SIMON CALDER

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The Independent Travel
Brian Harris, whose photographs enliven the pages of the Independent, has read the cross-Channel market well this summer. It is probably the last long holiday when fares for the short-sea crossing between Dover and Calais will be so low. Ferry operators traditionally make oceans of cash during the school holidays to make up for thin bookings in the rest of the year. Not in 1996, though. As Mr Harris discovered this week when trying to book his family holiday, it is the ultimate buyers' market - but only if you are prepared to devote a whole morning to finding the best fare.

"It's a complete muddle. Le Shuttle and P&O don't seem to answer their phones at all. And when I called Stena Line, they quoted a fare of pounds 108. I asked 'Isn't there anything cheaper?' They instantly cut the fare to pounds 49, saying 'We're only allowed to quote that if people ask for it'."

Once the ferry operators have counted the cost of this summer's fare battles, you can expect substantial changes for next year. P&O and Stena Line could pool services and cut the number of vessels they operate. A new "P&O&Stena" would capture much of the ferry market, and could raise prices without worrying too much about the direct rivals - HoverSpeed and SeaFrance, the new French carrier. Vessels could be deployed on less cut-throat routes.

Surely, though, such a move would be a serious cut in competition? Indeed it would, were it not for the pounds 8 billion hole in the ground known as Eurotunnel, which has upset all the old supply- and-demand certainties. The company is now making a modest operating profit on its Le Shuttle car and truck service. Unfortunately, there is the small matter of interest payments that were suspended last September. If you, like Brian Harris, are taking advantage of ludicrous ticket prices, you have a consortium of 225 banks to thank. But don't expect the endless summer of low fares to continue for too long.

The flight documents arrived from the travel agent with a courteous note saying "Ticket will show full published fare - don't be alarmed". As everyone who buys "bucket shop" air tickets will know, the price shown is the official fare, and bears no relation to the amount you actually pay. My British Airways ticket carries a price of pounds 549 for a tricky itinerary to Greece and back from Turkey. In fact, I had paid just pounds 208 for the trip. This transaction would be unremarkable were it not for the fact that the ticket arrived direct from British Airways. To the benefit of travellers, the airline is now having a price war with itself.

I had always imagined that British Airways Travel Shops were merely the High Street face of the airline - but their independence has just become apparent.

As is my normal practice, I called in to a Travel Shop to establish a base price for the proposed trip. After running through the official fares, the sales consultant lowered his voice and confided that he could offer a "special fare" that was available exclusively to BA Travel Shops. He was right: calling around all the usual suspect bucket shops, I was unable to better his price.

The logic seems to be as follows: no reasonably seasoned traveller would buy a ticket direct from BA, since you can almost always beat the official fare. So in order to take business from the big discount agents, BA has decided to undercut them - and itself. And as a final persuader, you get lots of Air Miles too; I've just earned enough for a visit to Alton Towers.

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