Our falling currency is no bar to Australian travellers finding good-value destinations, writes Jane Reddy, who has done the homework for you on where the bargains are.
Ah, those were the days. Not long ago, just weeks in fact, when the Aussie dollar was riding high against the greenback, it seemed the whole world truly was the oyster of the Australian traveller, allowing us to venture further, stay longer and live larger.
In April, the dollar was still on $US1.06 after its giddy July 2011 peak of $US1.10. Now, at the end of June, the time when many of us are starting to look towards our summer holidays, the Aussie has hit a 33-month low, falling to $US.97 at the time of writing.
Even though the weakening dollar remains relatively strong, there are real signs the long party for Australian travellers may be, if not over, then coming to an end, so there's no better time to be prepared.
However, Australian Federation of Travel Agents chief Jayson Westbury remains upbeat, despite the most recent and biggest drop in the local currency against the greenback.
"People won't un-book their holiday - they'll just have less in their pocket when they get there," he says, pointing to the continued strength of other currencies, such as the euro and the British pound.
"The euro and the pound are holding up relatively well," Westbury says.
"It's when all of them cool off by about 10 or 15¢ there could be some emotive thinking towards the outbound market."
What's more Australia's unemployment rate is low, people have annual leave accrued, airfares are still competitive and our dollar is still relatively strong. We're far from a basket case. For the price-sensitive, cruising is one way of sidestepping the currency fluctuations, and Westbury predicts an upswing in the cruise sector in coming months.
Flight Centre's Colin Bowman says travellers should consider destinations such as Thailand and Indonesia, where the Australian dollar holds up against the local currencies. "The drop in the Australian dollar against the US may add a couple of hundred dollars for a family of four going overseas but there are other ways to make up for the currency shift, and you can very quickly save that money by shopping around on airfares," he says.
Cruising, as Westbury points out, is one of the best ways to keep your holiday budget in check during times of a volatile dollar, according to John Molinaro of the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. He says Uniworld's cruises for this year include meals, gratuities and most excursions, but from next year all European trips will include shore excursions, unlimited drinks, internet and Wi-Fi, so there will be few if any out-of-pocket expenses from airport transfers.
"It will create a seamless experience for guests, as they won't have to be dipping into their wallets constantly like you do with most forms of travel," Molinaro says. He recommends booking early, especially as next year's preview brochure has prices similar to those in the current cruising schedule.
Carnival Australia spokesman David Jones says Australian-based lines such as P&O Cruises and Princess Cruises, where the Australian dollar is the onboard currency, means people can travel overseas without having to worry about foreign-exchange vagaries.
"If travellers are concerned about the dollar dropping further, then it's a good idea to book early - not only do you lock in the cost of your holiday at today's prices, you can often benefit from early booking bonuses."
Of course, there's our own unexplored backyard. Tourism Australia's Andrew McEvoy says when you add the time and inconvenience of international travel and factor in all the costs, this country is competitive.
"It's easier to know and understand the local places that offer value for money," he says.
So while there's probably no such thing as a dollar-proof destination, where are the places that will drive your declining Australian dollar further, no matter how far it may fall?
Here is an experts' guide to the high-value holiday destinations to consider, wherever you (and the Aussie dollar) are heading.
Best-value destinations: Cook Islands, Fiji, Samoa
The lowdown With flight times all less than seven hours, a tropical holiday for many budgets is within reach, sans the jet lag and the huge outlay. In the Cook Islands, the Kiwi dollar, traditionally weaker compared with the Aussie, is the official currency. Beyond the resorts, eat like royalty at more than 50 diners on Rarotonga, from quality fish and chips and burgers (under $10) to high-end restaurants such as The Sands, where a main meal costs about $NZ30 ($25). Superior-quality black pearls are available at decent prices. While hotels couldn't be classed as cheap, they are on a par with Australian accommodation prices. A stay in a traditional beach fale in Samoa on Upolu's south coast costs $35. The Coconuts Beach Resort and Spa, with the country's first overwater bungalows, costs from $US574 ($620) a night. Swimming with the turtles at Satoalepai Sanctuary on Savai'i costs just $3.50. Australians - more than 50 per cent of the 600,000 visitors to Fiji last year - attest to its popularity. That's been helped along by all-inclusive room rates catering to families, as well as discounted kids' clubs activities.
Best-value destinations: Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey
The lowdown While the dollar has also dropped against the euro, it's still worth more than a decade ago, and in struggling economies there's value to be had. In Ireland, The Gathering - a scheme to entice Ireland's global diaspora to come for a holiday with festivals, deals and free activities - includes the City of a Thousand Welcomes in which a Dubliner takes a visitor out for a pint or a cuppa. A typical bed and breakfast costs about €30 ($42) a person, including a full Irish breakfast. A hotel or guest house costs from €45, and a pub meal about €8.50. Greece, Spain, Portugal and Turkey are also good value, says Dennis Bunnik of Bunnik Tours, as the cost of living relative to Australia means food, drink, restaurants and shopping are all much cheaper than in Sydney, even with the recent drop in our dollar. During the northern winter, consider the milder parts of Europe, such as the south of Portugal or Spain.
