The Bahamas consists of around 700 islands, cays and islets strung out like jewels on a necklace in some of the shallowest, most turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Most of these islands are uninhabited. Those further from Nassau, the country’s capital, are known as the Family Islands or Out Islands. The Exumas draw visitors for snorkelling and watersports as well as film makers – James Bond’s Thunderball was filmed near Staniel Cay and Pirates of the Caribbean on Sandy Cay. Johnny Depp liked the place so much he even bought his own private island nearby. He’s not alone. The Bahamas has a higher number of privately owned islands than anywhere else on the planet.
But when it comes to celebrity residents, even Hollywood stars are eclipsed by the Exumas’ famous porcine residents. No one knows for sure how pigs got to Big Major Cay, but these days they are the Exumas’ biggest draw. Around twenty or so pigs live on the beach, charming the pants off the steady stream of tourists who come here to swim with them. The proximity of Big Major Cay to Nassau makes it possible to visit for the day, even if you’re stopping off as part of a cruise.
It’s a popular trip but doesn’t come cheap. Many operators offer excursions. A flyer from Exuma Escapes in our hotel room offered a day out by boat for a special price of $359 per person, which included a 150 nautical mile round trip by speedboat, plus stops to see not only the pigs but also iguanas and to snorkel with nurse sharks. We ruled this out as it was billed as a bumpy ride and not suitable for those with bad backs. To take a smiliar package by air would have cost $550 per person which pushed it well out of our price range. Though you’d have an hour with the pigs and another with the sharks, the return flight would be at 3pm and so with check-in advised over an hour before, that would cut into the day considerably.
Fortunately, I read about a company that would unpackage the trip. We contacted Staniel Cay Vacations whose website http://www.stanielcayvacations.com/tours/ lists a number of options including a pigs only boat trip for $50 per person (minimum 2 people). Booking flights separately with Flamingo Air at http://flamingoairbah.com/ cost us $240 per person. We flew out of Nassau on the 0800 flight, arriving before 0900 and departed at 1700, with check-in required by 1530. We needed to fund our own transport to the airport and lunch at Staniel Cay, but still didn’t pay what we’d have needed to shell out for a tour.
Our boatman, Mr George, was waiting for us at the airport and pointed out Thunderball Cave as we passed. We didn’t see the iguanas like the tour groups do, of course, but while we were enjoying an al fresco lunch at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club a frenzy of nurse sharks clustered around the boat dock. We ended up with plenty of relaxation time at Staniel Cay – spent lazing under a shady tree on the beach and watching the boats come and go from the marina.
Best of all, we were ahead of the tour groups at Big Major Cay and had the pigs to ourselves for a while before another couple of boats arrived. This in itself made the day. Mr George had brought food along so we were able to feed the pigs while in the water.
Of course, we took a small risk unpackaging the tour but were fortunate that the flights were pretty much on schedule. Monique was responsive and helpful, answering emails promptly and making sure we were all set. Feeding the pigs was fun and watching them swim was a memorable experience. Mr George kept a close eye on us and made sure we gave pregnant mama pig, who had a tendency to bite people’s bums, a wide berth. And the piglets were cute too, the youngest just a couple of weeks old.
Would I recommend the trip? Definitely. It didn’t come cheap, but was an unforgettable experience and worth evey cent.
That is the question that has provoked a storm of impassioned comments this week after the Telegraph announced that British Airways was introducing 35 new planes on its short haul routes with non-reclining seats. Here’s the original article:
The ensuing headlines screamed that BA was fast turning into a low-cost carrier, but that’s not what people have been arguing about. A survey by Skyscanner in 2013 claimed that 91% were in favour of banning reclining seats on short haul flights:
Reclining seats on long haul planes are a boon, particularly on overnighters. Economy class is cramped, and let’s face it, we’d all happily upgrade if funds permitted. But for many of us, the choice is to fly economy or not fly at all, so we fold up our legs and get on with it. It’s one of the few times when I wish I was young again. The ability of millennials to tuck themselves up and nod off to sleep for eight straight hours is something I now struggle to achieve in a full sized double, let alone a tiny aeroplane seat.
