I once carried my passport around with me for a year because I was so enthralled by the idea of being able to take off at a moment's notice. When it came to it, the reality was slightly less romantic, at least at first. Dawn on Victoria Station after a late night is not the time to go running around saving a pound here or there. I leapt on a Gatwick Express (pounds 8.90), which was just leaving and arrived at Gatwick at 7am.
I had only light hand luggage and what I was wearing (jeans, plus T-shirt under shirt-jacket under padded jacket) seemed likely to adapt to most places I was likely to go. I couldn't go too far, otherwise I'd spend the whole weekend on a plane, and I couldn't go anywhere that demanded visas. It seemed likely that I'd end up somewhere in Europe, though I hoped it might be somewhere like Istanbul or Funchal in Madeira - at the very least somewhere warmer than London.
In the end I had to limit my ideas. My first stop at Gatwick was the Thomas Cook stand, where I sat going through the list of possible destinations. Charter flights were more or less out, as I had to be back for work on Monday; but the scheduled fare to both Funchal and Istanbul was more than pounds 300. Other destinations were too expensive or too full. If I'd gone to Heathrow, I could have flown to Lisbon for pounds 111, but I wouldn't have arrived until the evening. However, at Gatwick I struck gold - Madrid for pounds 101, including tax. A quick visit to Flightbookers yielded nothing better, so back I went to buy my ticket.
The flight was at 8.45am, so I had just enough time to grab a can of Coke (45p) to stave off hunger before boarding. The heaviest thing I was carrying was the Rough Guide to Europe, which I already owned; but there are several shops at the airport where you can buy a guidebook to wherever you end up going.
At the airport in Madrid I changed pounds 80 and got 14,354 pesetas (one peseta more to the pound than in Gatwick). The airport bus to the centre of town took less than 20 minutes, so I was soon walking along Calle de Fuencarral, just off Gran Via, which the guidebook said was a good place for cheap hotels. At the fourth attempt I found a single room for pounds 16 in the two- star Hostal Medieval (whose fixtures, thankfully, were modern), a family- run place in the heart of the Malasana district. The owner took me off for a strong coffee in the next-door cafe and issued stern warnings about pickpockets, especially in the Rastro flea-market every Sunday morning.
In the end I didn't go there, because so much else appealed. I went to the Prado to look at the Goyas, El Grecos, Velasquezes and Boschs; I visited the Reina Sofia Art Centre, which houses Spain's main modern art collection. I wandered round the Botanical Gardens to see the first of the spring flowers. I went for long walks in the Retiro, a huge park to the east of central Madrid; on Sunday especially, the sun shone and the Madrilenos were out in droves, listening to buskers and sitting in open-air cafes in the park. I also spent plenty of time sitting in cafes, lapping up the sunshine and watching the world go by, with a glass of something and a tapa or two.
I had enough money left over for a taxi to the airport (2,500ptas), which is just as well as I didn't have the energy to do anything else after all that walking. The flight was on time, so I was back at Gatwick by 10pm on Sunday. I had pounds 10 left; fatigue and self-indulgence won out over frugality, so I caught the Gatwick Express back to town. It had been a perfect weekend: fine art, sunshine and cafe society. Only one problem: it did make Monday morning that little bit grimmer.
Where the money went: Train from Victoria to Gatwick: pounds 8.90. Flight to Madrid and back: pounds 101. Can of Coke at Gatwick: 45p. Purchase of 14,354 pesetas: pounds 80. Train from Gatwick to Victoria: pounds 8.90. Total: pounds 199.25.
The Gatwick Express costs pounds 8.90 one-way. But you can save pounds 1.50 by buying a ticket to Crawley on an ordinary train, and jump off when it stops at Gatwick airport - small stuff, but every little helps when you have no idea where you are going. And this buys a day return, just in case I was obliged to come back to London. Nothing, whether a trip on Eurostar from Waterloo or a flight from Heathrow or Stansted, was ruled out, .
Gatwick is the obvious choice for a jaunt like this, because of its mix of charters and scheduled flights - and the proximity to the Newhaven and Isle of Wight ferries just in case all the planes are full. I hoped I would find a return flight for around pounds 100, leaving plenty for incidentals.
Dawn on a foggy day at Gatwick presents a screenful of temptations: departures to Catania, San Juan and Tallinn flicker alluringly on the TV monitors. First, though, you need a ticket. I went straight to the travel agency on the station concourse, called Flightbookers. In response to a request for a cheap flight, I was politely referred elsewhere on the grounds that the company specialised in long-haul travel. Leaving the office, I was a bemused to read a board advertising short-haul flights to Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt for around pounds 100.
Health risks presented obstacles to truly global gallivanting. Places like Cairo or Goa were ruled out because of the impossibility of taking all the necessary health precautions.
Self-preservation apart, no preconceptions were permitted about where I might end up, but the prospect of a destination rather warmer than Stockholm or Moscow appealed. This implied a charter flight to the Mediterranean. The problem with charters as far as the instant traveller is concerned is that they are intended for holiday-makers who plan in advance. Although the charter operators have staff at the airport, most will decline to sell you a ticket. But the crafty traveller in search of a bargain will head for room 1226 of the Hilton Hotel.
This improbable residence is the Gatwick home of Avro, one of Britain's leading seat-only specialists. Working on the principle that no commodity is more perishable than an aircraft seat, the company is happy to sell space on imminent departures. At about the position where a trouser press would be in an ordinary hotel room sits a huge board on which all the day's flights are chalked. An instant result: "We can get you to Faro at 1pm for pounds 49." But this was a one-way fare, with no guaranteed space for the return flight at the same fare. The Avro representative suggested he give me the name of its agent in the southern Portuguese town. The staff there would be able to offer me something, "but it may not be until Tuesday."
I elected to try to arrange a more certain journey. Thomas Cook has an agency in the arrivals hall of Gatwick's south terminal, selling hotel rooms in London to inbound passengers. But for people after a quick getaway in the opposite direction, the staff can check late availability with another seat-only company, Skybreak. Putting my go-anywhere cash on the table, I was offered a return flight for pounds 129 to Faro. The fickle finger of flying fate was pointing firmly at Portugal.
I munched through a pounds 3 breakfast at Spudulike, then mulled over the alternatives as I meandered through the airport. Not all the options were alluring. A train was just about to depart for Glasgow, costing pounds 68 return and scheduled to take nearly 10 hours. British Airways' destinations were tempting: Miami, New York, Nairobi, all closer in terms of time than Glasgow, but beyond my budget. So I checked out the chances of check-in for a cheaper short-haul flight. Claire's plane to Madrid had flown, but another was bound for Faro. How much?
"We have a World Offer of pounds 129.50 including tax". So for an extra 50 pence on the charter fare on offer, I could have more legroom. Drink a beer on the flight (free on BA, pounds 1.50 on Air 2000), and the sums shift in favour of scheduled. I paid.
The flight, like many others that morning, was delayed by fog. This meant lunch (a pounds 3 picnic from the Whistlestop supermarket), which was nearly to tip me over the edge. I should have changed money first. Asking around at all the bureaux de change, the best deal was from Travelex. I had planned to change pounds 50. But the prospect of 11,000 crisp Portuguese escudos for pounds 50.85 proved too tempting. I would tackle the problem of getting back to London with only pounds 6.75 later. While mists and the backlog of flights cleared, I stood in Waterstone's trying to memorise the Cadogan Guide to the Algarve.
The pension that the lady at Faro tourist office recommended had twice as many stars (two) as I could afford. So I ended up at the Residencia Madelena instead, where a room with no view costs pounds 11 a night. And to muddy the waters a little about just how far I actually got, I took the coastal train to Lagos. Technically, this is the delightful resort at the west of the Algarve rather than the former capital of Nigeria, but at least I could get a picture taken in front of the sign saying LAGOS.
Three more substantial rewards repaid any amount of aggravation, and would justify pounds 200 of anyone's cash.
The world's finest collection of sponge cakes is exhibited each Sunday morning in the porch of the church in the centre of Portimao, a fishing port astride a broad estuary. Sweet, syrupy and sticky cakes are sold in aid of church funds, at prices that even travellers counting their escudos will find tempting. Who needs lunch when you have an industrial- sized wedge of sponge in your backpack?
Another church provided the cultural highlight. Sa Antonio, in Lagos, is a Baroque implosion of gilded woodwork, heavy with cherubs and trompes- l'il, that looks as if it has floated in from Florence.
By supper time, the effects of the cake overdose had worn off sufficiently for a meal as fine as it was filling. On any ordinary holiday, the Vilaca restaurant - tucked into a doddery old backstreet in Faro -would be just the sort of honest, local haunt where you don't know what a meal will cost and neither do you care. I asked for the special, but not for its price, and sweated.
The grilled swordfish tasted as if it had leapt straight from the Atlantic into the fire. The intense flavours of the accompanying salad spoke of a land where winter had never really happened, and were attenuated by a glass of coarse and cheerful (and, I hoped, cheap) wine. I was relieved to find that this feast cost just pounds 6, so I would avoid washing-up duty that night. I tipped generously - and happily - and vowed to return in a less anxious state.
The good thing about scheduled flights is that they are frequent. The bad thing about my ticket was that it said "no change of reservation". The kindness of the check-in agent at Faro airport meant she allowed me on an earlier flight without fuss. Perhaps she felt sorry for someone who looked out of fortune.
Back at Gatwick, my travels took a surreal turn. If you walk out of the north terminal, just past the Shell garage you hit a long-distance footpath. Join the Sussex Borders Path (as it is called) as it skirts the Fuel Farm and heads off towards the Ramada Hotel. After a half-hour hike, you are at Horley station. From here, a mile up the line from Gatwick, the train fare falls to pounds 6. I made it back to Victoria with 25p and tired feet.
Baroque churches, cakes and the Sussex Borders Path in a single weekend - it's amazing what pounds 200 can buy.
Where the money went:
Train from Victoria to Gatwick: pounds 7.40. Return flight to Faro: pounds 129.50 (of which 10 per cent was tax). Food and drink at Gatwick: pounds 5. Purchase of 11,000 escudos: pounds 50.85. Train from Horley to Victoria: pounds 6. Total: pounds 199.75.Reuse content