Special Report on Long-Haul Air Travel: Putting a cut-price girdle round about the earth: Operators have bargains for travellers if they eschew routes to the Antipodes via South-east Asia. Simon Calder reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
FARES to Australia and New Zealand being offered by American and antipodean airlines that operate across the Pacific can be as cheap and often less expensive than for routes via the Far East.

For example, at Trailfinders in London you can pick up a scheduled one-way flight from Gatwick to Sydney, Australia, for pounds 270 (plus pounds 12 tax). Or rather, a series of three flights which take you meandering around the globe.

The first goes as far as Boston, where you transfer to a tiny propellor plane to New York, spending the night at your expense there. The next morning you fly to Osaka, losing a complete day. Never before has Japan's second city featured as a stopover on the London-Australia route; console your jetlagged soul with the knowledge that, had you flown here direct on British Airways, it would have cost pounds 683 just to get this far. Finally, 14,000 miles and three days later, you arrive in Sydney.

This is an extreme example of the phenomenon whereby going the long way around to Australia and New Zealand can be cheaper than the route via South-east Asia. British Airways' two-stop service from London to Auckland via Asia is quicker than Air New Zealand's Pacific flight, even though the latter stops only once, in Los Angeles. The time-saving for Australia is greater still.

In a world which has an over-supply of aircraft seats and a shortage of people to fill them, airlines are having to cut fares drastically. Add the over- capacity across the North Atlantic to the glut of seats over the Pacific, and the traveller who is prepared to take the west-bound route to the Antipodes is certain of a bargain.

The North American carriers are able to offer same-airline service all the way to Australia and New Zealand. As well as Northwest Airlines, Canadian, Continental and United Airlines can take you from Gatwick or Heathrow to the Antipodes. The prospect of a stopover in Houston or Toronto may not be quite so tempting as a few days in Bangkok or Bali, but on North American airlines you can almost design your own route.

The Pacific is also enticing: most carriers can offer a Honolulu option, while Air New Zealand offers the chance of a stopover in Tahiti or Fiji. It is the second-largest carrier to Australia, and sells some attractive through fares to seven cities.

Most of these deals are available only through agents. The UK has the world's best discount flight market, and a few calls can save a fortune. Perhaps the perfect solution is to combine a cut-price trans-Pacific flight to Australia and New Zealand with a discount fare across South-east Asia. It does not take a fortune to encircle the globe these days: you can make a round-the-world journey for less than the current excursion return fare from London to Moscow of pounds 723.

It is a buyer's market, and the bargains are there for the taking - especially across the Pacific. 'From the punter's point of view, it's fantastic', says Rob Lawrence of Campus Travel in London. 'There's never been a better time to visit Australasia'.

Even the politicians are coming to the aid of the traveller. The Northwest Airlines special offer is partly the result of a trade dispute. The New York-Osaka-Sydney route is the subject of a wrangle between the US and Japanese authorities. Japan is accusing Northwest of 'poaching' customers between Osaka and Sydney, and has said no more than half the passengers on this sector can originate in Osaka. The remaining 50 per cent of seats have to be filled somehow, and offering impecunious Brits a cheap trip to Australia is one way to do it.

The winners of this particular skirmish are the bleary-eyed voyagers in the transit lounge at Osaka. They may not have any idea of what day it is, but they have the right idea about how to save money on the long haul to Sydney. Goodness knows what the people of Osaka make of it all.