But that whole cramped arrangement gets a whole lot worse when someone in front reclines their seat into the space in front of my knees. I’m not especially tall, but I do have long legs, so a battering to the kneecaps is a real possibility. I pity 6 footers. I read this week that one man was left with bleeding knees after someone reclined without warning. It’s all very well saying that you have the right to use the space – after all, you’ve paid for that seat, recline and all – but if someone is going to get hurt in the process, surely there’s room for some give and take?
In the States, planes have even been forced to divert over legroom wars. This report from the Telegraph written in 2014 refers to the Knee Defender, a product that’s still on sale, as the trigger for an air rage incident that necessitated an unscheduled landing.
Surely it’s better to put up with a bit of discomfort than to have your travel plans severely disrupted – and even face charges? It’s a shared space; there has to be a bit of give and take. I don’t expect someone to turn round and ask my permission to recline, but but I do appreciate it when they do so slowly so I have chance to grab my drink and rearrange my legs first. Likewise, while it’s perfectly OK in my book to recline on a long haul flight, I don’t expect to be eating my meal with no space for a tray table and so always ask the flight attendant to have a word with the person in front if they haven’t yet reclined.
But on short haul flights, is it really even necessary to have the facility to recline? Perhaps I’ve been conditioned after years of flying with Ryanair, but I just don’t even think about it on a short flight. I’m hopping over to Amsterdam this month and there’ll barely be enough time to sit down, let alone recline. Even on the longest short haul flights of around four hours, it’s not really a hardship to sit up straight. If I’m stiff, I can walk around the cabin to stretch my legs. However, for those hubbing through Heathrow, they’ve already come off one flight and don’t need the discomfort of a cramped second leg.
So this news isn’t a deal breaker for my relationship with BA. And of course, no one’s forcing anyone to fly BA. You can choose not to do so and opt for a different carrier. That said, you probably won’t find yourself sat next to me on BA any time soon, not least on one of their short haul routes. It’s not the cull on free food or even the IT disasters that have left passengers stranded. No, it’s price. The budgets are still usually cheaper, even more so for me when I factor in the additional cost of getting to Heathrow over Stansted.
But for those banging on about reclining seats, well, I think it’s the shape of things to come. Airlines have been forced to change to stay in business. The rise and continued popularity of the low cost carriers prove that people are happy to unpackage their fares and pay only for what they need. I think BA’s making a smart decision to ditch the reclining seats and make room for additional paying passengers. But will you be one of them?
I’m no stranger to low cost flying, but it’s been a long time since I’ve flown with an airline which made its name catering for package tourists. So what’s it like to fly Thomas Cook Airlines?
I chose to fly to Cape Verde, and at the time of booking, I was flexible about which of its nine inhabited islands I would fly to. The only direct flights from London were with Tui (formerly Thomson) and Thomas Cook Airlines. I could have flown with scheduled airlines but it would have meant an indirect flight, such as with TAP via Lisbon. The flight times were convenient too, with an 8.05am outbound option and a 2.45pm inbound flight. Flying on a Wednesday worked for me, though to get a daily flight option I’d have needed to fly indirect. From LGW Thomas Cook Airlines fly in winter; in summer the only flights offered depart from Manchester. But with November temperatures in the late twenties, the islands are a good choice for a winter break, if a little windy.
Though the base fare was reasonable – and even more so now November is almost over – the airline’s pricing model worked on getting its passengers to pay for add-ons. Some of these prices were pretty steep. £10 for each sector secured you a hot meal, a suitcase was £25 each way and allocated seating cost from £13 per leg. I opted just to take a suitcase, given that the carry-on dimensions (55cm x 40cm x 20cm) and, especially, weight limits (6kg) weren’t sufficiently generous for a week-long holiday. This would be higher on the all-inclusive Economy Plus tariff but the price difference was significant, making it poor value for money. I didn’t choose the seat allocation and was randomly allocated a middle seat in each direction. A polite request with the check-in staff got this changed to an aisle seat both ways, but of course this can’t be guaranteed.
