Australia //

Travel essentials

Costs

Australian prices was always came as a shock if you had travelled from Southeast Asia, but now with the strong dollar and booming economy, Australia can now feel as expensive as Europe or the US, especially for food and drink. This is most noticeable in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and WA mining towns – the cost of living has crept up over the years and any prolonged length of time spent in these places will quickly drain savings.

If you’re prepared to camp and cook all meals, the absolute minimum daily budget is around Aus$50 (circa £30/US$45/€35), but count on around Aus$75 (£45/US$70/€55) a day for food, board and transport if you stay in hostels, travel on buses and eat and drink fairly frugally. Stay in motels and B&Bs (assuming you’re sharing costs) and eat out well regularly, and you’ll need to budget at least Aus$150 (£85/US$140/€105). Extras such as scuba diving, clubbing, car rental, petrol and tours will all add to your costs. Under the Tourist Refund Scheme (TRS), visitors can claim Goods and Services Tax (GST) refunds for goods purchased in Australia as they clear customs (goods need to be worn or taken within hand luggage), providing individual receipts exceed Aus$300, and the claim is made within sixty days of purchase.

Crime, personal safety and the law

Australia is a relatively safe country, although increasingly it follows the American trend for gun-related incidents. This is not to say there’s no petty crime, but you’re more likely to fall victim to another traveller or an opportunist: theft does happen in hostels and many provide lockers. That said, if you leave valuables lying around, you can expect them to vanish.

You’re most likely to see violence in or outside pubs – nearly always alcohol-fuelled and usually on a Friday or Saturday night in untouristed small towns or in major cities. Strangers are rarely involved without provocation, though keep your wits about you in city nightlife hotspots such as Kings Cross in Sydney, also a focus of drug-related crime.

Marijuana use may be widespread, but you’d be foolish to carry it when you travel and crazy to carry any other illegal narcotics. Each state has its own penalties, and while a small amount of grass may mean no more than confiscation and an on-the-spot fine, they’re generally pretty tough – especially in Queensland. Drink driving is taken extremely seriously, so don’t risk it – random breath tests are common around all cities and larger towns.

There are all sorts of controls on where and when you can drink, and taking alcohol onto Aboriginal lands can be a serious offence. Keep in mind that nude or topless sunbathing may be quite acceptable in many places, but absolutely not in others; follow the locals’ lead. Smoking is banned in all public places, including bars, pubs, restaurants and train stations; in 2010 Hobart even banned it around bus stops in its CBD.

Electricity

Australia’s electrical current is 240v, 50Hz AC. British appliances require a plug adaptor, while American and Canadian 110v appliances will also need a transformer.

Entry requirements

All visitors to Australia, except New Zealanders, require a visa – electronic or paper – to enter the country; if you’re heading overland, you’ll also need to check visa requirements for the countries en route. Almost all applications are now made and paid for online. In the unlikely instance you need one, application forms can be downloaded from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship website (immi.gov.au) or sourced from Australian high commissions, embassies or consulates worldwide (embassy.gov.au).

The easiest option to find out which visa suits you is to visit the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s Visa Wizard (immi.gov.au/visawizard); this links to visa application pages based on a few multiple-choice questions. For nationals of European countries (including the UK & Ireland), the US, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and some Middle Eastern countries, who intend to stay for less than three months this will be an eVisitor visa (for European nationals) or ETA (for US, Canadian and some Asian and Middle Eastern nationals). These computerized visas replace a stamp in your passport and are valid for multiple entries into Australia over periods of three months, six months or one year. Apply prior to travelling, or through travel agents and airlines for a small administration fee when you book your flight. While processing is usually fast – from five minutes to a day or two – officially visas can take up to two weeks to process. Get an application in early unless you particularly enjoy pre-trip panic.

Citizens of other countries, including South Africa, should apply for a tourist visa, valid for three months, which costs Aus$115, and can be lodged online (immi.gov.au), in person or by post to the embassy or consulate. Note that there is no longer a guarantee of multiple entries for visa holders – check on receipt.

Twelve-month working holiday visas are available to citizens aged 18–30 of many European countries (including Britain & Ireland), Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and Korea. The stress is on casual employment – no single job is meant to last more than six months – visas must be sought several months in advance of arrival. Working visas cost Aus$365 plus $80 administration if not applied for online; some travel agents such as STA Travel can arrange them for you. A Work and Holiday Visa (subclass 462) offers the same deal for nationals of the US, Turkey, Thailand, Malaysia, Chile and Bangladesh (among others).

