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ON A BUDGET

Staying Above High Fares in the Land Down Under

September 24, 2000|ARTHUR FROMMER

After years of occupying a fairly secondary position in the world of tourism, Australia finally steps to center stage as a result of the Olympics. The media coverage is sure to add "Oz" to every insatiable traveler's wish list.

If Australia is in your plans, there are some basic mistakes to avoid. First, don't assume you can drive everywhere you want to go. The state of Texas could easily fit inside the Aussie desert, but you won't find highways there lined with motels, barbecue joints and fast-food places--only spinifex plants and the skeletons of thirsty animals. Trains are an option, but only if you don't mind 15-hour-plus journeys.

If you plan to see a lot of Australia under a tight schedule, do what you'd do in America: Fly. But even that choice conceals a classic planning error. Despite an exchange rate that dramatically favors the American dollar, you won't save money if you wait until you get there to buy domestic flights.

For example, if you were to wait until arriving Down Under to book a flight from Sydney to Perth, roughly the distance between America's East and West coasts, it would set you back $479 one-way. And going from Melbourne to Alice Springs, the nearest city to Ayers Rock (Uluru), would cost $318. Because that's just the one-way fare, it's obvious why many Australians never see Uluru.

But because you're a foreigner, the rules are different. You can take advantage of two competing air discounts from Ansett Australia and Qantas Airways.

Qantas calls its discounts "Boomerang," and Ansett's are dubbed "G'Day" passes. They represent a novel approach to air fares: You purchase one-way seats at a set price ($155 or $195) that is levied according to the distance you travel.

Both Qantas and Ansett divide the country into two zones, which boil down to the fertile crescent of Australia's southeast and eastern coasts in one zone, and the rest of the country in another. Flights between Sydney and Brisbane, Cairns, Adelaide or Melbourne would cost a flat $155 each way. (You might do better buying a regular fare between Sydney and Melbourne, as this short hop usually costs about $119 one way.) Fly to spots farther afield, like Alice Springs or Perth, and pay $195 each way.

Not just the big cities are included; any Australian city covered by Qantas or Ansett (or their partners) is fair game. Going to Tassie (Tasmania)? Flights to Hobart from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide or Brisbane are $155. You can also hop over to New Zealand; flights are $195 from Australia's east coast, and $155 within New Zealand, although ground travel in that compact country is easier and far more pleasant than in Oz.

The rules for the passes are simple. The primary rule is that you must purchase your tickets before you leave home.

The second prerequisite is that you purchase your air ticket to Australia before buying tickets for flights within Australia. This is because your Australian visa is electronically linked with your ticket there, and your domestic flights must list that visa number.

For Qantas, frequent-flier partners include US Airways, American, Continental and Northwest airlines, and Ansett's partners are in the Star Alliance, which includes United Airlines, Air Canada and Virgin.

Qantas can be reached in the U.S. at (800) 227-4500, Ansett Australia at (310) 615-1111.

A tip: Whichever pass you get, don't use it to fly between Alice Springs and Uluru. Although Uluru is one of the top Australian tourist draws, the flight, which takes only about 45 minutes, is cheaper than $155 if bought separately. You should, however, use the pass if you plan to fly directly to Uluru from a city other than Alice Springs.

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