Travel: Big deals, small print

In the first of a series of monthly articles, Simon Calder, the senior travel editor of `The Independent', gives consumers the hard facts

September is the season of the direct-mail marketing campaign. Letters from airlines and agents are dropping through the nation's letter- boxes faster than autumn leaves. Mike Gooley, the chairman of Britain's biggest discount-flight specialist, has been busily sending out thousands of missives this month, which begin: "As a valued Trailfinders' client, we are delighted to send you details of an exclusive offer with Virgin Atlantic."

If two people travel together, writes Mr Gooley, "you will receive pounds 40 discount on hotels, car hire, tours and much more - in fact, pounds 40 off anything featured in Trailfinders Tailormade North America and Worldwide brochures".

The long-haul specialists like making these offers of discounts on "ground arrangements" for three reasons. First, because the cost to them is nothing like pounds 40, once the profit margin is shaved off brochure prices. Next, because customers are often encouraged to spend way more than pounds 40 on excursions or accommodation. The third reason is that more and more airlines are insisting on "minimum selling prices" for cheap flights, to ensure their fares do not plunge to ridiculous levels - offering a voucher for extras is a way for agents to secure a competitive advantage and offer customers a better deal.

Don Bell of Bath, like me, received the mailshot. "I was disappointed to receive this from Trailfinders - usually very efficient and competitive. Their Virgin fares to Johannesburg are pounds 562, while they can also offer flights there on Turkish Airlines for pounds 365, and South African Airways for pounds 451." Even allowing for the pounds 40 offer, travellers can save pounds 71 by opting for the non-stop on SAA, or a massive pounds 157 by changing at Istanbul. "Similarly, Shanghai by Virgin costs pounds 482," writes Mr Bell, "while Trailfinders sells a Lufthansa ticket at pounds 357".

n THE LAST time I was due to travel on KLM UK, I actually flew with British Midland - the inbound KLM/Northwest flight from Philadelphia was seven hours late, meaning that I missed not one but several connecting KLM UK flights back to Britain and ended up in Heathrow rather than London City airport. So, I was pleased to get a mailshot from Tony Comacho, the airline's marketing director, stepping up flights between Amsterdam and the Docklands airport - an extra flight each weekday.

But there is a catch: "In order to increase our services to Amsterdam, we will unfortunately have to cease operation of our London City-Manchester service." This is a curious twist of logic. There are, at present, four flights a day between London City and Manchester, using small, propeller planes. These are to be swapped for a single jet flight to Amsterdam - exactly the same distance away.

Today, KLM UK abandons its Stansted-Aberdeen service; other routes to be cut when the summer schedules end in October are Aberdeen-Stavanger, Jersey-Stansted, and Stansted-Rome. The background to these cuts is the savage competition that KLM UK has faced from the no-frills operators Go and Ryanair, both based at Stansted, and easyJet of Luton. KLM UK seems intent on scaling back its traditional domestic routes and becoming a "feeder" for its parent company in Amsterdam.

n "FREE PRE-ALLOCATED seats", promises Britain's newest holiday company, JMC. The company - in reality a rebranding of Thomas Cook's tour operations - is promising that "you can pre-book your seats, at no extra cost, on flights departing from 1 April 2000".

This is a service that many scheduled airlines have offered for years. Since carriers know months ahead which type of aircraft is to operate each route, there is no great obstacle to telling passengers when they book which seats they will be occupying. Anyone booking with one of the big US airlines can expect to be told where they will sit on board up to 11 months in advance.

If you surmise from JMC's campaign that you can expect such comforting certainty, you will be disappointed. It turns out that the business of "pre-allocating" seats is carried out by someone just two days before departure, juggling aircraft plans to try to ensure that families sit together. JMC says that its definition of "together" can mean people sitting across an aisle or in the row behind.

And the rest of the small print: "On each flight, normally, 75 per cent of seats are available to be pre-allocated ... the offer applies to selected airlines and is subject to availability."

n EXCLUSION CLAUSE of the month: the small print on page seven of Martin Randall Travel's brochure reveals that the recent controversy on upper- age limits for holidaymakers has spread to the field of upmarket cultural travel.

"We regret that applications from people in their eighties will not be accepted," it reads. "We know this is a harsh and somewhat arbitrary rule, and it pains us to have to implement it. We know there are many octogenarians who are perfectly fit enough to cope with our tours, but our experience has forced us to the conclusion that the rule is necessary."

Anyone in their eighties who feels aggrieved by this rule could wait until their 90th birthday; the clause does not appear to exclude those older than 89.

Simon Calder welcomes a response from the companies mentioned here, and readers' comments about other tangled terms and conditions. Write to `Big deals, small print', Travel, The Independent on Sunday, One Canada Square, London E14 5DL; or e-mail travel@ independent.co.uk; or fax 0171- 293 2182.

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