One of the most conspicuous signs of rising living standards is the number of young families these days who can afford to travel overseas. This is particularly noticeable during the winter school holidays.

This week Air New Zealand reported its busiest school holidays on record, the number of outbound travellers up 25 per cent on five years ago.

Most bookings for this week and next are to Australia, followed by the United States and Fiji. All are no doubt looking for sun and warmth, but there is a curious difference in regional preferences. Fiji is the destination for most of those starting their journey in Auckland, most of those coming from Dunedin and Christchurch were heading for Queensland and most West Coasters and Southlanders have gone to Rarotonga.

Wherever they have gone, these parents are treating their school-age children to experiences previous generations did not have at their age. The number holidaying overseas is now five times higher than 40 years ago, while the population has grown by about a third.

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Deregulation and airline competition has made air travel cheaper, not just on new "budget" airlines but on flag carriers such as Air NZ for those who book well ahead, which we do.

"While most of the world make flight bookings four weeks before departure," says an Air NZ executive, "we've found Kiwis arrange holidays two to three months in advance."

Even so, school holidays are unlikely to be the cheapest time to book a flight for the family. Cheaper travel has a downside when it entices some parents to take their children away during the school term.

It is becoming all too common and schools ought to do more to discourage it. Principals say they are resigned to the fact the family has usually made the booking and will go regardless of being told of the disruption to the child's classroom programmes. Parents convince themselves the child's glimpse of another country will be of as much educational value as the missed schooling. It is an argument for convenience.

More credit, then, to those who have timed their trip for these two weeks. If it is costing them a little more, it is money well spent for giving their children an overseas experience at no cost to their formal education.

"Overseas experience" was once a rite of passage young Kiwis could not undertake until they had finished their education and earned some money.

Today's children are growing up in a country much more open to the world and cosmopolitan at home. Increasingly diverse immigration no doubt helps explain that Asian destinations now attract more of our holiday travel and Britain much less. Bali and Vietnam are in the top 10 for the first time these holidays.

Not all families can afford an overseas holiday and probably some of those who do afford one could be spendingspend their money more wisely. No parents should feel their child is seriously deprived if they spend the holidays in New Zealand. A trip to the snow this weekend could be just as much fun.