On-board service and comfort
The Sal flight operated on an Airbus 321. Legroom was 28″, 2″ less than on a Ryanair short haul flight. On this six-hour mid-haul flight, that’s cramped, and I was glad of the aisle seat to be able to get up and stretch my legs frequently without disturbing other passengers. Service on board was excellent, the cabin crew without exception polite and professional. Ground staff also conducted themselves well. Many travellers were on package holidays and thus met by a member of the Thomas Cook team, but as I had booked a flight-only option I had no interaction in this respect.
There’s an entry visa requirement for UK travellers headed to Cape Verde and this currently can be purchased for €25 on arrival. So long as Advanced Passenger Information (API) is completed via the Thomas Cook website 7 days or more in advance, this is paid for by the airline even if you are on a flight-only booking. There’s no need to queue at the visa desk on arrival, saving you time when you get there.
Would I travel with Thomas Cook Airlines again? I was impressed by their punctuality and professionalism. However, the lack of flexibility in their schedule and the steep cost of extras means this wouldn’t be an airline I’d consider travelling with again, unless like this route, all the scheduled options were indirect flights.
I had an interesting conversation with a lady the other night about the financial situation of airlines. A number of airlines have made the news recently for the wrong reasons, including Monarch and its demise. Her take on things was that it would have been perfectly reasonable to book with them because they’d been around for so long and if you’d travelled with them before, it would be unnecessary to check them out because you would know they were OK.
I had a different opinion. Monarch’s financial woes over the preceding few years had been well-documented in the press. Anyone doing even the most rudimentary of Google searches would have thrown up a number of articles filling out a picture of money troubles and the importance of the end of September deadline to renew its ATOL certificate. But given that hundreds of thousands of travellers were caught out, I’m guessing my expectation that people wouldn’t shell out hundreds of pounds without checking out the robustness of the company was inaccurate.
What’s also interesting is that following the whole Ryanair mismanagement debacle, many people assume that Ryanair is in a difficult position financially. According to industry business analysts, however, it’s not. The graphic on this link reveals that they think it’s in the best position of any European airline when it comes to the risk of going bankrupt:
If the Dow Jones researchers are to be believed, then it might be an idea to be think carefully before about booking a flight with Turkish Airlines or Pegasus at the moment. I’ve flown with both and had excellent experiences but last year business was difficult for both of them. The former posted a 2016 loss of $77 million, the latter $36.1 million. You can read more at:
But then in the case of Finnair, they seem to be doing significantly better than their position on the chart would suggest. Though Dow Jones suggest they fall into the “In Trouble” category, this article appears to refute that speculation:
Personally, I’m being cautious over booking with Norwegian at the moment. Their rapid long-haul expansion is, in my book, cause for concern, given the history of low-cost airlines and trans-Atlantic flights in particular. I also wonder whether it’s a coincidence that after they announce the commencement of a London to Singapore route, Qantas cans their Dubai layover on their London to Sydney route and goes back to making Singapore their stopover destination.
Whatever your own take on the situation (and I’m not advising you to follow my lead), Norwegian Air currently have a lot of new planes to pay for and face plenty of competition. Norwegian Air’s CEO has been quick to counter that the airline is in good financial health, but this Reuters article also references the potential impact of their CFO quitting in the summer:
I’ll stick to my earlier assertion: if you’re planning on booking a flight, do a little research on your chosen airline first. Take the sensible precautions: make sure they’re ATOL protected where that applies (charters and packages in general terms), pay using a credit card as your outlay will be protected if the flight is over £100 and consider taking out scheduled airline failure insurance in situations where you wouldn’t be covered if you didn’t.
