Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

What do Peter the Great and Stelios Haji-Iaonnou have in common? Both the former tsar of Russia and the present tsar of no-frills flying (Stelios the Great invented easyJet) share an affinity for the dodgier parts of south-east London and an obscure town in Holland.

What do Peter the Great and Stelios Haji-Iaonnou have in common? Both the former tsar of Russia and the present tsar of no-frills flying (Stelios the Great invented easyJet) share an affinity for the dodgier parts of south-east London and an obscure town in Holland.

When Peter was starting on the road to greatness, he toured Western Europe to study the techniques that would enable him to modernise the then-primitive Russian Empire. He installed himself in the depths of Deptford, in order to learn the business of shipbuilding from the men who constructed ships for the Royal Navy. Later, he sought the counsel of the craftsmen and cartographers of Zaandam, then a small village northwest of Amsterdam.

That was then, this is now. When Stelios expanded the easyEverything concept to car rental, he chose as his first depot a National Car Park in an unattractive corner of London SE1, just up the road from Deptford.

Last week, easyRentacar expanded to Amsterdam. Well, sort of. The location is - you guessed it - Zaandam. The town has grown since Peter visited, but it remains a long way from the Dutch capital (and nearly an hour from Schiphol airport, with a change of train required). You will find the easyRentacar office lurking in a car park north of the railway station. Before you pick up the car, pause at the former home of Peter the Great, now a modest but intriguing museum.

Getting an upgrade is easy. You just win a gold medal at the Olympics. Ben Ainslie, who sailed his way to glory in Sydney, told Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday how he enjoyed a very comfortable flight home. British Airways awarded him with an upgrade to business class (though Laser class, the event he won, would have been even more appropriate).

There is another way. Nick Cosgrove of London has raised the stakes in the "bumping" game by revealing remarkable generosity on the part of American Airlines.

Mr Cosgrove and his wife were booked in economy to fly from Chicago to London. No room in the cabin, they were told at O'Hare airport. But hey, here's $600 each in travel vouchers and a boarding pass for tomorrow's flight. Besides the vouchers, they earned a night in the Radisson Hotel, an overnight kit of pyjamas and underwear and $100 in meal coupons for use at the airport - vouchers that luncheon, dinner and breakfast could not exhaust.

"We just couldn't eat enough to use them all, so we went to Starbucks and bought the entire range of coffee mugs."

The following evening, the Cosgroves found that they had been upgraded to business class for the flight home. The event took place some months ago, when the dollar was worth a lot less than it is now, so the couple are soon to fly off to Florida on the travel vouchers. These, by the way, don't have to be used direct with the airlines - you can spend them at travel agents, therefore taking advantage of discount fares. But they're not expecting to get lucky a second time. "The agent told me that there's a note on our booking in the computer saying we paid with vouchers," says Mr Cosgrove. "Apparently, this is standard practice to try to deter 'professional' bumpees."

"Your series of baffling railway signs reminds me of the indicator board at Harwich Parkeston Quay station," writes Mark Doran of Oxford. In the 1980s, he recalls: "Bleary eyed travellers arriving on the overnight ferry from the Netherlands were given a simple choice."

Platform 1: Liverpool Street.

Platform 2: Liverpool Lime Street.

This was in the days when a train called, I believe, the North Country Continental met the ferry from Hook of Holland. "Goodness knows how many innocents ended up in northwest England rather than London and vice versa," writes Mr Doran, "and all because they were unaware of the crucial importance of the word 'lime'."

Even for those who manage to catch the right train, their problems are far from over. At Reading station, at 7.15am last Monday, an American couple were worried. "Excuse me, sir, can you tell us where second class is?" Since we were in what is officially termed a "standard" class carriage, I couldn't see the problem. "Please, sit anywhere," I gestured around the half-empty carriage.

"But we haven't got first-class tickets."

I was about to respond that the only people on this train who did were the ones we'd walked past on the way to the cheap seats - the passengers tucking into a hearty breakfast in the restaurant car. But just in time I realised that the train operator had created another Great British Railway absurdity.

Every standard-class seat has a headrest that reads in large, clear letters "First", and in smaller type "Great Western". The train operator First Great Western is evidently another member of the conspiracy to confuse overseas visitors.

Buses baffle, too. A fortnight ago I mentioned how my colleague, Nick Coleman, was bemused while growing up in Cambridgeshire by the frequency of buses to the village of Relief. David Watson from Gloucestershire speculates that "Perhaps the bus went past so fast that Mr Coleman was mistaken and it was actually going to Releath - according to Bartholomew's Gazetteer of 1951, a small hamlet in south Cornwall". Tim Wallace of Penzance reports that during a summer in Minehead as a teenager in 1967, he was as perplexed as Nick Coleman about a common bus destination. "While his were going to 'Relief', mine headed to 'Service'."

Mr Wallace was less than impressed with the local bus company - "Particularly when one of their Royal Blue coaches struck me a glancing blow along an unlit road at night as I walked home from a romantic sortie."

Milan's Malpensa airport makes many appearances in this column, due to the convoluted connections that transit travellers are forced to endure, and for the eccentricity of its surface connections to the city it is supposed to serve. Yet Trevor Gidman of Crawley reports that if you use the airport instead as a gateway for the small town of Carimate, it works a treat. He stayed at the 14th-century castle there, now a fine four-star hotel - even if the management's description of the transformation is a touch alarming:

"Technical problems proved being nearly unbeatable, owing to sturdy stones composing the walls; abundant leaks of unknown origin; spaces that just would not fit to a commercial destination. Depression often loomed during three years of harsh work." Mr Gidman says the train to Milan costs just £1.50 for a fast, comfortable, 20-mile journey. "Try offering £1.50 at Crawley station and see how far you get," he suggests. (I did; it's two miles.) But even combined with "diabolical road signing, the Italians still won't forsake their cars," says Mr Gidman.

Last Sunday, the Dover to Calais hovercraft hovered into obsolescence. We should mourn their familiar noise, spray and susceptibility to high seas, writes Jackie Fishleigh, from south London: "The hovercraft was fast, cheap, safe and fun - it was great coasting along the sand, to the bemusement of passers-by." She contrasts the cross-Channel link with another Anglo-French enterprise. "The hovercraft is not an elite thing like Concorde. It's the people's magic carpet." I wonder: easyHover. Now there's an idea.