MILLENNIUM CELEBRATIONS: Seasonal bargains as travel companies cut winter holiday prices
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 18 December 1999
There are still a number of unsold holidays, as a glance at Teletext (or teletext.co.uk) or a visit to your local travel agency will reveal.
Prices of holidays in the Mediterranean over Christmas and the New Year are always a lot higher than in the rest of the winter, but this year there are some relative bargains to be had. The best deals are for departures immediately after Christmas or the New Year.
Warmer destinations are more troublesome. Our favourite winter getaway, the Canary Isles, is full. There is still some room in the Gambia, and across in southern India - Kerala and Goa - plus Sri Lanka. But Caribbean islands, like Antigua, St Lucia and Barbados, have been booking well for years.
Walt Disney World in Orlando has been booked solid for at least a year, but fans of Mickey can get a cheap flight to Los Angeles and go and see him at his original home, Disneyland in Anaheim. The signs are that transatlantic flights still have plenty of room, especially in the week between Christmas and the New Year. Although many European flights are being cancelled, most of the long-haul flights are operating normally over the holiday season - and that means two dozen wide-bodied planes, each way, each day, between London and New York alone, and fares are available as low as pounds 200 return.
And it is a similar story for some flights down under to Australia and New Zealand. Earlier this month, charters from Gatwick to Perth with Austravel were being sold for as little as pounds 99 one way, pounds 199 return - the lowest- ever fares for 16,000 miles of travel.
For the few souls brave enough or fed up enough to try to fly somewhere on Christmas Day or Boxing Day, there is the vexed question of whether you will actually be able to get to the airport without a car. It depends where you start from. The best links are to London's airports: the Gatwick Express (gatwickexpress.co.uk) is operating a half-hourly service from 5.30am until 4pm on Christmas Day, then all day on Boxing Day. The Heathrow Express is running as normal all the way through, from just after 5am until shortly before midnight. But other departure points might prove more difficult.
What about the ferries, and trains through the Channel Tunnel? The cross- Channel ferries are likely to be busier today than ever, as people stock up with festive food and (especially) drink. But from Christmas Eve onwards they should quieten down. Most ferries are shutting down for Christmas Day itself, though the car-carrying service Eurotunnel keeps running around the clock between Folkestone and Calais. The last Eurostar trains from London Waterloo to Paris and Brussels leave at around 4pm on Christmas Eve and there is still some availability. And just in case you need some retail inspiration, there are day trips available to both cities for just pounds 45 return between now and mid-January.
But as this celebration is to do with the birth of Christ, you might ask what the chances are of getting to Bethlehem itself - or to Rome where they are about to celebrate Holy Year?
It is not too difficult getting a flight to Tel Aviv, close to Bethlehem, or to the Italian capital, but once you get to either place it will certainly be tricky finding room at the inn. And in the case of Rome, that is likely to persist all the way through the year, with many millions of pilgrims planning to visit the Vatican.
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