Given the country’s vast scale, travel is a major factor of any visit to Australia. In general, public transport plies only the major highways to capital cities, the bigger towns between them, and to popular tourist destinations; to get off the beaten track you’ll have to consider buying or renting a vehicle.
If you’re planning to cross states overland, factor in travel time. It’s easy to underestimate distances and conditions – you may well be letting yourself in for a three-day bus journey, or planning to drive 500km on bad roads. Bear in mind, too, what the weather will be doing; you don’t necessarily want to head into central Australia in a battered car during summer, or into the northern tropics in the wet season.
Budget operators like Jetstar (jetstar.com.au) and Virgin Australia (virginaustralia.com) have joined national operator Qantas (qantas.com.au.) to slash ticket prices, so flying is now the most common means of interstate travel. As an idea of prices, a typical one-way flight from Sydney to Melbourne costs from around Aus$120 and from Perth to Darwin Aus$230. These three airlines cover the majority of interstate flights. Regional routes are served by smaller airlines such as Regional Express, also called Rex (rex.com.au), which covers New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, and state-based companies such as Air North (airnorth.com.au) in the Northern Territory. If you are flexible about travel, many airlines offer massively discounted sale fares online – a huge saving in time as well as money considering the distances – so keep an eye on websites.
If flying with Qantas, you could save money with a Walkabout Air Pass, which covers up to three discounted domestic flights; you’ll need to purchase it when you book as part of a package with your international flight. As ever, prices fluctuate by the season, and, in the US and Canada, according to your departure point. If you know your travel plans and can face the extra effort, it is worth double-checking that the pass will actually save money; some travellers discover that budget airline bargains can work out cheaper than the discounted flights included in a pass.
Sightseeing flights are available throughout Australia – the best and most spectacular are included in the relevant sections and local tourist boards can also advise. They cover everything from biplane spins above cities to excursions to the Great Barrier Reef and flights over well-known landscapes. A flight from Alice Springs to Uluru in a small plane, for example, enables you to visit the Rock in a day, but also observe the impressive central-Australian landforms from the air.
The southeast has a reasonably comprehensive rail service: interstate railways link the entire east coast from Cairns to Sydney, and on to Melbourne and Adelaide. Each state operates its own rail network. For rail buffs, Australia has two great (or perhaps just long) journeys: the Indian Pacific from Perth to Sydney, travelling for three nights and 4352km across the Nullarbor Plain; and the seasonal Ghan, which takes three days to go from Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs. Holders of backpacker, student or YHA cards receive a discount of around a third. Both services are operated by Great Southern Railway (greatsouthernrail.com.au), and are geared towards the holiday experience more than the act of getting from A to B.
There’s also the option of transportation for vehicles up to 5.5m long, with prices dependent upon the distance and direction travelled: while it costs Aus$1189 from Adelaide to Darwin, the reverse journey is Aus$649, for example. Great Southern Railway also runs the Overland 828km interstate service between Melbourne and Adelaide (11hr; from Aus$99), also with the option of car transport (from $259).
Other than these, there are a couple of inland tracks in Queensland – to Mount Isa, Longreach and Charleville, plus the rustic Cairns–Forsayth run and isolated Croydon–Normanton stretch – and suburban networks around some of the major cities. Only around Sydney does this amount to much, with decent services to most of New South Wales. There are no passenger trains in Tasmania.
Trains are usually more comfortable than buses and can be a little faster – Brisbane to Cairns takes 25 hours by train, and 29 hours by coach – for only a little extra expense. Some also get seriously booked up – Queensland trains, for example, require a month’s advance booking during holiday season. Generally, it’s cheaper – and faster – to fly.
Rail Australia (railaustralia.com.au) is a good one-stop shop for cross- and interstate train travel, with route maps of all lines and links to the relevant train operators.
Due to budget air fares, bus travel is no longer necessarily the cheapest way to get around, and is certainly the most tiresome. It may also mean arriving or departing in the middle of the night. Nor are services daily, as you might think, especially in Western Australia, although on the plus side they can be faster than trains. Where buses are useful is access: the network reaches much further than the train network and visits small towns between cities; occasional bargain fares crop up on popular routes like Sydney–Byron Bay.
