We may not be intending to travel right now. But we like to dream. We like to feel inspired. We like to plan for the future.
We like a one-stop shop. We like insider knowledge. We like access to deals that we might otherwise miss. And we like security, protection and having backup.
And so there are good reasons that I suggested to Flight Centre that we publish this Pick of the Best Travel Guide, as we did last year.
For Flight Centre books travel from luxury to budget — from “off the shelf, tried and true” to tailor made.
And, as a retailer, Flight Centre handles the big names in travel providers — airlines, cruise and tour companies, and what we might think of as individual operators, from hotels to car hire and safari companies.
Commissions may vary from one provider to another (of course I know that), but in some senses Flight Centre itself is independent.
In writing this Travel Guide, there are ethical issues to consider, of course. Is this Travel Guide truly independent? Well, most definitely yes.
The stories and suggestions were researched and written independently by me.
I’ve dug through all that Flight Centre has to offer. I have worked unencumbered, and come up with my Pick of the Best.
Let’s delve into my Flight Centre Pick of the Best.
GOT YOU COVERED
There are important protections for travellers:
- Flight Centre is a member of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents and its customers are covered by the AFTA Travel Accreditation Scheme.
- There is a 24/7 Global Assistance service. It gives access to 24-hour emergency assistance, with a customer service team available seven days, online and by phone.
- Flight Centre offers Price Drop Protection as part of its Captain’s Package. If, prior to departure, the cost of a Captain’s Package fare falls below the purchase price, the traveller will be given the difference in a Flight Centre voucher.
- Interest-free holiday finance is available for flights and holidays over $999.
- Flight Centre has good travel insurance through Cover More, which is underwritten by Zurich.
- Flight Centre opened its first store, in Sydney, in 1982. Soon after, in the same year, came a store in Melbourne and one in Brisbane. It took only six years for there to be 50, and that expansion has continued to 689 stores in Australia today.
- The iconic figure of Flight Centre’s “Captain” first appeared in 1988, along with the signature red colour. And the Captain’s still a figurehead and one of Australia’s most recognisable brands …
- …but the figurehead behind the Captain is founder and chief executive Graham “Skroo” Turner, who opened that first shop in the 1980s. Mr Turner has steered the company to now have more than 8000 staff.
MAN BEHIND THE NAME
I think we should start with Flight Centre founder and chief executive Graham Turner’s nickname, which is derived from a famous Turner brand of screwdrivers and was given to him as a schoolboy.
To all and sundry, he’s Skroo — a visionary, high-energy entrepreneur and, I might add, a man who is emblematic of the Australian pioneering, can-do attitude.
It’s the stuff of both fact and legend that in 1973, Skroo (a proud Queenslander raised on an apple orchard near Stanthorpe and originally trained as a vet) joined with a couple of mates to buy a couple of double-decker buses in England.
They began a holiday travel company called Top Deck Travel.
A spokesperson explains: “With only a bus load of energy, entrepreneurship and youthful exuberance, they organised bus tours to the continent and parts of North Africa.
“By 1980 the business had a fleet of 70 to 80 buses. Old Top Deckers still look back on those times with enormous pleasure, celebrated in the book Top Deck Daze.”
Skroo returned to Australia in 1981 and established Flight Centre, just as the airline ticketing industry was deregulated, allowing the sale of discounted tickets for the first time.
The company continued to grow and when Skroo floated it in 1995, it was as much to let employees become part owners of the business as to raise capital. Half the staff bought shares.
Skroo is down to earth, believes in empowering employees, rewards initiative and keeps alive the spirit of what they call a big “tribe” throughout the company, which is still based in Brisbane, Queensland.
He circulates a suggested book reading list, and winds down by mountain-biking back trails.
WHAT I LIKE
- Captain’s Package
- Cancel For Any Reason
- 24/7 Worldwide Customer Care
- Buy Now, Pay Later
- Tailor Made
Technology has its cycles. First the internet opened up the opportunity for us to spend weeks (months) fiddling around planning travel, trying to get the flights we wanted at the price we wanted, then matching in hotels here and there (waiting for confirmations), car hire pick-up and drop-off, and then matching transfers and looking for insurance to cover it all.
And then many travellers first realised that, should things go wrong, they were on their own.
And then many travellers got tired of it all and went back to specialists.
For a complex holiday, which you want tailor made, the best start is to write a list.
It could be as simple as:
- Africa wildlife safari.
- Two different safari camps in different environments.
- See the Big Five.
- Interested in elephants and conservation.
- Safe countries.
- City stay either end.
It could be more complex:
- A week in London (visit family). Car hire or rail?
