Something to Declare

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Bargain of the week: half-price rail travel starts on Monday - in places Deterioration in the rail network, coupled with the current speed restrictions, means it now takes about twice as long to get from Birmingham to London as it did 25 years ago.

Bargain of the week: half-price rail travel starts on Monday - in places Deterioration in the rail network, coupled with the current speed restrictions, means it now takes about twice as long to get from Birmingham to London as it did 25 years ago.

To try to tempt back passengers, Virgin Trains begins "The World's Greatest Rail Offer" on Monday: a month's worth of half-price travel, from 3 February to 4 March, with return journeys allowed up to one month later.

Since Sir Richard Branson announced the offer, finding the bargains has turned out to be highly complex, because of the Byzantine system bestowed by rail privatisation. But this is what you need to know.

The deal depends - mostly, but not always - on whether Virgin has the "flow" (a technical term meaning the right to fix the fare) between any two stations. Every fare that Virgin fixes falls by half. But this does not mean that every journey on a Virgin train is available half-price.

Take a journey like the West Coast main line between London Euston and Liverpool Lime Street, where Virgin trains stop at Milton Keynes and Crewe. If you travel the full distance, then the half-price deal applies: a standard open return for £70, or £22.50 for a Saver ticket. But between London and Milton Keynes, the fare is set by Silverlink; the normal £30.40 return applies, even if you travel on a Virgin train. From Crewe to Liverpool, you likewise pay the fare fixed by First Northwestern (£16.40 open return, £10.90 Saver).

On many Virgin cross-country journeys, like Penzance to Bristol or York to Newcastle, the deal does not apply - you will have to put up with the full fare, set, respectively, by First Great Western or GNER. Some travellers may opt to buy a ticket for a longer journey than required, eg Sheffield-Newcastle or Penzance-Cheltenham, in order to qualify for the discount.

Virgin estimates that the half-price deal will not apply for 10 per cent of journeys, but points out that if you buy a Virgin Value ticket, the 50-per-cent discount will apply.

Conversely, you can use half-price Virgin tickets on any other train operator for journeys where Virgin has the "flow" - for example, Birmingham-Manchester on First Northwestern with a half-price open return for £13.50, or £11.30 for a Saver.

Things get even messier on journeys where Virgin fixes fares, but there are alternate routes to a destination. On the London-Motherwell-Glasgow route, for example, Virgin sets the fare and runs trains via the West Coast. GNER is obliged to charge the same fares for its services via the East Coast. Both companies say you cannot use a half-price Virgin ticket on a GNER train, but this appears to be at variance with the National Conditions of Carriage that govern interavailability. If Virgin half-price tickets were valid on GNER trains, this would interest travellers from Edinburgh and Newcastle to London, who could save by using a Glasgow-London ticket.

The only certain source for which prices are halved is the National Fares Manual, comprising seven volumes, each the size of a phone book. "There's lots of potential for fun and confusion," says Rob Cope, who runs the Railbargain online newsletter (to sign up, e-mail Railbargain-subscribe@egroups.com).

To buy Virgin tickets, call 08457 222 333 or visit www.virgin.com/trains.

Warning of the week: visa rules change for Kenya Eighteen months ago, Kenya relaxed its visa rules for British holidaymakers in a bid to boost tourism. Last Saturday, the government announced that the visa, price £35, will once again be required for UK visitors.

The High Commissioner to London, Nancy Kirui, told The Independent that implementation of the waiver had caused "administrative problems", and was regarded as unfair by nationalities who were still required to have visas.

The rule was due to come into effect on 1 February, but was initially postponed by a fortnight. Yesterday, the High Commissioner said a new presidential decree meant the rule would take effect on 1 March.

Visas are available upon arrival at Nairobi and Mombasa airports, but Mrs Kirui recommended travellers obtain them in advance from the High Commission in London (020-7636 2371): "After an eight-hour flight, standing for another two hours is not fun. We'll try our very best to deliver visas quickly and efficiently." The official waiting time for applications is five working days.

"We've reluctantly accepted the visa change is going to happen," said Stuart Britton, managing director of Somak (020 8423 3000), the UK's leading operator to East Africa. "But while we welcome the latest postponement, we're still pushing for it to be deferred until 1 July."

Meanwhile, the travel health advisory service, MASTA (09068 224100), this week warned of an outbreak of malaria - the second biggest killer disease in Kenya after Aids - in Meru Central District, and said, "Some previously malaria-free, high-altitude areas are now affected. Travellers should avoid mosquito bites and take the recommended anti-malarials."

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