The buses are about as comfortable as they can be, with reclining seats, air conditioning, toilets and DVDs. If possible, try and plan for a stopover every twenty hours – try to sit out a sixty-hour marathon trip and you’ll need a day or more to get over it. Discounts (10 percent, or 15 percent if you buy your ticket before entering Australia) are available on many fares if you have a YHA, ISIC or recognized backpacker card such as VIP, or if you are a pensioner.
The major interstate bus company on the mainland is Greyhound Australia (greyhound.com.au), which covers the entire country. Along the east coast, Premier Motor Service (premierms.com.au) calls in everywhere along the highway between Melbourne and Cairns, while in WA, Integrity Coach Lines (integritycoachlines.com.au) goes from Perth to Broome, looping inland, too. Firefly Express ( fireflyexpress.com.au) runs from Sydney to Adelaide via Canberra and Melbourne and usually has the cheapest fares for these routes. Tasmania is covered by Tassielink (tassielink.com.au) and Tasmanian Redline Coaches (tasredline.com.au).
A one-way fare from Sydney costs about Aus$135 to Adelaide (23hr), Aus$95 to Brisbane (16hr), and Aus$80 to Melbourne (12hr). Longer trips to, say, Darwin or Alice Springs will be several hundred, so are not worth considering unless you are passionately anti-flying. Return fares are only marginally cheaper than two singles.
Where bus travel scores over air (aside from its environmental impact) is its plethora of passes, though bear in mind that you won’t save money over shorter routes and that passes are non-refundable. Greyhound offers a range of passes lasting between three days and twelve months on which you can break your journey as often as you like and travel in any direction. Year-long Kilometre Passes are the most flexible, giving you unlimited travel up to 25,000km in any direction until you have used up the distance paid for – these work out around 10¢ per kilometre; 1000km will get you from Sydney to Melbourne, 25,000km will get you all around Australia. Greyhound also has dedicated Adventure Packages that include travel and popular tourism products: a Fraser Island tour, sailing in Whitsunday and a reef dive on the Sydney–Cairns East Coaster, for example.
Stick to the east coast and public transport will cover most needs. But to explore Australia fully, you’ll need your own vehicle. Only then will the national parks, remote beaches and Outback towns that make the country unique be within reach. If your trip is of four months or more, buying a vehicle may also be the cheapest way to go. On shorter trips renting is the best bet – if not for the whole time then for short periods between bus rides, thereby allowing you to explore an area in depth.
Most foreign licences are valid for a year in Australia. An International Driving Permit (available from national motoring organizations) may be useful if you come from a non-English-speaking country. In 2013, fuel prices averaged $1.45 per litre for unleaded petrol: prices increase by around 10¢ in Darwin, jack up about a quarter along the Outback highways and rise further in remote stations. The rules of the road are similar to those in the UK and US: drive on the left (as in the UK), and wear seat belts at all times. The speed limit in all built-up areas is 50kph or less. Outside built-up areas, maximums are either 90kph or 110kph on longer stretches, except in the Northern Territory, where common sense is your only limit between towns. Whatever else you do in a vehicle, respect the distances in Australia. Never drive tired and be tempted to push on through; similarly get out of the car every few hours. Drinking alcohol is also forbidden: random breath tests are common even in rural areas, especially during the Christmas season and on Friday and Saturday nights. One rule that might catch you out in towns is that roadside parking must be in the same direction as the traffic; in other words, don’t cross oncoming traffic to park on the right.
The main hazards are boredom and fatigue, and animal collisions – a serious problem everywhere (not just in the Outback) at dawn, dusk and night-time. Driving in the Outback is by far the most dangerous tourist pursuit in Australia and every year several people get killed in single-vehicle rollovers or head-on collisions, particularly Europeans on short see-it-all holidays in cumbersome 4WDs or motorhomes. Beware of 50m-long road trains: these colossal trucks can’t stop quickly or pull off the road safely, so if there’s the slightest doubt, get out of their way; only overtake a road train if you can see well ahead and are certain your vehicle can manage it. On dirt roads be doubly cautious, or just pull over and let the road train pass.
