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Australia's roads sometimes leave a bit to be desired. The taxes of 21 million people get spread pretty thin when it comes to maintaining roads across a continent. Some "highways" are two-lane affairs with the occasional rut and pothole, often no outside line markings, and sometimes no shoulders to speak of.

When you are poring over the map of Australia, remember that what looks like a road may be an unsealed (unpaved) track suitable for four-wheel-drive vehicles only. Many roads in the Top End are passable only in the Dry season (about Apr-Nov). If you plan long-distance driving, get a road mapthat marks paved and unpaved roads.

You cannot drive across the middle of the country (except along the north-south Stuart Hwy. linking Adelaide and Darwin) because most of it is desert. In most places, you must travel around the edge on Highway 1. 

You can use your current driver's license or an international driver's permit in every state of Australia. By law, you must carry your license with you when driving. The minimum driving age is 16 or 17, depending on which state you visit, but some car-rental companies require you to be 21, or sometimes 26, if you want to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Car Rentals

Think twice about renting a car in tourist hot spots such as Cairns. In these areas most tour operators pick you up and drop you back at your hotel door, so having a car may not be worth the expense.

The "big four" car-rental companies-Avis, Budget, Hertz, and Thrifty -- all have networks across Australia. Other major car rental companies are Europcar, which has the third largest fleet in Australia, and Red Spot Car Rentals, which has depots in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Cairns, the Gold Coast, Hobart, and Launceston.

A small sedan for zipping around a city or touring a wine region will cost about A$45 to A$80 a day. A feistier vehicle with enough grunt to get you from state to state will cost around A$70 to A$100 a day. Rentals of a week or longer usually reduce the price by A$5 a day or so.

A regular car will get you to most places in this guide, but because the country has many unpaved roads, it can make sense to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle. All the major car-rental companies rent them. They are more expensive than a regular car, but you can get them for as little as A$75 per day if you shop around (cheaper for rentals of a week or longer).

The rates quoted here are only a guide. Many smaller local companies -- and the big guys, too -- offer competitive specials, especially in tourist areas with distinct off seasons. Advance purchase rates, usually 7 to 21 days ahead, can offer significant savings.

If you are concerned about reducing your carbon emissions, consider hiring a hybrid car. In Australia, all the "big five" major car-hire companies have the hybrid Toyota Prius available. Ask when making your bookings.

Insurance -- Insurance for loss of or damage to the car and third-party property insurance are usually included, but read the agreement carefully because the fine print contains information the front-desk staff may not tell you. For example, damage to the car body may be covered, but not damage to the windshield or tires, or damage caused by water or driving too close to a bushfire.

The deductible, known as "excess" in Australia, on insurance may be as high as A$2,000 for regular cars and up to A$5,500 on four-wheel-drives and motor homes. You can reduce it, or avoid it altogether, by paying a premium of between about A$20 to A$50 per day on a car or four-wheel-drive, and around A$25 to A$50 per day on a motor home. The amount of the excess reduction premium depends on the vehicle type and the extent of reduction you choose. Your rental company may bundle personal accident insurance and baggage insurance into this premium. And again, check the conditions; some excess reduction payments do not reduce excesses on single-vehicle accidents, for example.

Insurance Alert -- Damage to a rental car caused by an animal (hitting a kangaroo, for instance) may not be covered by your car-rental company's insurance policies. Different car-rental companies have very different rules and restrictions, so make sure you check each one's coverage. For example, some will not cover animal damage incurred at night, while others don't have such limits. The same applies to the rules about driving on unpaved roads, of which Australia has many. Avis and Budget say you may only drive on roads "properly formed and constructed as a sealed, metalled, or gravel road," while the others limit you largely to sealed roads. Check the fine print.

