It may be 50 shopping days away, but travel packages are beginning to look a lot like Christmas. In fact, it might be difficult in some cases to get reservations even at this date. But there's a wide variety of packages available -- and cancellations do occur.
Exciting adventures overseas will again vie this year with seasonal celebrations closer to home. They range from religious observances in Bethlehem and Jerusalem to wild-game viewing on African safaris, from hobnobbing with nobility at British country estates to nostalgic sleigh rides and skiing in New England. Many of the foreign journeys obviously are aimed at an upscale market.
Here are a few of the possibilities:
*"Christmas in the Holyland": The 23-day journey starts Dec. 11 with a flight from New York to Cairo, includes a cruise on the Nile, a visit to Jordan and then -- on Dec. 24 -- a drive across the King Hussein Bridge into Israel en route to Jerusalem. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will be spent in Bethlehem, followed by a special dinner in Jerusalem. The tour will include visits to sacred sites, trips to Tiberias and Tel Aviv, and a flight to Athens for a few days in Greece. Cost for land arrangements is $3,480 per person, double occupancy; APEX round-trip air fare from New York is $962 (with the return trip through Athens); domestic Egypt air fare, $154.
*"Christmas in Africa": The 26-day trip begins with an overnight flight on Dec. 7 from New York to Amsterdam, connecting with a flight to Nairobi. The travelers will visit the grasslands of the Masai Mara, with its large lion prides; other Kenyan game parks; and Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls. In South Africa they will travel from Johannesburg to Cape Town on the famed Blue Train and celebrate New Year's Eve at the Mala Mala Game Lodge. Land arrangements cost $3,900 per person, double occupancy. Round-trip excursion air fare from New York is $1,999; domestic Kenya air fare, $50, and Mala Mala air fare, $161.
More information on both trips: Hemphill/Harris Travel Corp., 16000 Ventura Blvd., Suite 200, Encino, Calif. 91436, (818) 906-8086.
*"Christmas at Brocket Hall": For the third year, Lord and Lady Brocket will welcome 24 holiday guests at their stately home in the English countryside about two hours from London. Besides spending five of the 16 days -- Dec. 23-28 -- at the 1,000-acre estate, surrounded by works of art and antique furnishings and served by a staff of 10, tour members will attend parties at private clubs and mingle with the British aristocracy.
Highlights include six days at London's Dorchester Hotel, the opera at Royal Opera House Covent Garden, dinner in the home of a London family, a Christmas Eve Carol Ceremony, Boxing Day Hunt Meet, three days at Hambleton Hall and a New Year's Eve black-tie ball at the Hyde Park Hotel in London. Cost of the package is $4,980 per person, double occupancy, exclusive of air fare.
More information: William D. Buckman Traveltime, 17 North State St., Chicago, Ill. 60602, (800) 621-4725.
*"Christmas at Chalcot, New Year's at the Ritz": Chalcot, the home of Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Rudd, located between Salisbury and Bath, England, will offer the traditional crackling log fires, carol singers and mulled wine -- plus a medieval banquet and typical English Christmas with roast goose -- to 10 travelers. From Dec. 23-27, the estate has been reserved exclusively for guests of Lindblad Travel, as part of a 15-day program departing New York on Dec. 19.
Lindblad notes that tour members also have been invited by Lord and Lady Spencer for luncheon and cocktails on Dec. 30 at their private residence in Althorp, Northampton; Lord Spencer is the father of Britain's Diana, princess of Wales. (Titles and exclusivity are valued selling points on various British tours. Country Homes and Castles, a London firm that offers a similar holiday package for 20 Americans, has set up the luncheon both for itself and for Lindblad. But due to a scheduling problem, clients of both operators will have to share the same luncheon date, although perhaps in separate rooms. Country Homes said the Spencers do not attend tour-group lunches, but they might appear for cocktails if in residence.)
The Chalcot package begins and ends at the Ritz Hotel in London, where guests will attend the New Year's Eve Dinner Dance and the Ritz Resolution Tea Dance on New Year's Day. Rates are $4,200 per person, double occupancy, exclusive of air fare.
Information: Lindblad Travel Inc., P.O. Box 912, One Sylvan Road North, Westport, Conn. 06881, (800) 243-5657. Fendler-Fuller-Ward Travel (for Country Homes packages), 480 East Paces Ferry Rd. NE, Atlanta, Ga. 30305, (404) 261-1688.
