AFTER A bad start to the season, the big tour operators' bookings for the millennium period have picked up in the last two weeks, the market stirred by skiers finally taking the plunge and by operators recognising the need to cut prices to cover their costs.

Right now it is a buyers' market, and late bookers can pick up bargains for a period which had previously been expected to be over-priced.

For example, Thomson is offering a 10-night half-board package in a three- star hotel in the French Alps for just pounds 359 (based on two sharing), departing from Gatwick on 29 December, and a similar package with seven nights in a four-star hotel in the Italian Alps at pounds 379, departing on 26 December.

The lack of a commitment to specific hotels and resorts is characteristic of a late-booking market; so is the fact that new offers are continually coming on stream, with even keener prices expected. Call Thomson on 0181- 210 4445 for more information.

Independent operators have generally had stronger bookings; but Handmade Holidays (01453 885599) still has availability on 10-day half-board apartment packages departing Gatwick on 29 December at pounds 275 per person (based on four sharing) in Serre Chevalier. Heavy bookings on the 26 December/2 January flights mean it has almost no availability for that week.

If a 10-day package returns too late for you, the budget operator Snowcoach (01727 866177) has recently introduced flight-out/coach-return five-night half-board packages to the French Alps and Andorra, priced at pounds 348 and pounds 299 respectively. The coach arrives back in London on 4 January.