Australia has strict quarantine laws on importing fruit, vegetables, fresh and packaged food, seed, vegetative and some animal products into the country, and when travelling interstate. For the same reasons it is suspect of walking boots and camping equipment used in many Third World countries. Counterfeit or pirated goods may be seized and there are also strict laws prohibiting drugs, steroids, firearms, protected wildlife, and heritage-listed products. Sniffer dogs and X-ray scanners for luggage are commonplace – if you are in doubt about an item declare it as you enter rather than risk a fine. You are allowed Aus$900 worth of goods, including gifts and souvenirs, while visitors aged 18 or over are given a duty-free allowance of 2.25 litres of alcohol and only 50 cigarettes or 50g of tobacco. To find out more about specific prohibited goods before you travel, visit the Australian Customs Service website (customs.gov.au).

Insurance

Even if you’re entitled to free emergency health care from Medicare, some form of travel insurance is essential to help plug the gaps and to cover you in the event of losing your baggage, missing a plane and the like. A typical policy covers the loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash and cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Be aware that “high-risk” activities such as scuba diving, skiing or even just hiking require an extra premium; check the small print before you take out a policy. For medical coverage, ascertain whether benefits will be paid as treatment proceeds or only after your return home, and whether there is a 24-hour medical emergency number. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit – typically under £500/US$1000/€700/ZAR7000 – will cover your most valuable possession. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official written statement from the police.

Internet

Internet access – whether wi-fi or in internet cafés – is widespread, easy and cheap. In the cities, wi-fi is widely available in cafés, most hostels and many hotels, generally for free nowadays or for a small daily rate. Otherwise, most hostels and hotels provide terminals for their guests, typically costing Aus$3–6 an hour, although some still use annoying coin- or card-operated booths. Access is also available in libraries, though, again, you’ll need to pay for it.

Laundry

These are known as laundromats in Australia and rare outside urban centres. Hostels have at least one coin-operated washing machine and a dryer, as do most caravan parks, holiday units and many motels.

Mail

Every town has a post office or an Australia Post agency, usually at the general store. Post offices and agencies are officially open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm; big-city GPOs sometimes open earlier and later, generally on Saturday morning, too. Out in the country, it’s rare to see post boxes.

Same-state postage takes up to two business days, as does interstate post between metropolitan areas. Interstate between country areas is around four working days. International mail is efficient, taking up to around five working days to the UK, six to the US and seven to Canada. Stamps are sold at post offices and agencies; most newsagents sell them for standard local letters only. Large parcels are reasonably cheap to send home by sea mail – but it will take up to three months. Air mail is a good compromise for packages that you want to see soon (up to 20kg) – expect up to five working days to Europe. For more information on postage rates, and delivery times, visit austpost.com.au.

Maps

In Australia, book and travel shops stock national, regional and city maps of varying sizes and quality by the likes of UBD and Gregory’s (both hardiegrant.com.au), HEMA (hemamaps.com.au), Westprint (westprint.com.au) and state-produced AusMap. HEMA produce regional and themed maps; cities, states, national parks, fishing, hiking, 4WD and wine are some of the many themes covered. State motoring organizations have regularly updated touring guides, with regional maps and listings.

Money

Australia’s currency is the Australian dollar, or “buck”, written as $ or Aus$ and divided into 100 cents. The waterproof notes come in Aus$100, Aus$50, Aus$20, Aus$10 and Aus$5 denominations, along with Aus$2, Aus$1, 50¢, 20¢, 10¢ and 5¢ coins. Irregular bills such as $1.98 are rounded up or down to the closest five cents. To check the latest exchange rate, visit xe.com. At the time of writing, Aus$1 was worth £0.59/US$.92/€0.70/ZAR9.40.

While small towns may not have a local bank, there will be a local agency that handles bank business – usually at the general store, post office or roadhouse – though not necessarily a 24-hour ATM. Credit and debit cards are universally accepted, but have some cash on you for small purchases before leaving bigger towns, especially at weekends. The major four banks are Westpac (westpac.com.au), ANZ (anz.com.au), the Commonwealth (commbank.com.au) and the National Australia Bank (national.com.au). Banks are generally open Monday to Thursday 9.30am to 4pm, Friday 9.30am to 5pm. Saturday-morning openings are limited to cities. In rural areas, banks may close at lunch or on certain days of the week. Banks are closed on national holidays.

