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In Britain, good things in small packages

One in a series of occasional articles looking at package trips and escorted tours.

September 24, 2006|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

London — I had been on hold for nearly an hour, killing time by doodling tiny airplanes flying around a spinning Earth. Uplifting classical music played in my ear, but I was in a deep blue funk as I waited for an airline booking agent to answer a question.

A few weeks earlier, I had purchased what seemed like an unbeatable deal: a $599 round-trip fare from Los Angeles to London on British Airways.

But then I noticed a different offer that would have decreased the price by about $50 and given me some cheap hotel options. Miserly traveler that I am, I called back and asked for the lower fare.

Silly me. To get the $50 reduction, I would have to pay $200. Welcome to the wacky, Catch-22 world of international air travel packages.

Thanks to spirited competition, mostly between British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, U.S. travelers can score extraordinary off-season bargains to Britain and the Continent. But -- like the Chinese restaurant menu that specifies "no substitutions allowed" -- you can't really futz around with the deal once you've chosen Combination A, B or C.

I compared the two major airlines' online fares and package deals to Europe in the spring, when package rates were at low ebb but airfares were starting to climb for summer and hotel costs were already skyrocketing for the independent traveler. Then I traveled anonymously as a consumer scout, checking out the hotels, transfer services and optional tours offered in the package.

There were some lapses in service on this non-escorted package, but by and large, international travelers can save time and frustration -- and find suitable budget accommodations -- by reserving one of the airlines' packages.

Traditionally, the lowest-priced fares of the year are offered when leisure travel falls off during winter, fall and spring. But deals are being offered earlier this year, partly because of the airline terrorism scare Aug. 10 in London. Airfare from LAX to London costs as little as $616, including taxes and fees. Three-night air-hotel packages start at $662 per person, double occupancy (plus about $130.50 in fees), and weeklong London packages start at $950 per person, including fees.

My weeklong spring trip took me from Los Angeles to the storied streets of London; to the English countryside, where I had tea at Windsor Castle (the queen was there but did not invite me to join her); to the chilly mystical landscape of Wiltshire, where I roamed about the monuments of Stonehenge; and to the rolling countryside of Somerset, where I peered into the Roman baths at Bath. From there, I hopped over to Amsterdam for a few days of sightseeing.

The six-night British Airways Holidays package, including international airfare, accommodations, transfers and round-trip airfare to the Netherlands, was a little more than $1,300, double occupancy, a price that Virgin Vacations matched within $10.

I priced similar trips on several other travel sites. Travelocity's total was $1,430; Expedia's was $1,511.

Experienced travelers could book all the components themselves and spend a bit less for a trip for two, about $1,200 per person, but they would need to know their way around the Internet, the airlines and accommodations in London and Amsterdam and be willing to navigate some of the details of travel, such as getting to the city from the airport.

Travelers who book the airline packages need no such expertise. Choose a date for your flight; choose a hotel from a list -- they're grouped by price -- and add whatever extras you want, such as airport transfers or sightseeing tours.

Hotels are pre-screened, so you probably won't end up in a flophouse in a red-light district. And you usually can make your reservations on the Internet or by phone (, [877] 428-2228, or, [888] 937-8474).

Follow the leader, or else

TOUR guide Paul, a ruddy-faced Irishman in his 60s, hopped on our bus a few minutes before it departed London's Victoria Coach Station for a daylong jaunt through the English countryside.

"We will keep on schedule," he said sternly to the three dozen passengers. "We've many places to go today and you will be in your seats at the time I ask you." No one argued as the bus crossed busy Buckingham Palace Road, headed toward Windsor Castle.

Even though I had come to London on a British Airways package, I had booked this optional 12-hour tour to Windsor, Bath and Stonehenge through Virgin Vacations. I had tried a BA London tour the day I arrived; the tour guide picked me up about an hour late, didn't know much about the places we toured and couldn't answer any questions. Both British Airways Holidays and Virgin Vacations offer dozens of tours within the city and throughout the countryside. They include simple cruises on the Thames ($17), tickets to West End plays ($134-plus) and day trips to Paris ($319).

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