Australia is a big country with a small population to support its air routes, so airfares may be higher than you are used to paying. Don’t assume there is a direct flight to your chosen destination, or that there is a flight every hour or even every day.
Most domestic air travel is operated by Qantas (tel. 800/227-4500 in the U.S. and Canada, 13 13 13 in Australia, 208/600 4300 in the U.K., 1/407 3278 in Ireland, 09/357 8900 in Auckland, 0800/808 767 in New Zealand; www.qantas.com.au), Virgin Australia (tel. 1855/253-8021 in the U.S., 13 67 89 or 07/3295 2296 in Australia, 0800/051-1281 in the U.K.; www.virginaustralia.com), or Qantas-owned Jetstar (tel. 1866/397 8170 in the U.S., 13 15 38 in Australia, or 03/9645 5999; 0800/800 995 in New Zealand; www.jetstar.com.au). Regional Express (tel. 13 17 13 or 02/6393 5550 in Australia; www.regionalexpress.com.au) serves regional New South Wales and Victoria.
Between them, Virgin Australia and Qantas and its subsidiaries, QantasLink and Jetstar, service every capital city, as well as most major regional towns on the east coast. Melbourne has two airports: the main international and domestic terminals at Tullamarine, and Avalon Airport, about 50 km (31 miles) from the city, which is used by some Jetstar flights. Make sure you check which one your flight leaves from before you book.
Low-cost carrier Tigerair (tel. 03/9034 3733 or 02/8073 3421; www.tigerairways.com) flies the all-important route between Melbourne and Sydney, as well as linking both cities with Alice Springs and Cairns. It also flies to the Queensland ports of Brisbane, Sunshine Coast, and Gold Coast, as well as other ports around the country.
Competition is hot, so it’s likely that all airlines will have added to their route networks by the time you read this.
Fares for International Travelers -- Qantas offers international travelers discounts off the full fares that Australians pay for domestic flights bought within Australia. To qualify, quote your passport number and international ticket number when reserving. Don’t assume the fare for international travelers is the best deal, though—the latest deal in the market that day (or even better, perhaps, a package deal with accommodations thrown in) may be cheaper still.
Air Passes -- If you are visiting from the United States and plan on visiting more than one city, purchasing a Qantas Walkabout AirPass is much cheaper than buying regular fares. The pass is for economy-class travel only and must be purchased along with your Qantas or American Airlines fare from the United States to Australia. Prices vary according to which “zone” you are traveling to, offering more than 60 domestic Australia city pairs to choose from, but the deals will get you to all major destinations covered in this book.
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. You will strike these if you plan to drive in the Red Centre.
If you plan long-distance driving, get a road map that marks paved and unpaved roads.
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.
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, Cairns, and some other major centers.
A small sedan for zipping around a city 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 book, except for some parts of the Red Centre, where you will need a four-wheel-drive vehicle. All the major car-rental companies rent them. Four-wheel-drives 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 Alerts: 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 long 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 rentals, too—usually around A$260 to A$360. An extra A$650 remote-location fee can apply for Outback areas such as 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, or 1300/363 800 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 may need the company’s permission.
Most local councils take a dim view of “free camping,” the practice of pulling over by the roadside to camp for the night. Instead, in most places you will have to stay in a campground—and pay for it.
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$1.58 a liter for unleaded petrol in Sydney, and A$1.72 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 50 kmph (31 mph) or 60 kmph (37 mph) in urban areas, 100 kmph (62 mph) in most country areas, and sometimes 110 kmph (68 mph) on freeways. In the Northern Territory, the speed limit is set at 130 kmph (81 mph) on the Stuart, Arnhem, Barkly, and Victoria highways, while rural roads are designated 110 kmph (68 mph) unless otherwise signposted. 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 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 UBD Gregory’s (tel. 02/9857 3700; www.hardiegrant.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, while UBD Gregory’s produces a complete range of street directories by city, region, or state. 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. Many of its maps are also available as Apps.
