A new monthly series in which Jeremy Skidmore answers some readers' common problems
The tour operators are still saying there won't be enough holidays to go around this summer - are they correct?

It certainly doesn't look like it. For months tour operators have warned that there are fewer holidays on the market this year than in 1995 and people should book early to avoid disappointment. But so far it's all fallen on deaf ears because people simply don't believe the operators. Last minute bargains have been available for years, so why shouldn't they be around this summer?

The customer seems to have been proved right once again. This week Cosmos broke ranks with the other big tour operators by slashing prices on holidays in May, the first full month of the summer season. The pounds 99 holiday is back, with Cosmos offering a week on the Costa Brava for under pounds 100. (If you want to see if any remain, call 0161-480 5799 or ask your travel agent).

The others can be expected to follow suit, even though there are certainly fewer holidays on the market this year. Several months ago the big tour operators decided to reduce their capacity by around 11 per cent because they were unable to sell all their holidays last year. When summer '96 brochures were launched last September there were probably just under 9,000,000 summer packages on the market, one-tenth fewer than last year. But sales have been so sluggish that there are still too many holidays - about half of them - left to sell.

Most of the top operators are currently taking holidays off the market, but probably not enough to match supply with demand. The three biggest - Thomson, Airtours and First Choice - have all got airlines (Britannia, Airtours International and Air 2000 respectively) that they need to fill with their own holidaymakers. Thomson has already said it won't cut capacity further. In short, there will be enough holidays to go around this summer, but don't expect quite as many last minute bargains as last year.

So when will you be booking your summer holiday?

In early June - about a week before I want to go. It will still be early summer so there will be plenty of holidays left and, no doubt, various last-minute bargains to tempt me. But don't forget, I'm flexible. I'll turn up at the travel agent asking for a holiday for two and be prepared to go anywhere that's hot and half decent. That's not everyone's cup of tea. Anyone who has a specific destination in mind would be wise to book earlier. So would families who have to travel during the peak, school holiday period of mid-July until the end of August. There are still plenty of free-kids deals around, but they will probably have all gone by midsummer, which is the one period when demand for holidays could rise to the same level as the supply of holidays.

I went to Thomas Cook to book a fortnight in Spain. The company offered me a package, but it turns out that Thomas Cook doesn't actually run this type of holiday itself any more. What's going on?

Even Thomas Cook admits the way it sells holidays is confusing to the holidaymaker. Pick up a Thomas Cook brochure and inside you will find another company's products. The chances are that your fortnight in Spain would be with Sunworld because that company has a special arrangement with Thomas Cook for summer package holidays. Cook has similar arrangements on other types of holidays with about 25 to 30 companies. For example, if you picked up its Florida '96 brochure, the holidays would be with British Airways Holidays; in the Disneyland Paris brochure you would find holidays from Paris Travel Service. Thomas Cook started offering other companies' products under its own label in 1988, because it found this was a more cost-effective way of doing business.

The tour operators all pay Thomas Cook a commission for the arrangements. However, Thomas Cook does run its own long-haul programme. So if you book a Nile cruise in Egypt from a Thomas Cook brochure, you really will be travelling with Thomas Cook.

I travel to the States frequently on business and always book over the phone with my American Express card. But last time I used it, the travel agent was very sniffy about it. Why?

They probably thought you were a con man. Unfortunately, a number of travel agents have fallen victim to fraudsters posing with an Amex card. In one case, a man wanted tickets and cash at very short notice to be charged to an Amex card. The man sent a cab around to the agent to pick up the package. He turned out to be a con man, but as no address was obtained from him, the credit card company would not take responsibility. Little wonder, then, that your innocent call set off alarm bells with the agent. Hopefully you can convince your agent that you are genuine and then your transaction will go through smoothly.

I've heard that hotels in London are charging a fortune because of high demand. But hasn't the recent bombing campaign frighten-ed people off?

Yes, I'm afraid it has. Demand for central London has taken off in the past couple of years and five-star hotels have been able to charge up to pounds 200 a night for a single room. Hoteliers were looking forward to a boom summer, but the bombing campaign has changed all that. The problem is that London hotels, especially those in the luxury sector, rely on US visitors for much of their summer business and US citizens are particularly sensitive to acts of terrorism. They tend to stay well away from anywhere where there is trouble.

Many hoteliers, not wanting to be named for fear of IRA reprisals, admitted they have already received cancellations and they say that they expect more. So, with demand failing, anyone travelling to London this summer may well be able to pick up some bargains.

Send your questions to 'Inside Track', c/o the travel desk, The Independent, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf,

E14 5DL

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