something to declare

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The Independent Travel
Bargain of the week

Madrid, Milan and Munich are each around two hours' flying time from London, which normally puts them in the pounds 150-plus bracket for return fares. But if you book by 9.30pm today, Air UK (0345 666777) is selling return tickets to each destination for pounds 99 plus tax. You have to travel from Stansted in the next two months, and must stay away a Saturday night. Flights to Copenhagen, Nice and Zurich are also available.

Visitors' book

Crystal Palace Museum, London

"I went into the palace every day in the 1930s."

- Grace Wilson, London

"It must have been grand..."

- Don Payjack, Phoenix, Arizona

"It's a pity that many people don't visit this place any more."

- Chiaki Yokoyama, Tokyo

"I was taken to the top of Shooters Hill by my father to see a big fire in the distance. I was six years old."

- Mr Heddle, Plumstead

"Why don't we reconstruct it for the Millenium?" - C Hindle, London

True or false?

All business travellers are male

True, at least according to the latest advertisement for the Guy Salmon Chauffeur Service. The service, which takes you from central London to Heathrow airport for pounds 39, has been "welcomed by businessmen at every level".

Presumably the expansive backsides of these very executives will be filling the wide seats on British Airways Club Europe: the airline targets the male traveller with the line "Behind every successful businessman there's a comfy seat".

At least some government departments are having second thoughts: a series of travel guides called Hints for Businessmen has been modified to Hints for Exporters.

A likely story

"Two weeks from only pounds 349, car rental included" - Airtours Florida brochure, Summer '96.

Airtours has used a combination of innovation, aggressive marketing and sheer good value to progress from almost nowhere to become Britain's second-largest tour operator. No surprise, then, that the front cover of the Lancashire-based tour operator's Florida brochure should offer a fly-drive holiday in Florida for less than pounds 700 for a couple.

The company has developed a keen eye for keeping costs down, including switching this year to Orlando's second airport, Sanford, where landing fees are lower.

To the passenger picking up his or her rental car, arriving in Sanford is very convenient since the hire companies are based on site. In under an hour from landing, you can set off on your inclusive holiday in which the only extra you expect to pay is for fuel.

You turn to page 21 as instructed and see you have to leave for Florida in the first two weeks in May, straddling the bank holiday. Fine. Here is my cheque, and all I need do now is pay for petrol. Or is it?

The small print warns of "additional local charges from Dollar", the car hire company. These turn out to be a baffling series of extras, covering (take a deep breath):

1. Loss or damage waiver: the sort of basic insurance you might assume comes with any rental car. If you don't pay your $14.99 a day, you won't be allowed to drive away unless you can produce a credit card with at least $1,500 of spare credit, and agree to be responsible for the total cost of the car in the event of an accident.

2. Supplemental liability insurance: the basic third-party cover is limited to just $10,000, the going rate these days in the American courts for a broken fingernail let alone anything more damaging; so Airtours recommends this insurance, too, costing $10.99 a day.

3. The airport access fee of $3 a day.

4. A "handling fee" also of $3 a day.

5. Florida's state surcharge of $2.05 per day.

6. Tax of 6.5 per cent on all the above.

7. Airport road tolls of $3 each way.

The Airtours "free car rental" thereby costs pounds 320, without taking into account little extras such as fuel, insurance for a second driver (pounds 47) and a surcharge for a driver aged 21-24 (pounds 121).

A cynic would suggest that the only "free" thing about free car rental offers is that Dollar provides the cars to Airtours for free, in return for the right to levy all manner of fees on the hapless holidaymaker.

Alternatively, you could just buy an Amtrack rail pass for the eastern part of North America, costing $179 (about pounds 116) for 15 days' train travel, reaching as far north as Montreal and as far west as New Orleans ...

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