Oprah Winfrey and the audience from her season premiere show are Down Under right now beginning their "Oprah's Australian Adventure." As the Big O wraps up her life as a syndicated-TV demi-goddess, Tourism Australia put together the trip of a lifetime for about 300 loyal viewers who were lucky enough to be present when her final season began.
According to a CNN video report, the group, which flew down in two jets, has already hit Sydney's historic The Rocks neighborhood and Taronga Zoo. Rumors about the rest of their secret itinerary have them heading to the Great Barrier Reef, to Byron Bay for surfing, to New South Wales' Hunter Valley for wine tasting, to the eucalyptus forests of the Blue Mountains, to the state of Victoria, and to the top of Sydney's Harbour Bridge with BridgeClimb. On Tuesday, December 14, they arrive back at Bennelong Point, to the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House -- temporarily called the "Oprah House" -- to shoot two episodes.
Sounds rich! Five years ago, it might have been quite a budget coup to save up for a visit like that. But in the past few years, a few new developments have made Australia a lot more affordable than it used to be.What's changed for Americans who want to visit Australia, and how have the changes made a trip to Australia something you could actually save up for?
The newfangled wide-bodied, double-decker A380 can shuttle some 450 people at a time across the Pacific from the West Coast of the United States. Such big numbers has helped drive the price of tickets down. Whereas it might have cost $1,500 to get Down Under in the middle of its summer (our winter) five years ago, a few weeks ago Qantas, the national carrier, was selling them for $938.
Qantas got a bit of bad press last month when the engine on one of its enormous A380s exploded over Singapore. In fairness, the engines were made by Rolls-Royce, which is being blamed, and the airline acted immediately before anyone got hurt. Qantas has been flying since 1920, making it one of the oldest airlines on the planet, and since then it has never lost a single passenger on any of its jets. That's an extraordinary record.
Another major reason prices have dropped is that Qantas finally has some meaningful competition. In 2009, Richard Branson's upstart airline Virgin Blue, a cousin of Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic, sent its V Australia liners to Los Angeles. Qantas, which had been the trendsetter for transpacific pricing, had no choice but to lower rates to compete. Right now, V is selling tickets to Sydney, Brisbane, or Melbourne for $1,085 for most of the first half of 2011. Qantas responded with a lower price of $998. In that war, you're the victor.
Those rates still aren't cheap, but they're about $200 to $400 less than they used to be at the same time of year. You'd be hard-pressed to name any other air route that has seen prices drop about 35% in the past few years.
When it comes to flying Down Under, I strongly advise you pick an Australian-flagged carrier. They're used to shuttling people across vast oceans, and their in-cabin services are more comfortable than most American carriers'. They simply know how to do it better.
Less discretionary income means fewer people are spending on big vacations. The downturn means more seats are flying empty, which in turn means the airlines need to mark down prices to fill them. Last year, for instance, you could get a round-trip ticket to Sydney from America in June for $680 -- and that was including taxes and fees. That's generally less than what it cost to fly to Europe at the same time.
Lower airfare has a ripple effect. In March, a company called Goway could sell you an entire trip to Australia -- round-trip airfare, four nights' hotel in Sydney, one night in the nearby Blue Mountains, plus a rental car -- for just $1,299 from San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Other packages, including some put together by Qantas itself, are in steady supply -- so much so that the national tourism office, Tourism Australia, has been confidently marketing single-week "Walkabout" trips to everyday Americans for a few years now. A decade ago, its pitches were angled more toward multi-week journeys, which fewer people could take.
Think about what you'd pay for some vacations back home. A Tower room at Walt Disney World's Contemporary Resort costs $440 a night in early February. A standard hotel room in Chicago or New York City's Times Square during the same period easily costs $250 to $300 or more. That means a week in Australia can be had for about what you'd pay to visit several of America's most popular destinations. This is a new wrinkle in travel.
Aussies are Cheap
I don't mean that as an insult. I see it as a way of life that has created the infrastructure that will offset the high cost of getting there. In Australia, and in fact nearly every English-descended nation besides America, they have what's called the "Gap Year," in which kids finish school and then take a year (or a few) off before continuing with university and their lives. It's a social expectation that young people get out there and see the world while they can.
So the country is jammed with affordable ways to do just that, from some of the nicest budget accommodation in the world (the "upmarket hostel" chain Base Backpackers has women-only "Sanctuary" floors, linens, and gym memberships) to legions of tour companies geared toward people who don't travel on champagne budgets. Camping, B&Bs, and apartment hotels are bigger and more accessible lodging categories than fancy five-star and business-class hotels. Renting a camper van is just as easy as renting a mid-size car (which in Australia is likely to be a Holden Commodore).
I have been to Australia about six times (here's a video of me at Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock -- one of more than a dozen short travelogue videos I made about six years ago as I toured the country), and one of the beautiful things about the place, besides the land and the people, is that no one looks down on you if you say you don't want to spend much. I can't say that for most of Europe or even America. In Australia, self-sufficiency is a virtue that was embedded in the culture back when the entire country was a wilderness. Americans lost that virtue with time, but Aussies still have it.
On trips to Australia, the one area in which Americans are now at a disadvantage is currency exchange. After years during which one American dollar would buy you more than one Australian dollar, this fall the two dollars reached parity. (Today, a greenback buys AUD $1.01.) That's not necessarily a bad thing, since Aussie prices are essentially what you'd expect an American price to be. But it does mean that there are fewer outright bargains on the ground because of a favorable exchange.
So Oprah's audience may have nearly had conniptions when they were gifted with their trips of a lifetime, but in truth, a trip is a lot more do-able than it used to be. The mystique of the overly-expensive Australian vacation is waning, but fortunately, the mystique of the country endures.
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