Bargain of the week: for cheaper UK rail travel, find a foreign friend

Unlimited first-class travel on Britain's railways is available for £28 a day - but only if you accompany an overseas visitor who has bought a "BritRail Pass" for you and for them.

For three decades, the BritRail Pass scheme has offered go-as-you-please train tickets for tourists to the UK at prices far lower than are available here. It is aimed squarely at overseas residents visiting Britain on holiday, and is available only abroad. There is a variety of passes, covering specific regions and periods of validity.

This year, though, there is a difference: whichever pass the overseas visitors choose, they can buy a matching one for their British host - at a 25 per cent discount. A first-class FlexiPass that allows four days nationwide travel in a month costs around £150, with the guest pass only £112 - almost the same as a one-way standard open single from Manchester to London.

Needless to say, the train operators do not want the offer abused by crafty travellers. So the tourist and host must always travel together, and the UK partner has to show proof of residency.

More information is available online at

Warning of the week: Star Alliance shrinks

The Brazilian carrier Varig has been kicked out of the world's biggest airline alliance. From next Thursday, 1 February, Star Alliance - whose UK member is BMI - will be without a South American partner.

Varig almost collapsed last year, and has been reconstituted as a smaller, leaner airline - which no longer resembles a "network carrier" of the sort that Star Alliance requires of its members, offering travellers common standards and ease of connectivity.

"In order to deliver the Star Alliance benefits, products and services to customers around the globe on a consistent basis, our member carriers work to certain standards and processes," said Jaan Albrecht, chief executive of Star Alliance.

The removal of Varig leaves the grouping with a sizeable geographical gap - not just to Brazil, the largest Latin American country, but to destinations throughout the region. Some of the slack will be taken up by TAP Portugal, Lufthansa of Germany and its subsidiary, Swiss. But the number of regional flights to countries such as Chile, Argentina and Peru will be minimal, handing a big advantage to Oneworld - the second-largest alliance, which includes British Airways and American Airlines. Oneworld's South American partner is LAN, which has an excellent reputation and is expanding fast across the continent.

The Star Alliance says it is "exploring various options to secure a wider presence in the region" - with attention focused on Aerolineas Argentinas and Avianca of Colombia.