Simon Calder: Short hop, short notice, high fare? Not always

The man who pays his way

Each time I feel a twinge of exasperation at British Airways, I try to suppress it. Our national carrier deserves respect for the way it has successfully squared up to the toughest competition in Europe. Every airline has to battle fiercely with foreign rivals. But BA also has to deal with monumental challenges on its home turf. Europe's two biggest low-cost airlines, easyJet and Ryanair, have their largest operations in the UK, while Virgin Atlantic competes with BA's key business routes from Heathrow and on leisure links from Gatwick.

As a result, British passengers enjoy the best repertoire of air services and the keenest fares in the world: fortunate for us as travellers, and fabulous for UK business and tourism. One reason why London is flourishing is because, every single day, 180,000 airline seats are pointing at the capital – many more than to any other city on Earth. And a good few of them belong to BA.

Last week, when faced with a short-notice trip to Holland, I was grateful of this. I had been talking for months with the people at the Mauritshuis, the marvellous mansion at the heart of The Hague. My trip to research 48 hours in the Dutch seat of government hinged on the Girl with a Pearl Earring (pictured) – more precisely, when she would be back in her rightful place in the Mauritshuis and able to receive visitors. The building works aimed at giving Old Masters a new Golden Age meant that the museum staff could give me only two days' notice of a preview.

The Independent Travel Offers; see Vermeer's masterpiece for yourself on this escorted Dutch Masters tour

Air fares soar close to departure. From London to the nearest airports, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, quotes were over £200 return. So, I checked on Avios (formerly BA Miles). Because I always travel on the cheapest possible tickets, which attract few BA frequent-flyer points, I do not actively collect them, but a few thousand points tend to accrue now and again anyway.

I know from the electronic mailbox here that many of you are miffed with how tricky it is to spend the points on long-haul trips, or to upgrade. But for short-notice short hops, Avios can work wonders. For a London City-Amsterdam outbound and Rotterdam-Heathrow inbound, I paid £35 plus 9,000 Avios: a bargain trip to enjoy a midsummer 48 hours in The Hague, including an encounter with Johannes Vermeer's masterpiece in her ravishingly replenished surroundings.

Gate wait made us late

On the flight home from the Netherlands, I could have been faintly irritated with BA on discovering that on a hop between two great beer-producing nations, the brand offered is Singaporean. But instead I sipped the glass of Tiger and looked out of the window as the crinkled coast of Essex appeared, followed by the brown smudge of the Thames Estuary and the tidy mosaics of suburbia. Then the plane pivoted around the spire of the Shard to reveal London's great monuments and royal patches of parkland as a final grand flourish on the approach to Heathrow.

For once, the vexing and wasteful practice of "stacking" (flying around in circles over the Home Counties while waiting to land at Europe's busiest airport) was avoided. We reached the gate 15 minutes early. That quarter-hour soon melted away. The international flight parked at a domestic stand. So, to everyone's surprise, after walking through the airbridge we were sent down a set of stairs to wait for a bus. As we stood around on the apron, the only distraction was to watch the crew board a large bus and drive off. Exasperating? Not when you remember that the pilots have just flown safely and swiftly through the busiest skies on the planet, and the cabin crew have met the challenge of serving drinks and snacks to 132 passengers during a 40-minute flight – both more demanding than drinking beer and enjoying the view.

Hague lost by Eurostar

What, you may wonder, was I doing on a plane in the first place? On a 200-mile journey that has a reasonable rail alternative, flying is hardly environmentally enlightened. Eurostar runs 10 trains to Brussels each day, with easy connections. Yet while buying a flight is a matter of a few clicks and keystrokes, the railway industry makes booking a short-notice international journey extraordinarily complex and frustrating.

When you tap The Hague or the Dutch name, Den Haag, into Eurostar's website, you are told "Station doesn't exist". The cross-Channel train company recognises the existence of the Netherlands' two biggest cities, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, but does not acknowledge the third, The Hague. So, I tried Voyages-SNCF, formerly known as French Railways. The website had at least heard of The Hague. But when I tried to book 48 hours ahead, it yelled back at me: "SORRY, IT'S TOO LATE TO BOOK THIS JOURNEY ONLINE." Evidently the notion of enabling passengers to travel with an electronic ticket from London to a key European city has yet to occur to the firm: "Tickets for the journey you have chosen are only available to be sent through the post. As you are travelling within 7 days we cannot guarantee you will receive them in time." It suggested "you can edit your journey" – though moving my trip back by a week while I waited for the post might have edited my career prospects.

BA and its airline rivals must daily be thankful for such ineffective terrestrial competition.

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