- Transport to France.
- River cruise, south of France.
- Car hire to drive to Switzerland.
- Mountain passes for cable cars.
- Walking in Switzerland.
- Restaurant recommendations.
- Side trip to Croatia?
- Stopover in Singapore?
Or it could just be this:
- Long service leave — five weeks.
- Need interesting places, not beaches (!).
- Cold weather is good.
- Base on six-stop round the world ticket?
Just thoughts — Iceland, Alaska, Calgary Stampede, drive NZ, Kyrgyzstan, haven’t been to New York, perhaps some sport (rugby union, horseracing), 4-star fine.
Travel consultants see things we don’t. They have booking systems we don’t have access to, which are built to put together lots of components to make one itinerary.
A Flight Centre spokesperson says: “Planning a trip can be tough. But our consultants are real humans who love organising your travel.”
- My pick of them is a five destination Round the World airfare stopping at Singapore, Munich, Rome, Frankfurt and San Francisco, from $1835 per person. In stores or on 131 600, quote product number 2726874. flightcentre.com.au/product/2726874
WA IS DIFFERENT
Flight Centre is based in Queensland, and most companies work on a national basis — they advertise nationally. The same holidays are for sale across Australia.
A short break in Fiji? A weekend in New Zealand?
That might work in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane but WA’s geography makes us different.
For us, for example, New Zealand isn’t just a quick hop, but probably a 10-day holiday, and not an inexpensive one.
Flight Centre has recognised and responded to this difference, and the offers you see in its advertisements each week are presented specifically to WA. Made for WA.
WHAT’S HOT IN WA
- JAPAN. Still. Despite everything. Culture, cherry blossoms, food.
- In EUROPE, Scandinavia.
- PARIS. Still. Always
- Economy flights to the UK and USA. Almost embarrassingly inexpensive.
- PREMIUM ECONOMY, increasingly sought.
- Nifty ways to upgrade to BUSINESS class (perhaps as part of packages).
- Travel for FEMALES. In groups for companionship and security.
- DISNEY. Visiting multi-sites with Flight Centre Disney packages.
- Markets in Europe for CHRISTMAS.
- Villa packages for BALI.
- AFRICA. South Africa, with safari camps and Cape Town.
WHIRL AROUND THE WORLD
There are Flight Centre travel consultants who specialise in round-the-world fares.
And that’s because it’s a complicated area, and you need good knowledge to get the best out of them. Terms and usage vary and are specific.
But, when someone can really work them to advantage, travellers can circumnavigate the globe and get a lot from them.
There is the one basic requirement that you travel in one direction and return to your point of origin.
But options as to where you stop and how many continents you visit are up to the traveller.
It might be advantageous to book a round-the-world ticket for just three stops.
But it’s possible to combine up to 16 destinations on one ticket (and having just one ticket is important).
And round-the-world tickets are good for big, long trips because they are valid for a year.
Despite combining so many destinations for very competitive prices, a round-the-world ticket might not be with low-cost carriers. On some sectors, there may be airlines we don’t usually hear about, such as FinnAir — a good airline which specialises in flying between Europe and Asia in well-configured Airbus A350s.
The airfare experts are 100 per cent based in Australia. Speak to them direct on 1300 550 416.
They can answer your questions about all those fare types and inclusions.
My picks of Round the World airfares…
San Francisco, New York, Zurich, Oslo, Dublin, Seoul, Tokyo. For example, flying economy on certain dates this year perhaps from $2295.
Vancouver, Cancun, Paris, Malta, Zurich, New Delhi. On some dates this year perhaps from $2909.
Chicago, Orlando, London, Barcelona, Dubai, Singapore. On some dates this year perhaps from $3399.
TOURS, TOURS, TOURS
Being on a coach, being with like-minded people, sitting back and not worrying about logistics, travelling on a theme… there are a lot of advantages in being with newly made friends on an interesting tour.
There are plenty of tours from Europe to Africa and South America, of course — but here’s my pick of the pearlers:
Over eight days, visit America’s Music Cities with Collette, the USA’s oldest touring company. This is a great tour, combining the sounds and flavours of three different styles of place and music.
New Orleans is the “Jazz Capital of the World” and teeming with Cajun and Creole cuisine. The visits here include the French Quarter and the swamps, of course, and food at Cafe Du Monde. Then there’s a live jazz club.
In Memphis, birthplace of the blues, rock’n’roll and soul, there’s a visit to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. It’s an extraordinary place to visit.
