Some of next year's best long-haul bargains are available now. Leila George has advice to bear in mind when booking
If, after what has been an interminable winter, you've been kicking around the idea of a jaunt to Europe this time next year, the time is now. The Early Bird season is underway and it's the time of year to lock in the best deals, the best tours and the best airline routes as the airlines and tour operators throw everything they have at snaring your dollar. The battle is fierce, and you — the consumer — are always going to come out tops. Here are seven things to consider as you retrieve your passport from the back of your undie drawer and flex that credit card.
1. WHEN TO GO
This is tricky — booking early feels like a gamble because we're still wrapped up in thermals and huddling in front of heaters in our damp houses. Europe in mid-summer sounds like a great idea. Except it's not. Europe in August is hell. All of its residents are on holiday too, making beaches crowded, tourist spots impenetrable and getting around pretty hard work. A much better idea is to travel in the shoulder season and we would recommend September — the weather is settled but still great, the Med has warmed up, everyone has gone back to work or school, and hotels and flights are generally cheaper.
If you do have to travel in July/August, make sure you book your accommodation before you go. As someone who travelled around Italy on the fly with a couple of mates a few years ago discovered, trying to find affordable accommodation a day or two in advance is impossible. It may seem exciting and a little reckless, but it just means you end up in a place with bed bugs and no air con.
2. WHEN TO BUY
Our best advice here would be to just take the plunge and don't worry about saving $28.50 or whatever tomorrow. There's no major scam at play here — the deals are generally pretty straight up and probably as good as you'll get. As Tony Laskey, New Zealand's director of marketing and communications for The Travel Corporation, told Travel, "With more people travelling to Europe each year, if you don't book early you limit your itinerary and date options."
You can book last-minute, he says, and possibly get a deal, but most travellers from this part of the world want to plan their trip properly and get organised early due to the logistics involved, including booking a decent amount of leave and locking in house or pet sitters. Another advantage of booking early is that you know what your up-front costs are in terms of the exchange rate, you can start to seriously save, and it leaves you a bit of time to buy foreign currency when the Kiwi dollar is at its strongest.
"Picking which way a currency will move is notoriously difficult," says Herald business editor at large Liam Dann. "But if you're looking for an opportunity to forward-buy for your trip then it pays to watch the central banks in Europe and the US. They hold more sway over our dollar than the local Reserve Bank. If the northern hemisphere economies keep improving then we may see interest rates there start to rise. That would push the US dollar, Euro and Pound up.
"Conversely, if the politics all goes to custard in America or the UK, that's generally good news for Kiwi travellers — as long as it doesn't actually cause a nuclear war or something."
3. WHAT AIRLINE SHOULD YOU CHOOSE?
This is purely a matter of personal preference — a friend who has just booked tickets to Jamaica told me he didn't mind the Auckland-Doha-New York-Kingston trek. Personally, I need a stopover these days, and if you're carting the little ones, you probably will too.
Do you prefer Asia over Aussie, Los Angeles over the Middle East? Maybe you want to get as far as you can in one huge haul, or perhaps you enjoy an excuse to shop or flop on the way to or from. Guys, this one's up to you. What can help is a couple of hours' kip in a book-by-the-hour-block hotel with a pool such as at the Aerotel Airport Transit Hotel in Singapore.
Sean Berenson, Flight Centre New Zealand general manager product told Travel the broader selection of hubs for connecting and direct flights has resulted in more access to a greater variety of destinations.
"Flight Centre has seen Kiwi travellers become increasingly savvy as they take notice of the benefits of entering and exiting Europe and the US via different hubs to avoid hefty airport taxes."
Traditionally expensive spots, such as Iceland, have become more affordable thanks to the boost in competition, he says.
4. BUCKETLIST EVENTS
If you've always wanted to run that marathon or hit up a major festival, now's your chance to plan a trip around a bucketlist event. It's early days for the major 2018 music events to have announced their lineups, but some of the most famous include Glastonbury (Somerset, England, June), Exit (Novi Sad, Serbia, July) and the Isle of Wight Festival (England, June).
On the world sporting stage, the French Open and Tour de France are in May/June and July respectively, while the 2018 Fifa World Cup is a little further afield in Russia in June/July.
5. WHERE WILL YOUR MONEY STRETCH FURTHER?
Some of the cheapest Northern Hemisphere places to travel in 2017 according to Forbes.com included Greece, Spain, Morocco, Portugal, Albania and Bulgaria, and this trend will continue into 2018, thanks to recent tumultuous world events.
In fact, joining that list are the UK, Italy, France, Croatia, Czech Republic, Ireland and Scandinavia, although a report on Hotelzon.com predicts Paris, London and Rome will be the three most expensive cities in Europe next year.
The fullest cities will be Dublin, London and Barcelona, so this is where hotels will likely cost you the most.
6. CRUISE LIFE
If you can find a cruise ship — river or ocean — that suits you and your travel companions, this is one of the most economical and time-effective ways to get around Europe. Just stop and think for a moment: no unpacking, fewer airports, less changing of hotels, ground transport largely taken care of, meals covered. Cruise life means a cruisier life for most of us, with a lot of the hassle taken out of the logistics of getting from A to B.
Take a look at some of the cruise itineraries on offer either on European rivers or around the Mediterranean, and bear in mind the different clientele each style of boat offers. If you want to get access to the ship's pools and don't have much tolerance for children, avoid one of the family-friendly ships and aim instead for more of an older vibe.
Also bear in mind the less you pay, often the less time you have in port, and that the less included charges in your fare means a bigger bill at departure time if you've hit the cocktails too ferociously after a day out exploring. If you do have the kids in tow, maybe it would be better to go for a ship with the latest in entertainment. Shop around — but remember, you may surprise yourself with how much you enjoy communal towel folding seminars or jazzercise classes, so keep an open mind.
River cruises offer a much more boutique experience, many offering bicycles so you can jump ashore and explore at your own pace.
7. HAVE FUN
For Kiwis, sitting on a plane for 24-plus hours is a right-of-passage and part of the deal of living in our safe part of the world. Yes, getting to the Northern Hemisphere can be expensive and a drag, but we're living in the Golden Age of Travel. How lucky are we that we have so much access to Europe, and that actually getting there is the cheapest it's ever been.
Make the most of it, see as much of the world as you can, expand your mind and your experiences and get out there in among it. It's only money after all, and if you have to spend the next few months chipping away at your credit card debt, it's worth it. Get booking today.
Getting there: Over the next two months airlines and retailers will be releasing deals for the coming Northern Summer. Herald Travel will bring you the best of the deals and the most inspiring destinations.