The man who pays his way

Travel, I need not remind you, is fraught with all manner of pitfalls. To reduce the scope for high-season stress, earlier this month I practised what I preach: booking a proper package holiday – the cruise described in the next few pages – through a travel agent.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, according to the ticket book that Thomson sends out to holidaymakers, plenty. A couple of weeks before departure, the company sent me a well-produced booklet detailing everything from flights to excursions, with helpful hints about how to avoid spreading Norovirus and including neat touches such as pre-printed luggage labels. Yet it was laced with instructions that were unhelpful at best.

Take the business of making sure that the name on your ticket should match that on your passport. Depressingly often, travellers fall at this hurdle – perhaps using a maiden name instead of a married name. Depending on the airline or holiday company, this can be an expensive mistake to rectify (in my experience, SAS and, latterly, Ryanair, are tolerant of the human propensity to err). But the Thomson briefing says that if I get my name wrong my "insurance cover may be invalid". I had always understood that a travel insurance policy covers the individual who takes it out, regardless of how much of a hash they may make of booking a flight or holiday.

Parents are sternly told that "children who are already included on an existing passport may continue to travel with the passport holder" until they reach the age of 16 or the passport expires. All very interesting, except that the practice of including children on the passport of a parent ended in 1998, so this stipulation applies to precisely no-one. By the way, "Britannia and most other airlines do not accept anyone under the age of 16 travelling alone." Perhaps someone should tell Thomson that "Britannia" was dropped as the name of its in-house airline five years ago, in favour of "Thomson Airways".

Even if you make it to the airport with all your papers in order, woe betide anyone turning up at check-in less than 90 minutes specified before departure: "Check-in times, as advised by your carrier, are the latest times at which passengers can be accepted for travel," insists Thomson. Its 90-minute limit looked implausible; I know of no other UK airline that demands you turn up so far ahead of a flight. The only way to test it was to stay in bed, which I gladly did.

At the time the official deadline for my flight to Corfu expired, I had just started breakfast at the Luton airport Holiday Inn Express. I wandered over to the airport 20 minutes after the apparent close of check-in to find a couple of open desks with neither a queue nor any hint of any time pressure. Yet anyone stuck in traffic who took the briefing at its word could be understandably – and unnecessarily – alarmed about missing the plane.

The Greek island cruise was enlivened by a visit to the pretty Turkish port of Marmaris. "All guests are required to purchase a tourist visa on arrival in Turkey," said the booklet. I had my passport and a crisp £10 note ready for this purpose – only to discover that cruise passengers are exempt.

A spokesperson for Thomson Cruises had this to say: "While we endeavour to keep our ticket books up to date, we are aware that some travel advice changes after printing and so these details become outdated. We are now in the process of reviewing all of the passenger information in our ticket books to ensure that those passengers due to travel will do so with the relevant information."

Pointless palaver over a passport

"If your passport features an Israeli stamp," warned Thomson's booklet, "you may be refused entry to some countries in which case you will be required to remain onboard ship." Crikey, that sounds serious. What is a traveller to do? "Call the passport office for advice," apparently. So I did.

The Identity and Passport Service representative to whom I spoke was bemused as to why Britain's biggest holiday company should direct clients to "the passport office" and suggested I call the Foreign Office travel-advice line instead, helpfully providing the telephone number for good measure.

Here an equally helpful person warned that I could be "refused entry to Saudi Arabia and Syria if there is evidence of a visit to Israel". Strangely, neither country features on any of the itineraries offered by Thomson Cruises.

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