Best-value destinations: Japan, Indonesia and Thailand
The lowdown The introduction of low-cost air carriers in Asia has been an obvious game-changer for value-conscious travellers. More recently, Japan was ranked No.1 and Indonesia No.4 in the world on where the Australian dollar had the largest appreciation against the local currency, according to the Expedia NAB Foreign Exchange Index released in February. While travellers will pay top dollar in Japan's ski season, return on your investment in the form of snow is guaranteed (unlike many other resorts in the southern hemisphere). In Thailand, look for accommodation with leisure activities included, says the Flight Centre's Colin Bowman. A six-night trip with return economy airfare from Sydney to Phuket with Singapore Airlines, including accommodation, breakfast and a Phi Phi Island ferry tour, will cost from $1145. Similarly, in Bali there's a villa or hotel to suit all budgets, as well as good-value activities. A one-day family trip to Waterbom park costs about $98, a mountain bike tour, including lunch, about $77, and a family sunset cruise about $77. Beauty treatments are also relatively inexpensive.
Best-value destinations: Ecuador, Chile and Brazil
The lowdown Ecuador, in particular the Galapagos Islands, offers good value as demand is still not what it was before the global financial crisis and most operators have kept their prices down, according to the South America Travel Centre. A 12-day Galapagos cruise, including a stay in the Mashpi Lodge in the Andean cloud forest, costs from $7395. In the Atacama Desert and Patagonia regions in Chile, lodges are extending their "shoulder season" rates in high-end digs. While the days are shorter, the crowds are smaller, an attractive proposition in these popular places. And let's not forget Brazil after the FIFA World Cup, which ends next July. After the 600,000 tourists expected to converge on the country for the soccer event have gone, there are likely to be empty hotel rooms and bargains galore.
Best-value destinations: Australia and New Zealand
The lowdown On home territory there's no passport, vaccinations or foreign currency required. Over the Tasman, the Australian dollar is traditionally strong against the New Zealand currency. Australia's big-ticket "events calendars" have taken on a life of their own, according to Rowan Barker of the Tourism and Transport Forum, with cultural immersion possible on our doorstep. Think Monet in Melbourne and the Bolshoi Ballet in Brisbane. For the experiential, it's the Ironman in Cairns. Tourism Australia's Andrew McEvoy's top picks include Kangaroo Island, Arnhem Land, the Kimberley, the Flinders Ranges and a trip to the tropics of Port Douglas and further north. New Zealand packs an environmental punch, with about one-third of the country designated national parks, reserves or heritage. The million-dollar views are free and can be digested alongside the country's premium wines and reasonably priced food. Look for transport deals with inclusions, such as Jucy Rental, which this winter includes a free six-day adult ski pass for the Treble Cone ski field in Wanaka.
FIVE TIPS TO COMBAT THE FALLING AUSSIE
GET LOADED Buy a prepaid travel credit card pre-loaded with foreign currency, Skyscanner Australia manager Dave Boyte says, and book and pay for hotels and excursions online at home.
FORK OUT Prepay as much as you can of your holiday in Australia before you go, says Dennis Bunnik, of Bunnik Tours.
NOTES BEFORE Hang on to any surplus US dollars or euros from previous trips, says Helen Wong, of Helen Wong's Tours.
HANG LOOSE Be flexible with your travel dates to get an off-peak deal, Expedia spokeswoman Amee Evans says.
CASH UP Use cash while overseas; credit card rates can vary, AFTA's Jayson Westbury says. Book domestic — you always get $1 for $1 in Australia.
Experts' dollar predictions
Kristen McKenzie, hotelscombined.com
"Based on all recent financial projections, it seems unlikely the Australian dollar will again surpass the US dollar any time soon and I think we'll be dealing with a lower Aussie dollar for the foreseeable future."
Dennis Bunnik, Bunnik Tours
"My feeling is the dollar will stabilise in the low to mid 90¢ for a while. However, even the top economists are all over the place with their predictions, so it could go anywhere."
Helen Wong, Helen Wong's Tours
"By all forecasts, the Australian dollar is expected to fall further; plateauing around the mid 80¢, where a great number of economists believe it should be sitting. Such a dip will be of benefit for us as a wholesaler selling China as a holiday destination. The focus will again be on Asia."
Jayson Westbury, Australian Federation of Travel Agents
"The dollar has always fluctuated over the years and even when it was at all-time lows, Aussies still travelled overseas. These things have a way of finding a landing place and we may not know what that level is for a few weeks."
Simon Westcott, Mr & Mrs Smith hotels
"My crystal ball says it will trade in the 85¢ to 95¢ range for the rest of this year and into the next, probably at the lower end. At the end of the day, it's been one long, big party over the past year or so, but we've been drinking good champagne, so the headache isn't that bad really."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Jane Reddy is a Fairfax journalist covering remote treks to high-end hotels.