*"A Traditional Christmas and Hogmanay,": From Dec. 23 to Jan. 4, and from London to Edinburgh, Scotland, a maximum of 35 guests will celebrate both the Yuletide and the New Year together.
After meeting in London, the group will drive through country villages to Norwich, with time during the next few days for sightseeing, carols, services in the Norman Cathedral, Christmas luncheon, a Meet of the Foxhounds, and the theater. Later they will visit the medieval City of Chester, drive into the Lake District of northern England, and cross the border to Edinburgh. A Scottish Hogmanay dinner will usher in the New Year. The tour will end with additional days in London and a tour of the Canterbury Cathedral. Cost: $1,492.50 per person, double occupancy, exclusive of air fare.
Information: Heritage Travellers, 41 E. 42nd St. (Suite 2312), New York, N.Y. 10017 (800-358-3330).
*"Sound of Music": Christmas dinner in Salzburg, the Vienna Opera and musical performances in Germany and Hungary are all part of this seventh annual 17-day tour departing New York by air Dec. 20 for Frankfurt.
The itinerary includes Heidelberg, Nuremberg, Rothenburg and Salzburg (scene of a Christmas Eve dinner, a Christmas Day concert and traditional dinner), Budapest and Vienna (where New Year's Eve will be celebrated at the Kaiser Ball). The return flight is from Munich after sightseeing in the Bavarian countryside. Cost from New York, including all accommodations, entertainment, escort, excursions, certain meals, private motor coach and international air fare, is $2,711 per person, double occupancy.
*"Shopping Tours": For gift-givers who delight in dispensing English woolens, French perfumes, Belgian lace and diamonds, nine-day shopping trips will leave New York for London, Paris and Brussels on Dec. 1 and 8.
Each tour is limited to 30 persons. It includes deluxe and first-class hotels, daily continental breakfast, three gourmet dinners, city tours, discount coupons, shopping guides and intra-Europe transportation. Price per person, double occupancy, is $899, excluding transatlantic air fare.
Information for both tours: The Cortell Group, 3 E. 54th St., New York, N.Y. 10022, (800) 223-6626.
*"Christmas in New England": This nine-day vacation features five nights at the Trapp Family Lodge owned and operated by the "Sound of Music" family -- Baroness Maria von Trapp and her children. A blend of Austria and New England, the property overlooks Stowe, Vt.
The tour is limited to 30 guests and begins Dec. 18 at Boston's Logan Airport, with the first three nights being spent at the Deerfield Inn in Deerfield, Conn. It includes shopping in selected villages, visits to local families and churches for lunch, and stops at Mark Twain's home, Old Sturbridge Village and Woodstock, Vt.
The lodge offers sleigh rides, a Christmas tree-cutting expedition, a tree-trimming party and, on the 25th, a family-style Christmas dinner. Guests are advised to bring their ski equipment -- a complimentary cross-country lesson is part of the package, plus accommodations, coach transport, full-time guide and all meals (except two lunches). Cost: $1,600 per person, double occupancy, exclusive of air fare.
Information: Country Inn Tours, 2930 Camino Diablo, Walnut Creek, Calif. 94596 (800-227-2432).
*"Christmas Tours": An illustrated booklet from Maupintour describes a number of packages close to home, including: "Williamsburg Christmas Gala," featuring the lighting of the community Christmas Tree in Market Square, a banquet with entertainment and visits to the James River plantation and Carter's Grove, from Dec. 21-28, $898 per person double occupancy; "Pennsylvania Dutch Gala," covering Philadelphia and visits to an Amish homestead, Winterthur, Longwood Gardens and Bethlehem, Pa., Dec. 19-26, $848 per person double occupancy; "New York Christmas Gala," offering a room at the Waldorf Astoria, shopping on Fifth Avenue, the "Nutcracker" performance at Lincoln Center and an excursion to Washington Irving's home in the Hudson Valley, $938 per person, double occupancy; "New Mexico Christmas Gala," exploring Santa Fe, Spanish and Indian culture, Albuquerque and joining in the Luminarias Cavalcade on Christmas Eve, Dec. 20-27, $898 per person double occupancy.
Passengers on these escorted domestic trips are transported by motorcoach, starting from each tour's originating city, and no smoking is permitted aboard the vehicles.
Information: Maupintour, P.O. Box 807, Lawrence, Kan. 66044, (913) 843-1211.