Finding somewhere to bed down is rarely a problem, even in the smallest of places. However, on the east coast it’s a good idea to book ahead for Christmas, January and the Easter holidays, as well as for long weekends, especially when big sporting events are held.
The term “hotel” in Australia means a pub or bar. They were once legally required to provide somewhere for customers to sleep off a skinful and most still provide accommodation. They’re usually cheap and sometimes even cheerful, though because these are still primarily places to drink, a hotel stay can be loud – a case of if you can’t sleep through ’em, join ’em, perhaps.
The flip side of this is that many places that would call themselves hotels in any other country instead call themselves motels, resorts, “private hotels” (in the cities), or boutique hotels. There are also a growing number of B&Bs and farmstays.
Australia caters extremely well for budget travellers, with a huge array of excellent hostels for backpackers (old and young) and caravan parks that offer accommodation as permanent on-site vans and cabins or chalets, as well as campervan facilities and tent spaces. In general, city accommodation is more expensive than rural, and prices in Perth and Western Australia mining towns are noticeably steeper, powered northwards by the state’s mining boom.
Rooms in Australian hotels (what in Britain would be a pub) tend to be basic – no TV, and shared bathrooms and plain furnishings – and aren’t the best choice for peace and quiet. In country areas hotels are often the social centre of town, especially at weekends. But with double rooms at around Aus$80–100 and singles from Aus$60, they can be better value – and more private – than hostel accommodation. Motels are a comfortable if bland choice, often found en masse at the edge of town on arterial routes and priced on average upwards of Aus$110 for a double room with TV and bath, not including breakfast. They rarely have single rooms, but they may have larger units for families, often with basic cooking facilities.
Cities have hotels in the conventional sense. Those at the cheaper end may describe themselves as “private hotels” to distinguish themselves from pubs. Some of these, especially in inner cities, can be rather shabby at best, sleazy at worst, but others are pleasant, family-run guesthouses. As a guide, double rooms average from Aus$110; more expensive hotels in the cities are standard international chain fare stuff, while in resorts and tourist areas they’re more like upmarket motels. Prices can vary from around Aus$130 to well over Aus$350 in five-star establishments: a typical city three-star will probably cost you above Aus$160. Similar places in a resort or country area charge Aus$100 or more.
Numerous nationwide hotel and motel chains – among them familiar names such as Best Western and Travelodge, as well as Australian ones such as Budget, Golden Chain and Flag – are dependable if not particularly exciting.
Many establishments call themselves resorts but the term is fairly hazy. At the bottom end, price, appearance and facilities may be of motel standard, while top-flight places can be exclusive (and expensive) hideaways. Originally, the name implied that the price was all-inclusive of accommodation, drinks, meals, activities and so on, but this isn’t always the case. These places tend to be set in picturesque locations – the Barrier Reef islands swarm with them – and are often brilliant value if you can wangle a stand-by or off-season price.
Self-catering apartments or country cabins can be a great deal for families and larger groups. Whether larger units at a motel or purpose-built apartment hotels, they are usually excellent value. Cooking facilities are variable, but there’ll always be a TV and fridge; linen is not always included but can be rented for a small charge.
Another option in rural areas is farmstays on working farms, and B&Bs or guesthouses; the last two, predominantly found in the south and east and Tasmania, can be anything from someone’s home to your own colonial cottage. Farmstays are even more variable; some offer very upmarket comforts, at others you’ll bunk down in vacant shearers’ quarters. Their attraction is that they are always in out-of-the-way locations, and may provide a chance to participate in the working of the farm, or take advantage of guided tours around the property on horseback or by 4WD.
There’s a lot of budget accommodation in Australia, and although more shambolic operations don’t survive for long, standards are variable. The number of YHA youth hostels is falling in the face of stiff competition from private operators. So, a private network like the VIP Backpacker Card is now as useful and as widely known as YHA. Another well-known name is Nomads, which also issues a membership card entitling holders to plenty of discounts.
