El cheapo days are over for air travellers

It was fabulous while it lasted, but the past two years of ultra-cheap long-haul air fares are fading with the rising temperature in the northern hemisphere: as the northern summer approaches, the price of escaping from Down Under is increasing and I wonder whether Australian travellers are reconsidering their plans.

You just could not afford NOT to travel in 2008, 2009 and 2010 when fares to the US fell to $900 return and below, while low-cost carriers like AirAsia X were also pricing Europe below $1000 return. Hundreds of thousands of Australians did, to the point where we have created a tourism “deficit”: billions more of tourism dollars are leaving the country than are coming here from traditional and new markets.

The Chinese are the latest group of tourists wanting to have a look-see at the big empty country just five hours flying away in the southern hemisphere, although they’re not able to visit in the logical way by starting at the closest bit and working their way to the most distant parts. Tourists are required to piggy-back with the business travellers who want to go to the big east coast Australian cities, not Darwin and the Top End, which is just 4200 kilometres from Hong Kong.

(If you think you’ve detected a favourite gripe, you’re right. For many reasons we’ve already discussed, this is the Dumb Country when it comes to tourism, where many of the most desirable destinations in the north and west are the hardest and most expensive to get to. Not to mention the poor customer service standards that blight our accommodation industry.)

Meanwhile, if you’re trying to get out, the air fare has become at least $500 dearer to the US.  Gone are the $900 return specials, replaced by starting prices around $1400 return and there is not an Australian airline among the cheapest. Fares on Qantas and the renamed Virgin Australia are in the $1800-$2500 range. The price leader is China’s biggest airline, China Southern, which can take you to Los Angeles from Sydney in around 24 hours next month via Guanzhou (Canton) from around $1420, although that rate jumps sharply in July – the height of the northern summer - to around $1750.

Qantas is a promoting a special to the US East Coast from around $1750 return to promote its new non-stop service from Sydney to Dallas, though I suspect that won’t be available through the height of the northern summer in July.

A sideshow you may not be familiar with is the concocted argument that flared a couple of months ago between what is reputedly the world’s biggest online travel retailer, Expedia, and Australia's Webjet; Expedia said it was cheaper than Webjet because it doesn’t charge fees.

But, on my brief survey this weekend, neither was the cheapest in the US market. There was a massive difference in the retail price charged on what are essentially the same or very similar wholesale rates distributed by the airlines. The cheapest of the biggest online retailers most of the time was travel.com.au by my estimation.

In the other direction, there’s renewed pressure on prices to Europe, with Qantas reporting on Friday that it will be charged a new tax by the European Union because Australia doesn’t penalise carbon dioxide emissions in the same way Europe does.

Qantas says it can’t say exactly what impact that will have on fares but, even without an extra levy, Europe is becoming an expensive destination. Britain already charges £85 ($A130) per head for long-haul travellers from Australia to visit the country – the most expensive levy in the history of travel taxation.

Germany is also slugging visitors an “eco-tax” of up to €45 ($A60) for long-haul travellers from Australia to reduce government debt; Austria has also introduced a tax of up to €35 ($46). Only Ireland has rolled out a new welcome mat to visitors with its abolition of travel taxes.

It now appears the days of sub-$2000 return fares from Australia to Europe are numbered.

Have you changed your plans as a result of the rising price of long-haul international travel? Will you holiday in Australia this winter instead? Is Europe losing its appeal because of the cost or for other reasons? Is the US still a bargain buy – or have you been turned off by the security regime?

NOTE: I'd ask you to be patient this week. I won’t be able to personally respond to readers until Tuesday as I will be in transit. I do read every comment, every week.

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