How can our experts help you?
Our travel experts are here to answer your questions – by email, post or fax. Here are some typical questions and answers, any one of which could repay the cost of your annual subscription many times over. Here are some recent examples:
Q. I booked an overnight stay at the Munich Airport Hilton and was shocked to discover that the Wi-Fi in my room barely worked. It took well over a minute just to open an email without attachments. I went to reception and asked if I could change rooms to one with better coverage but was told simply that Wi-Fi was bad throughout the hotel but they were in the process of upgrading the system. When I checked out, no one asked if I had enjoyed my stay but I raised the Internet issue again and just got a shrug of the shoulders.
I wrote a very negative review on TripAdvisor and rather expected some response from the hotel but they appear only to comment on favourable reviews. I then contacted Hilton to complain about the hotel’s attitude and the fact that I felt cheated because the hotel did not provide the advertised amenity. I received a standard email which barely acknowledged my comments but thanked me for choosing Hilton. Now I was annoyed with both the hotel and Hilton! I replied saying their reply was completely inadequate and they then credited me with 5000 Hilton HHonors points and once again assured me of their gratitude for raising the issue.
I really cannot be bothered to take this any further but, as a matter of interest, do I have any rights at all in this?
- JL, by email, June 2015
A. The simple answer is no. You admit your room had Wi-Fi but just not to an acceptable standard. Depending on how you booked and paid, and whether any UK intermediary was involved, you may have some rights in the event of a gross discrepancy between what was sold and what was delivered but we very much doubt this would qualify. Sadly, hotels know this all too well.
However, you definitely did the right thing in pursuing the matter. The negative TripAdvisor review will bring down the hotel’s overall rating and while the complaint to Hilton appears to have fallen on deaf ears, it did not. First, Hilton will have logged the issue and noted that the hotel was given an opportunity to put matters right but did nothing. It will have been charged for both emails sent to you as well as the cost of the HHonors points and, possibly, a further fee for violation of agreed standards. At a rough guess, this could all have cost the hotel $100 in total. We do not know why the chains insist on sending out standard emails in response to complaints, because they often infuriate guests and suggest the chain is not interested. In fact, each complaint they receive is just another opportunity to charge the hotel fees for misbehaviour so such complaints are welcomed and all are logged on the hotel’s record.
The problem is that the Hilton Munich Airport probably does not have to try too hard because it is actually within the terminal complex. If the management are lazy, they will not care about upsetting guests because they know many will come back whether or not they want to. Similarly, they may be relaxed about Hilton getting cross about standards being missed as they know that Sheraton or Marriott would be only too happy to pick up the franchise because of the huge commercial value. However, you have hit them where it hurts with a cash cost. Too many of those and even the most complacent hotel manager will be forced to wake up.
Q. My wife and I have now been on three safaris and we are considering taking a fourth but this time to Zimbabwe. We have studied all the information available and, despite some continuing problems in the country, it does look as if they have some of the best game parks anywhere together with the huge advantage that they are not yet overrun by visitors. Do you think we are mad? Have you any suggestion as to the best airline to use to Harare?
- MS, by email, May 2015
A. We do not think it is mad to go virtually anywhere providing you have done the proper homework and know all the downsides to a possible destination. Travelling in ignorance of the local situation is foolish anywhere, be it a simple beach holiday in Dubai or St Lucia or a weekend break in Riga. From what we hear, Zimbabwe could well be the place to go for a proper safari, though it is probably not advisable for anyone who has not been on that type of holiday before. As you say, the game parks are well stocked and surprisingly well maintained and there are not many visitors. There are a handful of comfortable and almost luxurious places to stay but, of course, you do need to take great care over your choice and ensure you use a top local operator (booked through a UK specialist). Zimbabwe is slowly coming in from the cold, though it will be some time yet before it becomes a mainstream destination so, if you are fully armed with all the information, now could be a good time. The best choice of flights is either via the Gulf or South Africa. Your decision may depend on whether you want to finish your trip with a few days’ relaxation in either. Do be aware of the tendency throughout Africa for flights to be overbooked. Check your bookings, reconfirm even if it is not necessary and arrive at the airport in plenty of time!
Q. I currently buy an annual Priority Pass Lounge card but my credit card company is offering me a free Lounge Club card as part of an enhanced package. The two look very similar so should I ditch the Priority Pass membership?
- NA, Cheltenham, March 2015
A. The Lounge Club is operated by the same company that runs Priority Pass and runs on the same basis – either you pay for a card and then pay extra for each lounge you use or you pay a much higher fee to have several, or unlimited, visits included. Priority Pass is sold direct to the public and via credit cards and other companies, while the Lounge Club is only sold to businesses and through financial institutions. The big difference is that the Lounge Club covers a smaller range of lounges so, presumably, costs less for the organisations that give it ‘free’. The only way of telling whether it would work for you is to look at the full list of lounges and compare it with Priority Pass. In general, we would be cautious about any of these arrangements. They can work well, but now so many lounges that are not exclusive to an airline sell entry, either in advance or, in some cases, at the door, you may not need to pay up front for a subscription – especially since no pass can ever cover all the possible lounges. Before travelling, it is always a good idea to have a look at airport websites and see what the lounge options and costs are.
Q. I am not sure how I have done it but I seem to have accumulated three different memberships of the Hilton Honors programme. One of these is Gold level which I use regularly but the other two both have points on them which I do not want to lose. Is there a way to combine the accounts so I can just keep the Gold card?
- CCG, by email, December 2014
A. We imagine quite a few people mistakenly sign up for frequent guest programmes more than once. In theory, the systems should stop this but minor differences in the way you enter your name (maybe using Christian names on one and just initials on another) or slight differences with an address can easily trick the system. In your case, this was an innocent mistake but some people do it deliberately to get sign-up bonuses or to be able to participate in promotions twice. Until recently, the hotel programmes have not really been bothered by this but last year some chains were hit by criminals who saw them as a soft target. They have all now increased their security. Most already had a clause in their Terms and Conditions prohibiting multiple memberships and threatening immediate closure and forfeiture of all points where this is discovered. They have now started to do this. It is probably only the serious “points hounds”, who have been milking the promotions for extra points, who are having their accounts closed but you do need to be careful. If you are sure you have not benefited from extra points as a result of the three cards, you could try contacting the chain and asking them nicely if they could close two of the cards and transfer the points to the Gold. There is no guarantee they would do this though. Alternatively, and probably more safely, you could just get rid of the points on the spare cards by transferring them to an airline and then letting the cards die a natural death. Whatever you decide, it would not be wise to keep on actively using all three since this could cause problems with the higher level of security checking now in place.
Q. Because of a strike by pilots at Lufthansa I had to rebook a flight from Beijing to London with British Airways. Whilst I was grateful to get back to London with little delay, I was a bit annoyed that I lost my Miles and points with the Lufthansa frequent flyer programme. My card is nearly up for renewal and the tier points from this flight would have ensured my Silver status. Do you think if I ask nicely they will give me Silver anyway?
- JK, by email, November 2014
A. If Lufthansa had rebooked you on to the BA flight you would definitely have been entitled to earn Miles with Lufthansa. You would probably have had to ask for them to be credited because it is not an automatic process but there should not have been any problem. Indeed, as an ‘involuntary re-route passenger’ you would not have been eligible for Miles with BA since you were not a normal revenue-earning passenger for them – though it never does any harm to show your card because mistakes happen and they may have been credited. However, from your comments, it looks as if Lufthansa refunded your ticket and you booked a new ticket with BA. Obviously, that would have earned BA Miles but nothing on Lufthansa. You should contact Lufthansa, give them details of your booking reference and ask them to ensure the cancelled flight does not lead to your being downgraded from your current status. When airlines have strikes they get a lot of requests such as this. Any sensible company will want to ensure the loyalty of its regular passengers, especially after they have been inconvenienced by a strike, so it should take a generous view. If your first attempt falls on deaf ears, try again.
Q. I have heard of frequent flyer ‘mileage runs’ where people fly purely with the intention of boosting their status in programmes. Is there any way you could do this to obtain maybe Silver or Gold in the BA Executive Club or another scheme for a reasonable price?
- AST, by email, September 2014
A. Nowadays, most airline programmes have two types of earning schedule: you get Miles you can spend on flights and points that go towards your status in the programme. Mileage runs seem to be very popular amongst frequent-flyer hobbyists in the US, who will sometimes take unnecessary trips just so they can achieve a particular target – maybe they need a few extra points to renew their status for another year or are agonisingly close to achieving a new level and need to do that before the anniversary of their membership. To go from zero to Silver or Gold would be an expensive process, and you would have to repeat it every year to maintain your membership, and the benefits simply do not justify the cost.
Every programme has its own sweet spots: a handful of destinations will be particularly cheap for redemption flights, some may give more Miles than others and a few will give more tier points for the amount of money spent. If you need to boost your tier points in the BA scheme, you should look at fixed-dated Club fares to nearby European destinations. A return to Amsterdam bought in advance and with a stay over a few days can cost £250 and generates 80 tier points, which compares favourably with a return longhaul flight to New York, or most other longhaul destinations, which will give you 280 tier points and will cost at least £1,500. If you can buy special fares on American Airlines’ domestic services in First Class, you can also get a lot of tier points for the amount spent. You need 600 tier points to get a Silver card (just under eight returns to Amsterdam at £250 costing £2,000 or two return longhaul flights plus a shorthaul costing maybe £3,800 altogether). A Gold card requires 1,500 points and so would be seriously expensive.
Q. I booked a hotel in Crete through a Greek hotel agency. I paid extra for a superior room but the room I was given was just a standard one. The hotel insisted that I had the room I had paid for and the hotel agency is refusing a refund. Do I have any recourse?
- KPM, by email, July 2014
A. If you book a room through an agent the first thing to do is to double-check with the hotel’s own site to ensure they are using the same descriptions and that the agency’s gradings and prices tally. If the hotel is selling Standard and Deluxe and the agency is selling Standard and Superior without specifying what makes the more expensive room different, you could have a problem. Paying extra for a room with a balcony is pretty simple because a room either has one or not, whereas a term such as ‘superior’ could be almost meaningless. You should be absolutely clear about what you paid for, and what extras there are with any more expensive room. Hopefully, your email confirmation would give a room description but, if not, you should keep a screenshot of the agent’s description. If you can clearly identify the way in which the room did not live up to its description (maybe there was no armchair or the air-conditioning was an overhead fan) then you could go to your credit card company and ask it to open a complaint. For any claim to succeed, we think you would need to have fairly concrete evidence (preferably photographic) that the room you were given was not the one you paid for.
Q. I am just about to pay rather a large amount of money in extra charges for pre-booking luggage on a flight and just wondered what happens if the bags are delayed, would I get a refund?
- JO, by email, May 2014
A. Some extra charges can be refunded if the airline is unable to provide the service. For example, if you book a meal and they do not load it or you reserve a seat and they need to move you because of a change in aircraft type (but even here they may try to argue that the new seat was similar and so they may be reluctant to pay up). However, with baggage, the standard rules apply whether the case is part of your free allowance or charged as an extra. Basically, you are paying for the cases to be transported to your destination with no guarantee as to when they will arrive. Many airlines will offer some minor form of compensation for a delay but it is only when the items are lost completely that they will agree to pay anything substantial and that will be according to a strict formula that will not necessarily cover your full costs.
Q. I have two free travel insurance policies from my accounts at NatWest and AmEx. Have you any advice about how I can use the two policies – or should I just ignore one of them?
- NM, by email, May 2014
A. This is a question many face and the answers depend very much on the specific policies you hold. Some ‘free’ travel policies only cover trips paid for using the card. We assume both the policies you have allow claims for any trip, however payment has been made. Also, let’s assume that they both have roughly similar limits, especially for the all-important medical section. You are paying for these policies whether you like it or not because banks and credit card companies will not reduce their charges for customers who opt out of using one of the free additions. It would therefore be foolish to discard either, because you never know when it may be useful.
The first thing to do is to ensure you get the agreement of both insurers to any existing medical conditions. It is quite possible that one of them wants to charge extra for some minor issue when the other is quite happy to include it for free. Equally, should an additional medical problem crop up before travel which you need to inform the insurer of, you might find one company being totally relaxed while the other tries to charge more. If this happens, then it is quite easy to decide which policy to use!
There are certain items where you can claim on both policies. For example, there is a standard payment in the event of death and you can claim on every policy you hold for this. Most policies also have a section that covers travel delay or delay to your baggage and it is often possible to claim on both policies. For example, one policy may offer up to £250 for a delay of 24 hours or more but cover only essential items purchased with the card, while the other policy gives a flat payment of £120 with no proof of spending. In that case, you could claim on both policies. Of course, you cannot use the same receipts to claim twice.
The medical section is the most important. You should always contact the insurer’s medical helpline before seeking treatment. This service is outsourced to a handful of specialist companies. Insurers may haggle over minor claims for baggage but they will not do this for medical claims. They all have carefully maintained lists of doctors and hospitals they regard as reputable. You are much better off following their instructions, which will avoid you being possibly over-treated by fee-hungry, dishonest establishments. Remember that many of these organisations pay commission to hotels to pass on clients. The insurer will want to keep costs down but they will not risk their reputation by penny-pinching with your treatment.
We would therefore say that, assuming the limit is the same, the medical coverage on the two policies is of the same quality. In the event of a minor issue which entails a quick visit to a doctor, you would be wise to select the policy with the lowest deductible. For a more serious case, we suggest you look at the section that covers additional costs. While all policies will cover medical care, they vary enormously about what extra costs they will cover. For example, a two-week stay in hospital followed by a week’s recuperation before the patient is allowed to travel could become extremely expensive for the other partner. New air tickets will be needed and there is the serious cost of extra accommodation and subsistence. Some policies cover ‘all reasonable costs of extra accommodation and meals and new air tickets in the same class as originally booked’, whereas others limit you to a fixed amount of maybe just £500, which will not go far if you are in a luxury hotel in Mauritius. Claiming on the policy that gives the best coverage for these additional costs could save you a great deal. When you fill in the claims form, you will normally be required to give details of any other policy you hold and the insurer that has paid may seek part-payment from the other company, but that is not your concern.
In other words, both policies could prove useful so you should make sure you know the policy details and keep them with you when you travel.
Q. I need to go to Lusaka in September and, as BA no longer offer direct flights, I am looking at a choice between Kenya Airways via Nairobi or BA and South African Airlines via Johannesburg. The Kenya Airways option looks slightly better in terms of price and timings but I wonder if you have any comments on the airline.
- ALJ, by email, April 2014
A. This is a classic example of where it pays to consider the whole journey, rather than just the quality of the airline. We have nothing against Kenya Airways. It has modern aircraft and a good reputation in Africa, and its service, while maybe a little unrefined at times, does have genuine Kenyan warmth. However, transferring at Nairobi is another matter. The airport has long been known for its poor organisation and long queues, but a botched expansion scheme and an unexplained fire that took out part of one of the main terminals have led to some operations using temporary facilities. On top of that, there remains a very real security threat. Flying BA to Johannesburg and then transferring to SAA is an option, but we do not normally recommend transferring between two different airlines when they are not in an alliance or regular partners on the route. If you want to fly via Johannesburg, it may be better to use SAA all the way from London.
There are two other options worth looking at. KLM flies direct from Amsterdam to Lusaka (with a stop) so once you and your luggage are on the plane at Amsterdam you are almost there. Emirates also flies to Lusaka from Dubai and, while transferring at Dubai at peak periods is no fun, it may be smoother than transferring in Nairobi. None of the options is perfect. KLM will never win prizes for the quality of its in-flight service and you need to allow plenty of time for a transfer in Amsterdam because its luggage service is not always as efficient as it likes to claim. Despite the downsides, we would be inclined to recommend either KLM or Emirates ahead of the other two, simply because they involve possibly more civilised and reliable transfers.
Q. We were lucky enough to get our Avios tier points on the flights, which takes us up to Silver. Am I correct in thinking that the silver membership only applies to next year and that it is no longer an immediate change? Also, Is there any way of finding out, in advance, about the seating and whether or not the beds will be proper flat beds? Also I would like to have known about the “freebies” in advance. Qantas give sleep suits in Business (or did two years ago) and Emirates do not. If I had known in advance I would have brought my own!
