Despite the traumatic floods of recent weeks, Australia remains one of the most exciting and varied destinations on the planet. However, the days of almost three Aussie dollars to the pound are but a distant memory: it's slumped as low as A$1.50, and closed at A$1.60 yesterday, making life punishingly expensive. But you can ease the burden ...
"Australia is becoming the new Iceland when it comes to tourism – we're too expensive, and difficult to get to." Clive Dorman, The Sydney Morning Herald. In other words, Australia's tourism officials are alarmed about the damage that the soaring dollar will have on visitor numbers.
Timing it right
The secret to finding relatively cheap deals to Australia is picking the right time of year to go. Almost all of the cheapest fares are for flights between mid-April and mid-June. This is when the weather isn't the best in the southern Australian cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, but not the worst either (July and August can be surprisingly cold).
However, the wet season in tropical Queensland and the Northern Territory tends to end by mid-May. May and June can be the perfect time there – it's largely dry, there's lots of sunshine and the winter sun-seekers from the southern states have yet to arrive.
Get me there
Good deals for this period are currently available with Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; www.cathaypacific. com/uk), which is offering flights to Perth for from £739, Melbourne from £819 and Sydney from £799 if you book before 17 February. Emirates (0844 800 2777; www.emirates.com) is undercutting on the Perth route: £699 fares are available when booked before 31 January. That's also the date when the Qantas (08457 747767; www.qantas.co.uk) sale ends.
The Australian airline is offering flights to Perth for from £699, Melbourne from £736, Darwin from £743, Cairns from £745 and Sydney from £749. Importantly, Qantas is allowing flights to be taken between 19 February and 31 March for just £40-£60 more.
New flight sales get released all the time, however. Royal Brunei (020-7584 6660; www.bruneiair.com/uk), China Airlines (020-7436 9001; www.china-airlines.com) and Malaysia Airlines (0870 607 9090; www.malaysiaairlines.com) are some of the lesser-known carriers to search out.
My website, www.australiaflightbargains.com, can help.
Reef, rock, Opera House and...
Whoa, there. That's the classic, overdraft-inducing mistake. Think not of Australia as a country to "do" in a few weeks, but a continent to tackle a section or two at a time. That way you'll have a more rewarding experience, in terms of expense and not spending the entire time getting from A to B.
Pick a couple of bases according to your tastes and explore the surroundings properly. Adelaide, for example, is within easy reach of numerous major wine regions, a superb outback sampler in the Flinders Ranges and wildlife galore on Kangaroo Island. Cairns as a city is unspectacular, but it's the perfect jumping-off point for reef, rainforest and adventure sports trips.
You can easily spend two or three weeks in and around Sydney, too. There's wine-tasting in the Hunter Valley, dolphin-watching and dune-bashing at Port Stephens, walking and canyoning in the Blue Mountains before you even start exploring the cute coastal towns.
If, however, you insist on sticking to the rock, reef and Opera House stereotype, then Roundtheworldflights.com (020-7704 5700; www.roundtheworld- flights.com) is offering tickets that include flights to Sydney, Uluru and Cairns for £984 if booked by 31 January.
The Secret Sites
The major key to saving a small fortune is to start thinking like an Australian, especially when it comes to web research. The sites with the best deals Down Under are often strong in the Australian market and weak elsewhere, while sites you'd use for Europe or North America miss the biggest bargains. For accommodation, Wotif.com ( www.wotif.com) is unquestionably the best place for a steal. It has plenty of mystery hotels – where big four- and five-star places sell off empty rooms at bargain prices without revealing themselves until you've booked – and persuades many hotels into offering exclusive deals. If you want a well-located four-star hotel for under A$150 (£93) in peak season, that's where you'll find a decent list.
Similarly, Webjet.com.au is brilliant for finding cheap internal flights with airlines such as Jetstar, Virgin Blue and Tiger – don't be fooled by a travel agent into thinking Qantas has a monopoly. Webjet does charge a processing fee, however – so use it to find the flight you want, then book direct on the airline website.
For car hire, www.vroomvroom- vroom.com.au is a good site for wheedling out deals buried deep in the rental companies' booking systems.
Where shall I stay?
If on a budget, apartment rental is almost always the best bang-for-buck option in Australia. Stayz ( www.stayz.com.au) is the place to start looking for sub-A$150 deals. It's also worth considering a private room in a hostel – often available for between A$60 (£37) and A$80 (£49) a night. Australia's hostel scene is arguably the best in the world and standards are extremely high at many. A combination of specialist accommodation sites such as Hostelworld ( www.hostelworld.com), TravellersPoint ( www.travellerspoint.com) and Tripadvisor ( www.tripadvisor.com) should help weed out dire party hostels.
There are also some cities – notably Cairns – that are overstocked with accommodation outside the peak season. This means that the ordinarily expensive chain hotels flog off unused rooms on the cheap for much of the year. Again, Wotif.com excels in finding them.
How do I eat?
In the cities, pubs use meat as a marketing weapon. In Sydney, in particular, numerous pubs will offer decent steaks (and often chicken schnitzels and pasta dishes too) for between A$5 (£3) and A$10 (£6.20) in a loss-leading attempt to get people to linger and spend freely on beer.
Food courts – usually found underground in city centre shopping malls – offer a range of decent enough feeds in the same price range.
If it's a restaurant meal you're after, then Australia mercifully has a strong BYO – Bring Your Own wine – culture. Ethnic restaurants – especially Thai, Vietnamese and Greek joints in less touristy suburbs such as Newtown in Sydney – are highly amenable to this. Buy the drop you want in the local bottle shop for much less than the house plonk, and the restaurant will add a couple of dollars as a corkage charge.
And, of course, there's always the traditional barbie option. Many waterside parks have public barbecues where you can stick a couple of coins in, then grill up the goodies you bought in the supermarket.
The best things in life...
... are free. Nowhere is this more true than Australia. In Sydney, for example, you can happily spend days walking the coastal tracks, frolicking in the surf and watching the bats fly over the Botanic Gardens. In Melbourne, the tourist bus and tram tours are both free.
What Google will tell you
"Invest in a local SIM for your smart-phone to avoid global roaming charges with your home plan. Australia's biggest telcos are Telstra and Optus, but the other, smaller companies have some of the most competitive prepaid rates," says www.lonelyPlanet.com. Even if you're not using a smartphone, the SIMs usually come with some pre-paid credit and can save you hefty sums when calling to make enquiries on the ground.
What Google won't tell you – until now...
Even if you've absolutely no intention of going near a YHA hostel, membership is worth getting. That card is your passport to an extraordinary range of discounts, from 10 per cent off Greyhound bus tickets and various tours to cheap deals on pizzas and concession rates at Sydney's Moonlight Cinema. A year's membership costs £15.95 (£9.95 if under the age of 26) from YHA.org.uk ( www.yha.org.uk); you'll find the list of offers at www.yha.com.au.