Your pre-holiday briefing: From luggage to lounges, car hire to currencies

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You've chosen your ideal summer break – but what about those extra little details that will help it all go smoothly?

Luggage

Baggage is, of course, a weighty matter: the new battleground of the airlines. It's also likely to be the cause of much airport upset this summer.

At one end of the spectrum is Ryanair. For a family of four, baggage fees on Ryanair could quickly dwarf the price of a ticket, with a £15 fee per bag up to 15kg for each flight, and a £25 fee for bags of up to 20kg. This month and next – "peak travel" according to Ryanair – these fees rise to £20 and £40 respectively. Checked baggage must be booked in online up to four hours before the scheduled flight departure time, otherwise higher fees (of £50 each way for 20kg bags during July and August) will be charged.

For free carry-on baggage, the dimensions are strict: 55cm x 40cm x 20cm in size, and 10kg in weight. And the good news? One collapsible pushchair per child may be checked in free on a Ryanair flight.

British Airways has a baggage policy almost entirely at odds with this. Travellers in economy can check in one bag of up to 23kg for free (raising this to 30kg costs £30). One item of hand baggage is permitted, with a maximum dimension of 56cm x 45cm x 25cm, and you can also carry on a laptop bag, or a handbag of 45cm x 36cm x 20cm in size. As far as weight is concerned, the only stipulation is that you are able "to lift the bag into the overhead locker unaided". Time for mum and dad to do some anticipatory press-ups, perhaps.

A recent survey from Lastminute.com revealed that the average cost of luggage for a family of four travelling in Europe is a total of £90 return, and that up to 75 per cent of holiday-makers are planning to travel with smaller bags to avoid charges. Check the policy of your airline at the time of booking – and to pack within the allowed weight. Excess baggage fees can be substantial (£20/kg in the case of Ryanair).

Airport lounges

Lounges are no longer solely the preserve of business travellers; families and economy-class passengers can also avoid the airside scrum and enjoy the benefits of a calm environment, Wi-Fi, newspapers and a supply of refreshments and entertainment prior to boarding the plane. You can expect to pay an average of £20 per adult and £10 per child to gain up to three hours' access to a UK airport lounge and can usually book up to a few hours prior to travel. Most open at around 6am and close around 10pm. Even easyJet has been getting in on the act, selling a range of low-cost lounges that start at £14.50 per adult. The no-frills airline ( parking.easyjet.com ) uses Servisair lounges at more than a dozen UK airports, plus Málaga, Barcelona and Malta.

A more indulgent option is Manchester Airport's recently opened Escape Lounge T1 (0871 200 4450; manchesterairport.co.uk ). After a £1.7m refurbishment, it boasts an on-site chef, a fireside "snug" and a fully equipped business room, plus a Scalextric set for children (£25 per adult, £12.50 per child). A good option at Heathrow is the new 4Deck Lounge at Terminal 4 (020-8750 9807; heathrowairport.com ), with four floors of facilities, including a family zone and an striking rooftop observatory offering panoramic views.

Lounges can be booked direct or via holiday frills websites. Try holidayextras.co.uk and gosimply.com .

Finally, Virgin Holidays passengers flying from Gatwick have the option of the V-Room, an impressive lounge with a canteen, table football, TVs, PlayStations, play areas, runway views and a tranquil adults-only zone. The cost is £17 per adult, £10 per child (01293 496 316; virginholidays.co.uk ).

Motoring abroad

How dangerous is your destination? The latest figures (for 2007) from the UN Economic Commission for Europe show dramatic differences in the standard indicator for road safety: fatalities per 100,000 of population. Taking Britain (4.8 in 2007) as the base line, only Holland, Malta and Iceland do better. But in key holiday destinations, the odds worsen rapidly.

Germany, France, Ireland and Portugal are around the 1.5x mark. In ascending order of road deaths, Austria, Spain, Italy and Cyprus rate about 2x. Moving east, there is a cluster in the former Yugoslav components of Croatia and Slovenia, and Greece, around the 3x mark. The worst fatality rates are Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan.

Be aware that drivers on the Continent must use a set of beam converters. In France you must also carry a high-visibility jacket stored in the front of the car, rather than in the boot, as well as a hazard warning triangle. Photocopies of insurance, V5 (log book) and MOT documents are also required.

The AA (theaa.com/ shop) offers a European travel kit (£34.99) with most of what you are likely to need, including a magnetic GB badge for your car.

