Q Help – it's the moment I've dreaded as a parent. Anna, my 18-year-old, wants to go backpacking in Australia. She has some idea of what she wants to do, and is planning to fly out in January for three months, via Singapore, with three internal flights. Where should she go? Where shouldn't she go? What sort of accommodation should she stay in?
Caroline Gray, Tonbridge
A At this time of year, many parents are facing up to the fact that their child has grown up and is about to travel to the other side of the world. First, I am going to suggest a plan for Anna, and then try to tackle your anxieties.
The gap-year trail to Australia is well worn, and there is an established infrastructure for budget travel. The second half of January is a perfect time to go, as it's the height of summer Down Under – and fares will be cheaper after Christmas. I suggest Anna has an Asian adventure en route, and a Californian break on the way home.
The obvious place for UK-based, under-26 travellers to buy a long-haul ticket is STA Travel (0870 160 6070; www.statravel.co.uk). It has branches worldwide – with 100 in Australia – and a helpline offering a 24-hour service for anything from changed bookings to lost possessions. A decent travel insurance policy is essential and it is worth shopping around for the best deal. Some annual family policies include cover for offspring over 17 travelling on their own – but watch for limits on the length of any single trip.
The main expense will be the plane ticket. I recommend two of the most reputable airlines, British Airways and Qantas – which should help ease concerns. The basic price, excluding flights in Australia, is £955.
An overnight flight from Heathrow to Bangkok will deposit Anna in the Thai capital as the evening rush hour gets going. The backpacker network in Thailand is easy to plug into. Heading south, she should visit the beautiful area around Krabi, and may well be drawn to Phi Phi Island – it's like a students' union on a tropical island, but with better food and drink.
Moving to Malaysia, Anna will need to adjust to the rather stricter moral code in this Islamic country. The east coast of the peninsula is more traditional and unspoilt than the west, and offers the option of a a trip to Tioman Island as a detour on the way to Singapore – a good place to rest up for a few days before the flight to Perth. The Western Australian capital is a great place to acclimatise to Aussie life, and discover the joys of backpacker hostels. Here, Anna could pick up a temporary job. The essential guide for the working traveller is Susan Griffith's Work Your Way Around the World, (£12.95 from Vacation Work, 01865 241978; www.vacationwork.co.uk).
From Perth, it is a long way to anywhere, so internal flights come in handy: STA Travel sells them for around £80-£115 per flight. It may be cheaper to book a no-frills flight well ahead with Virgin Blue (00 61 7 3295 2296, www.virginblue.com.au), but these will be expensive to change if Anna's plans alter.
I'd urge her not to try to pack in too much; Australia is a huge country that demands se veral visits. So she could take a flight to Adelaide, overland down the coast to Victoria, and along the Great Ocean Road to Melbourne. Australia's second city is a great place to immerse herself in the culture.
Anna should leave the fabulous harbour city of Sydney until last. It's a brilliant place to tap into the backpacker circuit, and to organise a trip up to beautiful, lazy Byron Bay, near the Queensland border.
From Sydney, it's a 14-hour flight across the Pacific to Los Angeles. On the BA/Qantas ticket, Anna could travel up the coast to San Francisco and fly home from there, or down to San Diego and have a Mexican adventure in Baja California.
About those worries. There have been some dreadful, high-profile murders of backpackers in Australia. But given the half-million or so British travellers on the gap year circuit at any one time, the risks of violent attack are tiny. A more significant danger is of an accident – on the risky roads, or in the sea. But Anna is almost certain to return healthy, happy and with an appetite for more travel.