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.

Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voices

News
people

Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
The last great picture - Winner 'Black and White' and overall 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year'
art
News
Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward (right) with former 'Washington Post' executive editor Ben Bradlee
people

The Washington Post editor helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down President Nixon

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London