With ‘Christmas in July’ celebrations drawing to a close, many Aussies will be looking forward to the real thing in December.
White Christmas tours have become hot (or very cold!) property in the Australian travel market, with many wanting to experience the fairy tale scenes that dominate our Christmas imagery. Sleigh rides through the snow, chestnuts roasting by the fire, shopping at quaint Christmas markets, drinking mulled wine… not a cheesy Christmas carol but some of the experiences typically offered in northern hemisphere Christmas tours.
“Experiencing Europe over the Christmas period has never been more popular with Australian travellers,” says Lorraine Sharp, managing director of tour operator Insight Vacations, which has added 11 itineraries to its European winter offerings this year. “The concept of white Christmas holds such a strong appeal for Australians.”
The early days
Euan Landsborough, managing director of The Albatross Travel Group, says the company was alone in the market when it released its first dedicated Christmas tour 15 years ago. The few tours available for the Christmas period were just “summer tours run over winter”, and there was no publicity in Australia about Europe’s Christmas markets. “The nearest romantic notice the public had about the fun and nostalgia that could be had over Christmas was the sleigh scene in Dr Zhivago,” Landsborough says.
There are now many tour operators offering Christmas and New Year tours in Europe, and to a lesser extent North America, clustered around areas that reliably receive snow. And the industry is becoming much smarter at marketing these tours, in many cases releasing dedicated brochures rather than burying them at the back of their standard brochures.
Spoilt for choice
APT this year released its first stand-alone brochure combining all available white Christmas tours in Europe and Canada/Alaska, to meet demand from travellers looking for a white Christmas “somewhere in the northern hemisphere”.
The Globus group, which includes Globus, Cosmos and Avalon Waterways, has also combined its efforts into one winter program, outlining all available tours for the Christmas travel period. Christian Schweitzer, spokesman for the group, says an added benefit of travelling in winter is that prices are up to 15 per cent cheaper than summer. “Travelling in winter means you can avoid the crowds, take advantage of off-season prices and enjoy Europe at its most atmospheric,” Schweitzer says. “It’s definitely a popular choice for a lot of Australians.”
Schweitzer says Germany and Central Europe are the most popular destinations in the lead-up to Christmas, particularly towns such as Nuremberg and Bamberg, which are famous for their Christmas markets. Many Australians do their Christmas shopping at the markets and return home in time for Christmas and the rest of the Australian summer.
Euan Landsborough says Christmas markets run from the end of November until Christmas Eve and are best visited at dusk: “that’s the time to really enjoy them”. Christmas tours can also include experiences such as sleigh rides, mountain visits, special dinners, carols or more unusual experiences such as steam train rides through the snow.
In line with the general growth in popularity of cruising, Christmas cruises are also taking off as a way of celebrating the festive season. Operators including APT, Scenic Tours, Avalon Waterways and Uniworld offer cruises incorporating Christmas markets and experiences such as festive dinners or Christmas concerts. However, Landsborough warns that a Christmas cruise will not necessarily be a white Christmas experience. “Global warming has heated the valleys… often there is no snow,” he says. “You need to get into the mountains to capture that feeling.”
Tour operators say land-based trips are mostly contained within in a circle around Austria and southern Germany, taking in parts of Italy and Switzerland. Many Australians also spend part of the Christmas or New Year period doing a ‘city stay’ in London or Paris, taking in the shopping and nightlife.
Landsborough says while there is still some availability for Christmas tours in 2010, many people get inspired over the Christmas break and start planning for the following year.
Winter might represent big savings on tours, but airfares can be a catch. Late November through to January is peak season for flights out of Australia, due to the extended holidays and people wanting to join family or friends for Christmas.
Flight Centre says policies vary from airline to airline, and gives the example of China Airlines having low season prices to London until December 8, while Qantas has ‘high shoulder season’ from mid-November and high season from December 3. Travelling even a day or two earlier can make the difference of hundreds of dollars.
Flight Centre says the best time to book flights for Christmas travel is around February, when earlybird deals are released, although different offers may apply to those booking in conjunction with a tour.
This article appeared in Jane E. Fraser’s weekly travel column in The Sun Herald, Sydney