One-Way Rentals -- Australia's distances often make one-way rentals a necessity, for which car-rental companies can charge a hefty penalty amounting to hundreds of dollars. A one-way fee usually applies to motor-home renters, too -- usually around A$260 to A$360. An extra A$650 remote-location fee can apply for Outback areas such as Broome and Alice Springs. And there are minimum rental periods of between 7 and 21 days.

Motor Homes -- Motor homes (Aussies call them camper vans) are popular in Australia. Generally smaller than the RVs in the United States, they come in two-, three-, four-, or six-berth versions and usually have everything you need, such as a minifridge and/or freezer (icebox in the smaller versions), microwave, gas stove, cooking and cleaning utensils, linens, and touring information, including maps and campground guides. All have showers and toilets, except some two-berthers. Most have air-conditioned driver's cabins, but not all have air-conditioned living quarters, a necessity in most parts of the country from November through March. Four-wheel-drive campers are available, but they tend to be small, and some lack hot water, toilet, shower, and air-conditioning. Minimum driver age for motor homes is usually 21.

Australia's biggest national motor-home-rental companies are Apollo Motorhome Holidays (tel. 1800/777 779 in Australia, or 07/3265 9200; www.apollocamper.com), Britz Campervan Rentals (tel. 1800/331 454 in Australia or 800/2008 0801 from outside Australia; www.britz.com), and Maui (tel. 800/2008 0801 from anywhere in the world including within Australia; www.maui.com.au).

Rates vary with the seasons and your choice of vehicle. May and June are the slowest months; December and January are the busiest. It's sometimes possible to get better rates by booking in your home country before departure. Renting for longer than 3 weeks knocks a few dollars off the daily rate. Most companies will demand a minimum 4- or 5-day rental. Give the company your itinerary before booking, because some routes, such as the ferry across to Tasmania -- or, in the case of a four-wheel-drive motor home, the Gibb River Road in the Kimberley -- may need the company's permission.

Frustratingly, most local councils take a dim view of "free camping," the practice of pulling over by the roadside to camp for the night. Instead, you will likely have to stay in a campground.

On the Road

Gas -- The price of petrol (gasoline) will probably elicit a cry of dismay from Americans and a whoop of delight from Brits. Prices go up and down, but at press time you were looking at around A$1.35 a liter for unleaded petrol in Sydney, and A$1.40 a liter, or more, in the Outback. Most rental cars take unleaded gas, and motor homes run on diesel.

Driving Rules -- Australians drive on the left, which means you give way to the right. Left turns on a red light are not permitted unless a sign says so.

Roundabouts (traffic circles) are common at intersections; approach these slowly enough to stop if you have to, and give way to all traffic on the roundabout. Flash your indicator as you leave the roundabout (even if you're going straight, because technically that's a left turn).

The only strange driving rule is Melbourne's requirement that drivers turn right from the left lane at certain intersections in the city center and in South Melbourne. This allows the city's trams to carry on uninterrupted in the right lane. Pull into the left lane opposite the street you are turning into, and make the turn when the traffic light in the street you are turning into becomes green. These intersections are signposted.

The maximum permitted blood alcohol level when driving is .05%, which equals approximately two 200-milliliter (6.6-oz.) drinks in the first hour for men, one for women, and one drink per hour for both sexes after that. The police set up random breath-testing units (RBTs) in cunningly disguised and unlikely places all the time, so getting caught is easy. You will face a court appearance if you do.

The speed limit is 50kmph (31 mph) or 60kmph (37 mph) in urban areas, 100kmph (62 mph) in most country areas, and sometimes 110kmph (68 mph) on freeways. In the Northern Territory, the speed limit is set at 130kmph (81 mph) on the Stuart, Arnhem, Barkly, and Victoria highways, while rural roads are designated 110kmph (68 mph) unless otherwise signposted. But be warned: The Territory has a high death toll. Speed-limit signs show black numbers circled in red on a white background.

