Hi Creasy. Yes it is hard to get around it, and I didn't really start using them intensely until I started production. That's when you just got to bite the bullet, and just do it. Once you get comfortable with the layout, it's actually quite intuitive. As I said, I can usually unwrap a whole character with 40 minutes or so (Even on raw zBrush models). Production doesn't really allow you to say "well, let's try it this way.." (In regards to pelt mapping) If you know what I mean.
About the once piece layout... I usually split my textures into two pieces for a character. One for the head, the eyes, mouth, ears, etc; and one for the body, feet, hands, etc. This is mainly because a lot of the focus is on the head of a character, not on the body. This allows me to create a higher resolution texture map for the head; and a lower for the body. For example, I usually have an 8k texture map for the head, and an 8k texture on the body. If you unwrap it in one piece, not only is stretching usually higher, but there is a lot of wasted space in the uvs. For example, if you have one 16k texture for the entire character laid out in one uv. Say the head takes up a generous 10% of the texture. That means that the area being covered by the head is only ~820 pixels squared. Meanwhile, there are huge amounts of space in the texture being wasted in negative space. There really is no "standard" as every character, and production, have different requirements; but these are the general rules I follow.
As for the tool quality, I have found many people who complain about the uv tools of maya, only.They say they lack stuff and point out something more simple for uving. Technically speaking, without ABF++, LSCM algorithm.... seriously makes me feel like an person trying to learn swimming in a stormy ocean.
The only people that I have really run into about the uv tools being bad in Maya, are the people that haven't really gotten around to playing around with, and learning them; or people that expect it to be "automatic". UVing isn't an "automatic" process. In a way, it's an art form as well.
Hope this helps you out mate.
Imagination is more important than knowledge.