Simon Calder: What to do if your holiday 'goes volcanic'

The man who pays his way

Wrong, wrong, wrong: three wrongs make a right old mess, from the perspective of people grounded by ash from Eyjafjallajökull.

Iceland has the wrong kind of geology, as far as 21st-century aviation is concerned. Britain has the wrong kind of geography, being too close to Iceland and too dependent on air travel. And since the earth got restless at 63 degrees north, we have had the wrong kind of meteorology: an anticyclone hovering over the Atlantic has impeded the moist, south-west winds from ferrying the volcanic ash towards northern Siberia – where, with the greatest respect to the local Inuit community, it can stay forever, as far as we are concerned.

This publication got it wrong, too: on 26 March, Something to Declare erroneously described the erupting volcano as a tourist attraction, rather than as a threat to tens of millions of holidays. But while the travel gods conspire against us, let me outline the essential strategies to reduce the risk of being stranded at Stansted or grounded at Gatwick.

The simplest is to pay a bit extra and get a non-stop flight, if you can. Some British travellers caught up in the disruption last weekend got stuck because they had opted for a flight involving a change of plane: those with connections at Lisbon, Milan or Munich found themselves flummoxed, while people with non-stop bookings breezed over or around the disruption.

Next, to reduce the chance of being subject to a "knock-on" delay, choose as big an airline as possible. British Airways and Virgin were both hammered last weekend by the need to fly much longer tracks than usual on transatlantic flights: services to and from the Caribbean and Florida were badly affected. Virgin Atlantic, being much smaller, suffered more serious delays because there was less slack in the system (though I should point out, to stop a Virgin executive the bother, that one reason BA has so much capacity is because its operations have shrunk relentlessly in the past two years).

In uncertain times, the other essential strategy is to limit your financial exposure if it all goes wrong. Many people who lost out heavily were those who had booked accommodation or a rental car independently, rather than as part of a package. A proprietor who had already been paid was understandably disinclined to offer a refund, given that the room or car was ready and waiting; it was hardly his fault that the customer was a no-show. To avoid this risk, pay a bit more to rent a "pay-on-collection" car – most multinationals offer this facility – and choose a hotel with a "cancel-without-penalty" policy. For the time being, at least, many hoteliers offer this courtesy, though not always for the very cheapest rates nor for online bookings – so pick up the phone instead.

Finally, choose an EU airline. For as long as the absurdly generous EU261 rule on passenger rights prevails, European airlines must provide an unlimited commitment to your welfare if you are stuck thousands of miles from home. So you are guaranteed three square meals a day and a "reasonable" hotel room. Because of this open-ended liability, the airline has the strongest of incentives to get you home as soon as possible, in order to get you off its books. Last month, while non-EU airlines could cheerfully offer passengers repatriation flights weeks after the scheduled departure, European carriers were laying on extra space or booking seats on rivals to limit the immense damage to their fragile finances.

Terrestrial bliss with l'Hexagon

The most obvious way to avoid the danger that your flight "goes volcanic" is not to fly. Would you believe your luck? Today you are reading a special edition of The Independent Traveller that is devoted to France – and there are fast and affordable terrestrial transport options to every corner of l'Hexagon, as mainland France is known.

Besides today's spread from Brittany to the Med, the inspiration for bonnes vacances continues a while longer; to celebrate the new Footprint series of regional guides to France we will feature a different province every Saturday for six weeks in our Traveller's Guide series. Today, you can start dreaming of Provence; next week the focus moves west to Languedoc-Roussillon, then Dordogne and the Lot, followed by the Loire. Finally, we round off the series with Normandy and Brittany on 12 and 19 June. Easy to reach, and easy to escape.

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