Watch out for the discounts

If it's midwinter day, it must be time for the January sales. That is the logic that the travel industry is applying this weekend, in the hope that in between frantic shopping assaults on Marks & Spencer and Waterstone's, you and I will pop into a High Street travel agent and book a holiday.

The January sales push has begun ludicrously early this year, even by the standards of an industry that frequently seems to divert from reality. At my local branch of Thomas Cook, I noticed that the big "12 per cent" off notice was detachable, presumably so that an increased discount offered by rivals Going Places or Lunn Poly can be matched without ripping down the entire window display.

What concerns me more than the premature sales push is that the travel industry seems unwilling to take note of public and political pressure. The Office of Fair Trading castigated the way that discounts are contigent on the purchase of over-priced insurance. Indeed, it was one reason

why the OFT referred the industry to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Yet if you glance at your local branch of Going Places today, you will see that the digits promising "12 per cent off" are about as big as this page. In contrast, you will need to press your nose against the window to see that the small print saying you have to buy the insurance is about the same size as this type. The standard insurance policy for a one-week holiday in Europe is pounds 29.35.

Can I draw some more small print to your attention? This is the advertisement tucked in the back of Travel Weekly, one of the travel trade papers. This offers people who work in travel an annual policy, valid worldwide, for just pounds 25.

As it happens, I will be calling in at Going Places to book a holiday today. And if you took our advice to buy a Bounty bar, you should, too: vouchers for the best offer of the year, a straight pounds 50 for buying one bar of chocolate-covered coconut, expires on New Year's Eve. I shall buy a day trip to Seville in February for pounds 129 (with no mandatory insurance), and the agency will hand me pounds 50-worth of pesetas. This proved to be such a good deal that a rival tour operator is rumoured to have gone out and bought a gross of Bounty bars and organised an entire sales conference based on the promotion.

These pages will strive to bring you the best travel confections over the coming year, but tomorrow I am going on holiday. I always aim to celebrate my birthday, which is in four days' time, in a different location. Last year I spent the day hitch-hiking through eastern Zimbabwe, ending in a hostel in Umtata with certainly the least appetising Christmas dinner I have ever eaten.

This Christmas I have kept quiet about my plans, fearful that the trip is a sign of advancing years. If anyone asks, I just mutter something about the Dominican Republic. Keep it quiet, but I am actually going on a Caribbean cruise. The reason (besides the wish to have a decent Christmas dinner) is strictly financial: a week of backpacking through southern Africa cost me a straight pounds 1,000 including flights. A Thomson cruise through the Leeward Islands actually cost pounds 100 less. I shall tell you how they compare on 4 January. Meanwhile, may all your travels at Christmas and beyond be fun and fulfilling, and may you never need to claim on that over-priced insurance.

In the first Independent Magazine of 1997, you will read a travel special that includes a story by another birthday boy: Tony Wheeler. The founder of Lonely Planet Publications celebrated his 50th two days ago. He will be writing on his adopted home town of Melbourne for the Magazine, as part of an alphabetical trip around the globe from Antarctica to Zanzibar.

The world has changed considerably since Mr Wheeler first wrote Across Asia on the Cheap in 1973, which included the following exchange at the Iran-Afghanistan border:

"How long have you been here?", we asked. "About six hours."

"Good grief - what have you been doing all that time?"

"Blowing a little dope with the customs."

The marks of true celebrities are that their 50th birthdays should be a matter of note - and that they should be rumoured to have died. Both of these apply to Paul McCartney, and also to Mr Wheeler; he is supposed to have perished under the wheels of an Indian bus. But yesterday morning he was alive and well, and has almost forgiven his staff for their specially designed birthday card: a book cover entitled Tony Wheeler: a Rough Guide.

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