Travel's biggest questions: answered

MICHAEL GEBICKI
Last updated 05:00 17/12/2013
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DECISIONS, DECISIONS: Never before has the modern-day traveller been blessed with so many choices - and has never, at times, been so confounded.

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Should you take the train or drive, buy travellers cheques or count on ATMs, fly straight to Europe or factor in a stopover - these are the questions that divide travellers.

Truth is, there is no "right" answer that works for all travellers in all circumstances, but a little quiet reflection should help find the answer that works best for you.

RESORT v VILLA

Who's travelling? If it's just two of you, a resort will almost certainly work out better in every way.

If it's a family or a small group and you plan to stay in one place for several days at least, a villa could well be the way to go - with a few caveats.

In the case of Asia, a villa usually comes with a cook and a cleaner who will service your rooms and clean the pool.

Some upmarket villas will have a driver. If not, this is an easy add-on facility. Many of the services that a resort provides, such as massages and even yoga sessions, are similarly available as add-ons when you hire a villa in a popular tourist area.

In Europe, it is rare that a villa would be anything but a bare-bones affair. It is up to you to do the cleaning, the shopping and the cooking. This brings you into contact with the local bakers, the butchers, the sellers of herbs and cheese and wine, and this is one of the great joys of travel.

When you manage to wrap your tongue around the ingredients required for parmigiana di melanzane, you'll probably have a few stories that will impress at least as much as the dish itself.

If you stack it to capacity, a villa will usually work out significantly cheaper on a per person basis than hotel or resort accommodation, and it's a great way to save on restaurant bills.

SELF DRIVE v TRAIN

This is a common conundrum for Europe-bound travellers, where the train system is generally superb and a car can be a nightmare.

It depends where your travels take you. If your itinerary is all about exploring big cities, a car is the last thing you need.

Parking is expensive and scarce and urban public transport so well developed that a car is unnecessary.

On the other hand, if you plan to explore the villages and countryside of Ireland's west coast or the hill towns of Umbria, nothing beats the ability to go when and where you like, and that means getting behind the wheel.

In North America, the same advice applies, although plane rather than train is going to be the logical choice, except when inter-city distances are short.

FULL SERVICE v DISCOUNT AIRLINE?

Discount carriers provide nimble competition for the full-service airlines, and in terms of aircraft and economy-class cabin seating, there is little difference between them.

The difference is in the add-ons that come with the "full service" tag. Leaner and, in some cases at least, meaner, low-cost carriers operate on strict user-pays terms.

The passenger pays extra for check-in baggage, inflight meals, entertainment and a blanket - all of which are standard on full-service carriers.

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You will not acquire mileage reward points. If you travel with a low-cost carrier on one sector and transfer to another carrier for an onward flight, chances are the discount operator will not have an interline agreement that allows your checked baggage to be transferred.

You will need to collect your baggage, clear immigration and customs if you are in a foreign country, queue at the check-in counter and pass through customs, immigration and security all over again in order to board your connecting flight, and allow plenty of time for this to happen.

On the other hand, some low-cost carriers have come up with add-ons that enhance the flying experience, such as seating in child-free cabins, either at low or minimal cost, and the option for a low-cost upgrade if premium seats remain unsold at full price at check-in time.

STOPOVER v NON-STOP

The long-haul flight to Europe is a test of human fortitude and endurance.

Fly straight through on an economy-class ticket and it can take several days for that hangover feeling to disappear, and up to a week before sleeping patterns adjust.

Since this is usually a two-stop flight, another option is a short stopover between flights at one of the East Asian hubs. If you depart on a mid-morning flight, you will arrive at Singapore, Hong Kong or Bangkok early in the evening.

Make sure your baggage has been checked through to your final destination. Head for a hotel with just your immediate needs in your carry-on bag.

All three ports have low-cost hotels close to their international airports, as well as inside the terminals. Eat, relax, sleep in comfort and depart on your connecting flight the following morning and you'll arrive at your European destination in mid-afternoon or early evening.

While this strategy adds to your travel time, the payoff is a much shorter recovery period, particularly if you throw in some exercise during the stopover.

It also allows you to check straight into your hotel when you arrive in Europe, as opposed to an early-morning arrival, when most hotels will leave you hanging around until mid-afternoon before your room becomes available.

EUROPE - SPRING v AUTUMN

Summer in Europe is less than ideal. Particularly between mid-July and the end of August when most of Europe takes a break.

Prices throughout the holiday regions of Greece, Spain, Italy and France head skyward, accommodation is scarce, everywhere is crowded and cities such as Rome and Barcelona swelter in the heat.

May-June is a better option, particularly for southern parts of Europe such as Sicily, but the sweet spot is between mid-September and the end of October. Schools are back, prices drop, you can get an outside table in the cafes and find a car park even along the French Riviera.

Markets are full of figs and grapes and the glorious traditions of the harvest season are in full swing. In a typical European year, late summer weather is likely to be more stable than in the fickle months of spring.

TRAVELLER'S CHEQUES v ATMS

While they offer a high degree of security, traveller's cheques are a less convenient way to access cash than ATMs, and exchanging them can be a time waster.

