Simon Calder is Britain’s leading travel commentator but it wasn’t always like this. He began his career at Gatwick airport, where he cleaned out planes for Sir Freddie Laker and, later, frisked passengers (for a job, that is; not a hobby). He then started to write travel guidebooks and travel articles. Today Simon is Senior Travel Editor of The Independent.
First things first, we recently experienced an unprecedented blanket closure of airspace in the UK due to Iceland’s volcanic ash. How did it affect you and do you believe the response was an over-reaction?
I think in future years “Ash Thursday” will be one of those events where people can remember exactly where they were when it happened. I was on a skiing holiday Norway, and took an early morning call from an airline executive saying he thought it could be serious. I was committed to my regular Sunday radio programme, and had to take a view on getting home. While I thought the chances of the closure continuing for more than 24 hours were minimal, I couldn’t take even a small risk. So I booked myself aboard a container ship from Norway, and had the time of my life! A great way to travel, and I think one effect of the whole sorry episode will be that people have discovered new modes of transport.
How long-lasting will the effects be and do you think it will alter the way we look on air travel?
British travellers have, time and again, shown themselves to be the most resilient after shocks to the travel business; I’m thinking here of things like terrorist outrages, “Swine Flu” (remember that?) and endless strikes. But I think some of the poor travellers who were stranded for days or weeks will think twice before booking a long-haul trip that could conceivably impact on important personal or work plans.
On the subject of air travel, do you foresee a time when short haul airlines only allow carry-on luggage?
Quite possibly some will adopt that policy – though there will always be scope for rivals to continue to offer to check bags into the hold. Britain is at the forefront of airline competition, which means we pay less and get more than airline travellers in any other country, and have the widest choice of carriers and services.
Given the ever increasing price and scarcity of oil are budget airlines doomed?
No, exactly the opposite. As costs rise, efficiency is everything – the low-cost airlines are much leaner organisations. And, as fares rise, the budget airlines look increasingly attractive, with higher-spending travellers trading down.
Should we all be doing more to offset our carbon emissions when we fly?
I honestly don’t know. I’m a mathematician by training, not a climate scientist. Certainly we should all try to fly on the fullest, most efficient aircraft – which usually means budget airlines and certainly means economy class!
Do you think rail travel will ever eclipse internal flights within the UK?
Yes, between London and Manchester/Leeds/Newcastle. No, between London and Scotland/Northern Ireland.
Isn’t responsible tourism a bit of a misnomer?
Not if you take it to the ultimate reduction: walking or cycling in your local area, perhaps camping. But most of us are seeking something more exotic.
Where will be the next emerging tourism destination?
It SHOULD be Russia. But probably it will be North African – either Libya or Algeria.
Last year was the so-called year of the ‘staycation’, what frenzy can we expect from the media this summer? We’ve already heard the term ‘awaycation’!!
“Greycation”, taking the grandparents on holiday. Ugh. They’re all horrible.
Do you think the soft adventure holiday market will continue to grow?
Very much so – this is a great way to test yourself, learn your strengths, and usually in exciting parts of the world, trying new experiences in good company.
You changed career from a security guard to become a travel editor – how did that happen and what was the inspiration?
I only ever wanted to travel. I realised while a security guard that I could perhaps research and write about travel in my spare time. Gradually it became clear that if you did enough, you could earn a bit of cash and do some more travelling. And it never really stopped.
What is the most unusual holiday experience you have ever had?
Bumping in to Simon Le Bon at the airport in Rio, and being invited along to the Duran Duran gig that evening.
Is there such a thing as a bad journey in your book?
Yes, but in my experience they are thankfully rare.
You are renowned for travelling the ‘cheap way’ which often means hitchhiking – have you got any great (or dreadful) experiences to tell us about?
Best-ever lift: in Germany’s Black Forest, in a top-of-the-range Mercedes being test driven by a splendid chap who didn’t care where he went – so, he just said “Wherever you’re heading, I’ll take you.”
Where’s the worst place you’ve stayed?
The Hotel Kalaja in Tirana, Albania – filthy, freezing and flipping expensive.
You’re also known as ‘the man who pays his way’; are you ever tempted to take a free stay in a luxury hotel?
No – you meet a much more interesting class of person in cheaper hostels.
Which passport stamp are you proudest of?
Gosh, I’m not sure a passport stamp is something I would take pride in; the most useful one turned out to be a Ukrainian visa which managed to confuse some rather aggressive railway inspectors one day. They assumed I was Ukrainian and left me alone.
Which passport stamp would you most like to get?
Another Ukranian stamp, in my next passport, obviously.
Where could you go back to over and over again?
Call me sad (“you’re sad”), but probably Singapore airport. First, because inevitably you end up transitting at the same airports, and Singapore is one of the best; second, because there is amazing seafood just off the East Coast Parkway, eight minutes’ by cab, which you can reach between flights.
Do you still really enjoy travelling or does it feel like work? Do you think you will have an eternal wanderlust?
Travelling – like work? Goodness, no. Look, if you were born in Crawley, then pretty much the rest of the world seems exotic, fascinating and beautiful.
If you could only take one item with you on your travels what would that be?
Passport. And, if that’s already a given, then money. In US dollars, to be on the safe side.
Do you have any great gear and packing tips for our readers?
Less is more – you can usually make do with half the amount of luggage you first thought of. But don’t skimp on gear and clothing; you want clobber that is both light and robust.
Have you ever used Rohan Clothing?
Yes, because the “power to weight” ratio is excellent, and Rohan Clothing is smart and stylish enough to get into the best bars in any city in the world.
What do you do to pass the time on a journey?
I respond to questions posed about what I do to pass the time on a journey.
Is there anywhere you wouldn’t be prepared to travel to?
Anywhere that poses a high risk to my safety. At present, that means parts of Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. But not Crawley.
Your weekly Sunday travel phone-in programme on LBC 97.3 FM must throw up some interesting travel dilemmas, have you ever been stumped live on radio?
Of course, all the time. But when I confess I don’t know the answer, there’s invariably someone listening who does.
Where are you heading off to this year?
Greece – despite all the problems, it remains beautiful, cultured and friendly, with the added bonus in 2010 of great deals.
Pose your travel questions to Simon Calder’s Travel Clinic every Sunday between 1 and 3 pm on the UK’s only phone-in radio travel programme on LBC 97.3 FM, online, on digital and Sky 0124. He is a regular broadcaster on BBC radio and television and often appears as a guest on GMTV and This Morning. He is alsoapresenter and weekly video-blogger for Sky Travel