Olympics or bust

Expert advice on cheap flights to Sydney, plus arranging a Tuscany tour and getting to the core of the Big Apple.

Published March 9, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

I've heard some of the Sydney Olympics buzz and it has me itching for a trip Down Under. Where can I find out about good airfare deals to Australia from the East Coast?

Don't expect to find any cheapo fares during the Olympics period, Sept. 15-Oct. 1, but there are a couple of times each year when discounting occurs, driving down fares from the East Coast from the $1,500-$1,800 neighborhood to the $1,200-$1,300 range.

The sweetest deals depart from West Coast cities, though, so if you can get to one using a frequent-flier award or Greyhound, you'll be set.

Last fall, for instance, Qantas promoted Millennium Madness fares between L.A./San Francisco and Sydney for $799. (Trips had to booked by Nov. 30 for travel from April 17 to June 14.) According to Swain Australia Tours, a similar rate is kicking around now for departures after April 17 -- $799 plus taxes from L.A. From the East Coast, you're looking at $1,200 or so, plus taxes. To get that fare you must book by March 15.

The fares are heavily restricted -- no cancellations or rescheduling. For details, contact Qantas at (800) 227-4500. Competing airlines often offer deals at the same time; among other airlines that travel the route are Air New Zealand, phone (800) 262-1234, and United Airlines, phone (800) 241-6522.

Dozens of tour companies offer Australia packages, and a travel agent can help you locate one that suits your plans. It would be wise, though, to scout around for deals so you know what the market is bearing at the moment.

You also can find tour companies in the Australia Vacation Planner, available free by contacting the Australia Tourist Commission at (661) 775-2000. If you fill out a form located under "Aussie specialists," you'll receive an e-mail list of agents in your area.

Among companies that specialize in Australia tours are:

  • Austravel, (800) 633-3404.

  • Brendan Tours Australia, (800) 421-8446.
  • Colette Tours, (800) 832-4656.
  • Newmans South Pacific Vacations, (800) 421-3326.
  • Qantas Vacations, (800) 682-6017.

  • Swain Australia Tours, (800) 227-9246.
  • Tauck Tours, (800) 468-2825.

I'm a photography buff planning a trip to Tuscany. Can you provide a source of guides who give private tours with innovative locations and sites based on what I want to see?

Tuscany is full of visitors and people willing to guide them. Here are a few choices, gleaned from the Web and other sources:

  • The Florence-based Italy Independent Travel Team offers personal guide services in Tuscany and elsewhere. There are descriptions and a rate chart at the site.

  • In Italy Online notes some tour guides (with e-mail addresses) and has a good section on Tuscany under "regions." A photo safari provides ideas. The service also has a reader exchange where you might be able to get personal recommendations for a guide.
  • The Florence tourist board may be able to help you. Its address is A.P.T., Via Manzoni 16, 50121 Firenze, Italy; phone (011) 39-0-55-23320; fax (011) 39-0-55-234-6286.
  • The Go Tuscany site has a section called "organized tourism" that mentions tours and tour guides, with contact information.
  • A site with some outstanding photographs of the Tuscan countryside is Terra di Toscana.com.
  • Another site worth checking is KnowItal.com.

A forthcoming trip to New York City has us pondering why New York is called the "Big Apple." Can you shed any light on this?

On Moscow's Red Square I once saw two young Russians who, upon hearing that a visitor was from New York, turned to each other and exclaimed, "Ah, the Big Apple!" Somewhere, marketers would be smiling, I thought.

That question is so commonly asked that the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau at one time had this answer posted on its Web site:

"A horse-racing writer for the Morning Telegraph during the 1920s named John J. Fitzgerald was the first to popularize the term. While on assignment in New Orleans, Fitzgerald overheard stable hands refer to New York City racing tracks as "the Big Apple." He was so taken by the phrase that he named his column "Around the Big Apple," and the title became synonymous with New York's racing scene.

"A decade later, jazz musicians adopted the term to refer to New York City and especially Harlem as the jazz capital of the world. But until 1971, when the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau launched the Big Apple campaign, the term was still relatively unknown ... Charles Gillett, past president of the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau, created and launched the Big Apple campaign in 1971."

Among sites to check before visiting the city are those of the Convention & Visitors Bureau and New York Today, from the New York Times.

By Donald D. Groff

Donald D. Groff has been dispensing travel advice for a decade for such publications as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, the Boston Globe and the Kansas City Star.

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