Australia is a shock if you’ve travelled down from Southeast Asia, but fresh from Europe or the US, you’ll find prices comparable or cheaper. Sydney is the exception: the cost of living has crept up over the years and any prolonged length of time spent in the city 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$50/€35/ZAR345), but count on around Aus$75 (£45/US$75/€55/ZAR515) 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 regularly, and you’ll need to budget at least Aus$130 (£80/US$132/€95/ZAR900): 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 thirty 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 is not unusual in hostels, and many provide lockers. But if you leave valuables lying around, you can expect them to vanish.
You’re most likely to see violence in the pub – nearly always alcohol-fuelled and usually on a Friday or Saturday night in smaller, untouristed towns, or among groups of drunk males in major cities. Strangers are rarely involved without provocation. Be aware of drug-related crime, especially in hotspots such as Kings Cross in Sydney.
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. Driving in general makes you more likely to have a confrontation of some kind, if only for a minor traffic infringement. Drink driving is taken extremely seriously, so don’t risk it – random breath tests are common around all cities and larger towns.
Lesser potential problems are alcohol – there are all sorts of controls on where and when you can drink, and taking alcohol onto Aboriginal lands can be a serious offence – and nude or topless sunbathing, which is 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 it was banned in Hobart’s entire CBD; other cities are wondering whether to follow.
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.
Even if you’re entitled to free emergency healthcare 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 access is widespread, easy and cheap. In the cities, internet cafés are everywhere, typically charging Aus$3–6 an hour. Most hostels and many hotels provide terminals for their guests at similar rates (or cheaper wi-fi access), although some still use annoying coin- or card-operated booths.
In the country, even the smallest one-horse town will have a Telecentre – a council- or privately run outlet, although opening times can be pretty provincial, too.
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.
Every town will have 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 late or on Saturday morning as well. 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 extremely efficient, taking as little as four to five working days to the UK, four to six to the US and five to 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 wwww.austpost.com.au.
Book and travel shops stock national, regional and city maps of varying sizes and quality by the likes of UBD (wwww.ubd.com.au), Gregory’s (wwww.gregorys-online.com), HEMA (wwww.hemamaps.com.au), Westprint (wwww.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.
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 denomination. To check the latest exchange rate, check wwww.xe.com. At the time of writing, Aus$1 was worth £0.60/US$1/€0.70/ZAR7.
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 (wwww.westpac.com.au), ANZ (wwww.anz.com.au), the Commonwealth (www.commbank.com.au) and the National Australia Bank (wwww.national.com.au).
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; wwww.isic.org), which entitles the bearer to discounts for transport, museums, theatres and other attractions. The card costs £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 at wwww.isiccard.com.
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.
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.
Banking hours are generally Monday to Thursday 9.30am to 4pm, Friday 9.30am to 5pm. Saturday morning openings are limited to cities. As ever, hours vary by destination: some big-city branches might have extended hours, while in country areas, banks may operate more limited hours, such as lunchtime closures or even limited days.
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 t1800, while others have six-digit numbers beginning t13 or t1300 charged at a local-call rate – all can only be dialled from within Australia. Numbers starting t1900 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, but does not include remote areas in the north and west of the country. Vodafone is a long way behind on cross-coverage but may work out cheaper solely for urban use. 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 wwww.rentasatphone.com.au from around Aus$21 a day for up to a fortnight’s rental, or Aus$11 a day for up to three months, and can run both standard and satellite SIM cards.
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.
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 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.
The Australian Tourist Commission website at wwww.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.
Disability needn’t interfere with your sightseeing: Australia’s major tourist attractions will provide assistance where they can. For example, you’ll find you can view rock art 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 (wwww.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) t02/6283 3200, wwww.nds.org.au. Regional offices provide lists of state-based help organizations, accommodation, travel agencies and tour operators.
NICAN (National Information Communication Awareness Network) t02/6241 1220 or t1800 806 769, wwww.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 t02/8741 5600 or t1300 886 601, wwww.paraquad.org.au. Serves the interests of the spinally injured for NSW, with independent offices in each state capital.Read More
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.
Calling Australia from home
Calling 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 is t00; for the US and Canada t011.