Sadly, this morning’s headlines that Monarch has collapsed wasn’t shock news. The company had been in trouble for years, with several bailouts brinking it back from the brink of collapse on more than one occasion. Once, it cleaned up on routes to Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt, but had been badly hit by the slump in tourist numbers to those destinations in the face of terrorist attacks. Its Greek business was hit by the economic crisis and in response, it turned to the saturated markets of Spain to try to balance the budget.
It’s the largest UK airline ever to fail. That’s no consolation for the estimated 110,000 people stranded or left with their holiday plans in tatters. This collapse affects at least a further 300,000 people who are due to fly, perhaps more.
What to do if you’re on holiday with Monarch right now
Sit tight. For those booked with Monarch Holidays, the CAA are negotiating with hotels so that you can stay. If you are asked to pay a bill, keep receipts. The CAA are saying they will reimburse you, though the end date for this is uncertain as yet. If you are due to fly home, the CAA are putting on flights to get you home.
A webpage has been set up by the CAA to provide information to travellers. Find it here:
On this website there are details of flight rebookings. Click on the airport you are travelling back from and it will open up the flight number and timing of your new flight. At present, just today’s flights are up, so if you’re due to travel in the next few days, you’ll have to check back later.
If you’re in the UK but have a future Monarch flight or package holiday booked
The CAA’s advice is repeated here:
Flights booked directly with Monarch Airlines from 15 December 2016 onward
Customers with these bookings are not ATOL protected and are not entitled to make a claim to the CAA. You are advised to contact your card issuer, insurer or PayPal for advice on how to claim a refund.
I add: if you have booked using a credit card and the cost of your flight is £100 or more, you are covered. (If you book a return flight, the cost of the total must be over £100, i.e. each leg can be under £100 so long as when combined they’re over.) The credit card company will reimburse you. If you have booked with a debit card, you might be able to get your money back via something called Chargeback; contact your issuing bank for details. If you have specific cover for airline failure in your travel insurance policy, this is also a route for recovering your money. Note that this isn’t a standard clause on many insurance policies.
Back to the CAA:
Flights booked on or before 14 December 2016 directly with First Aviation Ltd trading as Monarch Airlines
If your flight was booked with Monarch Airlines on or before 14 December 2016 and you received an ATOL Certificate stating that your flight is protected with First Aviation, you are ATOL protected. We are making arrangements for refunds to be made as soon as possible to these UK customers.
We will be providing more information on how you should claim shortly. You will be able to submit a claim when we make the Monarch claim form available. Please do not submit a claim until advised to do so.
Bookings made directly with Monarch Airlines from 15 December 2016 onward are not protected by ATOL.
I add: ATOL protection refers to the Air Travel Organiser’s Licence. Basically it ensures you don’t lose your money or get stranded abroad if the company responsible for getting you home goes bust. You receive an ATOL certificate with your holiday paperwork. What happens is that companies lodge money with the CAA in case the CAA has to step in and get their passengers home. Monarch’s ATOL licence ran out on September 30th and as they couldn’t afford to renew it, they were forced to call in the liquidators.
If the ATOL-bonded company goes bust, you apply directly to ATOL for your refund. The CAA website explains what to do, as reproduced here:
Holidays booked directly with Monarch Holidays
Customers booked directly with Monarch Holidays are ATOL protected and will have received an ATOL Certificate when they made their booking. We are making arrangements for refunds to be made on these bookings as soon as possible, and we aim to complete this by the end of 2017 at the latest. We will be providing more information on how you should claim shortly. You will be able to submit a claim when we make the Monarch claim form available. Please do not submit a claim until you are advised to do so.
Monarch flights and Monarch Holidays booked through another travel company or travel agent
If you booked a flight or holiday with another travel company or travel agent you should contact them directly about your arrangements.
If you’re affected by Ryanair’s announcement that they are cancelling many hundreds of flights over the next six weeks, you’re going to need to know your rights. This is how the news broke:
If your outbound flight has been cancelled at short notice:
First, see if you can rebook. According to Ryanair’s website, this should be possible online. People are reporting on social media that the Ryanair helplines are overwhelmed and they’re not able to complete a rebooking over the phone. Obviously with so many people chasing so few seats at short notice, many are going to be disappointed. So what then?
If you cannot find a satisfactory rebooking (e.g. your flight is being rebooked but so late into your holiday to make it as good as useless) then you’ll need to apply for a refund. You may also be entitled to compensation. These are your rights under EU law if the destination is within the EU or if it’s an EU carrier like Ryanair:
Flights under 1500km – 250 euros compensation
Flights over 1500km – 400 euros compensation
Note: this only covers you if your cancellation occurs 14 days or less before your flight. If you are due to travel in more than 14 days’ time and your flight is cancelled, this will be treated by the airline as a rebooking or rerouting. You still have the right to cancel with a full refund of what you paid for the flights, but will not be eligible for additional compensation.
Delayed arrival whether with Ryanair or alternative carrier
Flights under 1500km – 2 hours
Flights over 1500km – 3 hours
If you are delayed, you are also entitled to food and accommodation vouchers. Full details here:
Note that it can take many months to secure this compensation, despite EU regulations stating refunds must be paid within a week. Remember you will need to keep all receipts and boarding passes. It’s also a good idea to send letters recorded delivery if you are getting nowhere by email.
If you decide not to travel, have a look at what expenses you’ll incur, such as accommodation that cannot be cancelled at short notice. The airline is not liable for this. It will need to be claimed back from your travel insurance company. Making a claim such as this doesn’t affect your right to EU compensation if applicable.
If you’re abroad and your inbound flight has been cancelled:
The above applies but you’ll also have to factor in whether you need to be back home as a matter of urgency or can afford the time and money (up front at least) to extend your trip. You might find it easier to deal with staff face to face at the airport though this can add to your stress as there will be a lot of other angry passengers there which isn’t going to make you feel better.
You can try to persuade the airline that rebooking you with an alternative carrier e.g. a seat on a rival airline is a better idea. You’ll have more bargaining power if the airline itself is very tight for space and is struggling to get you somewhere, especially if you’re stranded and they’re having to pay for your overnight accommodation. Remember if you pay for your own alternative flights, you’re out of pocket.
It can be very hard to get them to pay, as I found out with CityJet a few years ago. CityJet refunded their own flight (that they cancelled fifteen minutes before departure) but because I didn’t want to wait for an alternative with CityJet or spend another night in Paris even at their expense, I paid for the Eurostar alternative. I eventually funded it out of the compensation I received eight months later. Read the full story here:
If you can get through on a helpline, that is often better, but you will need to be patient. Be as calm, polite and flexible as you can, particularly if you need to get back home in a hurry. Remember the person on the phone isn’t directly to blame and venting your frustration isn’t going to get you anywhere.
If you’ve a flight coming up which is currently unaffected:
This currently is where most Ryanair passengers are, fortunately, and the social media furore should calm down for the most part now that people know where they stand. Nevertheless:
Have a Plan B. Research alternative airlines or other means of transport on the inbound leg. Check your email on a regular basis so that if your flight is next to be affected, you’re amongst the first to know – and fight for the seats that might be available on alternative flights.
Print out or save to your phone a copy of the EU regulations (see link above) so that there can be no dispute with airline staff about your rights – it will be in black and white.
Double check your travel insurance, especially the limits and excesses for flight delays and flight cancellations. Again, keep all receipts and boarding passes as you’ll need them to make a claim. Keep proof of the cancellation.
Ryanair’s lack of consideration for their customers, though not a surprise, is still a concern. They won’t be the first and last airline to do this. I’ve had similar late in the day cancellations from American Airlines (weather related issues leading to a 48 hour delay in New York when I should have been in Nicaragua) and as mentioned, with CityJet (who didn’t even inform us the flight was cancelled, just checked us in as normal and quietly removed our flight from the departures board). But for the record, Ryanair, you need to remember who keeps your staff in a job and your planes in the air.
Update 17 September from the excellent Simon Calder at The Independent:
Update 18 September of full list of cancellations on the Ryanair website: