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The Independent Travel

Warning of the week: fully booked planes Down Under

Warning of the week: fully booked planes Down Under

Last year, there was a sudden spate of cheap deals on flights to Australia and New Zealand, as "Millennium fever" failed to take a grip and airlines were obliged to offload seats at fares well below usual levels. But this year, it appears that everyone who decided not to go in December 1999 wants to celebrate this Christmas and New Year in Australasia instead.

For departures in the 10 days or so before Christmas, availability is so scarce that one leading discount agent is recommending travellers upgrade to business class for the outbound leg.

"The fare for business out and economy home is around £1,600 - not much more than an economy return just before Christmas" says Peter Grimes of Quest Travel (020 8547 3322). He is selling flights to Sydney or Melbourne on Emirates for £1,599 return. This deal applies from Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester, and the new departure point, Birmingham, where flights begin on 18 December.

Malaysia Airlines offers a wider range of destinations in Australia and New Zealand from Heathrow or Manchester. Travelling out in business and home in economy, the fare is £1,630.

The week between Christmas Day and New Year normally heralds something of a lull, with lower fares and higher availability, but economy tickets are selling for £1,000 or more. If you travel from Manchester between Christmas and New Year, though, the business out/ economy home fare on Malaysia Airlines is £1,525.

One more problem: having experienced business class outbound, it may be especially uncomfortable returning in economy - especially as the flying time back is significantly longer.

Rail bargain of the week: a day out in Paris, Lille or Brussels for £50 or less

A short-break specialist this week was offering "A day trip to Lille travelling by Eurostar throughout December for just £65" - but buying direct from the Channel Tunnel train company on 08705 186 186 or www.eurostar.com can cut the cost to Lille to £45.

Eurostar's now traditional holiday price cuts are designed to fill trains that would otherwise run fairly empty because business travellers are taking time off. Day returns from London Waterloo to Paris and Brussels are £50; upgrades to First Class cost £40 more to all destinations.

To qualify for these fares, you must book at least one day in advance. The offer applies on any day until 7 January, except 25 December, when Eurostar takes the day off. The offer also applies on Saturdays and Sundays in January and until 11 February.

Ferry bargain of the week: France for the afternoon

Until the end of the year, a car and five people can travel on the SeaCat from Dover to Calais any time after 2pm, returning on the 8pm sailing, for £35. Hoverspeed (0870 240 8070, www.hoverspeed.co.uk) is offering the deal until the end of the year - but you must remember to quote the booking reference LP-ADT. The deal must be booked at least 24 hours in advance, and a Saturday supplement applies.

For those who prefer to travel without a car, a Dover-Ostend day trip for a family of four foot passengers costs just £19 if you travel from Monday to Thursday, book 24 hours in advance and quote booking reference LP-OSF.

Skiing bargain of the week: free travel on the Heathrow Express - westbound only

Every time I've looked, the check-in area at Paddington station has been as wide open as a slushy piste in late April. To try to boost the number of people checking in at the London terminus for flights from Britain's busiest airport, the Heathrow Express is offering free travel to winter sports enthusiasts.

Between now and 1 February, anyone checking in skis or snowboard (or a set of golf clubs) for a Heathrow flight at Paddington will be given a voucher. You exchange this at the Heathrow Express ticket office for a free ride to the airport.

Two catches: Swissair has abandoned its check-in facility at Paddington, though Austrian Airlines opens up on New Year's Day; and the deal only works travelling from Paddington to Heathrow, not in the other direction.

The Heathrow Express is running right through Christmas, but only on a reduced schedule on 25 December: twice an hour between 5.10am and 7.10pm.

For more details, call 0845 600 15 15 (don't be surprised if someone answers saying "BAA Holiday Parking" - it's the same call centre) or check www.heathrowexpress.co.uk

Air bargain of the week: book by next Thursday for cut-price America in 2001

Key West, Tallahassee and West Palm Beach are now on the discount flights map, along with a dozen other Florida destinations, including Miami, Orlando and Tampa. US Airways is selling them off cheap for departures 5 January to 15 March, for travel from Gatwick via Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or Charlotte.

Among discount agents offering the deal, the best fare I have found is £225 to all destinations, through Trailfinders (020 7937 5400). The same price applies to the West Coast: San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. The offer ends on Thursday, 14 December.

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