Travel 2011: Get more from your holiday
Already thinking about your next trip? Maximise the chances of a successful and rewarding year of travel by making 11 resolutions for 2011, says Simon Calder
Saturday 01 January 2011
1. Fly non-stop if you can
Let's assume that, during the next cold snap, there is a 70 per cent chance of any particular aeroplane leaving an airport in northern Europe roughly on time – which was the case on several days at Heathrow, Amsterdam and Paris Charles de Gaulle. Add in a stop on the Continent to change aircraft, and the chance of your failing to reach your destination becomes more likely than not (51:49). The chances of your luggage straying is also much higher, because of the risk of getting mishandled in transit.
While you can almost always save money by flying on Air France/KLM, Lufthansa or a dozen other airlines compared with the non-stop fare on British Airways or Virgin Atlantic, be prepared to pay a premium for a non-stop flight.
2. Never change money at a UK airport
How to turn £100 into 750 pounds: change your sterling into Egyptian currency at the Travelex counter at Gatwick Airport's North Terminal before the easyJet flight to Luxor (other bureaux de change, offering similar rates, are available at Gatwick and many more British airports). How to turn £100 into 880 Egyptian pounds: wait until you touch down in Egypt, whereupon an array of friendly bureaux de change are waiting to offer a rate 15 per cent better. Cash is the ultimate commodity, and you are throwing money away if you obtain foreign currency at a British airport. On a similar theme ...
3. Never buy anything abroad with a UK debit card
It's worth taking a debit card as an emergency fall-back, because you can draw cash from overseas ATMs at not too bad a rate, and with a fee of a few pounds. But for any purchases, most banks load on extra charges that typically amount to £2 to pay a £20 lunch bill.
4. Let your digital camera ease your travels
Almost everyone carries a digital camera in the shape of a phone. Use it to your advantage. Before picking up a rental car, take pictures of any damage to the bodywork – with an obvious local landmark such as an airport terminal in the background so you can prove where and when you took it. Or, if you are leaving your car in a large car park, take a picture of the nearest location sign. I even used my cameraphone one day at Gatwick Airport railway station to photograph the appallingly long queue, in order to persuade the ticket inspector on board the train to sell me a ticket without incurring a penalty fare.
5. Flying long-haul? Make George osborne pay for your stopover
The absurd structure of Air Passenger Duty means that the amount of tax you pay depends on the distance from London of the capital city of the country where you first stop for at least 24 hours. When you are heading for Australia or New Zealand via the Gulf, airlines such as Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways will let you stop at their respective hubs for no extra charge. Indeed, if you stay for a day on your outbound trip at Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha, you will pay £60 in Air Passenger Duty rather than the top rate of £85. A double room is reasonably easy to find for £50, so a couple can enjoy a stopover, reduce the effect of jet-lag by being three hours closer to their final destination, and cut the onward leg to 14 hours or so – a far better prospect than a straight-through flight. Another good stopover option is Los Angeles en route to New Zealand (a saving of £25); and pausing in Bangkok to anywhere further East gives you a £10 bonus.
6. Make the most of march 2011
Normally the best month of the year to travel – in terms of wide availability and low prices – is November. There are never any school holidays to distort the market. But the extremely late Easter means that every British school will be in term-time right through March. That creates the possibility of late-March bargains everywhere from Madeira and the Canaries (which will be enjoying the prime of spring) to European ski resorts – where, along with low prices, you can expect good snow and plenty of daylight in which to enjoy it. March (the square root of September, incidentally) is also the optimum month to take the Hurtigruten (coastal ferry) along the west coast of Norway, with amazing views by day and the prospect of the Northern Lights by night.
Midway through the snow crisis at Heathrow 10 days ago, when normal life was grinding to a halt, I tried fruitlessly to hitch-hike along the A4 west of London. Eventually a bus stopped, and the driver declined my offer to pay, which I shall count as a moral victory.
Elsewhere, hitching remains a viable alternative to renting a car. There is no better path to understanding a country than to meet a random selection of its people, and the best way to achieve that is to stand by the side of the road and solicit a ride. Your reward: being chauffeur-driven through interesting landscapes (often in locations where public transport is poor or non-existent).
If you are tempted to try, just find the nearest small island: these tend to be the places where lifts are most freely given. But choose the right full-size country and you can expect generosity and enlightenment: Canada, Germany and New Zealand are the best bets.
8. Go to Cuba
The highways of the Caribbean's largest island are excellent territory for hitchers, which is just as well given the lamentable state of public transport in the last bastion of communism in the West. Despite its many failings (Marx and Lenin made no promises about the quality of the food in a socialist paradise), Cuba deserves to be on your wish-list in 2011. For half a century, the US has banned Americans from taking vacations in their nearest and most beautiful Caribbean island, which has had the effect of preserving a fascinating Hispanic-African cultural fusion – and leaving much of the coastline unblemished. As the White House searches for foreign-policy successes and Havana watches the communist economy implode, expect a marriage of convenience – and for Cuba to change dramatically in 2012.
9. Take a ferry
By 2012, I predict a ferry link over the 100-mile straits between Key West in Florida and Havana, which will transform the options for two-centre holidays. Before then, celebrate the civilised way to travel closer to home. At last P&O Ferries is pensioning off its oldest craft and replacing them with mega-ferries between Dover and Calais; Stena Line has deployed magnificent new vessels between Harwich and Hook of Holland; and Brittany Ferries is restoring lost links from Portsmouth to Bilbao and Poole to Cherbourg.
10. Never upgrade a rental car
Despite the odd price spike, especially in Spain in summer, car rental remains fiercely competitive – whether you book direct with a multinational provider, find a reliable local firm, or go through a broker such as Holiday Autos or easyCar. Often they will offer very low rates in the hope that you will be tempted to upgrade when you pick up the car. In the US – particularly Orlando – the performance has been turned into an art form: "Surely you're not planning to drive a small car like that any further than the parking lot?" Stand your ground and you may well find that you get a bigger, better car anyway, because in my experience they rarely have the "two-door subcompact" that I routinely book. It is said that you can enhance your chances of a free upgrade by dawdling to the rental desk – if you're at the end of the queue, the standard small cars will all have been rented out, leaving you with a superior vehicle. The other often-tried tack is to get you to upgrade your insurance by implying that the faintest scratch could result in your house being repossessed. Be confident that the all-inclusive package you wisely booked in advance is as gold-plated as you need, and decline expensive extras.
11. Always ask
Wherever you travel, you will be welcomed by friendly people who are keen for you to have the best experience possible (this even applies in Crawley). So whether you want to peek inside a church that appears permanently closed, to find a room in a town where every hotel is full, or snap up a seat on a sightseeing flight that is set to take off in 10 minutes – always ask. Because if you don't, the answer is always going to be "no".
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