It's still October. The clocks haven't even gone back yet and probably the last thing you want to think about is Christmas shopping. However, forward planning will reward with enjoyable alternatives away from the high street.
Short sea cruises to Belgium and Holland and river cruises visiting quaint German towns offer a refreshing escape from the modern-day commercialism that invades the UK in the run-up to Christmas. Instead you can pick up charming hand-made decorations and gifts and stock up on Continental delicacies as you browse Europe's traditional outdoor markets.
If autumn seems a bit early to write your Christmas lists, think again. Viking River Cruises, for example (020-8780 7995; vikingrivercruises.co.uk), which operates five-star vessels on the Rhine and Danube, has little availability for this year and cruises departing in November and December 2014 are selling like hot mince pies. However, it does have a one-week cruise that offers Christmas shopping in three countries. Sailing from Budapest to Nuremburg on 24 November, the trip also calls at Vienna, Regensburg and Melk. The cost, from £1,995 per person, includes flights, guided tours and full board.
Shearings (0844 209 7143; shearings.com) has availability on its four-night German Rhine cruises, visiting the Christmas markets of Koblenz, Rudesheim and Cologne. Prices, from £579pp, include full board and return travel by a choice of air, coach or rail. French line CroisiEurope (020 8328 1281; croisieurope.travel) has a three-night round trip cruise from Brussels on 8 and 11 December, calling at Bruges and Antwerp costing from €414pp full board.
By taking a no-fly mini cruise there are no weight or liquids restrictions on your shopping. On a P&O mini-cruise from Southampton to Zeebrugge (for Bruges) you can buy as many Belgian beers as you can carry. Sail for two nights on adults-only Arcadia on 15 December from £299pp, or aboard family-friendly Aurora on 19 December from £259pp, full board (0843 373 0111; pocruises.co.uk).
A three-night cruise to Ghent and Amsterdam on Marco Polo from Tilbury sails on 15 December, from £249pp full board, with Travelsphere (0800 112 3313; travelsphere.co.uk).
Christmas market mini-breaks are also offered from Newcastle with DFDS Seaways (0871 574235; dfds.co.uk). Choose from Amsterdam, Cologne, Bruges, Brussels and the medieval German town of Hamelin. The packages include return overnight crossing to Amsterdam, transfers and two nights' B&B. Departures in November and December cost from £189pp room only.
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