Travelling by train, boat and plane in 2015: what's in store from ferries to winter sports services

The man who pays his way

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The Independent Travel

Aviation

For the first time in 20 years, taxes on flyers will fall. The Chancellor's surprise in the Autumn Statement early in December was to abolish Air Passenger Duty (APD) for children. Starting in May 2015 – just a week before the general election – under-12s will be exempt from APD so long as they are travelling in economy. And beginning a year after that, under-16s will be exempt in all classes of travel. This is in addition to previously announced changes, which from April will scrap the top two bands of APD and revert to a single long-haul rate of £71, or £142 in higher classes of travel.

The plummeting price of oil has not fed through to lower air fares. Indeed, to see how long-haul fares are hardening, look no further than the Virgin Atlantic "festive sale," on offer until 27 January. The lead-in fare, for Heathrow-New York, is £479 – around double the lowest fare you could find five or six years ago. That is partly a reflection of the consolidation of US aviation: American has teamed up with US Airways, United and Continental are now one, and Delta first took over Northwest before buying into Virgin Atlantic. Less competition and fewer empty seats means higher fares.

If you can book ahead and travel off-peak, there are bargains to be found going south and east. Anywhere served by the Gulf-based airlines is likely to be cheap off-season, particularly Australia in the May/June period. Towards the end of 2013 fares briefly went below £600 return. Virgin Atlantic abandoned Australia this year, and British Airways' once-plentiful network to Australia, with multiple 747s, has been reduced to a single daily Heathrow-Sydney 777 service carrying fewer than 300 people. The airline insists it is supporting the route, but if ever there were a year when it might throw in the Australian towel, this could be it. BA returns to the Heathrow-Kuala Lumpur route in May, in competition with Malaysia Airlines.

Virgin Atlantic is continuing with big changes to its network. The airline is dropping its domestic operation, along with routes to Cape Town, Tokyo, Mumbai, and Vancouver. Instead, Sir Richard Branson's first airline is reverting to its original territory, the US, with new routes to Atlanta and Detroit.

Edinburgh is the UK's fastest-growing big airport, with a new link to Doha with Qatar Airways and onward connections across the eastern world. Qatar is the launch customer for the Airbus A350, the only new passenger jet to make its maiden flight in the current decade. Going west, a rare appearance of Central America: Costa Rica comes back to the flight map for the winter of 2015/16 with a Thomson charter from Gatwick.

Short-haul, Madrid is the star city for the summer, with Norwegian starting flights from Birmingham and Iberia Express joining the party with new links to the Spanish capital from Edinburgh and Manchester.

British Airways continues its new-found love affair with the Mediterranean, expanding to a string of islands from all its London hubs – including two surprising new destinations from City airport. When business traffic to Scotland and Germany dries up in July and August, the classy Embraer jets will be deployed in the middle of the day to serve the islands of Mykonos and Santorini in the Cyclades.

From April, Monarch stops its charter operation and becomes a short-haul, leisure-focused scheduled carrier in the same crowded arena as easyJet, Ryanair and Norwegian – an intriguing step.

The Atlantic could become a key battleground for budget airlines. One of the most alluring new destinations on the route map is Essaouira on Morocco's Atlantic coast, to be served from May by easyJet from Luton. The same airline is launching routes from Manchester and Edinburgh to the Portuguese island of Madeira in February. On Easter Saturday, Ryanair goes one step further, when it starts flying from Stansted to Ponta Delgada in the Azores.

No-frills airlines are also countering the high cost of crossing the Atlantic on traditional airlines. Glasgow gets a daily summer connection to Halifax in Nova Scotia courtesy of the Canadian low-cost airline, WestJet. It parallels the same carrier's link between Dublin and St John's in Newfoundland. Both offer quick and easy connections to other WestJet flights across Canada.

Air Canada, meanwhile, has converted its summer-only link from Heathrow to St John's into a year-round service – though rumours suggest this is simply a "slot-warming" exercise intended to protect precious landing rights at Europe's busiest airport.

Which brings us neatly on to the big decision of the year: expanding airport capacity in the London area. The Airports Commission will report very shortly after the May general election on how to keep the capital's position as the world hub of aviation. The chairman, Sir Howard Davies, will recommend an extra runway either at Heathrow or Gatwick. Whether it will ever get built depends largely on the nation's political make-up after the election.

Ferries

Disconcertingly for all ferry operators: at a time when oil prices are falling, the cost of fuelling ferries is set to rise because of tough new European rules on sulphur emissions. Ships either need to be fitted with expensive and heavy "scrubbing" equipment or must run on more expensive fuel. Fares could rise by about 10 per cent as a result, though competition continues to keep prices down to about the keenest anywhere in the world.

On the Channel, Condor takes delivery of a new Australian-designed trimaran, which will improve comfort on the routes from Poole to Guernsey and Jersey. Across the Irish Sea between Holyhead and Dublin, Stena Line's Nordica is replaced by a bigger vessel, Superfast X. And Hovertravel, the only scheduled hovercraft operator in the world, is celebrating its half-century in 2015 by commissioning two new £5m craft to shuttle between Southsea, in Hampshire, and Ryde, Isle of Wight.

Cruises

Southampton is the battleground in 2015 between three big ships making the Hampshire city their home port this summer. Royal Princess, named by the Duchess of Cambridge in 2013 and carrying 3,600 passengers, faces competition from Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas (4,200 passengers) as well as P&O's new flagship, Britannia, The convergence could lead to some congestion – on sea and on land – on turnaround days, as well as a price war.

Trains

The Anglo-Scottish sleeper is preparing for a makeover with Serco taking over the service from Aberdeen, Inverness, Fort William, Glasgow and Edinburgh to London. A "virtual concierge" app will allow passengers to pay for tickets, food, and drink via smartphones.

Direct trains from the UK to the Med begin in May. Eurostar will run from London St Pancras via Lyon and Avignon to Marseille. One-way fares start at £49.50 (£5 less to Lyon). But the inbound journey is arduous, with a 75-minute security and immigration stop at Lille. By December, the first of the new e320 trains should run to Paris.

Winter sports links

A new high-speed service from Lille to Geneva, with links from London on Eurostar, at last provides a credible supply of rail seats to the ski hub.

By air, a funny little airport at the bottom end of Bavaria is getting plenty of attention. Friedrichshafen, on Lake Constance, is the gateway for the western end of the Austrian Alps. Over February half-term, the price for a Gatwick-Friedrichshafen return on BA is £490 – a bargain compared with the lowest fare to and from the main ski airport for the British: Geneva. BA still has space from Gatwick to Geneva over February half-term; but the lowest fare is £636 return, excluding baggage. It is an example of the way that airlines are profiting from ever-stronger demand, and resisting the temptation to lay on extra capacity.

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