Drivers and passengers, including taxi passengers, must wear a seatbelt at all times when the vehicle is moving forward, if the car is equipped with a belt. Young children are required to sit in the rear seat in a child-safety seat or harness; car-rental companies will rent these to you, but be sure to book them. Tell the taxi company you have a child when you book a cab so that it can send a car with the right restraints.

Maps -- The maps published by the state automobile clubs listed below in "Auto Clubs" will likely be free if you are a member of an affiliated auto club in your home country. None will mail them to you overseas; pick them up on arrival. Remember to bring your auto-club membership card to qualify for discounts or free maps.

Two of the biggest map publishers in Australia are HEMA Maps (tel. 07/3340 0000; www.hemamaps.com.au) and Universal Publishers (tel. 1800/021 987 in Australia, or 02/9857 3700; www.universalpublishers.com.au). Both publish an extensive range of national (including road atlases), state, regional, and city maps. HEMA has a strong list of regional maps ("Gold Coast and Region" and "The Red Centre" are just a few), while Universal produces a complete range of street directories by city, region, or state under the "UBD" and "Gregory's" labels. HEMA produces four-wheel-drive and motorbike road atlases and many regional four-wheel-drive maps -- good if you plan to go off the trails -- an atlas of Australia's national parks, and maps to Kakadu and Lamington national parks.

Toll Roads -- Electronic "beeper" or e-tags are used on all major Australian toll roads, including Melbourne's City Link motorways, Brisbane's Logan and Gateway motorways, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and tunnel and all Sydney's major tunnels and motorways. The tag is a small device attached to the front windscreen of the vehicle which transmits signals to the toll points on the road. This deducts the toll amount from your toll account. The same e-tag can be used on all Australian toll roads. While some toll roads still have physical collection points at which you can pay the toll, others -- such as Melbourne's freeways -- don't. If you are likely to need an e-tag, your car rental company will organize it for you.

Road Signs -- Australians navigate by road name, not road number. The easiest way to get where you're going is to familiarize yourself with the major towns along your route and follow the signs toward them.

Auto Clubs -- Every state and territory in Australia has its own auto club. Your auto association back home probably has a reciprocal agreement with Australian clubs, which may entitle you to free maps, accommodations guides, and emergency roadside assistance. Don't forget to bring your membership card.

Even if you're not a member, the clubs are a good source of advice on local traffic regulations, touring advice, road conditions, traveling in remote areas, and any other motoring questions you may have. They sell maps, accommodations guides, and camping guides to nonmembers at reasonable prices. They share a website: www.aaa.asn.au, which lists numerous regional offices.

Road Conditions & Safety

Here are some common motoring dangers and ways to avoid them:

Fatigue -- Fatigue is a killer on Australia's roads. The rule is to take a 20-minute break every 2 hours, even if you don't feel tired. In some states, "driver reviver" stations operate on major roads during holiday periods. They serve free tea, coffee, and cookies, and are often at roadside picnic areas that have restrooms.

Kangaroos & Other Wildlife -- It's a sad fact, but kangaroos are a road hazard. Avoid driving in country areas between dusk and dawn, when 'roos are most active. If you hit one, always stop and check its pouch for live joeys (baby kangaroos), because females usually have one in the pouch. Wrap the joey tightly in a towel or old sweater, don't feed or overhandle it, and take it to a vet in the nearest town or call one of the following wildlife care groups: Wildlife Information & Rescue Service (WIRES) in New South Wales (tel. 1300/094 737); Wildlife Victoria (tel. 1300/094 535); Wildcare Australia in Queensland (tel. 07/5527 2444); RSPCA Wildlife in the ACT (tel. 02/6287 8100 or 0413/495 031); Wildcare in Western Australia (tel. 08/9474 9055); Fauna Rescue of S.A. in South Australia (tel. 08/8289 0896); or Wildlife Incidents in Tasmania (tel. 03/6233 6556). In the Northern Territory, call Wildlife Rescue in Darwin (tel. 0409/090 840) or in Katherine (tel. 0412/955 336), or Wildcare in Alice Springs (tel. 0419/221 128). Most vets will treat native wildlife for free.

