The Wonders of Oz
|The wonderfully surreal world of Oz: Kangaroo Island's Flinders Chase National Park (PhotoDisc)|
For a country as diverse and varied as Australiawith environs that range from the worlds largest barrier reef to a swath of rainforest 16 times older than the Amazon, from the tropical Top End to the semi-arid, red-sand-stained Outbackthe concept of a country-wide shoulder season is largely illusory. Winter in Sydney means its prime time to hit the Red Center and circumnavigate that gorgeous, massive big rock otherwise known as Uluru. Peak season in the Red Center also means Darwin and nearby Kakaduthe countrys largest national parkare in the middle of the dry season, ideal for bushwalking but the wrong time to visit if youve been dreaming of a helicopter tour of the parks signature waterfalls. Whats the shoulder-season-obsessed traveler to do? Simple: heed the fluctuating cost of airfare.
For those heading from Europe and North America, getting to Australia is the highest expenditure, and the best barometer in deciding when to go. Round-trip prices from L.A. to Sydney average around US$1,500 during the peak season (October to February, summer in the southern hemisphere). But if you travel during Australias winter and early spring (June through September), you can save as much as US$800. Want proof? Right now Qantas, Australias national airline, has web-only round-trip flights from L.A. to Sydney for about US$750 (available to U.S. citizens only; www.qantasusa.com/webDeals/205) provided you travel before the end of September. A word of advice, however: When you find a fare youre pleased with, book it. Only three carriers cover the U.S./Australia route (Qantas, United, and Air New Zealand), so the pickings can get slim. If you have a choice, go for Qantasthe service is commendable and food is surprisingly good; theyre partnered with American Airlines, which has loads of inexpensive routes throughout the States; and they carry the enviable reputation of having never lost a plane.
Package deals, normally taboo to most indie travelers, actually make for a very cost-effective alternative should you be willing to sacrifice independence to save some money. Tourism Australia (www.australia.com) offers a wide variety of package trips starting at $1,300international airfare, lodging, and all domestic flights are included, and there are trips tailored to every interest, from the adventure set to the over-50 crowd, from touring the Red Center to scuba diving off Cairns.
Should you instinctively lean toward the DIY mode, however, Qantas does offer an attractive, reasonably priced solution for domestic travel: the Boomerang Pass. Used in conjunction with an international ticket, you can purchase domestic flights at a reduced price (cost is divided into one of three zones, each zone dictated by the mileage flownzone one extends to 750 miles for AUS$160; zone three goes for 1,151 miles or more for AUS$360). A host of major Aussie cities are included, along with five gateway cities in New Zealand and a number of South Pacific islands. You must purchase the pass from the States, but you can buy more tickets for the same rate once in country.
Conversely, the domestic-flight market offers two competitive low-fare airlines: Virgin Blue and JetStar. Of the two, Virgin Blue (www.virginaustralia.com) definitely offers more options, including one-way flights from Sydney to Alice Springs for AUS$129 and to Cairns and Darwin for AUS$149. Virgin Blues flights cast a wide net across the vast expanse of Australia, and also offer inexpensive, no-frills flights to Tasmania and New Zealand. JetStar (www.jetstar.com.au/), the low-cost off-shoot of Qantas that launched in June of 2004 is still going through a few growing painsits routes concentrate mostly on the cities dotting the eastern and southern coasts, along with two flights to Tasmania. Sample fares include one-way flights from Sydney to the Sunshine Coast just north of Brisbane for AUS$79, Sydney to Melbourne for AUS$65, and AUS$95 from Sydney to the southern Tasmanian town of Hobart. As JetStar works out the kinks and hits its stride, a price war with Virgin Blue may start up, bringing some much-needed cost reduction in domestic travel across the continent.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication