By Mr. Tim Hipps (FMWRC)March 11, 2008
The joint services Australia Military Tours Program might encourage folks with a desire to vacation "Down Under" to take the plunge. The U.S. Army Information, Ticket and Reservation Travel Show, featuring Australian Getaways, will be at Fort Belvoir, Va., from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. on March 4; Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., on March 5; Fort Stewart, Ga., on March 6; and the Morale, Welfare and Recreation/ITT/ITR Vendors Fair in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on March 9. The tour began Feb. 27 at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and will visit Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Feb. 29. "This is an opportunity for people who have ever considered travel to Australia to get firsthand information and an idea of what they might want to do if they book a trip," said Dan Yount, director of Army Leisure Travel at the Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command in Alexandria, Va. "We have this great booking tool that they can use to plan an itinerary and get all kinds of information by going to www.offdutytravel.com and clicking on the joint services special. "They can sign in and start playing around and do multiple itineraries. When they're ready, they simply contact their designated ITR or ITT office, who will then coordinate with the staff in Perth, Australia to get the price for that itinerary and to get that information back to the individual." Representatives from more than 12 major attractions and tourist destinations will feature some of the most affordable Australian vacation packages available at the travel shows. Among the participants: Australia Zoo, Captain Cook Cruises, Accor Hotels, Quantas Airlines, Costello's Opals, Tropic Wings Tours, Sydney Aquarium, Wildlife World, Australian Day Tours, Sunlover Great Barrier Reef Tours, Cairns Tropical Zoo and Bridge Climb. "For years we did surveys and Australia kept coming up as a dream vacation," Yount said. "We have been able to make it affordable." A five-night stay in Melbourne and Sydney, with round trip air fare from Los Angeles or San Francisco, has been available for as little as $898 by active duty, Reserve and National Guard, retired military, Department of Defense civilian personnel and family members. "From the responses I've gotten in e-mails and those the airline offices have received in Kuwait, hundreds of Soldiers have taken advantage of this program," said Yount, who noted that many MWR patrons from Fort Belvoir and the Pentagon also have taken advantage of the Australian vacation opportunities. "This program is unique in that after people come back, we have not had one complaint. It is absolutely first class all the way. Australia's reputation for hospitality is not going to suffer from our program." Those who can not make it to the travel shows can visit the Internet site at www.offdutytravel.com and click on Joint Services Special for more details. "People have to get away form the Green Machine every once in a while, no matter how dedicated they are to their career and their mission," Yount said. "We can get them to almost anywhere they want to go in the world." With this travel package, the idea of a trip to the other side of the world does not seem so far-fetched. Additional day trips can be added to itineraries. From Sydney, host of the 2000 Summer Olympics, to Melbourne to Brisbane to Cairn and the Great Barrier Reef, Australia offers sun-drenched horizons, white sandy beaches and sophisticated modern cities. Aside from its natural beauty, the hospitality and U.S.-friendliness of Australia is rivaled by few countries, Yount said. "It seems almost a shame if you're in Australia if you wouldn't take advantage of seeing other parts of the country," Yount said. "You can add other tours and segments while you're there." Yount also suggested departing from temporary duty assignments on the West Coast, which would save even more out-of-pocket expenses. Vacationers are urged to pay for their packages as soon as possible. "Like just about every other currency in the world, the U.S. dollar is dropping like a rock against it," Yount said. "We're doing our best to keep these affordable, and they are the cheapest prices you're going to find anywhere, pretty much. But when people get a price, they need to make a quick decision and try to pay it as quickly as they can. "Every couple of weeks, that rate is going to go up. In the month of September, the dollar dropped 14 percent against the Australian dollar. That meant if somebody had a trip for $1,000, it would be $1,114 if they waited until the end of the month to pay for it. "We'll get them a good price, but they need to take advantage of it right away because it's not going to get any better in the foreseeable future."