A week before Christmas Day, Austrian Airlines (0845 601 0948; www.austrianairlines.co.uk) starts flying for the first time between Gatwick and the Alpine city of Innsbruck. The three-times-a-week service is clearly aimed at skiers, and is likely to command high fares once the season is in full swing. But a fare of £93.50 is available for a range of dates, including travelling out on the maiden flight on 18 December, and returning a week later. The fare assumes that you buy online; bookings by phone or through an agent are £10 higher.
The first week of December is an excellent time to travel almost anywhere. Demand is very low on many flights within Europe, including the long hop to Athens, venue for next year's Olympic Games. To Athens, for example, easyJet (0870 600 0000; www.easyJet.com) will take you there and back from Luton for £79.20 on midweek dates, particularly if you are prepared to go out on the overnight flight. Fares from Gatwick with easyJet are typically £20 higher. For comparison, the website www.opodo.co.uk has fares of around £127 from Gatwick on Hellas Jet, and from Heathrow on British Airways or Olympic Airways.
Late November or early December is the ideal time to visit Bruges: the picturesque Belgian city is getting into festive mood, but the visiting crowds are thinner than usual. P&O Ferries (0870 520 2020; www.poferries.com) has a deal from Hull where you sail overnight to Zeebrugge (a few miles from Bruges), spend the day in the city, and return the following night. For the ferry trip with a berth in a twin-share cabin, dinner and breakfast in both directions, the fare is £62.
British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) has a range of non-stop links from Manchester to Italy. They are aimed mainly at business travellers, but some leisure fares are available at good prices in early December: to Rome for as little as £137 return; to Pisa for £167 (though most dates are £20-£40 more expensive); and to Venice for £137.
NEW YEAR, NEW CAPITALS
For 2004, Lille is one of the European Capitals of Culture. The first train from London Waterloo on 1 January 2004 to the northern French city leaves at 8.34am, with plenty of availability for a day trip at £55 in standard class or £100 in first. The other cultural capital is Genoa, the historic seaport in Liguria, in the north-west of Italy. From Stansted, you can fly out at dawn on New Year's Eve, and back on the evening of 1 January, for a fare of £38 return on Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com).