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If you want to visit Santa this Christmas, you need to book now. By Hester Lacey

Booking summer holidays in January comes quite naturally; the vista of sun in the grey days of winter is an attractive one. Booking Christmas trips in August somehow doesn't have the same sense of urgency. But travel companies are reporting big increases in bookings so now is the time to start planning - particularly if you want to meet Santa this year.

Last year, Richard Halliday was unlucky. "I'd promised my children, who were five and seven at the time, that we'd go and see Father Christmas in the snow. By the time I got round to picking up the brochures in late November and starting to phone round, everything was booked solid. The only thing I could find was a day-trip, which I thought would be too exhausting for the kids. So last year went down in history as The Year We Didn't Meet Santa. My wife was furious and the children were distraught."

Cosmos is already reporting a 50 per cent increase in Christmas breaks to Lapland this year - and last year's increase was 200 per cent. "We would have thought of it as a luxury holiday, but people are willing to spend the money," says a spokeswoman. "We have found that this sector involves a lot of repeat business, so we have expanded and improved the tours. The increase covers all sectors, but we have found it appeals particularly to grandparents taking their grandchildren." The company is expecting the trend to continue. "We believe the market will only improve."

A four or five-day trip with Cosmos starts at pounds 589 for adults, pounds 479 for children, and includes a morning trying out winter sports such as tobogganing, reindeer and husky sledging and snowmobiling. Also included is a ceremony of crossing the Arctic Circle, a Christmas feast, evening parties, and a visit from Santa, plus Christmas shopping. New this year are two themed tours. The Search for Santa involves hunting down Father Christmas on a snowmobile safari and husky sled trip (finding him is guaranteed); from pounds 729 adults, pounds 598 children. On the Great Christmas Adventure, guests can stay in log cabins, and again activities are included; from pounds 659 adults, pounds 539 children.

Airtours day trips to Lapland are already half to two-thirds booked and will be fully booked several months in advance, says a spokesman. The trips, which leave from regional airports during the middle two weeks of December, include winter activities, shopping, a visit to Santa Claus village and visits to Lapp teepees and campfires, cost pounds 299 per adult or child. Pre-Christmas trips have proved so successful that Airtours (01706 232324) has just introduced a day-trip to Rudesheim in Germany, for Christmas shopping at the famous craft and gift markets (pounds 159 per person).

Goodwood Travel (01227 763336) was the first British company to offer trips to Lapland in 1984. This year it has a one-day trip travelling both ways by Concorde (pounds 1,895) or a two-day trip flying Concorde one way and Finnair for the return trip (pounds 1,695). The one-day price includes a trip through forests of Christmas trees, reindeer sleigh rides, a visit to Santa Claus village, a Scandinavian banquet, and a visit from Santa; the two-day trip continues with a snowmobile safari. The company also offers Christmas lunches on Concorde, and Christmas shopping trips to Paris and New York (New York is already almost sold out).

"Our winter brochure has been out since March," says Tuija Hyvarinen of Norvista (0171 409 7334). "Maybe people have more money, but we already have more bookings this year than last. This kind of trip tends to fill up very quickly, people tend to think they can book late, and then they are very disappointed." Norvista offers longer trips, including scheduled flights with Finnair, Santa, snowmobiles, traditional food, tobogganing, skiing and sleigh rides. A three-day stay in Lapland in December starts at pounds 589 per adult, pounds 410 per child, and a six-day holiday over Christmas itself starts at pounds 850 per adult, pounds 518 per child.

It may seem ridiculous to start thinking about Christmas so early, but, says Richard Halliday, veteran of The Year His Children Didn't Meet Santa, it may well be worth it for the sake of peace in the family. "Last year we had tears and upset and I never heard the last of it."

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