In Nashville, the tour turns country, and includes a visit to the historic Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry, and RCA Studio B, Nashville’s oldest remaining recording studio, where Presley, Dolly Parton and Charley Pride once recorded classic hits. Despite the tornadoes which hit Nashville at the beginning of March, it remains one of my favourite cities.
The eight-day America’s Music Cities tour is from $3549 per person, including seven nights accommodation, eight days touring and 10 meals. Mention product number 11780264 in stores or on 131 600. flightcentre.com.au/product/11780264
I like the 14-day Incredible Scandinavia Tour package because it isincredible. Flight Centre packages it up with international flights and the 11-nights accommodation in 3.5 to 4-star hotels in Sweden, Norway and Denmark for about $4000 per person, depending on dates.
Let the detail speak for itself:
Copenhagen, Denmark: Visit the royal residence, Amalienborg Palace, Nyhavn Canal and its charming cafes, Christiansborg Castle, Tivoli Gardens, and cruise a canal.
Aarhus: Modern architecture contrasts with historic neighbourhoods.
Stavanger, Norway: After taking the ferry to Norway, drive north past fjords, lakes and forests to Stavanger, one of Norway’s oldest townships.
Bergen: Explore alone, then join a funicular trip up to Floyen, 320m above sea level.
Geilo: After a two-hour fjord cruise in Sognefjord, the deepest fjord in Norway, there’s dinner and a night in Geilo.
Oslo: From the Opera House to the Akershus medieval fortress and then Frogner Park and Vigeland Park, there’s time to follow and time to wander.
Stockholm, Sweden: The tour starts at Fjallgatan, for views of the Swedish capital, which is spread out on 14 islands, with Lake Malar on one side and the Baltic Sea on the other. There’s a visit to the Old Town “Gamla Stan”, with its cobblestoned alleys, Royal Palace, Cathedral and City Hall where the annual Nobel Prize award takes place.
The 14-day Incredible Scandinavia package is from $3999 per person, which includes economy airfares from Perth to Copenhagen and back from Stockholm, 11 nights accommodation, all touring and lots of Flight Centre exclusive inclusions. But it must be booked by April 8. In stores or on 131 600, mention product number 11285440. flightcentre.com.au/product/11285440
It’s all about the food. Well, not quite, actually — it’s really all about travellers immersing themselves in culture. And Jordan Real Food Adventure really fits the bill…
- Share breakfast with a Jordanian shepherd, drinking fire-warmed sheep’s milk then scooping bread into a pot of rich galayet bandora… sauteed tomatoes stewed with garlic and olive oil.
- Taste freshly prepared Bedouin zarb… slow roasted vegetables and spiced meats cooked in an underground barbecue.
There is also, of course, a visit to Petra, and a night at a Bedouin desert camp in Wadi Rum.
There are departures from now until mid October and the cost of the tour alone is roughly between $1600 to just over $2000. Ask a Flight Centre consultant to find dates and price specifically (and add a good airfare deal).
CRUISING, CRUISING, CRUISING
“Close to Home” is very much the theme of cruising at the moment.
The Australian coast, cruising from Fremantle, the Pacific Islands and New Zealand have all come into sharper focus, with more ships positioned here and more itineraries on offer.
Among the Flight Centre deals I like are:
- The big-value sailings in the Pacific from this month on Carnival Splendor and Carnival Spirit. Out of Brisbane or Sydney, for a seven-night cruise to Isle of Pines and Noumea, travellers could be spending a lot less than $1000 per person twin share.
- Travellers could pay from less than $1200 for eight nights (per person twin share) on Sea Princess sailing out of Fremantle in December, visiting Broome, Exmouth and Geraldton.
- In New Zealand, there are 14-night voyages on Sun Princess starting under $2000 twin share, and visiting Auckland, Tauranga, Napier, Wellington, Akaroa and Dunedin.
- In December, there’s a chance to sail for eight nights from Melbourne to New Zealand on Queen Elizabeth to Fjordland National Park, Dunedin, Lyttelton and Wellington.
Flight Centre sells cruises with:
- P&O Australia
- Princess Cruises
- Royal Caribbean
- Carnival Cruise Lines
- Celebrity Cruises
- MSC Cruises
- Norwegian Cruise Line
- Viking Cruises
My pick of being on the water elsewhere
I like the MSC Cruises itineraries up the west coast of Norway. For example, there’s a seven-night trip in 2021 on MSC Virtuosa which leaves Copenhagen, in Denmark, and then, in Norway, visits Hellesylt, Alesund and Flaam before sailing south to finish in Kiel, Germany. Prices per passenger twin share start from $1399 for a sailing in June 2021. And, of course, Viking Cruises is in home territory, with good itineraries and a real emphasis on getting off and experiencing ports, history and local life.
