Europe on the cheap without losing the style

INFORMATION DESK

We are about to move to London for a year and aim to take advantage of the cheap rail and flight deals to European cities. We want to stay in decent budget accommodation, not in fleapits or YHAs. Should we book rooms ahead or chance finding the right place at the right time? Are there any cut-price agencies we could use?

Gerry Kedger

Bristol

Jill Crawshaw replies:

It depends very much on when you go and how you travel. If you are travelling by rail, as most of the stations are near the city centres, there's plenty of reasonably-priced accommodation in the region of the station - some even have accommodation booking offices and they will try to find what you're looking for.

If you are arriving by air, with the airports a long way from the cities, you might find it better to use one of the accommodation agencies in the UK, particularly during autumn and up to Christmas, the most popular periods for city breaks.

The Hotel Directory (0181 770 0123) offers centrally-located hotels, pensions and b&bs in more than 20 European cities, most capitals as well as gems such as Nice, Bruges, Dublin, Seville, Cordoba, Palma de Mallorca, Munich and Geneva. Double rooms cost around pounds 26 (per room) per night, and often they can do special deals like three nights for the price of two.

Another London-based agency offering family-run b&bs, pensions and two- or three-star hotels is Accommodation Line (0171 409 1343). This company operates to France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain with a double room in Spain and France in a hotel for under pounds 30, b&bs for under pounds 20; in central Barcelona for instance prices start at pounds 23 for a double, pounds 17 for a single, slightly more in the other countries. Accommodation Line does not accept one-night bookings.

Some agencies offer excellent value for money specialising in individual countries, which they know well. The Italian Connection (0171 486 6890) features a range of accommodation options, often in historic properties. They also have self-catering apartments and flats in cities and resorts, and can give advice on sightseeing, art courses, cooking lessons, car hire and other forms of transport. They have a couple of very good deals, one in Rome at the Panda hotel, five minutes from the Spanish Steps, which costs pounds 24 per person per night, and in the centre of Florence at the unlikely- named Scoti just pounds 14-pounds 21 per person per night. Neither hotel offers private facilities. A self-catering apartment just outside Siena for two costs pounds 250 for a week.

In cities such as Prague, where hotel accommodation is hard to get and becoming increasingly expensive, specialist firms such as Cedok (0171 839 4414) can arrange for you to stay in private homes - the owners often speak reasonable English and can give you the best advice on what to see, where to go and how to avoid rip-offs. The price for a twin room is around pounds 25-pounds 28 per night, or for a self-contained flat from pounds 35 per night.

For Spain and Portugal, why not contact Keytel (0171 402 8182) which can book paradors - these Spanish state-owned hotels are often re-built ancient, even historic, buildings and the Portuguese equivalent pousadas, and can be very difficult to book on the spot.

In a parador you'll pay from pounds 32.50 per person per night, but there's a special deal in some of them for a double or twin room which costs a total of pounds 200 for five nights. In Portugal you can expect to pay around pounds 27 per person per night, with breakfast. You'll enjoy real local food and might be staying in some old castle or monastery!

Finally, do also contact the individual national tourist offices in London - though some are a great deal more helpful than others, I should warn you.

Jill Crawshaw is a travel expert, writer and broadcaster.

Tobogganing, skiing, ice fishing and a visit to Santa

We are planning to take our four-year-old daughter to see Santa this winter. A package of between three and seven nights duration would be ideal.

Liz Hepplewhite

Coleorton, Leics

The Travel Editor replies: You will be pleased to hear that there is no lack of package tours offering the chance to meet Santa. They are based in Lapland, the most northern region of Finland, and are rather magical.

Canterbury Travel (tel: 01923 822388) organises three-, four- and five- day package tours during which you and your daughter could search for Santa with reindeer, huskies and Skidoos. The longer four- and five-day trips also leave time for ice-fishing and cross-country or slalom skiing. Your family would stay in Luosto, a small ski resort which lies 90 minutes north of Rovaniemi, in either a hotel or fully outfitted log cabin (including a sauna). If the weather is appropriate, spending a night in an igloo may also be possible. Breakfast and dinner buffets are provided. A three- day, full-board tour ranges in cost from pounds 770 to pounds 895, depending on the number of adults, and costs pounds 80 less for children. Five-day, full-board tours cost from pounds 810 to pounds 975 for adults and pounds 598 for children.

If you want to visit Santa over Christmas, Norvista (tel: 0171 409 7334) has a trip from 22-27 December at the Wilderness Holiday Centre, Harriniva. You can toboggan, visit a snow castle and search for Santa. The full-board tour costs pounds 849 for adults, pounds 599 for children. Norvista also offers three- day packages and, like all the tours, provides thermal clothing!

Walking is the best way to explore Paris

We are planning a trip to Paris and, having been there before, would like to see more than the obvious sights. Are there any walking tours conducted in English which individuals can join?

John Lee

Oxfordshire

The travel editor replies: Despite pollution and demented driving on the main boulevards, walking is the best way to explore Paris. Unlike London, everywhere in the city centre is accessible by foot. Paris Walking Tours (tel: 0033 1 48 09 21 40) has extensive tours ranging from "Hemingway's Paris" - a literary tour of the Latin Quarter - to "In the Footsteps of Quasimodo". For full listings visit their website http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepage/ParisWalking. Decouvrir Paris (tel: 0033 1 47 89 41 68 answerphone message in French) has tours twice monthly with various themes, and Paris Contact (tel: 0033 1 42 51 08 40) also conducts tours in English.

Cycling around Paris is also popular and in the past few years the Mairie de Paris has introduced a number of cycle lanes to the city. There are various places to hire bikes (listings available from tourist offices around the city) but Paris a Velo c'est Sympa, offers cycle tours of the city for around Fr130 (pounds 13.50) (tel: 0033 1 49 52 53 54).

The main tourist office in Paris (tel: 0033 1 49 52 53 54 or 0033 1 49 52 53 56 for recorded information in English) is located at 127, Ave Champs- Elysees. Along with most hotels and big department stores, Parisian tourist offices have free city maps for pedestrians, cyclists and for metro/bus travel.

Recommended books: Paris Step by Step (Moorland Publishing, pounds 7.99), by Christopher Turner; Memorable Walks In Paris (Frommers, pounds 8.99), by Jeanne Oliver; The Paris of Joyce and Beckett (London Irish Literary Travel) by Brian O'Shea and Sean Donlon. Available by post for pounds 2 from London Irish Literary Travel, 29-41 North Road, London N7 9DP.

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