"Make sure you get your car serviced before you go," says Vicki Burn, a spokesperson for the RAC. "Do the simple checks like making sure your coolant and oil is at the right level." Some countries also require an International Driving Permit. For a list, see rac.co.uk/driving-abroad . For driving regulations abroad, see fco.gov.uk/travel

Passports

Lost your passport? If you're departing from the UK and are a UK national, your only option is to call the passport advice line on 0300 222 0000, organise an interview and apply for the one-week passport replacement service, which will cost you £112.50 per adult or £96.50 per child. You will be unable to travel abroad before this time has elapsed.

If you are renewing your passport, the Identity and Passport Service aims "to process applications in around three weeks from the time they arrive at a Passport Office", but this is usually extended at busy times of the year, such as school holidays. The standard adult fee is £77.50 (£49 child). You can also apply to renew your passport before your old one has expired; up to nine months can be transferred to your new passport ( ips.gov.uk ).

Finally, if you lose or have your passport stolen abroad, first report it to the police and obtain a report, and then apply to local British embassy or consulate for an emergency replacement. This usually takes a couple of days. To speed things up, take a photocopy of your passport's information page and keep it separate to your passport so that you have the details to hand.

Airport hotels and parking

One reason speculators invest in airport hotels is to capitalise on delays and disruption. But to boost occupancy, proprietors offer good deals for travellers with early flights.

Location is very important. At the UK's main holiday airport, Gatwick, the ideal hotel for North Terminal is the Sofitel, and for the South Terminal it is the Hilton. Stansted's Radisson is a short walk from check-in.

You will pay a premium to stay at these properties compared with "off-airport" locations. But crafty travellers could try the Arora in Crawley, which is right next to a railway station with four trains an hour to Gatwick taking eight minutes to South Terminal.

Hotels in the Heathrow area have no conventional shuttle buses, but a "Heathrow Hoppa" that runs as infrequently as once an hour and charges £4 for the privilege; if you are flying from Terminal 5, the Sofitel is by far the best bet.

Incidentally, if you are staying at an airport hotel, see if "night before" check-in is available; this facility can ease the stress on the following morning. Airlines such as Thomson and Virgin Atlantic make it available from as early as noon the day before you fly.

HolidayExtras.co.uk is a good source of airport hotel bargains, especially the "undercover hotel" feature. Familiar hotel brands protect their core revenue by selling some rooms through intermediaries who undertake not to name them until the booking is made.

Next week, for example, you could find yourself staying at "A three-star hotel within the airport grounds" at Birmingham for £72 double – without breakfast, but including eight days' parking at Airparks. Parking is a very strong incentive, because many hotels will throw in a week or two when you take a room before or after your flight. Booking direct with Airparks at Birmingham, for example, will cost £27 for the same duration – effectively giving you a hotel room for just £45 for two.

Health

If you need emergency health care while on holiday in the European Economic Area (the EU plus Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein) you qualify to be treated on the same basis as a national of that country, which means reduced cost – or free – state treatment.

Get a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), free by calling 0845 606 2030 or by applying online at ehic.org.uk . It should arrive in 10 days or less; if you have applied but your card has not arrived in time for travel, you are still covered. It lasts five years.

Each nation sets its own health care policy. In Spain, treatment in public hospitals is free; be aware, however, that if emergency help is required, tour operators and hotels will often opt for a private health care provider on your behalf, unless asked not to.

In France, some costs of treatment are payable locally. A portion can usually be recovered on return to the UK; keep all receipts for care you have to pay for. The card is not valid for private care, nor in countries that do not have a national health care service.

Check which health precautions are recommended for the country you are visiting well in advance of travel. If you've left it late, or have made a last-minute booking, first check out the fitfortravel.nhs.uk website, which will tell you what's recommended.

The Department of Health ( dh.gov.uk ) gives more specific advice of recent outbreaks. For example, it recently reported an increased number of measles outbreaks in France this year.

After Cheryl Cole contracted malaria in Tanzania last month, there has been an increased focus on this dangerous disease. For a map of malarial regions consult malariahotspots.co.uk .

Private travel clinics can – for a premium – get you covered last-minute. Masta ( masta-travel-health.com ) has 51 clinics in the UK; and Trailfinders (020-7938 3999; trailfinders.com ) has a clinic at its High Street Kensington store in London.

