Holiday price war for Christmas

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Britain's Christmas festivities got under way yesterday with long traffic jams, almost half a million people flying out to the sun and holiday companies launching a price war.

Thomas Cook announced discounts of up to 15 per cent on package tours a day after Lunn Poly revealed a pay-by- instalment plan for holidaymakers. Other companies are expected to follow as the Christmas-New Year selling season swings into full gear on Boxing Day. The latest cuts are partly offset by recent increases by tour operators of 6 to 9 per cent. At the same time as announcing its price cuts, Thomas Cook revealed that the running battle it has been fighting with Thomson, Britain's largest tour operator and owner of Lunn Poly, is close to resolution.

For the Christmas holidaymakers untroubled by discounts and price wars, yesterday was the day when 500,000 of them passed through Britain's airports. Choirs and musical groups entertained passengers at Gatwick, which handled 65,000 passengers; by 2 January 700,000 travellers will have gone through the airport.

But there was less joy on the roads as traffic built up on main routes and an accident on the M1 caused a 10-mile tailback. On the A2 near the junction of the M25 in Kent another accident led to long tailbacks.

Among those fleeing Britain for the festive period, the most popular destinations from Heathrow are Paris, Amsterdam and New York; for Gatwick it is Tenerife, Spain, Florida and Australia. For skiers, the slopes of Switzerland, Austria and France are in demand.

Heathrow airport will handle 800,000 passengers over the Christmas period, while Stan-sted will play host to 100,000 and Luton to 50,000, a 40 per cent increase on last year. British Airways will take 250,000 people away over the festive period and is operating 35 flights on Christmas Day, when passengers will get a traditional Christmas meal and will be able to see the Queen's Christmas message.

On the road, motorists were having to contend with accidents, heavy spray and flooding. "It seems as if many people have taken the afternoon off and roads have been really busy since about 2pm," said an AA Roadwatch spokeswoman. "It's really busy and it's probably going to get worse."

Flooding closed the A515 at Buxton, in Derbyshire, and there were flooded roads in a number of counties including, Dorset, Hampshire, Somerset and Durham. "Spray and surface water is making driving very difficult," said an RAC spokesman. Conditions for driving should improve, though, as weathermen said milder conditions were on the way. However, it could turn colder by the end of the weekend, though few areas were likely to get a white Christmas. As motorists climbed into their cars, police trying to get across their Christmas drink- drive message were faced with disturbing new figures. Older drivers are more likely to fall foul of the law than younger ones when it comes to drinking and driving this Christmas, a survey showed. In a Mori survey, a total of 75 per cent of drivers aged between 17 and 24 claimed never to drink and drive. But only 59 per cent of drivers aged 25 or over said they never drank and drove and 30 per cent of these older drivers said they were more likely to drive after drinking if they believed there were under the legal limit.