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The Independent Travel
The joys of flying on your birthday have been much discussed in this column: cakes, champagne and even upgrades can be laid on for the celebrant. But Kate Thorman of Oxford found that becoming 12 provided her with a Catch-22 problem.

Like most other airlines, those flying to the Republic of Ireland say adulthood begins at 12. Kate's father, Andrew Thorman, set out to buy her a full-fare ticket from Birmingham to Dublin. He mentioned to his travel agent that Kate would be travelling unaccompanied, and was told Ryanair required an extra pounds 25 to look after her.

"So, on the one hand Kate is old enough to pay the adult fare, but on the other hand she is too young to travel without a paid escort," says her exasperated father. At this point, Mr Thorman gave up and booked with another airline; then poor Kate found her birthday flight delayed by four hours at Birmingham airport.

"Come back, Gorbachev, all is forgiven," pleads Philip Robinson of Sheffield. "The last time I visited my friend in Minsk, this city was in the USSR. I flew to Moscow, took a train to Minsk, and all was well."

Now that Minsk is the capital of independent Belarus, you might imagine it is easier to reach. Indeed, there is a twice-weekly flight from Gatwick on the national airline Belavia. But this did not help Mr Robinson.

"At the local branch of Thomas Cook, it took its clerk an hour of determined keyboard-bashing to establish that the company is unable to book the Belavia flight. The computer did provide an address for the Consulate-General of the Republic of Belarus, but my letter enquiring about a visa was returned, marked `Gone away', with no forwarding address."

I called an airfares expert, David Puttick of Regent Holidays in Bristol, who said he would be delighted to book Mr Robinson on next Wednesday's Belavia flight. Business class is full, so Mr Puttick quotes an economy fare of pounds 296 for the return trip. To solve the visa mystery, I suggest a telephone call to the new Belarus embassy: 0171-937 3288.

It would be churlish to remark that a deeper enigma is why on earth anyone would wish to return to this grim, Stalinesque city, whose only remarkable feature is that it was once the frozen heart of the Soviet refrigerator industry.

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