Something To Declare: Hot ski deals; New Zealand railways; Club 55; Cuba by train
Saturday 18 September 2010
Tip of the week: Hot ski deals
Any skier or snowboarder prepared to drag themselves to Gatwick early on Boxing Day morning is likely to get an excellent deal for a week of winter sports.
The ski companies have a serious problem at the start of the coming season: Christmas Day and New Year's Day fall on Saturdays, normally the main "changeover" days. Charter flights have been shifted to the following Monday. But some Sunday flights (the other common day for flying out and back) are going out as normal on Boxing Day – notably the Thomas Cook Airlines and Thomson Airways flights departing from Gatwick and Manchester shortly after 6am to Toulouse (serving Andorra), Turin (serving some Italian and French resorts) and Sofia (serving Bansko, Borovets and Pamporovo). In addition, Inghams has flights to Kittila in Finland from Gatwick, Bristol and Manchester.
Prices of as little as £449 are available for a week's self-catering in the Andorran resort of Pas de la Casa through the Thomas Cook-owned ski operator, Neilson (0844 879 8155; neilson.co.uk), lower than the usual festive prices.
There will be bargains, too, for those able to travel in the first week of January, when tour operators effectively press the reset button to switch flights back to Saturday departures. The man who controls more of the UK's ski inventory than anyone else, Mathew Prior of Tui, says "We have a correction period from Monday 3 January to Saturday 8 January where we offer a five-night holiday, providing four days of skiing, which is perfect for a lot of people." For example, five nights' self-catering in Brides-les-Bains is on sale at £271, including flights from Gatwick to Grenoble (with inflight meals), and transfers.
The Independent is working in partnership with the world's largest consumer winter-sports event, the Ski & Snowboard Show (0871 2301 100; metrosnow. co.uk), which takes place 20-24 October at London Olympia. Tui Ski, which owns Crystal, Thomson and First Choice ski, will be returning to the show, which aims to recreate "the mountain atmosphere in the heart of London". New elements include the Land Rover Mountain Theatre, featuring Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Steve Redgrave, and the "Ice Driving Experience".
Tickets are normally £12 (£9 in advance) for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, or £16 (£13 advance) for Saturday and Sunday. But readers of The Independent Traveller qualify for a reduced price of £15 for two (weekdays) or £20 for two (weekends) when booking by phone or online and quoting "Independent".
Destination of the week: New Zealand railways
The Overlander , connecting Auckland with New Zealand's capital, Wellington, is now profitable – just four years after being days from closure after heavy losses. In the past year alone passenger numbers have increased by a quarter, according to the train's operator, KiwiRail.
The rail expert Mark Smith, founder of the website Seat61.com, welcomed the news that the train appears to be safe:
"In my book, the Overlander is one of the world's great train rides, linking New Zealand's political and economic capitals through every sort of scenery there is, over the historic North Island Main Trunk line. I'm glad it's now doing well, and even in the black." The standard one-way fare for the 12-hour daytime journey is NZ$129 (£55). You can book through tranzscenic.co.nz.
Passenger numbers have also improved, although by a much lower proportion, on New Zealand's most popular train. The TranzAlpine link across the South Island, from Christchurch to Greymouth, attracts an average of 16,000 travellers a month.
Following the earthquake near Christchurch two weeks ago (measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale), all South Island rail services were stopped; trains have now resumed, with some speed restrictions in place.
Bargain of the week: Club 55
For several years rail travellers in Scotland aged 55 and over have enjoyed cut-price "walk up and go" train tickets. Now, the Club 55 concept is extended to FirstGroup's train operating companies in England and Wales. From Monday, travellers born on or before 20 September 1955 will qualify for cheap off-peak fares from First Great Western, First TransPennine Express, First Hull Trains and First Capital Connect trains.
England and Wales are divided into travel zones, with tickets starting at £15 return for travel within a single zone, plus £10 for each extra zone. Check the zones at the dedicated website, club55.co.uk. As examples, Manchester-Edinburgh, London-Hull and London-Bath all cost £25 for a standard return – with a further £5 off for railcard holders.
Warning of the week: Cuba by train
Rail services on the Caribbean's largest island "have deteriorated over the last few years," warns the new edition of the Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable (£13.99), "with many trains cancelled at short notice". Services are likely to suffer still further with the news this week of 500,000 job losses at state-run enterprises including the train operator, Ferrocarriles de Cuba.
Services on long-distance routes such as the 18-hour link between Havana and the second city, Santiago, do not run daily. They tend to operate only on alternate days, or even every third day. A footnote in the Thomas Cook schedule for this route warns, "No trains on 31st of any month".
The Foreign Office says: "There are concerns about standards of maintenance of public transport."
Even if you find a train running, your problems may be just beginning.
"If you want reliable, comfortable, safe transport," says a contributor to Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum, "do not travel by train". Another traveller is more optimistic: "If you do not have a time limit, everyone says [rail travel] is 'a Cuban experience'."
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