Let me first just reel off some names… Tallinn in Estonia (dream up the medieval walls and towers of the Old Town); St Petersburg in Russia (the fabulous Hermitage Museum at the Winter Palace); Helsinki in Finland (surely one of Europe’s most scenic capitals); Stockholm in Sweden (this northern Venice, spread across 18 islands). Gotcha? These and others make “Baltic cruising” varied and interesting. Ask about Holland America Line’s Jewels of the Baltic Cruise, for example 10 nights in August from $2745 per person.
I really like the Viking Cruises ships, attitude and itineraries for the Chilean fjords down the southern west coast of South America — and this piece of coast is spectacular. Ask, for example, about the 17-night itinerary from Buenos Aires to Santiago on Viking Jupiter. In November, this sets off first down the east coast of Argentina (calling at Puerto Madryn), out to the Falkland Islands, stops at Ushuaia, rounds Cape Horn and then gets into that Chilean coast — Punta Arenas, Amalia Glacier and Puerto Montt, before ending in Santiago.
RIVER CRUISE EUROPE
There’s a reason that river cruising between Amsterdam and Budapest is so popular… and it’s simply because it’s so good.
There’s absolutely no way round it in my mind — if you’ve ever considered river cruising in Europe, this is where you start.
Itineraries vary a little with each cruise line, of course, but, for example…
From Amsterdam, with its canals, museums and bicycles, to Cologne with its epic cathedral, Bonn in this 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, and through the Rhine Gorge.
There’s the walled town of Rothenburg, and Wurzburg with the Bishop’s Residenz Palace.
The Old Town of Bamberg has old cobbled streets. Nuremberg dates back to the 11th century.
In Regensburg, at the confluence of three rivers, there’s 2000 years of history.
Salzburg is, of course the heartland of both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and The Sound of Music.
Melk’s has an 18th century Benedictine Abbey and Durnstein is a pretty 12th century village.
In Vienna, there might be a visit to Palais Liechtenstein, a private classical evening concert and a visit to Schonbrunn Palace.
Budapest is one of my favourite cities — a walkable city in two halves (Buda and Pest), separated by the Danube.
Start by looking at APT and Scenic packages.
APT’s Magnificent Europe from Budapest to Amsterdam is over 15 days and from $6695 per person (based on a March 17, 2021, departure). There’s a special deal at the moment, with flights included. Ask in stores or on 131 600 for the APT Magnificent Europe deal.
- After Amsterdam to Budapest, turn your attention to the south of France, between Lyon and Arles.
RUNNING ON RAILS
Eurostar is due to launch a direct rail service between Amsterdam and London on April 30. There’s a new Eurostar building at Amsterdam Centraal station, with its checks before boarding, and stops at Rotterdam, Brussels, Lille and London St Pancras.
There’s a service from Rotterdam from May 18 and it is a carbon-friendlier alternative to air travel.
Flight Centre consultants can help organise tickets in three classes — business premier (express check-in, complimentary Raymond Blanc designed at-seat meals), standard premier (comfort, affordable, at-seat light meals) and standard class (air conditioned, bar-buffet).
They have a range of discounted fares, including reduced rates for children, youth and seniors tickets. A spokesperson says: “Passengers with a Eurail pass covering France, Belgium or England are also entitled to discounted fares.”
Travel consultants can help with all sorts of rail passes in all sorts of places.
- Ask about the 14-day, 13-night UK Highlight Hop Rail Journey, from $2548 per person, for travel between October 1 and November 30. It includes eight days with a second class, one month BritPass and 13 nights, four-star accommodation. The deal expires on April 30. In stores or on 131 600, mention product number 1201417.
USA SELF DRIVE
On the road. Mostly unscripted and footloose.
Motels, diners, highways, side tracks.
We’re rolling along in the USA…
“There’s over six million kilometres of highway in the USA and you won’t see all of it in your lifetime, but you can give it a red-hot go,” as one of our friends at Flight Centre says.
One way to set about it is to get them to book flights, a car, and a couple of nights accommodation while you find your feet, before going off-piste.
Another is to book a flights-car-accommodation package, follow an itinerary, and take the thinking out of it. I like the luxury seven-day self drive Pier 39 and Cali Wine package.
Starting with a car and three days, with accommodation at the hotel Whitcomb in San Francisco, travellers then head north to the great wine country of Sonoma before returning to the city.
It’s $1335 per person. In stores or on 131 600, mention product number 11493998. flightcentre.com.au/product/11493998
And another is to travel in a recreational vehicle, staying in the USA’s good RV parks.