It's also worth travelling with a medical guidebook such as The Essential Guide to Travel Health (Cadogan, £8.99). The author, Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth, distils the vital information: "Consider the health risks before departure. Some, which come with the terrain, are preventable with immunisation and pills. Some risks will be peculiar to you. Know the generic name and dose of medicines you need to take regularly (or that upset you) and find out what will happen if your supply is lost or a stomach upset stops you absorbing them. Gen up on home-made rehydration solutions to treat travellers' diarrhoea and pack a good drying antiseptic and dressings."

Money

You have trawled the internet or the high street for the best holiday deal, found an annual no-frills travel insurance policy that costs less than a pizza in Pisa, and booked airport parking or a train to the terminal in advance for a song. But if you leave it to the airport (or ferry port, or Eurostar terminal), to change cash, you are throwing money away.

Pathetic: that's the state of the pound at the moment. Three years ago we were the rich men and women of Europe, with the pound buying more than €1.40 and better than $2. Since then the number of euros and dollars you get for each £1 has fallen by a quarter – which, because of the cruel way that foreign exchange works, means that prices have gone up by one-third in sterling terms. An example: a New York hotel room costing $300 was a fairly reasonable £150 a couple of years ago; today, to buy those dollars you will need to change £200. Ouch.

Unless you are an international financier, you cannot do much to influence the feeble state of sterling, but you definitely can minimise the amount that the banks or bureaux de change collect when you change money. Never leave it to the last minute to get your money at the airport or ferry port: you are a captive customer and will lose an outrageous amount on the transaction. Buying €100 can easily cost £100.

Changing money is one of the very few transactions when the merchant publishes their profit margin – divide the "buy" rate by the "sell" rate to see the spread. With NatWest this week, euro and dollar rates had a margin of 14 per cent.

Shop around for the best deal – ideally plodding the streets of London checking rates at specialist bureaux. Thomas Exchange in Victoria Street, the Strand or Hammersmith underground station are reliable, while the area around Queensway Tube station also offers good pickings. Don't be afraid to ask for a better rate if you are changing, say, £1,000. If this is not practical, book currency in advance (for example through Travelex. co.uk) to get a fair rate, and pick it up from the airport office – feeling smug as you queue behind the poor souls who left it too late.

For any "exotic" currency, such as Thai baht or Mexican pesos, always wait until you arrive abroad to change cash. This week Natwest had a spread for Egyptian pounds of a shocking 23 per cent.

Travel insurance

"Many people deeply regret not taking out travel insurance," says the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. "They think their credit-card accident cover, home insurance, or private health cover is sufficient." Travel insurance covers a range of circumstances that can adversely affect your holiday, many of which are unlikely to be offered in full by other forms of protection. The key areas for likely claims include medical cover, lost and stolen possessions, and cancellation cover.

Health cover is vital, because costs can be sky-high. According to Dan Moore of Which? magazine, treatment at the scene of an accident with ongoing care in a hospital and repatriation costs requires cover in Europe of £2m as standard; for the rest of the world look for sums of £4m-£5m. "If something happened where you have a long period convalescing, those costs have to be covered."

Make sure you inform the insurer about any pre-existing medical condition. If you plan any risky activities (from cycle-touring to whitewater rafting), let the insurer know and be prepared for the premium to be increased.

If you're travelling in Europe, don't rely on the European Health Insurance Card. According to Moore, "All it does is ensure that you will get immediate medical attention. It won't cover you for ongoing treatment or travel costs."

And then there's luggage. What should you do when it fails to appear on the carousel? "Stay calm," says Moore. "Report the missing luggage to the airline, and get a copy of the report stating that it hasn't arrived. Then inform your insurer as early as possible."

For a list of "best buy" travel insurers, see which.co.uk .

Car rental

Competition in many holiday hotspots is so intense that rates can seem almost too good to be true. Very often, they are. When you rent a car, the standard 21st-century travel rule – book online in advance for the best rate – applies. But the internet is full of traps for the unwary. Ensure you compare like with like by bundling in all the necessary insurance charges with the rental; good brokers such as Holiday Autos, and the big multinationals, do this anyway.

Make sure also of the location of the office – sometimes cheaper companies are some miles from the airport, with no easy transport. (At Spanish airports, incidentally, a high charge applies for rental car pick-ups – you could save by getting a cab or bus to the city-centre office.)

Beware of extra charges for second drivers, baby seats, sat-nav and the like, Check the refuelling policy. "Out full, back full" is the only one that works from the customer's point of view; "pay for the tank" deals, or "out empty, back empty" policies invariably benefit the company.

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