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Bargain flights south will soon be high on the minds of many a sun-starved Brit. The dot.coms are put to the test

Dismal weather, dark evenings and drab surroundings - the best way to escape the encroaching British winter is to head south. And the best way to do that, travellers are increasingly assured, is to spend long evenings in front of the internet, trawling for that elusive bargain flight.

Dismal weather, dark evenings and drab surroundings - the best way to escape the encroaching British winter is to head south. And the best way to do that, travellers are increasingly assured, is to spend long evenings in front of the internet, trawling for that elusive bargain flight.

On the average working day, the travel desk here gets around a dozen telephone calls and faxes (but, strangely, few e-mails), from internet travel ventures. "The answer to every traveller's e-needs", is the usual promise. All too often, they fail to deliver. But in the past fortnight, two of Britain's biggest travel companies have launched services offering real-time, real availability searches - in other words, you can tap into the airlines' databases. One site, www.thomascook.com, has been upgraded; the other, www.skydeals.co.uk, has just been launched by Britain's biggest holiday company, Thomson. What distinguishes skydeals from the competition is the claim to be "the first website of its kind to feature every flight on one site, including scheduled, charter and low cost airlines".

Finding the best-value flight to anywhere in Europe has become a formidable challenge since no-frills airlines began five years ago. Besides the charter and scheduled options, new no-frills start-ups such as easyJet, Go and Buzz focus on selling direct to the public. The internet should be the ideal arena for finding the best deals, quickly and easily. But speed and ease are not qualities that characterised my search for some short-notice winter sun.

I tested the two new services against each other, and three established competitors, on the keenest target for October sun-seekers: Malaga, gateway to Spain's Costa del Sol. There is fierce competition for the traveller's cash between traditional scheduled airlines (British Airways and its alliance partner, Iberia, plus Monarch), no-frills carriers easyJet and Go, and a squadron of charter airlines.

I sought a flight departing on 14 October for a week. Any airport in the London area would do. Thomas Cook's service immediately offered five options, of which the cheapest was Monarch from Luton for £179.60 - correctly, it includes taxes, fees and charges in the price. The priciest was a bizarre combination, leaving Heathrow on BA to Madrid, changing to Iberia, and returning from Malaga direct to Gatwick, for £316.50. No, thanks; Monarch's scheduled service is faster, cheaper and superior.

When I consulted skydeals, the first surprise was that I was too late - for booking online for next Saturday, at least. But I could check out availability and buy through the call centre. The cheapest deal was exactly the same flight and price as Thomas Cook's; but only once I had done some arithmetic. The highly sophisticated computer appears incapable of adding up the base fare, fees and taxes. No charter flights were offered, though on other days in October there have been charters on offer for £109.

To find out about the no-frills flights - which don't pay commission to skydeals - users are invited to click on the logo of Go, the low-cost subsidiary of British Airways, or easyJet. Those who regard the internet with scepticism may feel vindicated by the fact that you need to tap in all the details again, before Go's no-frills deal - judging from the publicity, the best on offer - comes in at an ambitious £198 return. The best price of all, £105 including £10 of genuine tax, was on easyJet. These are for night flights, but the airline's site allows you to view all the options for a day either side, so you can choose the best combination of convenience and value.

The existing competitors were a less helpful bunch. With www.ebookers.com, you have to register first, and checking availability is a two stage operation. Only at the end of this process are you told about "taxes" (part of which are nothing of the sort). Over at www.lastminute.com, there was nothing on offer - except a link to www.expedia.com, which duly delivered that same Monarch flight for £179.60.

After all that, the simple message is: fly by night from Luton, on easyJet if you want the cheapest deal, or by Monarch for more comfortable timings and lots of good food. You can book by phone, too; easyJet (0870 6000 000) will charge a fiver extra, but Monarch (08700 40 50 40) sells for the same price.

Finding winter sun is not as tricky as it sometimes appears.

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