Room wars

BRITAIN's country house hotels have begun a summer price battle. The opening shot was fired by Bob Payton, the American hospitality mogul, to celebrate (or mourn) his 50th birthday. All rooms at his Stapleford Park country house in Leicestershire cost pounds 50 per person per night until the end of next month, a reduction of about 75 per cent.

De Vere Hotels (0925 639499) has cut its rates until the end of September. Examples include Mottram Hall in Cheshire, and Oulton Hall, Yorkshire, both of which cost a total of pounds 200 for two people for two nights, including dinner and breakfast.

Cheaper, if a little less opulent, is the deal offered by Queen's Moat Houses. The chain is selling two nights' bed and breakfast for only pounds 39 per person, with the option of dinner for a further pounds 10. Bookings must include a Saturday or Sunday night, and the offer ends on 4 September. Call 0787 880110 for a brochure, or 0645 712713 to reserve a room.

Holiday Inn has thrown its corporate hat into the ring, offering rooms for pounds 34 a night, including breakfast, in areas not normally swamped with tourists such as Ashford, Warrington, and Brent Cross in north- west London. The company offers the same price at some French properties, at Nantes, Dijon, Marseille, Orleans and Toulon.

These rates are subject to a two-night minimum stay. Other cities are available at higher prices. Call 0800 897121 for details.

Dirty dollars

THE only universally acceptable currency in Latin America (even in Cuba) is the US dollar, but travellers are finding it increasingly difficult to offload bills in poor condition. Brian Wood, of the adventure travel company Explore Worldwide, says: 'The problem seems to stem from a paranoia about counterfeit money. Even a small nick out of a note can cause problems.'

Road to Ireland

THE new fast ferry between Fishguard and Rosslare, mentioned in this column a fortnight ago, has now begun operations - and from 15 July it will have a bus link at each end. Eurolines (0345 626452) plans a daily service from London, Reading and Bristol to Waterford, Limerick and Cork; London to Cork takes a shade under 14 hours. The flat fare for all the journeys is pounds 56 return for adults and pounds 42 for under-16s.

Man faster

VISITING the Isle of Man has become a little easier with the introduction this week of SeaCat services between Douglas and Fleetwood, Liverpool, Dublin and Belfast. The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company (0624 661661) says the journey time between Fleetwood and Douglas will be reduced to two hours, a good 90 minutes less than the old ferry. A day trip costs pounds 23 return.

Happy hiking

WINETRAILS is a new company that aims to bring bottle labels to life on gentle hiking tours through wine-producing regions of France. On 6 August and 10 September it has trips to the Loire Valley, strolling through the Saumur region. The price of pounds 690 includes eight days' full board, but not travel from the UK. Call 0306 712111 for details.

Cheap hops

COMPETITION between airlines on flights from the UK to Paris and Amsterdam has forced prices down to their lowest levels for years - and most can be booked direct with the airline. From London to Amsterdam, a midweek return fare of pounds 77 is on offer from British Midland (0345 554554), KLM (081-750 9000) and Air UK (0345 666777). British Airways (0345 222111) charges pounds 1 more. Travel on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday costs an extra pounds 9 in each direction. To Paris, midweek fares are slightly higher but weekend supplements lower.

Prices for regional departures are falling, too; East Midlands to Amsterdam or Paris costs pounds 99 on British Midland, while the KLM or BA fare from Manchester to Amsterdam is pounds 101.

Late availability

Crystal Holidays (081-399 5144): 2, 6 and 13 July, Gatwick-Salzburg pounds 89.

Madison Flights (0273 202532): 5 July, Gatwick-Alicante pounds 99; 18 July, Gatwick- Faro pounds 99; 3 or 6 July, Gatwick-Ibiza pounds 89.

Multitours (071-931 7787): 7 or 11 July, Gatwick-Pisa pounds 119; 16 July, Gatwick-Milan pounds 115.

The Travel Bug (061-721 4000): until 30 July, Gatwick-Dubai on Qatar Airways via Doha, pounds 378.

Late packages

Sunrider Holidays (0928 576471): 8 and 11 July, Costa Brava, Costa Dorada or south of France, seven-night camping break, pounds 79, including coach travel from one of 66 pick-up points in Britain.

Twickers World (081-892 7606): 8 and 15 July, Gatwick-Sharm el Sheikh, seven nights B&B including Red Sea diving course, pounds 493.

Jasmin Tours (0628 531121): until 28 July, Cairo, three nights B&B, pounds 279, including BA flights from Heathrow; free connecting flights from Aberdeen, Belfast, Glasgow, Edinburgh, or Manchester if you book 15 days in advance.