Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Why the beautiful game is an ugly distraction for the travel industry

Passport, money, hope: of the three essentials for travel, the greatest of these is hope. Every journey involves much that is beyond the traveller's control, from weather to whim.

I wrote these words before I started hitching yesterday, so it is merely a hope that this morning I shall wake up in K-Town. Its real name is Kaiserslautern, but those four syllables were too tongue-mangling for the tens of thousands of US military personnel stationed in this western German city during the Cold War. A new name was soon devised; in retaliation, German travellers should call Washington DC "W-Stadt".

The first time I came here was a couple of decades ago, on a long retreat by thumb from Vienna. Highlights of that painfully slow journey included a seven-hour wait beside the autobahn near Salzburg. Perhaps that Belgian Army surplus greatcoat wasn't such a good idea after all. I hoped to - no, had to - hitch to Crawley before my money ran out. That I made it, with 65 centimes to spare, was thanks to an American family who picked me up amid a hellish sauerkraut of slipways outside Munich.

At about the time when his comrades were being driven out of Vietnam, the US airman and his clan drove me right across Germany from Bavaria back to base at K-Town. Night had fallen by the time we arrived; rather than cast me out beside some lonely Bundestrasse, they took me home and cooked up the biggest burgers this side of Texas.

Besides burgers, bed and breakfast were provided too, then an early-morning lift to the Saarbrücken bypass (and if ever a city deserved a bypass, it is Saarbrücken). That dodgy Belgian coat kept me warm on a two-day, two-baguette trip via Paris, Dieppe and Newhaven. When I arrived home, my mother wisely consigned the by-then-very offending garment to indefinite quarantine.

This time, I am wearing a fleece that, as far as I am aware, harbours no significant microbiological hazard. In my pocket I have more than 65 centimes, and am happy to pay for a hotel. But some habits die hard: I hope that some equally kindly souls will have picked me up to take me through the shivering hills west of the Rhine.

AN ACTION replay? No. That concept is tremendous in televised football, but any attempt to replicate a journey is hopeless: either the destination or your circumstances will have changed - most likely, both. The purpose of my hitching here (I hope) is to make the final call on an advance tour of the host cities for next summer's football World Cup.

From grim Gelsenkirchen to beautiful Berlin, I have ticked off the other 11 venues, and K-Town is last on my list. I hope the tournament will finally persuade British travellers that Germany is a beautiful, cultured and friendly country endowed with many great cities - not counting Gelsenkirchen nor Saarbrücken. It's too early to tell about K-Town; I have only ever seen it in the dark.

PERHAPS YOU hope to avoid all mention of the beautiful game between 9 June and 9 July next year. Yet even travellers who are indifferent towards football can hope to benefit from the tournament. The World Cup disrupts holiday bookings more than any other event, including the Olympics. That's according to three of the travel industry's top bosses, who also happen to be ardent football fans.

"I don't care how passionate a supporter you are, the World Cup decimates your business," says Anette Rayner, managing director of Canadian Affair, and a season-ticket holder at Chelsea. "The timing couldn't be worse." If the tournament were to start the following month, just as the school holidays begin, it would coincide with the one time of the year when travel companies can expect to sell every seat or bed at a good price. But shifting seats in June is always a problem, and even with discounting next year looks particularly tough.

Anette Rayner pins her hopes on getting two nationalities aboard her transatlantic flights: the Canadians, whom she is trying to lure here using a brochure featuring Frank Lampard; and the Scots, who have sadly failed to qualify.

The legendary Terry Williamson is the only ex-Crawley Town player to head up a leading holiday company. The former full-back is now managing director of Cosmos, and is tackling the problem with price-cuts. "It's essential that we shift as much of the capacity as early as possible," he says, "before too many people get into the spirit of the competition."

That spirit could emerge as soon as next Friday evening, when the draw is made in Leipzig. England fans will find out where the team will play their opening matches. Manny Fontenla-Novoa, chief executive of Thomas Cook and another Chelsea supporter, allows his head to rule his heart: "The sooner England get knocked out the better." The captain of the now-German-owned company hopes for an early and ignominious exit for Sven's boys. "I want them to lose the first game really badly, so that people can get on with going on holiday."

Funny thing, hope.

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