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Britain’s leading travel brand, Thomas Cook, has been slammed by Which? Holiday magazine.

Britain’s leading travel brand, Thomas Cook, has been slammed by Which? Holiday magazine. A survey published today says the company that pioneered organised tourism in Victorian times has “work to do to get standards up to 21st-century expectations”.

The survey of 4,500 Consumers’ Association members criticises Thomas Cook’s “poor quality hotel rooms and unhelpful resort staff”. The firm, which is Britain’s second-largest tour operator, was rated poorest out of 29 for resort reps and the quality of flights and transfers.

Thomas Cook also earned only two stars out of five for value-for-money. Six other big holiday firms were rated equally bad. They include Virgin Holidays, Princess Cruises and the mass-market sister companies, Thomson and First Choice. None earned an overall “customer score” above 70 per cent. Cosmos, Britain’s third-largest operator, took last place with 57 per cent.

Rochelle Turner, head of research for Which? Holiday, said: “Huge number of people do go on holiday each year with the three market-leading operators, helped by their widespread presence on the high street and in national advertising. But this doesn’t mean that all those people are satisfied with their experience.”

The magazine’s survey was conducted last September and sought the views of the Which? online panel on their most recent package holiday. Thomas Cook’s rating was based on the views of 308 people, representing one in 20,000 of the firm’s annual customers.

Ian Derbyshire, chief executive for Thomas Cook UK & Ireland rejected the verdict: “The Which? Holiday report is in total contrast to the high levels of service that our customers tell us about and that we pride ourselves on. From our own surveys, which number more than 100 times more people than the Which? Survey, our customer satisfaction scores have increased year on year, with 94 per cent of our holidaymakers rating Thomas Cook as either ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ for their holiday last summer.”

Top place in the Which? Holiday survey was the small French specialist, VFB. It was set up 40 years ago, and plays Edith Piaf songs as “hold music” for telephone callers. It earned the accolade through the views of 33 customers – one in 500 of those carried last year.

The firm’s marketing manager, Liz Barnwell, said the accolade was “Down to the quality of our product and the fact that we have a very loyal customer base – and there’s a real attention to detail throughout the process. Over the past 10 years people have become more picky about self-catering, and the fact that VFB is so thorough is what made the difference.”

She offered a word of advice to Messrs Cook: “They’re just looking at numbers; we’re looking at the whole quality of the product”.

In such surveys, small is traditionally beautiful – yet the top 10 contained several very large companies. Second place was taken by another company founded in 1970, the giant long-haul specialist Trailfinders. Which? Holiday commended “the efficiency of its staff and the flexibility involved in compiling global itineraries”. Britain’s biggest adventure operator, Explore, took third place. Paul Bondsfield, Explore’s PR manager, said “We did responsible travel long before it became trendy, or even had a name”.

* Ryanair, the airline that often takes last place in surveys, yesterday declared itself to be “the best thing to happen to the British consumer since sliced bread”. Europe’s biggest and most profitable budget airline responded to criticism made yesterday in The Independent by the Office of Fair Trading chief executive. John Fingleton described Ryanair’s pricing policies of as “puerile”. The carrier put on sale 1m “£4 Fingleton Fares” for travel this month and next, in honour of “the overpaid CEO of the OFT”.

A place in the sun: How the travel agents fared

Which? gave Thomas Cook a “customer score” of 58 per cent. It found that holiday-goers were dissatisfied with the reps, journey quality and value for money. Customers said that reps, who were awarded two stars out of five, showed a lack of knowledge and were difficult to contact.

*Cosmos was rated worst overall, with a customer score of 57 per cent. Travellers said its “sun-and-sand trips” offered little value for money. It had a customer score of 50 per cent for satisfaction for its beach holidays, well below the 69 per cent average rating for specialist tour operators.

*Market-leader Thomson was rated poorly in terms of value for money. It scored only 66 per cent for its beach holidays and 68 per cent for its long-haul trips. But customers rated its cruises at 81 per cent.

*VFB, which specialises in French holidays, claimed the top spot for its “efficient” and “dependable” packages.