Travel: The Traveller

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
ONCE, the first question we asked ourselves when returning from holiday was: 'Where shall we go for the next one?' Now it could well be: 'Where shall we go for lunch?' As this special issue of Independent Traveller shows, cheap air travel has put the long-distance midday meal on the menu.

Day trips have long been part of the fabric of the British travel industry - Thomas Cook's first package tour was a day excursion. Concorde's most profitable activity is flying day-trippers to the Pyramids for lunch or just for a joy-ride around the Bay of Biscay, at prices that make you wonder at the amount of money people have sloshing around. But now the airline industry is coming up with some excellent awayday deals that bring the prospect of eating out of the country within reach of us ordinary mortals.

The original driving force for cheap day trips by air was spare capacity, and the occasional bargain still appears on this basis. If you have no other plans for next Tuesday, for example, you could fly from Gatwick to Edinburgh and back for pounds 59: Italy Sky Shuttle (081-748 1333) is organising a day trip to the Scottish capital to get some use out of an otherwise unemployed charter jet.

Now Britain's charter carriers are making day excursions more formal. From November, Airtours (0706 260000) is laying on a series of days out anywhere from Rome to Reykjavik: options include Berlin for pounds 99, Madrid for pounds 109, Prague for pounds 129, or Florence for pounds 139. These deals enable the company to stimulate demand at what would otherwise be the quietest patch of the year. Sure, you cannot do justice to Florence in what is left of a day after flying in and out from Gatwick or Manchester. But this is not the Grand Tour - it is the travel takeaway, offering easily digestible bite-size chunks of abroad.

Other operators are harnessing the same hunger for instant travel gratification to fill aircraft down-time. Scandinavian Airlines would normally just park its plane at Terminal Three for the night, but between whisking business travellers in from Oslo and back to Stockholm, the aircraft undergoes a complete crew and character change; suddenly it swoops off in search of the midnight sun.

Another seat-filling device is the Mystery Flight, which gives you a day trip on a scheduled flight to a destination of the airline's own choosing. The biggest mystery about my trip (described overleaf) was why on earth anyone would want to take such a tour. The only reason I could come up with was as a means of getting a cheap one- way flight - an old trick among skilled budget travellers.

British Airways used to run a 'hitch-hikers' special' (my title, not BA's), which provided any impecunious adventurer with a head start to the Continent. For pounds 30 you could turn up at Heathrow and be given a ticket to somewhere in Europe and back. If your plans were sufficiently flexible, you did not mind whether you started your holiday in Paris or Frankfurt or Zurich; these flights put you well on the way to southern Europe for little more than the ferry fare. You just had to pray you did not get Dublin. Of course, you were supposed to fly back as well; but BA could not make you return. Perhaps that is why it put a stop to the deals.

One place where mystery flights still thrive is Australia. The maths works like this: a one-way fare between most of the country's eastern cities costs at least pounds 70, but for half this amount you can get a mystery flight. You turn up at the airport and your destination for the day is revealed. But a little investigation into the airline schedules means you can swing the odds in favour of the plane flying to the destination you want by choosing the optimum time slot: the one that contains the most flights to that destination. I pored over the Ansett airline timetable to maximise the probability of getting to Cairns, and calculated it at 90 per cent.

Naturally, the one-in-10 chance came up, and I discovered that I was going to Melbourne, which I had left only the day before. But on the basis that going somewhere you are not keen on is marginally better that not going anywhere, I got on.

Miraculously, the skies of Victoria had cleared from the gloom of the previous day, the car hire company had just the thing to whisk me away from the city to Hanging Rock - which hung, glittering and mysterious, from the sky. The day trip to disaster was salvaged and turned into one of those treats that is all the more glorious for being unanticipated. For my Independent Traveller day trip special, however, I drew the short straw with the long haul to Houston.