Prices rise as holiday season starts

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As half a million holidaymakers fly out of Britain this weekend, the people with the broadest smiles will have booked their trips 12 months ago, invested with a building society and bought their foreign currency in the past 10 days.

School holidays, which start in many areas today, signal the beginning of the peak holiday season. The mixed weather at home this summer, together with the strength of the pound, has prompted a rush to leave the country.

But people trying to book last-minute packages will have a rough ride. Not only is availability limited, but one of the major tour operators, Airtours, has taken advantage of the surge in demand to increase its holiday prices for August.

Keith Betton, of the Association of British Travel Agents, said yesterday that the situation was a vindication of the travel industry's advice to book early. "There is very little late discounting going on," he said.

Mr Betton said that windfall pay-outs to building society customers, combined with the increase in spending power because of current exchange rates, meant an especially buoyant market this summer.

Sterling is at its strongest for years. Yesterday at Thomas Cook bureaux , a pound bought 9.83 French francs, 244.81 Spanish pesetas or 2.937 German marks.

The favourable tourist rates mean much cheaper holidays. Last summer in Corfu, for instance, a three-course meal cost the equivalent of pounds 10.60 and a camera film pounds 3.60; this year the corresponding prices are pounds 8.05 and pounds 3.

The coming week is the most popular period for summer departures. Gatwick, which is Britain's biggest holiday airport, will handle more than 322,000 people this weekend, 40,000 more than in the same period last year. France, Spain, Greece, Turkey and the US are the most popular destinations.

Heathrow expects to process about 228,000 passengers this weekend, and the regional airports will also be busy: 190,000 people will pass through Manchester, while Glasgow will handle 116,000 passengers and Birmingham 40,000. Hundreds of thousands of other travellers will flee Britain by ferry in the coming days.

British seaside resorts, meanwhile, are praying for more clement weather as the summer season begins in earnest. The heavy rainfall in June meant a poor month for hoteliers and businesses in areas such as the West Country.

For tour operators, the unseasonable weather at home represents rich pickings. Richard Carrick, Airtours' marketing director, said: "We all applaud here when it rains. There is nothing that pleases us more than seeing Wimbledon washed out." Airtours has warned that, from August 1, prices will go up by pounds 20 per person on unsold packages for the rest of the month. This will increase the cost of a one-week self-catering holiday in Malaga for two adults and three children from pounds 1,245 to pounds 1,345.