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Packagers' rivalry is a bonus for fall vacationers

June 22, 2003|Arthur Frommer | Special to The Times

SUMMER has just begun, but it pays to start thinking about September travel opportunities.

That's especially true this year, since two transatlantic tour operators -- and -- have announced that starting just after Labor Day, they will be selling their one-week air-and-land packages to London at the same price that was available only in January and February.

When the weather is still at its best and the cultural life of the British capital is at its peak, West Coast residents will receive round-trip airfare and six nights with breakfast daily at a London hotel for as little as $649 per person.

Nothing could provide better proof of the severity of the current downturn in international travel. In previous Septembers, round-trip airfare alone would have cost more than $649.

These September bargains to London -- and they are matched by similar buys to other European capitals -- are offered by bitterly competitive companies that handle most of their transactions over the Internet. One of them,, of Bothell, Wash., even charges an additional $20 if you ask to speak with a reservation agent. But you don't have to. The Internet procedures are efficient and easy to learn.'s $649 package, valid for September and October, includes round-trip air from LAX or San Francisco, six nights at London's Apollo Hotel, continental breakfast, hotel taxes and service charges. Upgraded hotels cost $30 and up for the week. And there are departure taxes and government fees of up to $110 per person, as there are on all flights to London. Access on the Web or dial, for a surcharge, (800) 927-3876.'s adversary is, whose September/October packages involve Tuesday or Wednesday departures from LAX to London's Heathrow International and provide accommodations for six nights at the Mina House Hotel in London's Bayswater section, again with continental breakfast daily, hotel service charges and taxes.

The cost is $843 per person plus government departure taxes and fees of $110. Visit or phone (212) 679-7888. does not impose a surcharge if you call, and travelers wanting to make their reservations by phone might keep this in mind.

There are strong indications that the fall price war will also be in effect for Paris. Although has not yet issued its September/October pricing for the French capital, OffPeak recently fired the first volley with a $499-per-person price for one-week flights and hotel from Newark, N.J. (LAX fares are not yet available.)

Though September trade shows in Paris might keep rates high for the immediate post-Labor Day period, prices are expected to drop radically in October. Undoubtedly joining the fray will be Virgin Vacations, or (888) YES-VIRGIN (937-8474), a subsidiary of Virgin Atlantic Airways. In recent months, Virgin has become increasingly competitive.

Finally, has low rates for one-week air-and-land trips to Rome or Madrid in November and early December 2003: $679 per person for round-trip air from Los Angeles, six nights of hotel accommodations, continental breakfast daily and hotel taxes and service charges. That's $100 less than Rome and Madrid have cost in previous years. Obviously, the rates to all the most popular European capitals -- London, Paris, Madrid, Rome -- will come down further when we enter the deep winter months of January and February 2004.

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