(By the way, just to let you know that our return flight from Perth to Gatwick on Emirates, via Dubai, was just as good as the flights out. Practically faultless, just a few minor niggles. But as you pointed out in your February newsletter, the seats were not very good in Business, as they did not fold down into a flat bed.)
- AB, by email, March 2014
A. I always thought that promotion between levels with BA was more or less immediate. Your profile should update as soon as the tier points are registered and you will be allowed into Lounges and treated as Silver even before you get the card. Have you read somewhere that this has changed? I am not aware of it and there is nothing on the website to suggest this but you never know…
However, you do have to have made the other qualification for Silver – you must have four flights registered on BA operated flights within the year as well as 600 tier points. Maybe this could be the problem.
I understand your point about pyjamas – some airlines go into great detail about what they offer in Business and others are sketchy. You also never know if specific details apply to the flight you are taking – for example, an airline might load pyjamas for night flights but not for day flights, or they might not put them on for shorter night flights. To be honest you can never be really sure.
The seating arrangements should be easier to work out though. Each airline shows the aircraft operating the flight on its website and it should be easy to check the seating provided. Obviously, if you are flying Emirates but with a Qantas ticket, you need to check the actual flight on the Emirates site. Just start making a booking and the seat map will appear so you know what you should be getting. Of course, changes do occur – particularly with Emirates who have such a mixed fleet!
Q. After the Rio crash, Air France made a lot of noise about improving its safety standards. Do you think the airline is now up to the standards of other major airlines?
- TJ, by email, December 2013
A. Air France management certainly took the bull by the horns. They acknowledged that they had a problem by bringing in their alliance partner Delta to perform a thorough audit on pilot procedures. When the pilot’s union protested at more rules and regulations, it was bluntly told it should not complain because it ignored too many of the existing rules. No doubt Air France has many very professional pilots but one of the roots of the airline’s safety problem has been that the company has not been able to control them and too many of them take a maverick approach. Changing the culture of an airline cannot happen overnight. While Air France has been doing rather better recently, the official report on a serious incident at Tunis in 2012 (published in 2013) suggests that there is still a great deal to do.
The pilot of an Airbus A319 was flying dangerously fast and low on his approach into Tunis and had not stabilised the aircraft correctly. The report stated that the pilot was aware of this but thought he could manage to land safely because the weather was good. It also found that the cockpit was a mess, with too many private items in what should be a sterile environment. Also, the two pilots had been chatting throughout the flight and had not done a proper briefing. The First Officer was aware that the Captain appeared to be taking a risk by continuing his landing when he should have gone around but did not want to question him since he was very experienced.
Our real concern with incidents like this is that it is unlikely that this was the first time the Captain had behaved in this way. Other airlines study the records of every flight and any deviation from Standard Operating Procedures will be questioned. Anyone caught flying like this more than once at an airline such as Ryanair, BA or easyJet would be sent back for training, demoted or dismissed.
All the discussions about precisely what went wrong in the Rio crash have rather obscured the point that other aircraft flying the route that night went a longer way round to avoid a heavy storm. The Air France pilots decided to fly through it. As the Tunis incident shows, that gung-ho attitude has still not disappeared completely.
Q. We are planning a trip in spring next year visiting Boston, New York and Chicago. We will be flying from Newcastle upon Tyne with BA to Boston and returning from Chicago.
We will get the train from Boston to New York. However because of the time involved we did not want to drive or take the train from New York to Chicago. We will therefore have to arrange a one way internal flight from New York to Chicago.
As usual I will be booking direct with BA. I thought they could probably arrange the New York to Chicago flight with my original booking. However, I wondered if it may be more cost effective to book the one way internal flight online myself.
I also have a concern about baggage allowance on internal US flights as we will have around our 23kgs maximum on the Trans Atlantic flight.
Would it be much cheaper to book the one way internal flight myself, or would BA booking the flight as part of the same reservation “package” be an easier and not much more expensive option?
Your advice on the better booking option would be much appreciated.
- NB, by email, August 2013
A. My advice is very strongly to book all the flights on one ticket. This covers you in the event of any delay and should mean you have identical terms for all flights.
I did a very rough price check on this for dates next May and came up with a fare of £801 without the New York to Boston flight and £895 with it. The lowest fare I could see on the same day for a flight from New York to Chicago was £93 so, on that basis, there was nothing in it.
You could do the same yourself by going to www.ba.com, select Multi-city from the booking options and then just enter the flights and dates one by one.
The system will calculate the through-fare for you but I do not recommend booking this way. The reason is that the simplified system BA show on their retail website for multi-city bookings does not show the cost per flight. You just click on which flights you want and the system returns the total price. Any agent or BA themselves will see a more sophisticated display which shows the cost per flight so they can select the cheapest flights from, say, London to Boston or New York to Chicago so you can get the lowest total combination. Doing this yourself is just guesswork – you just hope you are clicking on the cheapest flights.
You could have a go at doing this by yourself by trying the price for London-Boston/Chicago-London on the dates you want. This will show the cheapest flights so you can use these when creating the more complicated ticket.
Remember that a BA Sale is never far away – August Bank holiday, if not before – and you might save some money by booking then.
Q. I know that if I stay at a chain hotel and book a pre-paid rate through an agent, I will not be able to earn points on my guest loyalty card but what about any extras that are charged to the room? Can I earn points on these, if I show the card at check-in?
- M, by email, July 2013
A. As you say, the rules are clear: you earn frequent-guest points on stays that are booked and paid for direct. The official definition of this covers the entire stay and not just the pre-paid nights. It is worth keeping an eye out for special promotions that some chains offer, though. For example, Club Carlson used to offer any member points on meals taken at hotel restaurants regardless of whether they were staying in the hotel. That specific deal seems to have died a quiet death, but Hyatt does offer points with meals at most hotels (but check the Hyatt site to be sure it applies at your hotel). Starwood also offers a discount-dining programme at many of its hotels, which gives a reduction of between 10 and 30% when making a reservation for lunch or dinner through www.spgrestaurantsandbars.com. Other deals can crop up at any time and specific hotels may run their own promotions as well.
It can never do any harm to show your card at check-in, though. In theory, the hotel should ignore it, but they might accept it and process points to your account (either by mistake or by a sort of deliberate mistake at hotels that are anxious for business). Some hotels, or individual staff, may also give you a better room if you have a high-level card, even if you have pre-paid through an agent. These are the exceptions, though, and you should assume you would not get any benefits.
Q. I seem to remember that some time ago you mentioned an alternative rail route for getting between Gatwick and Heathrow. I have a rather tight early-morning connection to make and am nervous about traffic or accidents on the M25. Maybe you could jog my memory since I can’t find any details on the Gatwick website.
- JBP, by email, June 2013
A. In an emergency, you could take a train to Victoria and the Underground from there, but that would be a long and expensive journey. The quick way would be to take the train to Clapham Junction and change there for a train to Feltham. This is the rather under-used Waterloo–Feltham–Heathrow rail/bus link. From Feltham, there are buses every ten minutes or so to Heathrow Central or Terminal 5. The journey time from Gatwick to Feltham is about an hour and the price is £14. You have to add the local bus fare to Heathrow, which takes about 20 minutes. The Gatwick–Heathrow coach service takes around 75 minutes and costs £25, so this option is actually a bit cheaper, though it is not quite as easy, especially if you have luggage.
Every airport has alternative public travel routes that are not always highlighted on their sites. You may need them in an emergency and, on occasions, the route will actually take you more directly to where you want to go, so it is well worth researching other possible links before you travel.
Q. Could you tell me what happens when you are booked in, say, First Class, and at check-in you are told it is oversold and you are given a seat in Business. Or what happens if an airline substitutes an aircraft at short notice that does not have a First Class cabin, as sometimes happens with Thai? What rights does a passenger have? Can you insist on being accommodated at a hotel at the airline’s expense until a First Class seat becomes available?
- LL, by email, April 2013
A. If you are travelling in Europe or on a European airline, you are covered by EU261. While parts of this regulation are contentious, the sections regarding bumping and downgrading have been accepted by the airline industry – though that does not mean they will automatically pay out the full amount due without prompting. It would not surprise us at all to find an airline offering less than the statutory amount in the hope that the passenger did not check. If you are downgraded, the regulation states that you must be paid either 30%, 50% or 70% of the fare paid, depending on distance, and given a seat in the inferior class. The cash payment must be made within seven days.
Regulations also exist in the US and some other countries and you may need to check before accepting an offer by an airline. Basically, we would expect most airlines to offer travel in the downgraded class and a return of a large part of the fare paid. They should not expect to get away with just paying the difference between First and Business or Business and Economy – there should be some penalty as well to cover the inconvenience to the passenger. In countries where there are no regulations, you may find that an airline becomes very difficult or offers a completely inadequate sum (maybe relying on a ‘creative’ calculation in the cost difference between the two classes involved). You may have to fall back on calling your card company to claim a full refund of the amount paid (on the basis that you paid for a First Class ticket and did not travel First Class). That should definitely be a last resort, though, because such arguments can take months to resolve.
If the person who handles your downgrade at the airport is reasonably senior, it may be possible to do some form of deal that results in the airline paying a bit less than it might have done and you getting what you want. For example, if you are downgraded on a flight between New York and London, rather than take the full level of compensation offered, you could volunteer to wait a few hours for the last flight that has spare seats so you still travel First and get a reduced payment. That way, both parties win – you just have to hope you find someone flexible enough to agree to it.
Q. My wife and I who are both pensioners are looking to fly UK to Australia in April for a family reunion. My wife is disabled and uses crutches. She suffers from nerve damage to her spine and legs after several operations. She is in constant pain and normally has to stand or lay down where possible. She can sit but is normally restricted to about 30 minutes before suffering additional discomfort.
I have to tell you we can only afford economy class so, what are the chances of her being able to upgrade to Business Class? This would obviously determine whether or not we made the journey.
- DR, by email, January 2013
A. Thank you for your email. I have given this some thought and I am afraid I cannot think of any real solution.
Even if money were no object and you were to travel First or Business all the way, there would certainly be periods when the beds could not be used and the trip would surely be exhausting and uncomfortable for your wife. Travelling in Premium Economy would not work because those seats merely go back a bit further than Economy seats but they are not beds. Some airlines sell seats near the Exit which have more legroom but they would not sell them to anyone with a disability for safety reasons.
The chances of getting an upgrade on even one sector are remote to be honest. The airline would have to find two Club seats and flights to Australia are normally full. Upgrades are normally offered first to the most commercially important customers and even if you could somehow jump that queue it would still be stressful waiting at the Departure Gate to see if you had been upgraded. What would happen if you were not, and faced with a 12 hour flight in a normal seat?
I would like to be more positive but I am afraid I cannot think of any reliable way in which this could be done. Do let me know if I can help further or if you have any other ideas.
Q. I booked three nights in the Ipanema Plaza via the Tulip Hotels website. The price was good, and was quoted in US dollars including taxes. When I came to check out, I was billed in local currency converted from the quoted dollar price at the hotel’s own rate of exchange. No real surprises there as it’s common practice. BUT I was charged an additional amount for taxes. They said that taxes could not possibly be included in the price, as everyone has to pay taxes (!)
I assumed I could raise this with Tulip Hotels on my return. But there is NOWHERE on the website to enter into a conversation or comment/complain. The amount is not large – about £20 – but I’m a bit annoyed! What do you think?
- PV, by email, January 2013
A. I have just tried to book a room on the site you showed. For the night of 31st January it comes up as “rates from £196.25″ (not cheap is it in Rio?). I then clicked on this rate and got the price of £206.06 taxes included.
The interesting thing is that I got the price quoted in pounds and you are talking about dollars. Obviously their site recognised me as being in the UK. I wonder if you were overseas when you made the booking so you got a dollar rate.
You might be aware that the OFT is looking into complaints against hotel websites for not including taxes in the headline price. The big chains claim this is “standard industry practice” and is essential for their systems. Yet they manage to quote inclusive prices in Germany where tax has to be included in quotes. Even those sites that do not show taxes will always show the final estimated amount including taxes when you book.
My guess is that Golden Tulip have upgraded their UK site to show taxes (at least after the initial quote). Maybe they have not done this with the international site because they feel they do not have to.
However, if the final booking receipt you received from Golden Tulip showed a price and does not make mention of taxes then it is clearly wrong. Maybe you could send me a copy of both your confirmation and your actual bill and I will pass this on to their Press Office and ask them what happened. (I can find the press office address but, like you, I cannot see any contact email though there is a physical address if you want to write).
Q. I am going to Mexico in January visiting the Copper Canyon and Baja California. Is it better to pre-book the internal flights as a multi-trip or book a return to Mexico City and book flights as we need them?
- SG, by email, November 2012
A . Thank you for your email. It is certainly a good question because the answer does vary. Of course, you should check specific prices but I would be fairly sure that, in this case, you will be better off buying individual tickets.
If you were going to Thailand, Australia or the US, for example, it might well be best to buy a through-ticket or a local pass issued by the airline that flies you there.
BA do not have any local partners so they are unlikely to offer anything worthwhile. Aeromexico are just about to launch direct flights to Mexico City from Heathrow and they do not seem to be very aggressive on pricing or on offering any add-on domestic destinations. This could well change as they become established. You could still fly with them or another SkyTeam carrier and buy a local pass but I doubt this would be very helpful. Mexico has quite a well-developed domestic network and you should be able to get some decent fares locally. It can be a hassle buying on the internet since few local airline sites are set up for foreign credit card transactions (or, if they are, they automatically assume it is a US card which can complicate matters). It might be easier to buy through a UK agent such as Expedia. I suggest you check the fares first at www.kayak.co.uk. Remember that through-connections will not be possible with any domestic tickets bought individually so you should plan accordingly.
Q. I have been asked to organise a trip for a group of six travelling to Samarkand and Bukhara next year and wonder if you have any advice on flights. I have looked at Uzbek Air which appears to have a weekly flight to Tashkent. This might appeal more than flying via Moscow or Istanbul, with possible long connecting times, but I do not know anything about the airline. For booking, they seem to direct you to a third-party website operated by an agent I have never heard of. Any suggestions on booking hotels would also be welcome.
- GK, by email, September 2012
A. Inside Traveller is designed for independent travellers so we very rarely suggest package tours. We work on the basis that if you see a holiday offered by a mainstream company such as Kuoni or Thomas Cook, booking the component parts yourself could either be cheaper or give you more flexibility. Nonetheless, as any home handyman will tell you, there are occasions when even the most expert do-it-yourselfer has to call in specialist assistance. The outer regions of the old Soviet Union are very much “the Wild East” and not ideal for totally independent travel. It is one thing being bumped from a hotel or flight in Malaga but a very different thing at midnight in Bukhara. The important point though is that the help you call for should be genuinely specialist. Tour companies like Kuoni are all very well as are ticketing companies such as Trailfinders but, whilst they could both probably make the arrangements, it is not something they are doing every day. For open heart surgery, you need a surgeon who knows the procedure like the back of his hand. That also applies to an agent booking a trip to a more difficult region.
In this instance, we suggest looking at www.regent-holidays.co.uk and also www.intourist.co.uk. Regent have been organising travel to the old eastern bloc for decades. They have all the experience and contacts that are essential in making the trip run smoothly. Intourist is the old Soviet state company, now under private management and run from Moscow but they still have extensive links with their satellite countries. The company used to have a terrible reputation for service but it is very much better under private ownership (Thomas Cook is the ultimate owner, though not involved on a day-to-day basis and the company is said to be for sale). Booking with such a company would mean that all your arrangements were protected by an ATOL making the agent liable for any problems that occur while you are away (you could still get denied a room when you arrive in Bukhara but at least you have the number of a local agent who should be able to fix it and you could call London if that failed). Crucially, they will also be able to advise on visa requirements and arrange any that are necessary as well as providing the official letters of confirmation that some countries require. We would also follow their suggestions on the best airline to use for the international flights. There might be some cost-saving by travelling with the same airline for the domestic flights, in which case, they will point you in the right direction. Even if the whole idea of using an agent is anathema to you, you are bound to learn something by looking at their websites. Unfortunately, quite a few small foreign airlines operating in Britain have farmed out their UK booking systems to small agents. In most cases, we would not want to use these companies. If you cannot book direct with the airline itself then you should use a large and reputable UK agency.
If you are considering a trip anywhere that could be regarded as “difficult”, we recommend visiting www.aito.co.uk which will have a list of bonded independent tour operators that specialise in the area. In general, we would look for the companies that have been operating the longest since experience is what makes the difference.
Q. I am taking my wife to Sri Lanka to celebrate our Silver Wedding and I thought it might be fun to arrange a transfer from the airport to the resort by helicopter. I just wondered if you think this is safe?
- JH, by email, August 2012
A. Helicopters have a poorer safety record than commercial aircraft but, even if we make the big assumption that standards in Sri Lanka are slightly lower than in more developed nations, they might still be regarded as acceptable. The problem is that road travel throughout the Indian sub-continent is very dangerous. Depending where you are going in Sri Lanka, you could face a long and difficult journey on single-carriageway roads. There is no way of looking at statistics to come up with a scientific answer but our guess would be that the helicopter is no less safe, and probably a lot safer, than a road transfer. The only time we might baulk against the helicopter is in bad weather when, hopefully, the pilot would refuse to fly anyway. We would certainly not wish to fly in a helicopter if a storm were approaching.
Q. I will be visiting Istanbul next month on business and I noticed that FlyDubai have some good fares from there to Dubai. I was wondering about making a quick trip there once my business in Istanbul is finished. I know FlyDubai do not serve the UK but wondered if you have any comments on them.
- HN, by email, July 2012
A. First, we always like the idea of adding some pleasure to a business trip if it can be fitted in but maybe the idea of buying two separate tickets is not the best way of handling it. Have a look at the cost of a fare with Turkish Airlines from the UK to Dubai (via Istanbul). You may be able to arrange an extended stopover in Istanbul so you can do your business before continuing to Dubai at a much lower total cost. Also, one ticket for the entire journey is always safer in case of disruptions.
FlyDubai was very much created in the traditional budget mould. It has a large fleet of Boeing 737-800s and, though its route network concentrates on the Middle East and Indian subcontinent, has started to stretch to the outer reaches of Europe with Belgrade and Bucharest. In theory, it could fly to airports deeper into Europe but would probably not be able to do so with an economic passenger load. Its basic tickets are totally non-changeable (others can be changed but they cost more) and you pay for luggage. The only negative point is that its flights to the Indian subcontinent can have very heavy loads of immigrant labourers who are not always the easiest travelling companions (but this comment can apply to flights with the other airlines as well). As with any budget airline, we would only suggest using it if its price were significantly lower.
Q. Now that UK APD has been increased yet again, would it be better to look for longhaul flights that go via Europe so I can benefit from the lower taxation levels elsewhere? Are there any particular countries you recommend?
- FK, by email, May 2012
A. We have not gone into the taxation question as carefully as you might have expected because, now that agents and airlines have to display fares inclusive of all taxes and charges, the fare you see is the fare you pay so the actual percentage of taxes and charges is irrelevant. Using a comparison site will quickly show which airlines offer the best fares on a specific route. It would be tempting to say you should look at fares from, say, Spain, the Netherlands and Italy as possibly offering better value, but this is useless if the airlines that fly from those countries are more expensive to start with. The tax is really only of passing interest to the traveller: it is the total amount you pay that counts
Q. I wonder if you could help me with something. I read with interest your article on regional passes, as I have just booked my BA/Iberia flights to Santiago and return from Rio for Dec/Jan. I am now ready to book the internal flights, on LanChile so am keen to find out more about the One World Regional Pass. I have searched the BA web site in vain for more information. Could you give me an idea about what to do next – should I ring BA to book? Or can you tell me where to find the info on the website.
- AB, by email, March 2012
A. Information on regional air passes tends to be well-hidden. They are not a
BA product but a OneWorld product so that might explain why there is no information on the BA site. If you go to www.oneworld.com and click on “Flights” and then on “Single Continent Fares” you will find all the regional passes. That should give you the information to work out a rough cost and see if their pass is what you want.
Booking is also a tricky issue since this is not a standard product and many agents and airline staff do not know how to handle it. It might be best to start with BA though I am sure they will need to transfer your call to one of their specialist departments. If you get stuck, ask me for some more suggestions!
Just to let you know that I have now booked my South American regional pass. I reckon I saved about £800 by using the pass rather than booking the fares myself. Thank you so much for pointing me in this direction and helping me to organise the tickets!
Q. My family (husband and two just-teenagers) are thinking of taking a four
week trip to the States and Canada this summer. Mostly we will stay with
friends so accomodation is not the main concern. I was wondering more if you
had any particular advice re flights and transport
We usually fly BA (because of Avios and BA membership) but are not wedded to
them, especially after last year’s strikes. I understand they have a sale on
at the moment but that it ends tomorrow. In any case I believe we have to to
act quickly because of the potential chaos caused by the Olympics.
So my main questions are:
Are there any airlines you would particular recommend for flying to and from
the US, both on reliability and cost? (In the past we have often been able
to upgrade from economy with airmiles or just by sheer luck. I guess this is
easier with BA but if there were another airline whose economy were
particularly wonderful (?!) ….
Would you book direct with the airline or is an agent preferable?
Should we book as soon as possible or risk waiting for offers later in the
CI, by email, January 2012
A. The following are just random points which might help a little:
- Be very careful of the Olympics. Not only will be there a surge coming in and going out at the opening and closing dates, there will also be a reverse surge around the same period as English leave.
- BA has World Traveller Plus which some cabin crew jokingly call “the upgrade class”. That is because if you have paid a reasonable fare and/or are a Silver or Gold member, you stand quite a good chance of going into Club. Obviously this depends on flights and loads but flights to the US in the summer season are likely to be over-booked in Economy and under-booked in Club. On some flights, the chances of a couple travelling together would be very good but it is always much more difficult to upgrade a bigger group or family. Also, World Traveller Plus can be a bit expensive – but that does vary very much.