All post offices act as Commonwealth or National Australia Bank agents, which means there’s a fair chance of withdrawing money even in the smallest Outback settlement. However, be aware that quantities are limited by a lack of ready cash.

If you’re spending some time in Australia, and plan to work or move around, open a bank account. To do this you’ll need to take along every piece of ID documentation you own – a passport may not be enough – but it’s otherwise a fairly straightforward process. Of the big four, Commonwealth Bank and Westpac are probably the most widespread options, and their cards give you access to anywhere that offers EFTPOS facilities (Electronic Funds Transfer at Point of Sale). Though not as widespread as it was, this is still available in many Outback service stations and supermarkets and acts like a debit card to pay for goods as well as to withdraw cash. As ever, shop around before you open an account to check charges on accounts or cards.

Discount cards soon pay for themselves in savings. If you’re a full-time student, it’s worth applying for an International Student ID Card (ISIC; isic.org), which entitles the bearer to prove they’re a student, so receive discounts on transport, museums, theatres and other attractions. The card cost varies per location: UK £9; US$22; Can$16; NZ$20; and Aus$18 in Australia itself. Non-students aged 26 or younger qualify for the International Youth Travel Card, which costs the same price and carries the same benefits. For all cards, visit the ISIC website to source points of sale such as branches of STA or order online.

Opening hours and public holidays

Shops and services are generally open Monday to Saturday 9am to 4pm, though places in small towns can close at lunchtime on Saturday. In cities and larger towns, shops may stay open late on Thursday or Friday evening – usually until 9pm – and shopping malls and department stores in major cities are often open on Sunday. Banks have generally shorter hours, but may be open on Saturday mornings.

In remote country areas, roadhouses provide all the essential services for the traveller and, on the major highways, are generally open 24 hours a day. Visitor centres – even ones well off the beaten track – are often open every day from 9am to 5pm or at least through the week plus weekend mornings; urban visitor centres are more likely to conform to normal shopping hours.

Tourist attractions such as museums or galleries are usually open daily, though in rural communities hours become erratic. Almost without exception, all are closed on Good Friday and Christmas Day, but most are open during school and other public holidays. Specific opening hours are given throughout the Guide.

National holidays are New Year’s Day, Australia Day (Jan 26), Good Friday, Easter Monday, Anzac Day (April 25), Queen’s Birthday (second Mon in June; Sept/Oct in WA), Christmas Day and Boxing Day (except SA). Note that when a public holiday falls on a weekend, Australians take the following Monday off. State holidays are listed in the capital-city accounts of each state or territory. School holidays can transform a visit: beaches become bucket-and-spade war zones, national park campsites fill to overflowing. Dates vary by year and state, but generally things get busy from mid-December to the end of January or beginning of February (Jan is the worst, as many people stay home until after Christmas), for two weeks around Easter, for a fortnight in late June to early July, and over two weeks in late September to early October. January and Easter are the busiest periods, and accommodation is booked accordingly.

Phones

Public telephones take coins or phone cards, which are sold through newsagents and other stores. Many bars, shops and restaurants have orange or blue payphones; watch out for these as they cost more than a regular call-box. No payphone accepts incoming calls. Local calls are untimed, and on a public phone are good value at a flat rate of 50¢. Many businesses and services operate freephone numbers, prefixed t 1800, while others have six-digit numbers beginning 13 or 1300 charged at a local-call rate – all can only be dialled from within Australia. Numbers starting 1900 are premium-rate private information services.

Phone cards offer a cheap way to call cross-country or abroad. A head-spinning variety of brands is available – most post offices and some newsagents sell them – but all require a minimum of 50¢ to call a local centre, after which you key in your scratch number and telephone number. Rates are incredible, from as low as 5¢ a minute.

