Simon Calder: Let the train take the blame

The man who pays his way
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The Independent Travel

"We cannot possibly hope to offer any sort of reasonable service." The candour of the people trying to run the Stansted Express, the link from central London to Britain's fastest-growing airport, is as refreshing as it is surprising.

Like thousands of other travellers, I have missed flights and lost cash because the train fails to arrive at the airport in the promised 42 minutes. (Has anyone ever been on a Stansted Express that gets there so quickly?) But now, in an extraordinary admission, it all becomes clear.

The company tells me: "Every day now we are victims of two, three, four – sometimes more – major route failures, and each time this happens our services come to a standstill, are delayed, diverted or otherwise badly disrupted."

West Anglia Great Northern, which runs what I struggle to call a "service", places the blame squarely on the track and signals provided by Railtrack. It is a welcome contrast to the usual mealy-mouthed apologies of the "on this occasion we fell below our usual high standards" variety.

It is also useful to be told that the system is falling apart, with the implication that if you are trying to do something important like catch a plane, best set off a few days ahead. But it would be fairer on passengers if the train operator warned us in advance that they risk becoming one of "thousands of displaced or late travellers", rather than the enigmatic slogan that the company uses: "We make more time for you." You may be glad to learn that this is the last I shall write on the subject for the time being.

Anna Hatawai, where are you now? Just outside Stratford-on-Avon, of course. I am staring at a map on which the name of Shakespeare's sweetheart is rendered as something approaching phonetic Japanese. This section is not above confusing places of worship. But the map showing the location of her cottage is part of a European road atlas, published two years ago by the AA and printed in Norwich. This fine piece of cartography loses its typographical grip when tackling tourist attractions.

From Urquahart Castle in the north of Scotland via the theme park now known as Alton Tovers to Queen Victoria's aspirated Hosborne House on the Isle of Wight and the Royal Pavillon in Brighton, the poor tourist asking for directions risks being mocked by locals.

The AA says the mistakes have now been corrected and "would advise anyone travelling in Europe to use an up-to-date road atlas".

School trips were never a strong suit at Thomas Bennett Comprehensive. I guess they were seen as dangerously bourgeois by the radical staff at the biggest school in Crawley who were determined to take the class struggle to the classroom.

A language exchange programme was out of the question, because at the height of the Cold War we 11-year-olds were busy learning Russian rather than politically incorrect tongues like French or Spanish, and swapping with kids in Leningrad was impossible.

The Economics department's idea of a good, educational day out was to take us to the Ford production line at Dagenham, then on to the Stock Exchange in the City of London, so we could draw polemical conclusions about capitalism's degradation of man.

On one ill-starred occasion, someone thought it advisable to introduce the adolescents of Crawley to the notion of a wider world. The awayday to France got off to a poor start when the coach taking us to Newhaven Harbour failed to turn up.

A fleet of taxis rescued the mission and took us to the ferry port, for a journey that, for me and most of the rest of the class, was our first experience of abroad. Retrospectively, it was perhaps regrettable that the opportunity to discover the delights of Dieppe was forsaken by many of the pupils in favour of energetic exploration of (a) lax French attitudes to the sale of alcohol and (b) each other. The present equivalent of the £8 that the outing cost is now £60 – or, if you prefer, €100.

For not too much more than that, today's teenagers can enjoy the following, courtesy of the French-speaking Belgian youth hostel federation – which is targeting teachers "looking for a high-quality place for your next trip".

Try selling this to the sixth-form:

Day one: visit to the Grand Place.

Day two: guided tour of the European Commission.

By day three, things are really hotting up:

Morning: guided tour of the European Parliament.

Afternoon: walk around the European quarter, followed by a discussion led by an association from Brussels on a Europe-related topic of your choice.

Day four can hardly compete: the climax of the trip is a tour of the splendid Gueuze Museum. If you are unaware of this place, you should know that it is not a gallery devoted to a forgotten Flemish master, but devoted to Brussels' most individual beer. Good luck on the Eurostar home after all that.

Loyalty schemes assiduously track travellers. From Air Miles to Marriott Hotels, regular customers are rewarded for staying faithful to a brand. Now the budget end of the travel market is cashing in on the scheme. Yesterday, youth hostels in Holland joined the FreeNites scheme (whose spelling suggests attendance at the same sort of school as me).

You get 10 FreeNites every time you spend the night in a hostel, which seems absurdly generous – until you learn that each FreeNite is not a free night, but a voucher worth 10 euro cents. Still, a discount of €1 per night is welcome, even if it only buys you a cup of coffee. Maybe I'm being unambitious: "In theory," says Emma Beresford of the International Youth Hostel Federation, "you could save up enough FreeNites to have a free trip around the world." Anyway, if you sign up now (www.freenites.com), you get an opening bonus of 50 FreeNites.

A decent gap year could earn you a multitude of frequent hostellers points, use our Complete Guide to make the most of a career break. There is a converse – six things not to do during a gap year:

Work in the local pub; instead, work in someone else's local, 9,000 miles away.

Argue about how little you managed to pay for a meal, drink or night.

Join the Taliban.

Assume you'll be able to buy air tickets abroad more cheaply than here.

Believe that you are the first person ever to have been there and done that.

Spend too much time in Crawley.

Simon.Calder@independent.co.uk

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