At their best, hostels and backpackers’ accommodation are excellent value and are good places to meet other travellers. There’s often a choice of dormitories, double or family rooms, plus bike rental, a kitchen, laundry facilities, a games room, TV, internet access and help with finding work or planning trips. Most have excellent notice boards, organized activities and tours. At their worst, their double rooms are poorer value than local hotel accommodation, and some are simply grubby, rapid-turnover dives. Affiliation to an organization does not ensure quality. Hostels charge around Aus$24–30 or more for a dormitory bed, with doubles and twins – if available – from around Aus$60.
Some establishments prohibit the use of personal sleeping bags (for the sake of hygiene) and instead provide all bedding, generally free or at a small charge. It might be a good idea to carry at least a sheet sleeping bag for the few hostels that don’t provide linen.
Perhaps because Australian hostels are so widespread and inexpensive, few foreign travellers bother to camp. It’s their loss: national parks and nature reserves offer great camping grounds, most with mod cons like an amenities block with toilets, hot and cold showers, drinking water, plus a barbecue and picnic tables. Others provide nothing except perhaps a pit toilet – basic, certainly, but the going wild is part of the appeal. Still, come prepared in national parks, where bushcamping is the norm. That great Aussie invention, the swag, a sort of roll-up easy-pitch tent for one or two, is a good buy if you’re touring in the latter. Vital equipment includes ground mats and a range of pegs – wide for sand, and narrow for soil. Fuel stoves are recommended, but if you do build a fire keep it under strict control and always observe fire bans. Prices depend on state policy and site facilities, and you’ll usually need a permit from the local NPWS (National Parks & Wildlife Service) office, details of which are given throughout the Guide. Payment will be either by self-registration (fill in a form, pay the fee and post both into a box on the campground), or a park ranger will collect money.
Camping rough by the road is not a good idea, even if you take the usual precautions of setting up away from the roadside and avoiding dry river beds. If you have to do it, try to ensure you’re not visible: having a group of drunks pitch into your camp at midnight is not an enjoyable experience. Animals are only likely to pose a threat to your food – keep it in your car, not your tent, or in a sealed container, unless you enjoy possums and currawongs raiding your supplies.
Australian caravan parks (sometimes called holiday parks) are usually superbly equipped: in addition to an amenities block and a coin-operated laundry, you’ll often get a camp kitchen, a coin-operated (or free) barbecue, a kiosk of minor supplies, possibly a pool, maybe even a children’s playground and a tennis court. If you are travelling without a tent, renting an on-site van (ie a caravan or trailer with cooking facilities but shared amenities) is a cheap, if basic, option. Cabins usually come with cooking facilities and a bathroom. In some upmarket caravan parks, cabins can be slightly more expensive than a motel room, but are larger and better equipped, so are a good choice for families or groups.
Expect to pay Aus$20–30 per tent for an unpowered site, about $5–10 more for a powered site, or Aus$50–110 for a van or cabin, depending on its location, age, size and equipment. Highway roadhouses are similar, combining a range of accommodation with fuel and restaurants for long-distance travellers.
The following hostel passes provide cheaper rates – around ten percent off – on accommodation at member hostels, and entitle you to a wide range of other discounts on everything from bus tickets and tours to phone calls, museum entry fees and meals.
VIP Backpacker Card
vipbackpackers.com. Probably of most use in Australia, this card doubles as a rechargeable eKit phone card with a few dollars’ worth of phone calls factored into the price of the card (Aus$47 a year). At present, there are around 125 member hostels around the country, and your card will also be valid at one hundred more in New Zealand.
nomadsworld.com. The Nomad card doubles as a rechargeable internet and phone card, costs Aus$42 a year, including one night’s free accommodation. Its network comprises about twenty hostels in Australia, many of them in old pubs, a few of them “working hostels” in country areas. The network’s span is global, with affiliated hostels on most continents.
yha.com.au. The International YHA card is available through your national youth hostel association before you leave home, or you can buy a one-year Hostelling International card in Australia for Aus$42, or Aus$32 for under-26s. YHA Membership and Travel Centres can be found in state capitals and at many YHA hostels. Australian YHA hostels number around ninety, with thousands more worldwide.