There has been a great brouhaha this week over the lamentable service provided by the National Rail Enquiry line. But another related scandal also deserves maximum publicity - the contiuing failure of booking office staff to inform travellers about the bewildering range of available cheap tickets.
A rail enquiry service clerk this week said that anyone asking for a return ticket from London's King's Cross to Durham, for example, might well be charged Pounds 127, the price of a standard open return. But two other cheaper tickets can be bought on the day of the outward journey, although only a certain number are available for each train. The London-Durham Supersaver, which is available from Sunday to Thursday and is valid for a month, costs only Pounds 57, while the Saver return, which is available after 9.15am, is Pounds 69.50. However, it often makes sense to pay that extra Pounds 12.50 because the holder of a Saver ticket cannot only return on any train but can break a journey.
The Apex ticket (Pounds 40) and Super Advance return (Pounds 55) represent even better value for money, but the former has to be booked a week in advance and the latter has to be bought before 2pm on the day before you travel.
It is not only the hoi polloi who suffer if the counter-clerks are economical with the truth, however. Many first-class passengers to Durham have written cheques for Pounds 198 when they should have paid only Pounds 99, the cost of the Leisure first-class ticket. To qualify for this fare, you must spend a Saturday night away. That rules out business executives hurtling up and down England in a day, but those with less frantic schedules may consider it good value - particularly as it costs appreciably less than the standard open return.
"Yes, a lot of people don't realise there is such a thing as a Leisure first-class ticket and they don't think to ask," said the helpful rail enquiry service clerk. "You could say that the booking office staff should make it clear to customers what their options are, but many of them just seem to think it's hard cheese if you don't know about these cheaper deals. All the problems of this kind have happened since privatisation. Everything's gone to pot. "
Nevertheless, it is debatable whether the rail enquiry line operators are offering a better service than the booking-office staff. A battle-hardened clerk at the King's Cross ticket office insisted that it was the enquiry line staff who were more likely to mislead passengers. "They may be doing their best but they are not rail people like us," she said, looking wearily at the advance-tickets queue snaking across the booking hall. "They are brought in with very little training and handed a few books to consult, but they often give the wrong information."
To prove her point, she explained that the cheapest London to Durham return ticket is not the Pounds 40 Apex but the Pounds 29 Super Apex which must be bought at least a fortnight in advance. Furthermore, the standard return does not cost Pounds 127 but Pounds 132, the Pounds 57 Supersaver is actually Pounds 61 and the Saver is Pounds 73.50, not Pounds 69.50.
"We used to have a brochure that listed all the fares but it hasn't been updated," she admitted. "The information we are provided with at present is fairly useless." Some things hardly need to be said...
Anyone looking for a quick burst of Mediterranean sunshine before school restarts will find that the choice is now very restricted. But if you don't mind flip-flopping straight off the beach and into the staffroom, you can still book a seven-day self-catering holiday in Malta for Pounds 295 (Airtours from Manchester on August 26).
Similar packages are available in the Costa Dorada, but if you choose the Spanish destination, don't go expecting culture and high society.
It may be called the Gold Coast but the strip of coastline from Barcelona to Tarragona is reputed to have only two four-star hotels. It does have a high-tech theme park, however. Any child will tell you that is much more important.
u Further information: 0990 181818.
You don't need to travel all the way to Spain to keep the children happy. For Pounds 4 more than the price of a Costa Dorada holiday, a whole family can have a seven-night Haven caravan holiday at the Blue Dolphin All-Action Centre on the Yorkshire coast next week.
But if the promise of an all-action holiday camp sounds like a threat rather than a promise, there is always Suffolk, perhaps the most tranquil corner of England. The many readers who entered our Shropshire cycling break competition last month may be interested to know that similar holidays are available in East Anglia.
Suffolk Cycle Breaks, which is based in Needham Market, claims that the gently undulating landscapes painted by Constable and Gainsborough are ideal cycling country. Lavenham, in particular, should not be missed. If a national treasure can be created out of lath and plaster this is it.
Suffolk Cycle Breaks offers a range of three to 14-day holidays which include hire of bikes and baggage transportation to guest houses, farms, pubs and luxury hotels. The shortest summer breaks (based on two sharing) cost Pounds 109.
Haven: 0990 233111 Suffolk Cycle Breaks: 01449 721555