- You could have a look at Delta which has been one of the cheaper airlines across the Atlantic and, maybe, United/Continental. Both of them have an Economy Plus/Comfort Plus zone at the front of the Economy section which is charged at a small premium (it is given free to higher-grade cardholders on the airlines). It is not sold as a separate class. You just check the Economy fares and they will offer you the chance to upgrade to a better seat at the end of the process. The prices vary with demand. Food and service is the same but you get 36 inches instead of 31″ legroom, which is a big difference.
Q. How quickly can I get an Indian tourist visa? I am looking at going there in a fortnight. Is this risky?
A. Yes! The Indian High Commission says you need to allow ten working days for processing (not allowing for delivery). That is assuming everything is acceptable with your application. Some specialist agencies do offer an express service but charge quite heavily for it. You could look at www.cibt.com, which is a large and reliable company. It charges a fee of around £100 for a three-day service or £50 for five days (again not allowing for delivery). Even using this, it would be a nail-biting experience.
Q. I need to travel with my 85-year-old mother from Glasgow to Auckland in October. Obviously, this is a long flight and I am concerned to make the journey as stress-free as possible. I have seen a number of fares including from Emirates and Qantas, which are both a little cheaper than Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand. Though the price gap is not big enough to make a difference do you think they would be significantly better. What do you suggest?
A. There are a number of different things to consider here. Purely based on the quality of the airline and its service, we would suggest Air New Zealand is significantly ahead of the others. It gives around two inches of extra legroom in Economy and has a reputation for genuinely friendly service – something you both might appreciate. Another issue is the length of the actual flight. We checked the times of the most obvious connections from Glasgow with the four airlines and they vary from about 26 hours with Air New Zealand to 36 with Emirates and Singapore Airlines (which would require a stop in Singapore on the return). Of course, the actual times are not so important if you decide to stop en route. Some people prefer to get the whole journey done in one go, while others would never contemplate such a trip without a stop. This is very much an individual choice but we do think that if you are going to make a stop you should plan on staying a couple of nights and enjoy seeing somewhere different. Just getting off and going to bed in an airport hotel may be more hassle than it is worth. Of course, if you do want to make a stop, then this will influence your choice of airline and route because you may have a preference as to where you want to stay.
The other factor we think is very important, especially in view of your mother’s age, is the ease of transfer at the airports along the route. Dubai can involve some very long walks and queues, Singapore is an easy place to transfer, as is Hong Kong, but Los Angeles is not. That means if you choose Air New Zealand you should take its flights via Hong Kong and not via Los Angeles. Transferring at London from bmi on to Air New Zealand is within the same terminal, whereas there is a short transfer if flying with bmi and Singapore Airlines or BA and Qantas. Whichever airline you fly with, it could be worth asking for wheelchair assistance for your mother. This needs to be done in advance and will apply to the whole booking. Assuming your mother is reasonably fit and can manage most distances, you can politely decline the offer at most airports where the distances are short, but the extra help could be invaluable if you are faced with a very long walk or have to board by the aircraft steps. In these circumstances, you cannot suddenly summon help.
On balance, and assuming the price difference is not too great, we would say that Air New Zealand would be our first choice, followed by Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Emirates as last owing, largely, to the very busy transfer area at Dubai and the variable cabin service.
Q. I was given a £100 Miscellaneous Charges Order by Swiss following some problems on a flight I took with them. Whilst it is obviously nice to have the money, I am having difficulty working out how I can use it. I spoke to their Call Centre and was told that the procedure involves making a telephone booking, paying the amount less the MCO and mailing the MCO to them in Switzerland. This means I would need to book around three weeks before travel to allow for the MCO to be received and the booking finally confirmed. There is also the option of booking at an airport desk which would be immediate but would involve an ‘off-line’ booking fee of €15 – I am not sure if this fee would also apply to a telephone booking. To be honest, both methods seem rather cumbersome and I also wonder whether it makes good sense for them to give me £100 and then take back €15 because of their booking systems. Have you any thoughts?
A. First, we think that any decent airline will behave sensibly with a client who is not able to complete a booking on the Internet and has to call telephone reservations. For example, if the system simply cannot handle a complex booking that may involve a difficult route, mixture of classes or other special cases, such as unaccompanied minors or use of foreign credit cards, then we would expect the airline to waive any fee it makes for telephone bookings. Of course, if you have not used the site correctly or have made a mistake, the airline is entitled to charge the fee. Most airlines will agree to this but you may have to remind them or ask for a supervisor if they appear reluctant.
The use of Miscellaneous Charge Orders has reduced considerably over the years and yet they are likely to remain with us for some time. It has to be said, a paper MCO is a nuisance to both airlines and passengers in a world of e-tickets. MCOs are normally given in cases where the airline is not required to make a cash refund but a genuine financial gesture is necessary. For smaller sums, it is easier for all concerned if compensation is paid in Miles, because it does not cost the airline very much and it is easier for the customer to redeem. Swiss does not mention MCOs anywhere on its website but we see it has just started to sell electronic gift vouchers and there is a space on the booking form to enter a gift voucher code. Hopefully, the airline will now send MCOs electronically as well, so this problem can be avoided in the future. A number of other airlines are also selling vouchers. All we can suggest is that you go along with the suggestion from Swiss and book by phone sufficiently well in advance so that you can send the MCO by post. It is a hassle but there seems no way to avoid it. However, you should politely insist on not paying any extra fee for a telephone booking.