Roads, Outback driving and breakdowns
Around the cities the only problem you’ll face is inept signposting, but the quality of some interstate roads isn’t always great and some minor routes are pretty shabby. Conditions, especially on unsealed roads, are unpredictable, and some roads will be impassable after a storm, so always seek reliable advice (from local police or a roadhouse) before starting out into the big nothingness. Make it clear what sort of vehicle you’re driving and remember that their idea of a “good” or “bad” road may be radically different from yours. Some so-called “4WD only” tracks are navigable in ordinary cars as long as you take it easy – high ground clearance, rather than four-driven wheels, is often the crucial factor.
Rain and flooding – particularly in the tropics and central Australia – can close roads to all vehicles within minutes, so driving through remote regions or even along the coastal highway in the wet season can be prone to delays. The spectacular stretches of highway between Broome and Kununurra and Cairns to Townsville are notorious for flooding during summer cyclone season. Several remote and unsealed roads through central Australia (the Sandover and Plenty highways, the Oodnadatta, Birdsville and Tanami tracks, and others) are theoretically open to all vehicles in dry winter weather, but unless you’re well-equipped with a tough car, don’t attempt a crossing during summer, when extreme temperatures strain both driver and vehicle.
On poor roads and dirt tracks, the guidelines are to keep your speed down to 80kph, stick to the best section and never assume that the road is free from potholes and rocks. Long corrugated stretches can literally shake a vehicle apart – check radiators, fuel tanks and battery connections after rough stretches; reducing tyre pressures slightly softens the ride but can cause the tyres to overheat, making them more prone to punctures. Windscreens are often shattered by flying stones from passing traffic, so slow down and pull over to the left.
At all times carry plenty of drinking water and fuel, and if you’re heading to the Outback let someone know your timetable, route and destination so that a rescue can be organized if you don’t report in. Carry a detailed map, and don’t count on finding regular signposts. It’s advisable to carry a high-frequency (HF) radio transceiver to pick up the Royal Flying Doctor Service bases. Better still, hire a satellite phone and Global Positioning System (GPS) finder – an extra cost worth bearing when it is literally a lifesaver.
In the event of a breakdown in the Outback, always stay with your vehicle: it’s more visible to potential rescuers and you can use it for shade. If you’re off a main track, as a last resort, burn a tyre or anything plastic – the black smoke will be distinctive from the average bushfire.
Car, 4WD and campervan rental
To rent a car you need a full, clean driver’s licence and to be at least 21 years old, rising to 25 for 4WDs and motorcycles. As ever, double-check the small print before signing: mileage limits, extras and extent of accident cover. The multinational operators Hertz, Budget, Avis and Thrifty have offices in major cities and at airports, but a lack of competition makes standard rates expensive at Aus$60–80 a day for a small car. Local firms – of which there are many in the cities – are generally better value though we have heard tales of unscrupulous operators who sting travellers with unwarranted fees; expect around Aus$50 a day with unlimited kilometres. One-way rental might appear handy, but is usually very expensive due to drop-off fees.
Four-wheel-drive vehicles are best reserved for specific areas rather than long term because rental at around Aus$90–150 a day is steep even without fuel. Campervans, typically a Toyota Hiace, cost from Aus$90 a day for a two-berth campervan in low season (up to Aus$160 in high season) with unlimited kilometres – good value when you factor in the saving on accommodation costs – plus one-way rental is often possible. Like cars, most campervans are limited to sealed roads, but they give you the chance to create your own tour across Australia. Remember, though, that the sleeping capacity stated is an absolute maximum, which you wouldn’t want to endure too long. Furthermore, in the tropics the interior never really cools overnight unless you leave the doors open – which brings the bugs in. Consider sleeping outside under a mozzie dome or inner tent. Larger operators – nationwide firms like Britz, Apollo and Kea, for example, plus larger local outfits – rent 4WD campervans fitted with 180-litre fuel tanks that are only limited off-road by your 4WD experience or roof heights. Average prices for 4WD campers average Aus$180–200 per day year-round. The downside of all campervans is that they are thirsty and require drivers to appreciate the altered driving dynamics of an already high vehicle fitted with a heavy body. Novice renters regularly drift off the road, overcompensate and roll a heavy camper. Finally, a few companies such as Spaceships rent modern hybrid campervans. These are basically converted “people-movers”, so more car than van, that make up in driving comfort and fuel-economy what they lack in accommodation; a good option if you have a tent, too.