Either way, wind down the window, stick your elbow on the sill, squint at the white line ahead, and let the music play.
And for that, of course, we need a playlist…
ROAD TRIP PLAYLIST 1
My current USA road-trip playlist would go something like:
- Western Stars by Bruce Springsteen (from 2020 album, Western Stars)
- From a Buick 6 by Bob Dylan (from Highway 61 album)
- Get Along by Kenny Chesney
- Get Over Yourself by Kelsea Ballerini
- Goodbye in Telluride by Dierks Bentley
- Wrong Side of the Tracks by Guy Clark
- Pilgrim’s Progress by Kris Kristofferson
- California by Lana Del Rey
- Beautiful Crazy by Luke Combs
- Girl by Maren Morris
- Caddo County by Verlon Thompson
- I Started Out With Nothing and I’ve Still Got Most of it Left by Seasick Steve and, of course, Hey Stephen by Taylor Swift
ROAD TRIP PLAYLIST 2
…but, the folk at Flight Centre have come up with their own for Route 66 — the classic drive in the USA.
Route 66 by Nat King Cole
The Southern-Pacific highway runs between San Diego, California, and Savannah, Georgia.
Running Down a Dream by Tom Petty
As guitarist Mike Campbell’s riff kicks in as you put the car into gear your adventure has begun. And how’s this for an opening lyric: “It was a beautiful day/The sun beat down/I had the radio on/I was drivin.”
Life in the Fast Lane by the Eagles
Completely appropriate and the epic Hotel California LP which reflects the locale.
Born To Be Wild by Steppenwolf
Think of Peter Fonda in Easy Rider as he throws his watch into the desert and rides off into the majesty of the unknown.
Southern Pacific by Neil Young
We’re on the old US-80 — nearly 5000km of bitumen that’ll get you to Savannah. This song is from the 1981 album Re-Ac-Tor.
San Diego Serenade by Tom Waits
Travelling south you’ll arrive in San Diego. There’s a poignancy that fits with Tom Waits’ song from the album The Heart of Saturday Night.
Horse With No Name by America
It’s hard not to play America’s Horse With No Name. But stay calm, you’re not Walter White and this isn’t the opening scene of Breaking Bad season two.
Get Back by the Beatles
The Beatles brought so much American music back to America, it seems fitting to drop them in the middle of this playlist, especially when it includes the lines “Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona/For some California grass”.
By the Time I Get to Phoenix by Glen Campbell
Jimmy Webb remains one of the great American songwriters: Glen Campbell maintains the same stature as a singer.
Take Me Home by John Denver
Stay in cruise control as you glide through New Mexico. Denver was born in Roswell, and the song crisscrosses the USA all the way to West Virginia.
It’s So Easy by Buddy Holly
In Texas you might well pass the Buddy Holly monument in Lubbock.
Johnny B Goode by Chuck Berry
The song embodies the American dream as Johnny sets out to conquer the USA from his home down in Louisiana.
The Thrill Is Gone by BB King
By you time you hit the Mississippi you’ll be steeped in the music that helped define America in the 20th Century. Jazz, blues, rock’n’roll, country and gospel all run deep in this part of the world.
Suspicious Minds by Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley came from Tupelo. Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock and Teddy Bear are wonderful driving songs from the 1950s, but we’re opting for Suspicious Minds … the long version, cut live, at his Aloha From Hawaii concert… “I’m caught in a trap…”
Georgia On My Mind by Ray Charles
Now you’re in the home straight and there’s no finer Ray Charles song than Georgia On My Mind.
BACK SEAT DRIVING
…or, if you don’t want to drive, a good way to see the country “from the back seat” is on Collette’s National Parks of America Tour. Over 12 days (11 nights), it visits Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Salt Lake City and finishes in Jackson Hole. It’s from $5549 per person for the tour. The deal expires on May 24. (Mention product number 11780331 in stores or on 131 600. flightcentre.com.au/product/11780331
FLY & FLOP, MAURITIUS
Fly and flop. And there’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with a package in Mauritius, a direct flight away from Perth over the Indian Ocean.
I like packages at Solana Beach Resort, a beautiful resort on the east coast, or Salt of Palmar. I like the seven-night deal for a garden view room at Salt of Palmar for travel between May 1 and July 31, which is from $805 per person. In stores or on 131 600, mention product number 9158800. flightcentre.com.au/product/9158800
dream now, travel later…
- Where I’ve mentioned a product number, you can quote that in a Flight Centre store or call this specific number: 131 600.
- Book online by visiting flightcentre.com.au/product/ and adding the relevant product number quoted in this story.