Hurray for more happy landings
You can't yet fly direct to Australia. But, says Simon Calder, with so many exciting stopover locations to choose from, why would you want to?
Monday 23 September 2002
We have the technology. Aircraft design has improved to the point that it is now feasible to make the journey from the UK to Australia in a single hop, getting the dreadful business of being shut inside a tube of aluminium over with in one go. The latest generation of Airbus has the ability to fly non-stop with a full payload between London and Perth (Sydney is still a touch too far). The A340-500, which enters service this autumn, is the world's first ultra-long-haul aircraft. The new plane could reduce the 9,000-mile journey to 16 hours. Within two-thirds of a day, you could reach the country that was this week voted best in the world by readers of
Condé Nast Traveller magazine.
We have the technology. Aircraft design has improved to the point that it is now feasible to make the journey from the UK to Australia in a single hop, getting the dreadful business of being shut inside a tube of aluminium over with in one go. The latest generation of Airbus has the ability to fly non-stop with a full payload between London and Perth (Sydney is still a touch too far). The A340-500, which enters service this autumn, is the world's first ultra-long-haul aircraft. The new plane could reduce the 9,000-mile journey to 16 hours. Within two-thirds of a day, you could reach the country that was this week voted best in the world by readers of Condé Nast Traveller magazine.
Yet no airline intends to offer such a service, because none believes that the demand from travellers will justify it. A good thing, too: if you fly almost halfway around the world, seven miles below you on planet Earth are some wonderful places. A change (of planes) is as good as a rest.
It is tempting at this point to write "the range of stopover options has never been wider", but because of September 11 last year it would not be quite true: Alitalia, Gulf Air, KLM and SriLankan have recently ended services to Australia. But a plethora of possibilities remains. To try to help you through them, these are my top 10 stopover suggestions. Bear in mind that a good agent can combine them, so that you could, for example, island-hop your way around the world: fly outbound on SriLankan Airlines and Emirates via the Maldives and Sri Lanka to Sydney, and back from Australia via Rarotonga, Fiji and Hawaii on Air New Zealand.
Before you book, bear several important points in mind. Seeking advice from a specialist long-haul agent will usually get you a better deal than going direct to the airlines. Next, if you plan to go around the world, flying eastwards via Asia will save you a good seven hours on the time in flight, due to the effect of the Gulf Stream. Third, adding additional "off-line" stopovers to an itinerary – for example, trying to squeeze in Delhi to a Thai Airways deal to Australia – can increase the cost considerably. And besides the options listed below, there are dozens of others, including Aerolineas Argentinas via Buenos Aires, Lauda Air via Vienna, Korean Air via Seoul, and Air Canada via Vancouver and Hawaii.
Each evening at Heathrow, an extraordinary convoy departs. Between 10.05pm and 10.25pm, four jumbo jets are scheduled to take off for Singapore: two in the colours of British Airways, one from its partner, Qantas, and a fourth belonging to Singapore Airlines.
Singapore, the Clapham Junction of Asian aviation, has more Australian options than any other airport, and the UK is the most significant supplier of travellers. Add in a couple of lunchtime departures and a take-off earlier in the evening, plus a nightly jumbo from Manchester, and that totals more than 3,000 people a day touching down at Changi airport from Britain.
Plenty of people choose this route because of the high quality of the airlines, the competitiveness of the fares and the vast range of connection opportunities, to all Australia's state capitals and beyond. I suggest two contrasting Singapore stopovers: one, to spend at least a few days exploring the rich cultural texture of the city-state; and the second to spend half a day getting acquainted with the airport. Changi wins "world's best airport" awards routinely, but there is nothing routine about a place where transit travellers can sip Tiger beer beside a rooftop swimming pool at the planet's most prestigious planespotter location.
The "Great Circle" route, the most direct line between London and Sydney, begins by heading north-east to Moscow and across Siberia. The first part of the Heathrow-Tokyo-Brisbane/Sydney flight on Japan Airlines follows the same track, touching down 6,000 miles later at Narita airport. The arrival time, in late afternoon, is ideal for coping with the eight-hour time-zone change: take a train into the centre of Japan's capital, go out for some sushi and sake, and collapseinto bed or, if you are staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan, on to a futon.
