Travel Advice: Hotel Downgrades. India Trains And Sicily In Spring
It is our parents' golden wedding anniversary next April and my two brothers and I, plus our five children, would like to spend a week together somewhere in Europe. Our parents are still very fit, love swimming and tennis and enjoy visiting historic places. We are just happy to relax somewhere warm and enjoy good food. Where would you suggest?
Stella Granby, Plymouth
Gill Charlton replies
I think Sicily could be the answer for a warm spring holiday. Daytime highs average 20C (68F) and night-time lows are around 11C (52F). There are direct flights from Gatwick to Catania, the gateway to eastern Sicily, with easyJet or British Airways.
There are some gorgeous villas in beautiful coastal locations in south-east Sicily, the most desirable area of the island, offering a mixture of interesting towns such as Syracuse and Taormina, ancient sites and Sicily's best beaches.
Think Sicily (020 3131 0766, thinksicily.com) has seven villas with heated pools (unheated ones are chilly in April), ranging from the 12-bedroom, 12-bathroom Don Arcangelo all'Olmo, from around £18,000 for a week, to the seven-bedroom Baia dei Turchi, for £7,500. The villas come with cooks and staff to cater to your every whim. Think Sicily can also organise special experiences such as an off-road trip up Mount Etna, cookery lessons and the hire of excellent private guides.
Travel advice FAQs: how likely is it my flight times will change?
We were so enamoured with our stay at the four-star Sea Breeze Beach Hotel on Barbados in January that we called our travel agent while we were there to book up again for this winter. We paid the deposit to Virgin Holidays on January 8.
At the end of October, three days after we had paid the balance, our travel agent phoned to say that our reservation had been transferred from the Sea Breeze to the Savannah Beach, an inferior three-star hotel.
This is a huge disappointment, as I have since discovered that the friends we are travelling with – who booked later than us, also through Virgin Holidays – are still confirmed at the Sea Breeze.
Why did Virgin accept our payment of the balance and then a few days later inform us the hotel was full? Why did it move us to a lower-graded hotel?
We have been offered a refund of the price difference plus £40 per person in vouchers to spend at the Savannah Beach. But these will not be of much use as it's an all-inclusive hotel.
This will be our fourth holiday with Virgin. How can it justify booting out regular customers who had booked so far ahead?
Sarah Hartley, London
Gill Charlton replies
I asked Virgin to explain how this downgrade could have happened as I agree that it does not seem fair. Virgin tells me that your holiday fell foul of a recent migration of reservations from one booking system to another.
"It showed us as having more rooms at the Sea Breeze than we actually did," a spokesman said. "Mrs Hartley's booking was automatically relocated to an alternative property that showed availability."
Your experience shows how tour operators are letting their computer systems rule the roost and make decisions without human intervention.
It was only when your final payment arrived that the hotel transfer came to light, by which time the Sea Breeze was full and it was too late for a Virgin agent to contract an extra room and reinstate your booking.
Virgin now recognises that moving a loyal customer to an inferior hotel is not acceptable. The company says that it is sorry for any upset caused and it has booked your family into the four-star Almond Casuarina, a property within easy reach of your friends at the Sea Breeze.
As a way of apology, it is still going to refund you £1,000, the price difference between the Sea Breeze and the original alternative offered. It has also arranged free entry for your family into its London Gatwick v-room lounge.
By rail in India
We are travelling from Mumbai to Bangalore via Goa and Hampi in February and would like to take the train. Indian Railways says it is possible to book online, but the website is so confusing that I am struggling to secure what I want. Can you advise?
Sheila Gittings, Birmingham
Gill Charlton replies
I would use Cleartrip Travel Services (cleartrip.com), a private company that sells online tickets on behalf of Indian Railways, and has a refreshingly easy-to-use booking manager.
It accepts foreign-registered credit cards – the Indian Railways site (irctc.co.in) does not. The only extra charges are a booking fee of 25p per ticket plus a reasonable 1.8 per cent to cover credit card transaction charges. For more information on booking through Cleartrip – and train travel in India in general – consult Mark Smith's excellent rail advice website: seat61.com.
Ski insurance for a minor
My 16-year-old son is soon to go skiing in France with two friends and their father. My annual travel policy does not cover him as I will not be travelling with him. I have tried to find a single-trip policy on the internet but they all say he must be 18. Do you know of any company that can help?
John Kennett, Maidstone, Kent
Gill Charlton replies
I asked P J Hayman (0845 230 0631, pjhayman.com), a travel insurance specialist company that is good at solving this sort of problem. It sells a Ski Club of Great Britain policy that will cost £33.24 for a week's skiing.
Is my US visa still valid?
I have recently renewed my British passport. The old one has a B1/2 visa for the United States which is valid for a further eight years. When I explained this to the UK passport office, I was asked to confirm in writing that I still needed the visa. This was to ensure that when they cut the corners off the old passport they would not damage the visa page.
However, there seems to be confusion on the internet sites I have consulted as to whether a valid visa in an old passport is still accepted by the United States immigration authorities. We often stay in the US for several months, so the maximum stay allowed under the visa-waiver scheme isn't long enough for us.
Alison Smith, Bristol
Gill Charlton replies
The old-style "indefinite" B1/2 visas found in expired British passports are no longer valid for entry to the US. However, a new-style 10-year visa can still be used even if it is in an expired passport, provided that you also carry a valid passport of the same nationality.
The US Embassy's website – usembassy.org.uk – also makes the point that, if the passport authorities have clipped the corners of the passport and damaged the visa in any way, it will no longer be valid.
Queries may be sent by email to email@example.com. Please provide your full address, daytime telephone number and any booking reference. Readers with complicated complaints may be asked for full documentation. We regret that we are no longer able to answer postal inquiries or deal with telephone calls.
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