Your questions answered by our panel of travel experts, including a doctor and a lawyer
FRANCE WITHOUT THE BIG BOYS

We're trying to plan a holiday in France and having read about some specialist firms, I asked our local travel agent for their brochures and those of any other specialists. The agent claimed to know nothing about the firms or any other small specialists. Any ideas where we can get a truly comprehensive range of relevant literature?

Gail Blackhurst

Northampton

Jill Crawshaw replies: The short answer is nowhere, at least not in any single agency.

To explain: a huge number of travel agents belong to the large tour operators, for example our largest, Thomsons, owns Lunn Poly, while Airtours owns Going Places. The agency will of course carry and put out on racks all the brochures from their parent company - in fact, they frequently put identical copies of the same brochures on different shelves - and they may display only a very few from other tour operators. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission is looking into what many believe to be a lack of choice by these travel agencies, and whether the present arrangement is in the public interest.

There are also some tour operators who don't actually sell through travel agents: adventure specialist Explore Worldwide is one, as is The Travel Club of Upminster and wine tour expert Arblaster and Clarke.

Your best bet is to find an independent travel agent which will carry some of the smaller company's brochures. Also write to or phone the Association of Independent Tour Operators (0181 607 9080) for its list of members - 150 or so smaller independent companies. About half of these sell through smaller independent agents while others only sell direct to the public. Destinations range from Alaska to Zimbabwe with many specialising in individual parts of countries such as Corfu, Crete or the Dodecanese in Greece, for example, and Corsica, Brittany or Paris in France. Ohers are experts in battlefield tours, wildlife watching, rail journeys, scuba diving, pilgrimages or golf holidays.

They tend to be run by husband and wife teams with a highly specialised knowledge of an area and can more or less tell you what the view is from Room 39 in the Hotel Splendido, the name of the taverna proprietor's son, or where in your village sells the cheapest plonk; information which travel agents selling thousands of holidays simply cannot give.

The AITO companies are bonded in case of financial failure and are expected to adhere to high standards of personal service and a rigorous code of business practice. They regularly top the Holiday Which? annual survey of customer satisfaction.

Their holidays do not, however, always compete in price with the mass package tour companies, particularly to the popular sun and sand destinations, and they offer far fewer last minute discounts.

AITO also publishes the free 64 page Directory of Real Holidays, with lists of destinations, holiday ideas and tour firms. Many of these deal with France.

You can also get a complete listing of French tour operators divided by region, activity and accommodation in the current 90 page 1997 Traveller in France, available free from the French government tourist office on 0891 244123. Calls are charged at 50p a minute.

Jill Crawshaw is a travel expert, writer and broadcaster.

DOES THE ENTRY BUREAUCRACY OF THE SOVIET UNION LIVE ON IN THE REPUBLICS OF ITS OLD EMPIRE?

I want to travel independently through the republics of the old Soviet Union. How feasible is this? Are they safe? And will one visa be enough?

Maximina Walker

London N17

The travel editor replies: The 14 republics are fascinating places, though the situation for tourists varies from place to place and day to day.

By far the most straightforward to enter and tour are the three Baltic republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, for which Britons do not need visas. The security situation is more or less on a par with the rest of Europe.

Rather less secure are the three Caucasian republics, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, all of which have a serious crime problem as well as being in a state of semi-war. They are by no means impossible to visit though, and direct flights are available. Visas can be obtained from the relevant embassies in London, although evidence of pre-booked accommodation is usually asked for. A visa for Georgia or Azerbaijan is valid in the other for up to four days.

Of the three east European republics, Ukraine has a very bureaucratic view of tourism (no pre-booked tour, no visa). Belarus and Moldova can sometimes be persuaded.

Finally, the five central Asian republics of Turkmenistan (nearest embassy Paris), Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan and Kyrgystan. If you have an unused Russian visa, you are supposed to be able to enter for up to three days. If not a large bribe might work. To obtain visas in advance, you may be best off booking a tour with a company like Regent Holidays (01179 211711) or Explore Worldwide (01252 319448).

HOW TO JET WITHOUT THE LAG

I'M TRAVELLING with my family to Miami. Is there any trustworthy remedy to jet lag?.

Robin Grant

Cirencester, Glos

Dr Larry Goodyer replies: Jet lag is caused by the natural body clock (circadian rhythms) adjusting to a new time zone, causing sleepiness during the day and insomnia at night. Tablets containing a substance called melatonin have been popular recently - melatonin occurs natu- rally in the brain and is thought to regulate the circadian rhythm. Evidence suggests that it helps to relieve the symptoms of jet lag but it is no longer readily available in the UK.

There are various factors which are involved in upsetting the circadian rhythm, the most important being the changes in sleeping/mealtimes and exposure to sunlight. The adaptation to a new time zone is usually more difficult when flying east rather than west.

If the trip is more than 48 hours it is best to adjust sleeping and eating habits to the local time zone as quickly as possible. Trying to sleep on the flight helps, particularly if travelling east. On your return journey from Miami you may find that dinner is served on the airplane in the late evening, corresponding to early morning in the UK. It would be better to avoid this sort of heavy meal by eating before you leave and sleeping through till breakfast.

Some people find it helpful to acclimatise by adjusting sleeping and eating towards the destination time zone a day or so before travel - when flying west to the US this would mean a longer waking day and sleeping in later. On return try gradually going to bed earlier for a few days before the flight.

There is some evidence that altering exposure to sunlight can help. When travelling west over six or less time zones as in your case, increase late afternoon sunlight exposure on the day of arrival in Miami and for a few days afterwards, trying to lessen exposure to morning sunlight. Do the opposite on return. Finally avoid alcohol on the flight.

Dr Larry Goodyer is superintendent of the Nomad Pharmacy (3-4 Turnpike Lane, London N8, Tel: 0181-889 7014) which specialises in catering for travellers' medical needs.

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