Smart Traveller

Humpbacks by helicopter

During a helicopter training flight off the coast of NSW, pilot James Guest was speechless at the sight below: a breaching whale with its jaws wide open. "Looking straight down the mouth of a whale as it spun around was a big surprise. We did a few orbits in the helicopter and it was awe-inspiring," Guest says.

His company has launched Heli-Humpback, dedicated whale-watching flights. Between now and November, as humpback, minke and pilot whales head south, the company is making 25-minute flights from Port Stephens and Newcastle airports. In line with NSW National Park guidelines, the aircraft is never closer than 500 metres vertically or horizontally from the creatures. Flights cost $250 a person.

See newcastlehelicopters.com.au.

Record numbers at sea

A record 20 million people took a cruise last year, an increase of almost 2 million, according to the latest industry figures. While North America (11.5 million) and Europe (6.2 million) are the main markets, the Australian cruising market grew by 30 per cent, to more than 500,000 passengers. Figures were compiled from industry associations including the Cruise Lines International Association, which predicts that Australian cruise numbers are likely to double by 2020.

Meanwhile, the 2,667-passenger Carnival Spirit makes Sydney its home port next month, cruising a schedule of eight- to 12-day Pacific Island voyages and 13-day New Zealand itineraries. A Carnival competitor, the Royal Caribbean line, is sending the massive Voyager of the Seas to cruise Australian waters from November. See carnival.com.au; royalcaribbean.com.au.

Customer service rewarded

Bunnik Tours has won top prize for excellence in customer service at the 2012 BRW Private Business Awards for its commitment to travellers during last year's civil unrest in Egypt. The managing director of Bunnik Tours, Dennis Bunnik, flew to Cairo at the start of protests in January and arranged the safe return of tour passengers. "Our operation during the Egypt revolution period was a massive team effort which included rescheduling the travel arrangements for about 700 clients," Bunnik says. Six weeks after the unrest, the company resumed tours.

See bunniktours.com.au.

Wheeling through Gippsland

With 8500 people in the saddles for The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, the event may be the world's largest ride (with possibly the world's longest title). Closer to home, the Great Victorian Bike Ride, Australia's largest, attracts 4000 riders and this year returns to the eastern region of Gippsland, finishing on Phillip Island.

The ride's longest segment, a nine-day, 591-kilometre leg, starts from Lakes Entrance on November 24; riders on the 208-kilometre three-day Great Vic Getaway join the main group in Yarragon on November 30. For those with only one day to spare, a 40-kilometre leg starts in San Remo on December 2. The three-day ride is a chance for riders to get a taste for the longer ride, with a view to taking it on next year, Bicycle Network Victoria's Darren Allen says.

"Gippsland has some of the best bike riding in Australia: gentle gradients, quiet country back roads," he says. The three- and nine-day rides are fully catered and supported, with camping accommodation and luggage transport.It costs $965 (nine-day ride) or $545 (three days) for adults.

Meanwhile, NSW National Parks next month hosts events including family rides and challenging mountain-bike trails.

See greatvic.com.au; nationalparks.nsw.gov .au/cycling.

Booking site for bargain hunters

Haggling for a hotel room in Australia and New Zealand is encouraged on the website GraysEscape.com. Guests enter a price and hoteliers have three hours to accept an offer or bargain. Guests can haggle with three operators at once. Scrooges take note: a minimum price is already set so the only way is up.

See graysescape.com.

Send news items to smarttraveller@fairfax.com.au.

The story Smart Traveller first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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