Travel: Rough ride to Cuba

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The Independent Travel
THE great thing about package holidays is that they eliminate the hassle of travel, particularly to more unusual destinations. Take Cuba. Travelling independently, you would need to fly via Madrid, Caracas or Gander. Buy a package, and you go direct. The bureaucracy of obtaining a visa is removed, too, with just a brief form to fill in on the plane. So, last week, Sue Wheat and Cleo Paskal decided to take a last-minute pounds 299 holiday in Varadero, Cuba's leading resort.

Both live in London, and the first problem arose when they wanted to join the flight at Gatwick, where it began. The tour company, Airtours, said seats were available only from Manchester, so they made an extra-early start and paid pounds 32 each to reach Manchester airport.

The train trip proved the easy part of the journey. Airtours had assured passengers that visas were not necessary, and had not asked if anyone held a foreign passport. But when Ms Paskal tried to check in, she was told she would not be allowed on the flight because she was Canadian.

As the aircraft doors closed, she made a frantic call to the Cuban embassy in London. The diplomats assured the aircraft staff that Canadians were personae grata (indeed, Varadero is packed with them). Ms Paskal started sprinting to gate 31, inevitably the farthest from the terminal. 'The last thing I heard,' she says, 'was the check-in agent saying, 'I hope the captain's in a good mood.' '

He was, and agreed to open the door. Ms Paskal and Ms Wheat holidayed happily thereafter, with only one further irritation: discovering that the plane had flown from Gatwick less than half full.

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