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. 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.