On your way down under

Air fares to Australia and New Zealand have never been so low. David Orkin surveys the latest deals and the ever-growing range of stopover options

I really can't see it getting any better than this. That's what I told BBC Radio a year ago, when fares down under were cut to all-time low levels. I'm pleased to be able to repeat the message this January, even with the Olympics set to make 2000 the biggest year ever for tourism to Australia.

I really can't see it getting any better than this. That's what I told BBC Radio a year ago, when fares down under were cut to all-time low levels. I'm pleased to be able to repeat the message this January, even with the Olympics set to make 2000 the biggest year ever for tourism to Australia.

Expatriate antipodeans will be celebrating Australia Day this Wednesday - but the people who should really be celebrating are Britain's travellers. The supply of seats to Australia and New Zealand is still outstripping demand. Even in this most intensely competitive of markets new airlines are joining the scrap, meaning that this year there are even more bargains around than last. But you'll have to move fast to snap up some of the best deals.

On Australia Day 1990, a fare of £529 to Sydney would have meant an "all stations to Australia" charter, with a journey time that could stretch well beyond a day. Scheduled fares were at least 50 per cent higher. But late last year Sri Lankan Airlines waded into the market with a new service from Heathrow to Sydney - offering excellent service aboard new A340 aircraft, and a one-stop connection in Colombo with under an hour's wait. The fare of £529 applies for departures from now until 13 April, but you must book and pay by the end of the month. The other big bonus is that it adds Colombo to the list of mainline stopover options - you can stop in the Sri Lankan capital on the return journey. If the airline's name looks unfamiliar, that's because it's a rebranded Air Lanka - under new management provided by the highly regarded Emirates.

Fares on the two biggest players - British Airways and Qantas - are slightly higher, but the range of stopovers is wide (several Far Eastern capitals if you travel via Asia; New York and Los Angeles if you go over the Pacific). So too is the choice of destinations within Australia (Adelaide, Brisbane, Cairns, Darwin, Melbourne and Perth, as well as the ubiquitous Sydney) and Auckland in New Zealand.

For your choice of destination and stopovers (one in each direction, with a few restrictions) you pay £680 or thereabouts - the exact figure depends on a calculation of all the annoying taxes and charges, from £20 to leave Britain to a £2 "noise tax" in Sydney. This price applies until 15 April, in July and August, and from 1 October to 9 December.

Fares are slightly higher (but still very agreeable) for September, while in May and June they sink by another £53 - and to Perth, the fare is lower still. BA/Qantas throws in a free connection from Manchester to Heathrow if you need it.

Air New Zealand will give you the same kind of deals from Heathrow via the Pacific, with a tempting range of island stopovers, while Singapore Airlines offers a good, fast service with a famously cheap (£18 per night) stopover package, including hotel, transfers and a whole range of giveaway goodies.

Rival Malaysia Airlines cuts about £25-£30 from the majors' rates, and has a very tempting offer which gives you a free domestic return flight - including to the island of Borneo - as long as you book accommodation at not-unreasonable rates through the airline.

Cathay Pacific is also undercutting BA and Qantas for its flights via Hong Kong, but does not allow inbound travel between 1 July and 5 October. If you're Queensland-bound, Cathay has the only one-stop service to Cairns.

Cathay, Malaysia and Singapore all offer Manchester at the same fares as Heathrow, but for other regional airlines - from Aberdeen to Southampton - the obvious solution is KLM. The Dutch airline has flights via Amsterdam and Singapore to Sydney for around £570 if you book before 15 February.

The downward pressure on economy fares is having an effect on the front of the plane. Air New Zealand's award-winning business class is available for around £2,000 to Auckland between February and 8 December (except in September). The airline will even throw in free connections to Wellington or Christchurch. You must book by 31 January, and pay by 11 February.

Malaysia Airlines has great deals in business class from Manchester - all its Australian points are on sale at around £1,625, with Auckland available for about £100 more. This offer applies until 30 June, but you must book and pay by the end of February.

And the Olympic Effect? Accommodation and services will be at a premium in Sydney and surrounding areas during the Games in September, but there's an awful lot of Australia that won't be affected. The only problem could be that flights will be busier than usual into Australia. Funnily enough, travellers between Britain and South-East Asia or California could benefit from this. Airlines are reporting heavy bookings to Sydney from Asian hubs and Los Angeles, with much lighter loads from the UK. So you can look forward to some good late deals to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and LA.

In the coming weeks there will be a few more short-notice sales to Australasia at deep discounts, but those searching for the absolute lowest fares will be keeping an eye on the Indonesian airline Garuda - currently selling Sydney at well below £500. With the Foreign Office cautioning about travel to Lombok, adjacent to Bali - where the airline's Denpasar hub is located - Garuda may cut fares even more to fill its seats.

All these fares are inclusive of any applicable taxes, though there may be some small differences depending on the airports used. All the fares are available through travel agents, not direct from the airlines, and there will be some variation in prices between retailers.

The author is co-founder of the discount flights specialist Quest Worldwide (tel: 020-8547 3322).

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