Eager to leave? Advice for Australians facing sky-high travel costs

Limited routes, strong demand and last-minute bookings come at a cost, but there are some affordable holiday options

If you want to get from Australia to Europe in June or July on a route without long or multiple stopovers, a return economy flight will cost you at least $4,500, and on many dates, over $6,000. The cheapest fares, which include long or multiple stopovers, and upwards of 40 hours’ travel time, are around $3,000​​. To get to the United States, a direct return flight to Los Angeles is $4,300.

It’s a staggering increase from pre- and even mid-pandemic levels. What might once have covered an entire holiday, with cash to spare, is now the cost of the plane ticket alone.

Flight Centre managing director Andrew Stark says increasing fuel costs, a lack of competition and limited airlines flying into Australia are the main culprits behind steep fares.

The fact Australians are eager to leave the country after more than two years of travel bans and uncertainty is compounding the issue, says Naomi Hahn of price comparison website Skyscanner. “The strong demand is meeting and sometimes outpacing available seats, which causes higher prices for tickets.”

Domestically, holidaymakers are also facing cost increases, with Stark saying accommodation is both more expensive and booking out faster. “Now that international borders are open again, a lot of Australian holiday destinations are booking up … in some instances for the rest of the year.”

Add to that the general cost-of-living pressures from rising fuel, grocery bills and interest rate rises, and a much-needed winter escape – or long-awaited reunion with family and friends overseas – is slipping out of reach for many Australians.

For now, it is not possible to travel on a pre-pandemic budget without making compromises – in location, route, forward-planning time or all three. But travel experts say with a few strategic concessions, there are still value-for-money trips to be had.

For any trip: plan well ahead

Stark says the uncertainty we’re currently facing means “customers are generally booking closer to their travel dates than ever before”. While this is understandable, it also means paying more. “Our advice is as soon as you know where and when you want to go, to book, as the further out, the better deal you’ll get.”

Skyscanner data suggests the cheapest time to book a trip to London, on average, is 18 weeks ahead of the scheduled departure date.

This is also true for the US, where data from flight comparison tool Hopper shows above-average or well-above-average prices for flights to Los Angeles all the way through to September, with direct flights costing at minimum $2,000.

Prices for peak travel times in December and January are also very high.

Venice Beach in Los Angeles.
Venice Beach in Los Angeles. Photograph: Ringo Chiu/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Domestic trips also require advanced planning, especially during peak periods such as school holidays and long weekends. “For school holiday bookings, for example, you’ll want to look at this right after the previous school holiday period,” Stark says.

Book insurance!

Given an untimely Covid infection could torpedo travel plans at the last minute, Stark suggests booking “good-quality travel insurance as soon as you book your first flight, so if things do change, you’re covered”. While this adds to the overall cost of a trip, it could wind up paying for itself many times over if things go wrong.

Many travel insurance policies will not cover the cost of cancelled plans booked more than 48 hours before the policy is purchased, so book your insurance at the same time as, or before, the rest of your trip.

For short breaks: stay close and stay midweek

Boroka lookout in the Grampians national park in Victoria.
Boroka lookout in the Grampians national park in Victoria. Photograph: ms_pics_and_more/Shutterstock

Although domestic flight price increases aren’t nearly as steep, the best option for a short break is to cut out the cost of flights and hire cars entirely, and pick a destination accessible by car or public transport.

For Melburnians, Wotif’s Daniel Finch says the Grampians have “some of the best-value accommodation in the country, with accommodation rates averaging less than $200 per night”. The region has also just unveiled a new mural by artist Sam Bates as part of its 200km silo art trail.

In New South Wales, a break that leans into the winter chill offers the best value. Wotif recommends Orange as a good choice, with accommodation averaging $172 a night. Albury and the Murray region also have good availability and reasonable prices, while in South Australia, the Limestone Coast, three hours’ drive from Adelaide near the Victorian border, has prices averaging $158 a night.

Queensland’s Fraser Coast tops Wotif’s suggestions for warmer escapes, with good accommodation availability, and an average price of $174 per night.

Finch says travelling outside peak periods – for instance midweek rather than on weekends – is likely to lead to better prices.


For longer domestic stays: go where the tourists aren’t

Package deals that bundle accommodation and travel can be more affordable than booking separately.

Stark says the best value for money within Australia at the moment is for “destinations that aren’t necessarily popular with international visitors. Areas such as the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia have some great deals”.

He also recommends looking out for flight sales, which are “just as if not more frequent than pre-Covid”.

Wotif tips north Queensland as the best spot for a warm-weather winter break, with the best prices and availability in Mackay and Townsville, where accommodation averages $149 and $154 per night respectively, and Cairns also offering reasonable availability and rates.

Townsville marina in Queensland.
Winter escape: Townsville in north Queensland. Photograph: Shelley Dempsey/AAP

Darwin and Katherine are also good options for warmer weather, though you will need to factor in car hire costs, which start at around $100 a day, according to price comparison site Kayak.

In Western Australia, Wotif say there is still good availability (and good weather) on the Coral Coast, though accommodation prices average around $209 per night.

It is also worth considering rolling your hire car and accommodation costs into one by renting a caravan or RV. Rates at caravan parks tend to be much cheaper than hotels, or even free. Vans can be booked through traditional rental car services, or through peer-to-peer renting website Camplify.

For affordable campsites, try Hipcamp, which has powered and unpowered campsites, pre-set-up tents and even tiny houses on private properties across Australia.

Ningaloo Reef, near Exmouth on Western Australia’s Coral Coast.
Ningaloo Reef, near Exmouth on Western Australia’s Coral Coast. Photograph: Nature Picture Library/Alamy

For international trips: be flexible

If you can be flexible with dates, Hahn suggests using Skyscanner’s “whole month” and “cheapest month” search tools.

For those who care more about a journey than a destination, Hahn also recommends using the “everywhere” search, which shows the cheapest available trips both domestically and overseas for the entire month. In July, there are return economy trips available to Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand and Indonesia for under $400.

Stark says “destinations that were popular for their value and ease of experience, such as Bali, Fiji and even Hawaii are still great places for a value-for-money holiday”. He says prices are likely to fall as more destinations ease their travel restrictions, and this will lead to greater competition in the market.

“Mix and matching the airlines and airports you choose to fly with and from can seriously cut costs,” Hahn says. “Flying out with one airline and back with another, or out of one airport and back into another, can save money.”

Fiji still offers a value-for-money holiday, says Flight Centre managing director Andrew Stark.
Fiji offers a value-for-money holiday, says Flight Centre managing director Andrew Stark. Photograph: 7Michael/Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you do plan to cobble together your own route, good travel insurance is even more important, as booking through multiple airlines will increase your back-end administrative work if you need to cancel or change plans.

Setting up alerts to track prices over time can also help if you are booking in advance. This can be done on most major travel comparison websites as well as via Google.

When you arrive at your destination you can also save on accommodation costs by considering programs such as house swapping, not-for-profit hospitality exchange network Be Welcome, house or pet minding or a volunteering holiday.


Alyx Gorman

The GuardianTramp

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