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It may be a little early to start thinking about Christmas, but it's exactly the right time to start thinking about Christmas travel. Early booking specials to European Christmas Markets -- outdoor paths lined with stalls filled with Christmas trinkets, hand-crafted gifts, home-cooked foods, and lots of cheer, folly and music -- are available through several online booking travel providers. These package trips not only give you a festive glimpse of off-season Europe, they fill up your family's Christmas stockings with interesting, exotic, and innovative gifts. Held in and around town squares and churches in big cities and small towns, European Christmas Markets are joyous occasions for entire families and people of all ages.

So big is the European Christmas tour cottage industry becoming, Atlas Cruises and Tours have set up a website devoted to Christmas Market Tours (tel. 800/942-3301; www.christmasmarkettours.com). Whether you want to experience the charm of a German European market or the fun nights of the Scandinavian markets, this site offers tours and deals to both.

Through the Atlas portal page, we found a land-only "Christmastime in Bavaria" trip through Globus Journeys (tel. 866/755-8581; www.globusjourneys.com) that tours the Christmas markets in Central and Eastern Europe. Taking advantage of the musical and architectural highlights along the way, this package also makes stops to hear Christmas choirs and light installations. The ten-day package includes stops in Munich, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, and Vienna. While all the Christmas markets have their individual charm, the Hungarian Christmas in Budapest is allegedly extremely heart-warming, combining children's choirs with chamber music, large flower displays and ice sculptures and great displays of Hungarian pride. Departing in early December through mid-December with the latest return dates taking place on Christmas Day, this trip starts at $1,199.

Not to be outdone, Gate 1 (tel. 800/682-3333; www.gate1travel.com) provides links to their "Christmas Market" trips right from the home page. Among combination trips and Christmas specials, a six-day four-night air/land Christmas market special to Prague starts at $699 for travel departing on November 29 and December 6 and 13, 2006. Accommodations start at tourist class hotels and go up to the large, centrally-located Marriott Hotel in the center of the city, available at a small price upgrade. At the tourist class, the 53-room Dalimil Hotel is small, clean and well run hotel with simple amenities and an in-house restaurant serving Czech and international foods. Located a slight distance to the Old Town Center, the Dalimil offers the unique, fun, and local way to get to the town center -- a hop on for a few coins tram ride. With wide open windows and a century old track hugging the curves and offering sensational glimpses of the way of life along its route, trams are an easy and educational way to cruise around Prague. Also included in this trip is daily breakfast. Airport security fees and departure taxes are additional.

Another Gate 1 Christmas market tour is a unique eight-day six-night "Danube river cruise" starting in Hungary before making stops in Bratislava, Vienna, Melk, Salzburg and finally Passau before heading to Munich for the trip home. The eight-day trip departs on December 20, 2006. The air/land trip costs $1,319 with the same trip excluding airfare costing $699. Category upgrades are available for larger cabins. All meals are included while on the cruise. Your home for six-nights will be the large and modern river vessel the MS Johan Strauss. Built in 2004, this 415-foot long ship is practically brand new. All amenities are modern, including a fitness center, dining room, café, large sunning and sightseeing deck and television in the cabins. An additional feature included in this package is a captain's farewell dinner and a Sound of Music evening.

While they don't necessarily call them Christmas Market trips, Go-Today (tel. 800/227-3235; www.go-today.com) has exceptional single city travel deals to Munich, Prague, and some Scandinavian cities. A three-night five-day air and hotel inclusive package to Munich with travel good from December 15, 2006 to January 3, 2007 starts at $749; a six-night Prague-Budapest air and land special good for the same time period starts at $1,039; and a Stockholm three-night trip with airfare and accommodations starts at $799. These Go-Today trips are the height of independent travel. They just get you there, give you somewhere to sleep, and feed you breakfast. The rest is up to you. The booking deadline for these European trips with Go-Today is August 10, 2006.

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