Car rental agencies
Campervan and motor-home rental agencies
Apollo Motorhome Holidays apollocamper.com.au.
Britz Australia britz.com.au.
Wicked Campervans wickedcampers.com.au.
Buying a car
Buying a used vehicle needn’t be an expensive business, and a well-kept car should resell at about two-thirds to half the purchase price at the end of your trip. A good place to evaluate vehicle prices and availability online is at tradingpost.com.au.
If you don’t know your axle from your elbow but are not too gullible, car yards can provide advice – some in Sydney even cater specifically to travellers – but don’t forget you’re dealing with used-car salesmen. Buying privately saves money. Backpackers’ notice-boards in exit points from Australia are the best places to look. A huge advantage of buying from backpackers is that you usually get all sorts of useful stuff thrown in – camping gear, eskies and spares. The disadvantages are high mileage and low maintenance. Unless you know what you’re doing, call in the experts: state automobile associations offer rigorous pre-purchase inspections for about Aus$200, which isn’t much if it saves you from buying a wreck. The Australian Automobile Association (aaa.asn.au) holds a huge backlist of vehicle tests online, which might help make a decision.
You’ll also need a roadworthiness certificate to have the vehicle transferred from its previous owner to you. This means having a garage check it over; legally, the previous owner should do this, and theoretically it guarantees the car is mechanically sound – but don’t rely on it. You take this to the local Department of Transport with the certificate, a receipt of purchase, your driver’s licence and passport; it is then registered in your name for a percentage of the price. For Western Australia-registered cars, the process is the same, except that a road worthiness certificate is not required.
If the annual vehicle registration is due or you bought a vehicle interstate, you’ll have to pay extra for registration (aka “rego”), which is around Aus$300/600 for six/twelve months depending on the state and engine size. Note that cars with interstate registration can be difficult to sell.
Registration includes the legal minimum third-party personal insurance. We advise increasing this cover to protect against third-party damage and theft, or better still, comprehensive insurance. Joining one of the automobile clubs for another Aus$150 buys you the peace of mind of free roadside assistance (within certain limits), and discounts on road maps and other products. Each state has its own club, but membership is reciprocal with overseas equivalents.
Motorcycles, especially large-capacity trail bikes, are ideal for the Australian climate, although long distances place a premium on their comfort and fuel range. If you aim to return to your starting point, look out for dealers with a buy-back option as bikes can be more difficult to sell privately than cars. Whether you’re planning to ride off or on the bitumen, plenty of water-carrying capacity is essential in the Outback. Outback night-riding is risky due to the possibility of collisions with wildlife; make sure your lights and brakes are up to it and keep your speed down to under 100kph. Motorcycle rental has become widely available from the main southern cities. All types of models are on offer so talk to the rental outfit about your plans before you commit. In Sydney, Bikescape (bikescape.com.au) has a good selection. The Adventure Motorcycling Handbook, published by Trailblazer Guides (adventure-motorcycling.com), is a definitive manual for preparation and riding off the beaten track and includes Outback tracks.
The official advice for hitching in Australia is don’t. A better option is to line up lifts through backpackers’ notice-boards and share fuel costs. This gives you the chance to meet the driver in advance, and most likely stop to see sights en route. In out-of-the-way locations, roadhouses are a good place to try as the owners often know of people who’ll be heading in your direction. We strongly advise against a thumb on the open road. If this is the only option, never hitch alone and ensure you are dropped at a settlement. Remember that you don’t have to get into a vehicle just because it stops: choose whom to get in with and don’t be afraid to ask questions before you do. Ask the driver where he or she is going rather than say where you want to go. Try to keep your pack with you; having it locked in the boot makes a quick escape difficult.