They also involve a commission for the issuing financial institution. ATM machines are just about everywhere these days and they're a fast, easy way to access funds. You can use your normal ATM card to do this, provided you've contacted your bank and requested authorisation for offshore use. Each time you withdraw, you'll pay a cash advance fee and a foreign currency conversion fee.

If your PIN is six digits, get it converted to four since many foreign ATMs will not accept a six-digit PIN. Another option is the prepaid currency card, available from banks, post offices, online and at many international airports.

You deposit funds to the card that you then withdraw via ATMs, or use as a debit card. These cards are convenient, secure and replaceable if lost.

On the downside, multi-layer fees nibble away at your cash and they can be high, especially if you withdraw in a non-major currency such as Thai baht or Canadian dollars.

BIG SHIP v SMALL SHIP

Bigger, broader and ever bulkier they roll down the slipways and into the sea.

Spas and casinos you can take for granted on a big, modern cruise vessel, but today there are ships with self-levelling pool tables, glass elevators that ride up the side, shopping malls with designer labels at duty-free prices, waterfalls and trapeze acts after dinner in the atrium.

For many of the passengers on these oceanic behemoths, the ship itself is the point of the journey, the ports of call are secondary. Big makes a lot of sense particularly for families with different age groups and interests since they offer so many facilities, and prices can be keen.

They can also fit tidily into a tight time frame. P&O has recently introduced SeaBreaks - journeys from Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne that can be as short as two days.

On the downside, pools and entertainment facilities can be crowded, disembarkation can chew into port time and a big ship's passengers will pack out a small port.

At the other end of the scale is small-ship, expeditionary cruising. These are vessels generally less than 100 metres long, designed to take you right to where the action is, whether it's a melting Alaskan glacier, a Kimberley waterfall or close enough to a pod of orcas to hear the suck of their breath.

Their natural habitats are the frontiers, the Antarctic, the Amazon River, coastal Greenland, the fiords of Tierra del Fuego, the islands of Papua New Guinea or the Spice Islands of Indonesia.

These vessels will take you places that nothing else will, but small-ship cruising is expensive. While it cannot compete with the entertainment facilities of a big vessel, the level of luxury on many small ships is surprisingly high.

DESTINATION DILEMMAS

BANGKOK v SINGAPORE Singapore is the Switzerland of Asia, so well run, so clean and so efficient it seems to glide along on ball bearings. Shopping and eating are the main attractions, but while the shopping is just about everything the human heart could wish for, Singapore's street food - one of the standouts of the Thai capital - is often lacklustre.

On the other hand, Singapore is perfect for families, especially those with young children. Bangkok is grittier, but the shopping is world-class and the city has some fabulous hotels at amazingly low prices.

This is also the massage and spa capital of the world, and a gold medallist in the nightlife stakes.

BALI v PHUKET Phuket has the beaches and the local cuisine is far superior. Both have outstanding resorts, although Bali offers a wider choice, and finding a place to stay outside the major resort areas is simple, unlike in Phuket.

Bali's villa industry is well developed. In terms of spa treatments and massages, Phuket and Bali set the gold standard, but Bali offers a better suite of active pursuits.

For sighingly perfect scenery, Bali is just about unbeatable. This is also a more culturally immersive experience. Temple festivals are practically unavoidable in Bali, and even when the gamelan orchestra keeps you awake half the night, it's hard to take offence.

NORTH QUEENSLAND v FIJI North Queensland is the outright winner for access and convenience. It's quick and easy to get to, there are no passport or customs to slow you down and, if familiarity is a priority, it's hard to pass up, particularly if time is short. You'll get more bang for your buck in Fiji, despite the higher flight cost.

Meals, hotels and activities are all a comparative bargain, especially for high-cost aquatic activities such as diving. While Queensland has the Great Barrier Reef, Fiji has Great Astrolabe Reef and both are sensational dive and snorkel spots. Prime time in Queensland is May to October; in Fiji, it's June to early November.

NEW ZEALAND v TASMANIA Tasmania has a lively history, mellow scenery, wonderful food and wine, superb walks, wildlife galore and plenty of atmospheric accommodation.

New Zealand is a higher, sharper, wilder version, offering spirited competition in every department, with the exception of history. Both are similarly lightly populated.

Although Tasmania has plenty of rugged country to challenge hikers, kayakers and other wilderness lovers, New Zealand offers greater variety and depth in its adventure catalogue.

It's also slightly more costly. For anyone with $1000-plus to spend on a night's accommodation, New Zealand's sporting lodges are among the world's finest.

FRANCE v ITALY In terms of cultural highs, glorious scenery, great cities, romance, heart-wrenching beauty and cuisine, these European neighbours are podium finishers.

Drawing a line between them is almost impossible. France has joie de vivre, Italy la dolce vita. Italy has better coffee, France better pastries, but the differences are tiny.

It comes down to a question of style. Italy is possibly more fun and more quirky. France is slightly more restrained, but put yourself on a bicycle running along a French towpath with wine, cheese and a baguette in your basket, and you're on the highway to heaven.

- FFX Aus

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