remains aloof from the EU, it does not insist on any extended validity for travel documents; all the authorities stipulate is that you "must not pose a threat to public order and security". I've never met a Thomson Lakes & Mountains client who did.

Yet Thomson takes a tougher view on validity. Britain's biggest holiday company says passports "must be valid for six months from the date of your return to the UK". (You can check the rule at bit.ly/Sixmths, which leads to a web page inappropriately described as "Help".) So any Lakes & Mountains client planning to travel out today for a week, and whose British passport expires on or before 26 January next year, fails to qualify. That could mean sweat and tears for people heading for beautiful Lake Bled in Slovenia.

The summer rush has an unwelcome twist this year, due to the backlog of passports awaiting renewal. For travellers whose documents are trapped in a bureaucratic black hole, the Monarch Travel Group says: "We are being as flexible as we can." Yet Thomson is adding to the problem by insisting that all customers need six months remaining on their passports, even though the immigration authorities in the vast majority of destinations do not require it.

Sharon Bloor of Manchester contacted The Independent because she is booked to fly next weekend to Tenerife with her husband and sons for a fortnight. The boys' passports expire in September. Unhappily, last Sunday she thought to call Thomson to make sure that their travel documents would be accepted. As Thomson knows well, all EU countries (and plenty more besides, including plucky Switzerland) are perfectly happy for British holidaymakers to stay right up to the expiry date of the passport. But Ms Bloor says she was told they were not acceptable. She felt obliged to make a Fast Track application, thus adding to the queue at the Passport Office. She is now £170 poorer, with the added stress of worrying whether the needlessly replaced passports would arrive in time.

Thomson is free to make whatever rules it wishes about its customers' documentation, however bizarre they may be. But it seems extraordinary that the giant holiday company should choose to make life difficult for travellers this summer. Telling people to renew documents unnecessarily early will lengthen passport queues. Fast Track applicants such as Sharon Bloor extend waiting times for other travellers.

Crossed lines

To see if the online stance is echoed by Thomson staff, I made a series of calls to the firm's customer-services desk. I said I had found a good deal to the Canaries: a self-catering week in Tenerife, leaving Birmingham on Sunday, £289 per person for a family of four. I added that my passport expires in September (a touch economical with the truth; it doesn't run out this September). I was variously and inaccurately assured that I needed between one and three months' validity left.

Three steps to Gatwick

How does Thomson respond? Let me share its full statement with you; the company declined to answer my further questions arising:

"The A-Z guide included in our terms and conditions provides information for customers when they book a holiday with us. In this text, we state that customers' passports should be valid for six months from the date they are due to return back to the UK as this is the maximum number of months' validity required across the countries we operate to.

"We always recommend customers check the passport office website for information specific to their destination.

"We do not refuse travel to any passenger if they have less than six months validity on their passport, as long as they meet the entry requirements of the destination."

If I may loosely interpret:

1. Frankly we can't be bothered to tell people the law that applies to their proposed trip, so instead we burden everyone with the worst-case scenario – and the needless stress and expense of complying with our arbitrary "guide".

2. In the guise of being helpful, we refer them spuriously to a third party: the Passport Office website. While it will tell you all sorts of things (including, curiously, how to prevent someone else getting a British passport), it does not offer advice on other countries' admission policies.

3. If you are sufficiently confident that we are, indeed, talking baloney, and you turn up at Gatwick for a European holiday with a passport that runs out in a couple of months, we won't bar you.

Thomson has grown to become Britain's biggest tour operator because it provides great holidays at reasonable prices; over the years, I have spent a fortune on its products (more than £3,000 last year alone). But given the apparent contempt that the holiday giant has for its customers, I may take my travel cash elsewhere.

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