Tour giants have split ranks and are arguing about discounts, so it pays to look beyond the jargon to the real price of your travel.
THE early-bird sales season is in full swing and travellers are being bombarded with offers such as "fly free" and "save $1000 a couple".
Airlines, tour operators and cruise companies are willing to offer big discounts to get bookings locked in for next year, so travellers who plan ahead can reap the savings.
Earlybird sales remain one of the best ways to secure cheap travel - even in an age of last-minute discounts - but cutting through the marketing spin to compare the deals on offer takes a bit of work.
Trafalgar Tours has thrown a cat among the pigeons by denouncing fly-free deals as marketing hype, claiming its early-bird deals are "better than fly free".
The company says its tours are significantly cheaper than its competitors', even when airfares are factored in. Trafalgar's move has drawn support from some travel agents, who say fly-free deals are not as simple as they sound.
"I am tired of having to explain to clients why they are unable to get seats on the fly-free deal, whether because of some restriction in the fine print or due to lack of seat availability," one travel consultant wrote in an industry newsletter.
"The wholesalers don't have an allocation of 'free' flights. They pay for them. So, why can't they just be up-front and honest about it and say that their tour cost is actually lower at the times when the fly-free deal is offered?"
The managing director of Scenic Tours, Glen Moroney, has defended fly-free deals, saying they are legitimate offers aimed at locking in early bookings for the year ahead. "The deals are genuine ... if we advertised a deal that was not available we'd be in deep trouble," he says.
Moroney says thousands of travellers take up Scenic's fly-free and "partner fly-free" deals each year and flights are readily available at the times when the deals are advertised.
It would be naive to expect that any offer would be unlimited, however; also, like any early-bird special, the deals are available only until they sell out.
"The whole idea is to get people to book early," Moroney says.
"We have had very little problem with availability [of airfares]." Moroney says the reason travel companies offer fly-free deals rather than just discounting the price of the tour is because they can secure the airfares much cheaper than the general public can.
A couple travelling to Europe might have to pay $2400 an airfare in peak season, creating a fly-free deal saving of $4800, yet the cost to the tour operator is actually considerably less. "This is the reason that most [tour operators] do value-adds and offers like this, rather than cash discounts," Moroney says.
The general manager of marketing for APT, Debra Fox, has also hit back at Trafalgar, accusing it of using "marketing spin in response".
Fox says fly-free deals are genuine and represent an "incredible offer" for those willing to book early.
Both Fox and Moroney have also challenged Trafalgar's claims its tours are cheaper, saying it is not comparing apples with apples. Scenic and APT use different standards of hotels and transport and have more inclusions such as meals and sightseeing, they say.
Moroney believes travellers are quite capable of comparing products and can easily research hotels and travel details on the internet.
"Don't underestimate the consumer," he says.
Fox agrees, saying consumers are able to compare products and special offers to determine their true value more than ever. People are travelling more and have more access to information, so they have a better understanding of how packages are put together.
"Consumers can easily weigh it up themselves," Fox says. "They can get their own airfare quote and match it with what's in the brochure. Consumers are very savvy - they don't take things at face value, they sit down and compare one against the other."
The general manager of travel.com.au, Lisa Ferrari, reiterates that travellers need to factor in all inclusions and exclusions such as flights, meals and activities when determining the value of travel packages.
"Always look at the total price of the holiday," she says.
Early bird gets ...
TRAVELLERS looking to secure early-bird deals to Europe or North America should aim to book within the next six weeks. While some early-bird offers finish at the end of this month, most are set to close at the end of October, for travel next year. Many travellers have become wary of booking early when there are so many last-minute discounts around but early-bird deals continue to be hard to beat, with a combination of cheap prices and value-add inclusions such as free stopovers or sightseeing.