Next morning, you will discover that Tokyo is one of the world's great cities, bigger, faster and flashier than London, but with plenty of serene corners. The Japanese capital is home to around 20 million people, a mesmerising mix of sights, sounds and smells that amalgamate ancient tradition and 21st-century aspirations.
More practically, if you are planning to visit east-coast Australia, this ticket offers a free hop between Brisbane and Sydney.
With many United Airlines tickets to Australia, you can choose any reasonable route between the UK and Los Angeles, where you board the jumbo to Sydney. From Heathrow, the main options are Boston, New York, Chicago and Washington DC. Whatever American itch you have, there should be an itinerary to match it: culture in Manhattan, glamour in Las Vegas, skiing in Salt Lake City, music in San Francisco or sipping coffee in Seattle.
Five years ago Hong Kong became part of the People's Republic of China, but this change of status has not affected the former British territory's role as a favourite stopover to Australia. Most days, three Cathay Pacific wide-bodied jets from London Heathrow touch down at the stunning new airport, with fast connections at Cathay's "Superhub" to a wide range of Australian destinations. But instead take the express train to the heart of Hong Kong, for instant immersion in the Orient.
SRI LANKAN SOJOURN
Not many people know this (nor, indeed, care), but the original British Airways one-stop flight to Australia touched down to refuel at Colombo airport en route to Perth. BA has long abandoned the route, and SriLankan Airlines gave up its flights to Sydney after the terrorist attack on Colombo airport that wrecked several aircraft. But you can fly from Colombo to Singapore on SriLankan, and then on to Sydney or Melbourne on its partner airline, Emirates,
A new option has recently opened up: SriLankan Airlines now routes two of its flights to Colombo each week via Male, capital of the Maldives. You can shake off the strains of the journey as you snorkel or scuba through amazing coral reefs; divers must schedule in rest days before catching any onward flight.
Bangkok is ideally placed for anyone wanting to explore south-east Asia in more depth. The Thai capital is less overwhelming than it might first appear, and grows on you with time. But if your time is short, then head north to Chiang Mai and the highlands. Or go south to the beaches of Phuket or Krabi. Once here, you are temptingly close to Penang in Malaysia, then the Cameron Highlands, and further south to Malacca. Luckily, with most British Airways/Qantas tickets, you can fly into Bangkok and make your way overland to Singapore to pick up your Australia-bound flight. Or take the Qantas Outback ticket, which allows a stop in Bangkok (or Singapore, Hong Kong or Bali) plus a free stop in Perth – effectively a free 2,000-mile flight across Australia.
On Air New Zealand you could fly out from Heathrow to Los Angeles and connect with another non-stop flight to Sydney, but to do so would be to waste the chance of a lifetime to visit islands such as Fiji, Rarotonga and Tahiti, not forgetting the North and South Islands of New Zealand. This is the long way around to Australia, but if you break the journey into small segments you will barely notice the distance.
Kuala Lumpur is working hard to keep up with Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok as a premier-league gateway to Australia, with 21 Malaysia Airlines jumbos from Heathrow and Manchester each week. The airline offers onward connections across Australia, but it also has a little-known stopover deal that enables you to see much more of Malaysia en route. On many tickets, you can get a free side-trip to any Malaysia Airlines domestic destination, or Singapore, so long as you book accommodation (which is reasonably priced) through the airline. With a flight to Kuching in Sarawak or Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, this could be your big chance to reach Borneo unless you go for the full island experience with the next option...
Royal Brunei has boosted its London services to one a day, making a traditional low-cost option to Darwin, Perth and Brisbane more convenient. The oil-rich state occupies an enclave on Borneo, from which you can explore the rest of Borneo. The airline is "dry", serving no alcohol, although "damp" is a better term, since you are welcome to bring your own drinks on board. On all flights from London, a stopover in the Gulf – at Dubai or Abu Dhabi – is an extra option.
BRIDGING THE GULF
The small states of the Gulf were written off as aviation stopovers when the new generation of long-haul aircraft emerged in the late 1980s. With no need to refuel between Europe and the Far East, the argument went, places such as Dubai would be consigned to airline oblivion. Fifteen years on, Dubai's hi-tech airport is becoming one of the busiest in the world for long-haul flights. British travellers fly in on Emirates from Birmingham, Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester, and transfer for onward flights to Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. But with the airport only three miles from the tranquil creek at the heart of a pulsating city, add an Arabian adventure to your Antipodean wandering.
Additional research by Arran Sutherland
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