The other day I chanced to meet a well-known and extremely funny comedienne, and congratulated her on the most recent performance I had seen of hers. She generously shared her professional secret, which she calls the "three Fs". The first two are "be fast, be funny", and you don't need to know the third.
In the untaxing world of travel journalism, the only axiom worth mentioning is "don't mess with the aristocracy". The nobility in the travel business include some genuinely titled folk, such as the airline pioneers Sir Richard Branson and Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, not to mention the cruise magnate Lord Sterling. The three women at the helm of travel magazines, Sarah Miller (Condé Nast Traveller), Kerry Smith (High Life) and Lyn Hughes (Wanderlust), are surely the grandes dames. There are others whose expertise and mastery of their craft are beyond reproach: Bill Bryson, Michael Palin, and Tony and Maureen Wheeler (the founders of Lonely Planet). And if you delve deeper into this strange industry, whose main product is human happiness, you find others whose command of their specialism elevates them to the elite, national-treasure level. Such as the men at Thomas Cook Timetables.
If you're beginning to think, "this looks as though he's messed up again and there's an apology coming", you are quite right.
You may recall that last Saturday I extrapolated upon the work of these rail wizards to concoct a league table of train fares across Europe. My starting point was the latest edition of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable, which is compiled (rather than concocted) by a dedicated team of brainiacs at their HQ in Peterborough. I then researched typical second-class fares for one-way trip of 100km, and drew up a league table. It showed Britain and Denmark tied for the most expensive journeys, just ahead of Germany and Ireland.
Kevin Flynn, upon whose research I partially based the story, politely suggests that my conclusion is flawed. The reason: fares in the UK for a standard 100km vary wildly. And the one I randomly selected, from Preston to Leeds for £14.40, is unrepresentative of the average for a 100km single journey.
"The trip you hit upon to illustrate British fares just happens to be one of the cheapest in the UK," says Flynn.
To prove it, he investigated the fares for 19 other randomly chosen trips within the 97km to 103km range. The closest to the average is £18.50, the fare for Grantham to Sheffield. Using this price catapults Britain into the European stratosphere, about 30 per cent higher than our nearest rival. But even more surprising was the revelation that standard fares in the UK vary so dramatically. The most expensive 100km, from Bedford to Loughborough, costs more than three times the same-distance trip from Llanelli to Pembroke Dock. Remember, these are open single tickets rather than any discounted deals; but you could pay just £9.80 for 100km in West Wales, or £29.50 in the East Midlands. To add an aristocratic touch of class, Mr (or should that be Lord?) Flynn points out: "There is an even more expensive fare (£34.50) for Castle Cary to Newbury, but I deliberately excluded this one as the first train in the opposite direction doesn't leave Newbury until 9.10am, by which time a Cheap Day Single is available, price £16.90."
The editor of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable, Brendan Fox, chimes in against my assertion that we enjoy both the most expensive and the cheapest fares in Europe.
"Book-ahead cheap deals are available in France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden and Poland to name a few, and I believe Spain has started to introduce them with the latest timetable change."
I asked Mr Fox – surely to become the Earl of Europe, as soon as that title is created – to nominate the best-value ticket in Europe.
"For me the best value for money is a ticket that offers travel on all public transport, whether it be rail, tram, bus, or boat, irrespective of operator. The best-value ticket I have had in recent years has probably been a Schleswig-Holstein regional day ticket, price €29 [£22], which includes all transport in Hamburg as well as most German Rail trains and private rail operators throughout the area right up to the Danish border – and you can take four other people with you for free."
I am sorry, as they say on the railways, for any inconvenience caused by last week's column. I haven't been fast, I haven't been funny, so I guess I should just...
But before I go: another part of the vast Thomas Cook empire, the mainstream package holiday business, has also been indulging in European comparisons.
Each January, the big holiday companies strive to devise a marketing strategy that goes beyond the usual "£100 off" deals. This year, Thomas Cook has come up with a neat two-pronged idea: a "free day" (amounting to a 7 per cent discount on a fortnight's holiday), twinned with a campaign to give hard-working Britain an extra day off. The firm says Britain is almost at the bottom of the Euro-league for official days off; Britain has eight bank holidays a year; only Romania (with seven and a half) has less time off. The European average is around 12 or 13 days, with Slovenian workers apparently rarely bothering to get out of bed: labourers and librarians in Ljubljana, the capital, enjoy 18 statutory days off a year, which is better than one every three weeks.
Thomas Cook is inviting people to register their support online, in its 800 travel agencies across Britain, and even in resorts abroad. In what the company said was a move to demonstrate its commitment to the campaign, its staff will get an extra day off this year.
Nevertheless, business is likely to be resistant to the idea; the most recent Christmas and New Year shutdown, which saw little work done between 21 December and 2 January (and a day later in Scotland) was estimated to cost the country £21bn.
Should the campaign for an extra day off in Britain prove successful, the debate will turn to which date is most appropriate. A romantic option near the start of the year would be a Valentine holiday on the Monday closest to 14 February. But the back end of the year would be more popular, because at present there are no statutory days off between the August bank holiday and Christmas. All Saints' Day (1 November) is already celebrated in many European countries, which would minimise inconvenience to business. This is also the anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty taking effect in 1993 – which might persuade Euro-sceptics to lobby instead for Remembrance Day on 11 November. A third choice in this currently holiday-free month: 22 November, the birthday of the firm's founder. And Thomas Cook's bicentenary is celebrated this year.