Most international visitors now arrive with a mobile phone. You can buy a SIM card for your handset for as little as $2. Telstra has the widest coverage: it claims its Next 3G service covers 99 per cent of Australia. Vodafone is a long way behind on cross-coverage but may work out cheaper solely for urban use. Optus and Three are the other major networks. Each has a coverage map/checker on its website – worth a look since reception drops off in remote areas. One solution for guaranteed reception (albeit at higher call charges) is a satellite phone. Little bigger than a conventional mobile, these can be rented from rentasatphone.com.au from around Aus$18 a day for up to a fortnight’s rental, or Aus$8 a day for up to three months, and can run both standard and satellite SIM cards.

To call Australia from home, dial the relevant international access code + 61 + area code, omitting the initial zero. The international access code for the UK, the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa 00; for the US and Canada 011.

Shopping

You’ll find plenty of outlets to tempt you to part with your cash, from surf and skate stores to designer boutiques. Australians also do vintage very well; around Chapel Street in Melbourne and Paddington in Sydney are good hunting grounds.

Excellent weekly markets in cities and resort towns sell everything from secondhand clothes and new-age remedies to delicious fresh food; popular ones are Mindil Beach in Darwin, Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne and Hobart’s Salamanca Market. In Sydney, Paddington Market is a great place to pick up one-off new designer clothes, while Glebe’s Saturday market is more alternative.

There’s no shortage of souvenir shops selling Australiana: mass-produced tat such as stuffed koalas, painted boomerangs and the like. The best place to shop for Aboriginal art, however, is Alice Springs, where many galleries sell on behalf of the artist and the money goes back to the Aboriginal communities. Gemstones such as the Australian opal are a popular purchase, though the quality and price varies, so shop around. Broome in Western Australia has long been the “pearl capital” of Australia, and sells all manner of mother-of-pearl trinkets. Note that if you buy goods worth more than Aus$300 in a single transaction, you can claim the tax back under the Tourist Refund Scheme.

Time

Australia has three time zones: Eastern Standard Time (QLD, NSW, VIC, TAS, VIC), Central Standard Time (NT, SA) and Western Standard Time (WA). Eastern Standard Time is ten hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and fifteen hours ahead of US Eastern Time. (Don’t forget that daylight saving in home countries will affect this by an hour either way.) Central Standard Time is thirty minutes behind Eastern Standard, and Western Standard two hours behind Eastern. Daylight saving (Oct–March) is adopted everywhere except QLD, NT and WA; clocks are put forward one hour.

Tipping

Tipping is not as widespread in Australia as it is in Europe and the US. In cafés and restaurants you might leave the change or round up the bill, while taxi drivers will usually expect you to round up to the nearest dollar. Only in more upmarket restaurants is a service charge of ten percent the norm. Note that on public holidays cafés and restaurants in cities may add a surcharge of ten percent.

Tourist information

The Australian Tourist Commission website at australia.com has plenty of useful links. Local information is available by the sackful once you’re in the country. Each state or territory has a tourist authority that maintains visitor information offices throughout its area and in major cities. One tier below this is a host of regional and community-run visitor centres and information kiosks. Even the smallest Outback town has one – or at the very least an information board at a roadside rest spot. Hostels are also excellent sources of information for backpackers.

Travellers with disabilities

Much of Australia’s tourist accommodation is suitable for people with disabilities because buildings tend to be built out rather than up; all new buildings in Australia must comply with a legal minimum accessibility standard.

Some of Australia’s major tourist attractions, even those out in the wild, have taken accessibility into account. For example, you’ll find you can access rock-art sites at Kakadu National Park, tour around the base of Uluru, snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef, cruise around Sydney Harbour and see penguins at Phillip Island.

Easy Access Australia by wheelchair-user Bruce Cameron (easyaccessaustralia.com.au; chapters available by pdf download) is a comprehensive guide for anyone with mobility difficulties, and has information on all the states, with maps, and a section with hotel-room floor plans.

NDS (National Disability Service) 02/6283 3200, nds.org.au. Regional offices provide lists of state-based help organizations, accommodation, travel agencies and tour operators.

NICAN (National Information Communication Awareness Network) 02/6241 1220 or 1800 806 769, nican.com.au. Free information service on recreation, sport, tourism, the arts and more, nationwide. Has a database of over 4500 organizations – such as wheelchair-accessible accommodation, sports organizations and vehicle rental.

Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association of NSW 02/8741 5600 or 1300 886 601, paraquad.org.au. Serves the interests of the spinally injured for NSW, with independent offices in each state capital.