Cheap seats are all very well, but cheap beds are even better - particularly if they travel at an average speed of 50mph. The best travel deal in Britain is on the railways: specifically, the "Bargain Berths" on ScotRail sleepers linking Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Inverness and Glasgow with London.
Ten years ago, when the privatisation of Britain's railways began, the small print made uncomfortable reading for the train operators. At the insistence of the Tory government (reputedly spurred on by the soon-to-be-endangered species of Conservative MPs in Scotland), ScotRail was obliged to maintain the uneconomic overnight services between England and Scotland. Not too unprofitable, mind, because air fares were reliably high. But a few months' later, easyJet started picking off the ScotRail destinations with cheap flights from Luton. Soon, the benchmark airfare from Scotland's largest cities to London fell to £29 - well below the fare levels prevailing on the overnight train. Anyone with urgent business in the capital could find a dawn flight that got them to London in time for the start of the working day.
In a normal industry, the luxurious but antiquated option of the overnight train would disappear. But because of the terms of its franchise agreement, ScotRail is obliged to operate enormously expensive Anglo-Scottish trains. To try to fill them, it has taken several leaves out of the easyJet manual. "Bargain Berths" are one-way trips for as little as £19 (though, as with the no-frills airline, fares rise in £10 increments to £29 and £39). They are available only online, at www.scotrail.co.uk, and are "ticketless" - you print out the e-mail confirming your ticket, and show it when you board the train.
What you get for your money is remarkable. Besides at least 400 miles of rail transport, you secure a berth in a compartment that you may or may not be sharing with a stranger (depending on how well the train has sold). It is not quite the mobile hotel that some German and Italian overnight trains have become, but it is a darn sight more comfortable than the Hostal Ritzi in Palma, where I spent last weekend. And in the morning you even get a cup of tea, a muffin and an apple brought to your bed (which you definitely can't hope for in the Ritzi).
Unlike trains in America, where the tracks are so clunky that you emerge from your sleeper berth feeling like a crash-test dummy, the ride in Britain is mostly smooth. On Monday night's northbound train to Edinburgh, though, the journey began shakily - lurching from one unscheduled stop to another before we reached Watford, let alone the north. Concerned, I asked the attendant his view on our likely arrival time. "Don't worry, this is all allowed for in the timetable. We'll reach Edinburgh right on time." And I went to my (sporadically) moving bed.
Even by the usual comfortable standards, this journey turned out to be particularly smooth. Shortly before 7am, I awoke to find out why.
Lo, is that the dawn mist melting to reveal the lazy folds of the Lowlands, speckled with russet trees that speak of impending winter? No, it's Preston station.
After seven hours, the train had covered just half its allotted journey, averaging less than 30mph. At that rate, we could expect to be in the Scottish capital sometime after lunch. This boded ill for the morning session of the Airport Operators' Association conference that I was due to attend, though it might provide the delegates from airlines and airports with a cheap laugh at the opposition's expense.
With a superhuman lurch, the replacement locomotive heaved forward and headed north. I lurched forward towards the buffet, to ask the train crew their views on when we might arrive - and to ask if I might borrow a mobile phone, the battery on mine having failed to charge during the power-free night. In one sense, travelling on ScotRail is twice as good as being held in police custody. When arrested, you are allowed to make only one telephone call; when the overnight train turns into an overday train, each ScotRail passenger is permitted to make two.
"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you." As I crept into the back of the auditorium, that was all I heard of the keynote speech by Nicol Stephen, Scotland's transport minister. But I was in time to hear Barry Humphreys of Virgin Atlantic describing his airline's main base, at Heathrow, as "a First World shopping mall and a Third World airport". He also warned that life is going to get worse for transatlantic passengers, once even tougher US rules come into force. "Do you know the zip code of the hotel you're staying in?" Soon, American-bound travellers will have to provide full details of their first night's accommodation before being allowed to board the aircraft in Britain. Terminal 3 at Heathrow, from which most US flights depart, will become even more chaotic as passengers are quizzed about arcane details of their travel plans. As a result, most people will decide to allow even more "dwell time" for hold-ups at the airport, adding still further to the congestion.
FOR THE antithesis of airport chaos, head to Palma de Mallorca any day before now and 1 May next year. This cathedral of aviation was built to handle one million people per month - the numbers that arrive in a typical summer. In winter, which according to the airline schedules began last Sunday, the airport operates at about one-10th of capacity. You could go bowling on the runway, or play tennis in the terminal.
On Sunday, I did not see any bowlers on the Tarmac, but I did witness two Gatwick-bound lads playing tennis on the departure level. Sam and Andrew, from Portsmouth, decided to stage an impromptu match while waiting for their flight. They pressed into service an empty row of chairs as the net.
And then it struck me: not the ball, but the thought that airport tennis is the way for Britain to reclaim greatness on the grass at Wimbledon. With the shortfall of sporting facilities and grim winter weather, some of the UK's less busy transport terminals must be turned over to young sportsmen and women.
Five years ago, a Nike ad showed the Brazilian football team playing the jogo bonito ("beautiful game") at Rio airport. South Yorkshire's newest airport has seen all its scheduled services disappear, so the soccer stars of the future can train on the all-weather pitch at Sheffield from Wednesday to Tuesday inclusive.
A decade ago, you could have staged a World Athletics Championship on the wide open spaces of Stansted or Prestwick. Both airports have now scarcely enough room to stage a game of chess. So Campbeltown on the Kintyre peninsula is the athletics ground of the future - the airport is one of the few places on earth where a 3,000m race could be run in a straight line.
My train of thought was interrupted when the game was up for Sam and Andrew; a pair of burly security guards turned up and turfed out the grass court stars of the future.
By Thursday, I was at Heathrow again for the Modern Traveller's Pentathlon, involving surmounting at least five hurdles before the plane actually takes off: Piccadilly Line pauses, check-in chaos, snail's pace security, departure lounge dawdles and slot-shortage snarl-ups. So I was happy when the pilot announced the plane's imminent departure to the Danish capital - though he then injected a little uncertainty into proceedings by adding, "Cabin crew, take your seats for lan... er, take-off."
I was reminded of a recent flight to Glasgow when the cabin service director, who had spent too long shuttling on 757s, declared, "We're going to demonstrate the safety equipment on board this Boeing - sorry, Airbus." But the uncertainty principle spread quickly aboard British Airways flight 822. When the seatbelt sign was switched on for the descent, a member of cabin crew announced, "We'll shortly be landing in - where is it tonight? Oh yes, Copenhagen." At least it is prettier than Preston.Reuse content