Christmas is coming... it's time to escape

Want to avoid reindeer, snow and Santa Claus? Jeremy Atiyah on how to steer clear of the fever of the season
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The Independent Travel
WHAT IS the benefit of the lowest-ever airfares in real terms when these are available only in November and January? Miami for pounds 137 return, plus tax, off- season is all very nice, but is not of much use to those who find themselves tied down by school holidays.

So if you belong to that large body of people who have free time only over Christmas, here are a few ideas for using the holiday as a window of escape. Target: illusions of summer, as cheap as possible, with no snow, no reindeer and no Father Christmas in sight. Prices may be at least double their off-season equivalents, but if you have children you must already be used to that by now.

The Gambia is a sunny part of Africa that is only six hours away from Britain. And it is on the same time zone. The Gambia Experience (tel: 01703 730888) is offering a fortnight for pounds 598 (all prices per person based on two sharing) from the 13 to 27 December, flying out of Gatwick and staying on a b&b basis at a "simple but friendly" family-run hotel, the Badala, which has gardens and a good size pool. You can also depart on 20 December, staying for a week, though the price is not significantly less. All the hotel holidays booked over the festive period include the slightly dubious-sounding pleasure of a "Gala Christmas Dinner".

For the guaranteed sunshine of Eilat, specialist Longwood Holidays (tel: 0181-551 4494) still has availability over Christmas. An example of one week at the Moon Valley resort, which it describes as a "low to mid-grade" hotel, but which still has its own pool and easy access to the beach, will cost pounds 525 per person on a b&b basis, departing on Monday 21 December from either Gatwick or Luton. You can also fly from Manchester if you pay a supplement of pounds 15. Longwood Holidays also threatens its customers with Gala Christmas dinners, by the way.

I cannot think of many more pleasant places to spend Christmas than under the cloudless skies of Egypt, where there is scarcely any Christmas at all. Bales Worldwide (tel: 01306 885991) still has availability on its 11-day RA II cruise, which departs on 22 December. This includes a three- night stay in Cairo, as well as seven nights' full-board on a Nile cruise in the Luxor-Aswan area. The price for this, however, is a pretty serious pounds 1,490.

Slightly less guaranteed sunshine is to be found in Jordan (which sometimes sees snow in mid-winter). All the same, Bales' seven-day tour, departing on 21 December, looks rather enchanting, with visits to Petra, Amman, Jerash, Wadi Rum and Aqaba. Christmas Day is actually spent in five-star luxury in the restored Jordanian village of Taybet Zaman.

In most of the European Mediterranean the weather is by no means reliable in mid-winter, though a few special deals are available. How about Malta, which is almost as far south as you can go without being in Africa? Worldwide Holidays (tel: 01202 743907) is offering two weeks on a b&b basis in Malta for pounds 279, departing from Gatwick or Manchester on 19 December.

Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean does not provide guaranteed sunshine, but chances are you will see a lot more rays than in Finland - and there is still plenty of availability. Magic Breaks (tel: 0161-927 7727) offers a week half-board departing on 19 or 26 December from Gatwick for only pounds 389. Otherwise, try a one-week all-inclusive package to Limassol with Priceright Holidays (tel: 0181-275 0955), departing on any date between 21 and 24 December. The price is pounds 514 and for that you will stay at a four-star hotel with gardens on the beach, with all meals and drinks included in the price. There is really no time like Christmas for an unlimited supply of free drinks, I suppose.

Failing that, there would always be the option of Europe-in-Africa, namely the Canary Islands, except that availability is pretty scarce here. Portland Direct (tel: 0990 002200) can offer a seven-night stay half-board in a Forte hotel in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife, departing from Southampton airport on 23 December. Otherwise, how about a one-bed, self-catering apartment for seven nights on Fuerteventura, for pounds 405, departing from Manchester on 22 December? Call Thomson (tel: 0990 329300).

Flying to the USA over Christmas is getting similarly difficult now (and accommodation in East Coast cities is almost impossible), though the West Coast is slightly more feasible, especially if you fly back before the New Year. For certain sunshine, how about golf in Palm Springs in California? Flying to Los Angeles and driving the two hours from there - departing any date between 15 and 24 December - you can get away with pounds 845 per person, for a week, room-only and self-drive, including flights and a car. Rounds of golf typically cost pounds 40 per day.

If you are heading for Australia you probably should have booked months ago, and prices are now about as high as they ever get. Nevertheless, if you are still desperate for turkey and Christmas crackers on Bondi Beach try Bridge the World (tel: 0171-911 0990) which is offering departures from Heathrow to Melbourne on Emirates, for pounds 1,019 per person, and pounds 1,119 to Sydney. The only way you will get away with a fare for less than pounds 700 is if you are a student with an ISIC card or under-26: usitCampus (tel: 0171-730 8111) says that it can offer return flights to Sydney for pounds 671.