Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Your August survival kit
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The Independent Travel

At last: British Airways has come up with the perfect riposte to the no-frills airlines. With the repercussions of last weekend's wildcat strike among ground staff rumbling through Terminals 1 and 4, BA has been providing the exact opposite of what easyJet and Ryanair offer.

No-frills airlines get you to your destination but decline to supply free food and drink; this week, BA has been giving away inflight meals to people at Heathrow who have been unable to fly. The airline's new policy could trigger a whole new style of holiday - and benefit members of Britain's finest youth organisation.

The Woodcraft Folk provides the best introduction to travel that any youngster could wish for. To my wide-eyed amazement, this socially enlightened organisation volunteered to take six-year-olds from the artless streets of Crawley to the intense nature of Cumbria.

Parents paid £4 for their offspring to travel 300 miles away, be fed, sheltered and shepherded for a week, and given the time of their young lives. But the catering side of the operation was always a bit tricky, especially towards the end of the trip. Beneath brooding fells and stormy skies, the corner of the Lake District where the Woodcraft Folk were encamped became the land of lumpy milk and no honey.

This week, I discovered that we had been camping in the wrong place. We should have tried Heathrow.

You've heard of Camp X-Ray? Try Camp T-4, as the unwilling inmates will soon call the makeshift array of marquees on the top of the car-park opposite Terminal 4. You might be in Middlesex rather than Mauritius, and admiring Feltham Church rather than the Taj Mahal, but at least the catering is top-notch.

The lukewarm Spam and barely boiled eggs that comprised the average Woodcraft Folk breakfast have been superseded by yummy packs straight from the grounded flights: branded "All-Day Deli", they comprise tasty wraps, complete with fresh orange juice to wash them down. At Camp T-4, you won't exactly have an alluring stewardess offering coffee or tea, but a couple of guys with estate cars fitted with coffee machines will make you a cup of whatever you fancy.

Beyond the terminal, there is a patch of open country where a Woodcraft Folk camp could easily be installed. The troupe could troop across to Camp T-4 for breakfast every morning.

BY TUESDAY, Camp T-4's tenants were given badges. These were not Woodcraft Folk-issue emblems to recognise achievements such as lighting a fire or "building a world based on equality, friendship, peace and co-operation", the youth group's main aim. Instead, the badges indicated which flight each traveller was due to travel on. The idea was to detain passengers who turned up early in Camp T-4 rather than letting them add to the congestion in the terminal.

I tried wandering around with a badge reading "BA 001", but no one believed I was booked on to the evening's Concorde to New York, which bears this flight number.

WITH AUGUST looming, and rumours of the current strike by French entertainers spreading to air-traffic controllers (I trust these two groups are mutually exclusive), it is time for air travellers to take the advice of another youth organisation: Be Prepared. Lord Baden-Powell's admonishment to Scouts is especially apt for those who intend to get further than Camp T-4. So here is your August survival kit for airports.

WHENEVER YOU turn up at any airport, hope for the best but plan for the worst. Ideally, take only hand luggage. If, like most normal people, you cannot manage this, try to check in your baggage at the very last moment. As you know, as soon as your case shuffles off along the luggage belt, you are hostage to the mixed fortunes of air travel. Should a problem emerge with your flight, and your bags are still with you, it can be a simple matter to switch to another departure. Even if you are stuck overnight, at least you will have your possessions about you - unlike some unfortunates last weekend whose luggage spent the night in the belly of a 747.

The typical delay, though, often manifests itself after you have done everything by the book: turned up and checked in on time, only to find that your aircraft is still parked in some corner of a foreign airfield. When this happens, there are three places you need to identify.

First, where are the showers? In every airport in which I have searched for one, except Mombasa, I have always traced a place to clean up and wind down. Sometimes you have to pay to feel physically refreshed, mostly you don't. Usually there are towels provided, but if not it's remarkable how effective a hot-air dryer or paper towels can be. (I believe the Woodcraft Folk awards a badge for just this skill.) A refinement of this is to negotiate a few hours' use of a room at an airport hotel. The going rate for a stay of around four hours during the day should be at most half the nightly charge, since the hotel can sell the same room again that night.

Next, find the chapel. That's right: even if you are as secular as the Woodcraft Folk, seek out the quiet, comfortable retreat where passengers are invited to worship. It is invariably the sanest escape from the madness that takes hold of airports in summer. Treat it as an executive lounge for the soul.

Finally, discover where the staff eat and drink. BA's making free with the inflight meals at Camp T-4 is a rare event. As a commentator on BBC Radio Scotland put it this week, "Those £5 refreshment vouchers they give you for delays at airports are great. You just need to add a couple of quid to it and you can afford a Coke."

Almost every airport has a staff restaurant "landside" (ie before the security control) where the food is better and the prices lower than in the public areas. More often than you might imagine, "normal" people are allowed in; I have breakfasted with baggage-handlers in Bangkok, and supped with stewards in Caracas.

ONCE YOU finally touch down, your problems are only just beginning. On Tuesday, after my holiday at Camp T-4, I headed for the nearest railway station to Heathrow that offers sensible prices. From Feltham, you pay £4.20 to travel to any of five central London rail stations, less than one-third of the price of the Heathrow Express which goes only to Paddington.

But no one said life on South West Trains was supposed to be easy. The fast rush-hour train for which we were waiting was cancelled. Eventually the stopping train behind arrived. It already contained a passenger load equivalent to the entire population of Russia, and by the time the all-stations service had reached its Waterloo this had been amplified to the population of China.

STILL NOT booked a holiday? Take some advice from Britain's top travel executive. Chris Mottershead, managing director of Thomson, recommends seekers-after-value to try a former Iron Curtain country: "Once you arrive in Bulgaria, you can buy everything for a quid."

PREGNANCY CAN make women forgetful. JK Rowling, who gave birth to her second child in March, and a rather large book last month, cites a train from Manchester to London as the place she conceived the character that has made her name and fortune. "By the time she had arrived at King's Cross," trills the biographical blurb on the dust-jacket of Harry Potter And The Order Of the Phoenix, "many of the characters had taken shape." Trains from Manchester terminate at Euston, Paddington and, this summer, St Pancras. But, writes a pedant, they have have not served King's Cross, even platform nine-and-three-quarters, for a century. Perhaps Ms Rowling can clarify the matter in the next opus, Harry Potter Joins The Woodcraft Folk At Camp T-4.

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