Some highways run through unfenced stations (ranches), where sheep and cattle pose a threat. Cattle like to rest on the warm bitumen road at night, so put your lights on high to spot them. If an animal does loom up, slow down -- but never swerve, or you may roll. If you have to, hit it. Tell farmers within 24 hours if you have hit their livestock.

Car-rental companies will not insure for animal damage to the car, which should give you an inkling of how common an occurrence this is.

Road Trains -- Road trains consist of as many as three big truck carriages linked together to make a "train" up to 54m (177 ft.) long. If you're in front of one, give the driver plenty of warning when you brake, because the trains need a lot of distance to slow down. Allow at least 1 clear kilometer (over a half mile) before you pass one, but don't expect the driver to make it easy -- "truckies" are notorious for their lack of concern for motorists.

Unpaved Roads -- Many country roads are unsealed (unpaved). They are usually bone-dry, which makes them more slippery than they look, so travel at a moderate speed -- 35kmph (22 mph) is not too cautious, and anything over 60kmph (37 mph) is dangerous. That said, when you are on a heavily corrugated or rutted road (which many are), you may need to keep to a higher speed (60kmph/37 mph) just to keep on top of them. Don't overcorrect if you veer to one side. Keep well behind any vehicles, because the dust they throw up can block your vision.

Floods -- Floods are common in the Top End and north of Cairns from November or December through March or April (the Wet season). Never cross a flooded road unless you are sure of its depth. Crocodiles may be in the water, so do not wade in to test it! Fast-flowing water is dangerous, even if it's very shallow. When in doubt, stay where you are and wait for the water to drop; most flash floods subside in 24 hours. Check the road conditions ahead at least once a day in the Wet season.

Running Out of Gas -- Gas stations (also called "roadhouses" in rural areas) can be few and far between in the Outback, so fill up at every opportunity.

What If Your Vehicle Breaks Down?

Warning: If you break down or get lost, never leave your vehicle. Many a motorist -- often an Aussie who should have known better -- has died wandering off on a crazy quest for help or water, knowing full well that neither is to be found for maybe hundreds of miles. Most people who get lost do so in Outback spots; if that happens to you, conserve your body moisture by doing as little as possible and staying in the shade of your car. Put out distress signals in patterns of three -- three yells, three columns of smoke, and so on. The traditional Outback call for help is "Coo-ee," with the accent on the "ee" and yodeled in a high pitch; the sound travels a surprisingly long way.

Emergency Assistance

The emergency breakdown assistance telephone number for every Australian auto club is tel. 13 11 11 from anywhere in Australia. It is billed as a local call. If you are not a member of an auto club at home that has a reciprocal agreement with the Australian clubs, you'll have to join the Australian club on the spot before the club will tow or repair your car. This usually costs only around A$80, not a big price to pay when you're stranded -- although in the Outback, the charge may be considerably higher. Most car-rental companies also have emergency assistance numbers.

Tips for Four-Wheel Drivers

Always keep to the four-wheel-drive track. Going off-road causes soil erosion, a significant environmental problem in Australia. Leave gates as you found them. Obtain permission from the owners before venturing onto private station (ranch) roads. On an extended trip or in remote areas, carry 5 liters (1 1/3 gallons) of drinking water per person per day (dehydration occurs fast in the Australian heat); enough food to last 3 or 4 days more than you think you will need; a first-aid kit; spare fuel; a jack and two spare tires; spare fan belts, radiator hoses, and air-conditioner hoses; a tow rope; and a good map that marks all gas stations. In seriously remote areas outside the scope of this guide, carry a high-frequency and a CB radio. (A mobile phone may not work in the Outback.) Advise a friend, your hotel manager, the local tourist bureau, or a police station of your route and your expected time of return or arrival at your destination.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.