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 can arrange one 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. The clubs sell maps, accommodations guides, and camping guides to nonmembers at reasonable prices. They even share a website: www.aaa.asn.au, which lists numerous regional offices.
Australia’s trains are clean, comfortable, and safe, and for the most part service standards and facilities are perfectly adequate. The rail network in Australia links Perth to Adelaide and continues on to Melbourne and north to Sydney, Brisbane, and Cairns. There’s also a line from Adelaide to Alice Springs and Darwin. Trains generally cost more than buses but are still reasonably priced.
Most long-distance trains have sleepers with big windows, air-conditioning, electric outlets, wardrobes, sinks, and fresh sheets and blankets. First-class sleepers have en suite (attached private) bathrooms, and fares often include meals. Second-class sleepers use shared shower facilities, and meals are not included. Some second-class sleepers are private cabins; on other trains you share with strangers. Single cabins are usually of broom-closet dimensions but surprisingly comfy, with their own toilet and basin. The food ranges from mediocre to pretty good. Smoking is banned on all Australian rail networks.
Different entities manage Australia’s rail routes. They include the government-owned Queensland Rail (tel. 1800 872 467 in Australia or 07/3235 7322; www.queenslandrail.com.au), which handles rail within that state and NSW TrainLink (tel. 13 22 32 in Australia or 02/4907 7501; www.nswtrainlink.info), which manages travel within New South Wales and from Sydney to south to Melbourne and north to Brisbane. Great Southern Rail’s Southern Spirit (tel. 1800 703 357 in Australia or 08/8213 4401; www.gsr.com.au) links Adelaide, Melbourne, and Brisbane seasonally, in January and February, and has a range of other fabulous Outback train journeys.
Queensland Rail operates two trains on the Brisbane-Cairns route: The Sunlander runs three times a week from Brisbane to Cairns, offering a choice of the premium, all-inclusive Queenslander Class; single-, double-, or triple-berth sleepers; or economy seats. The new high-speed Spirit of Queensland operates twice-weekly trips on the same route in less time—by about 5 hours—with business-class-style seating and “railbeds” (similar to Business Class lie-flat airline beds). All Queensland and New South Wales long-distance trains stop at most towns en route, so they’re useful for exploring the eastern states.
Rail Passes -- NSW TrainLink’s Discovery Pass gives you unlimited economy class trips on all its train and coach services in both directions between Melbourne and Brisbane (and some NSW inland cities) for up to 6 months. A 14-day pass costs A$232, a 1-month pass A$275, a 3-month pass A$298, and a 6-month pass A$420. Prices are about 10% cheaper if you buy before arriving in Australia. Backtracker passes are available only to overseas visitors holding non-Australian passports and return airline tickets.
The Queensland Explorer pass offers unlimited economy seat travel for 1 or 2 months across the Queensland Rail network, from Cairns in the north to the Gold Coast in the south, and in the Queensland outback. It costs A$299 for 1 month or A$389 for 6 months. If you only fancy the coast, the Queensland Coastal Pass allows travel between Brisbane and Cairns for A$209 for 1 month or A$289 for 2 months.
Bus travel in Australia is as comfortable as it can be, given the nature of coach travel. Terminals are centrally located and well lit, the buses—called “coaches” Down Under—are clean and air-conditioned. You sit in adjustable seats;, videos play onboard; and drivers are polite and sometimes even point out places of interest along the way. Buses are all nonsmoking and some have restrooms. The extensive bus network will take you almost everywhere.
Australia has one national coach operator: Greyhound Australia (tel. 1300/473 946 in Australia or 07/3236 3035; www.greyhound.com.au; no relation to Greyhound in the United States). In addition to point-to-point services, Greyhound Australia also offers a limited range of tours at popular locations on its networks, including Uluru and the Great Ocean Road in Victoria.
Fares and some passes are considerably cheaper for students, backpacker cardholders, and Hostelling International/YHA members.
Bus Passes -- Bus passes are a great value. There are several kinds: hop-on-hop-off passes, mini passes, and kilometer passes. Note that even with a pass, you may still need to book the next leg of your trip 12 or 24 hours ahead as a condition of the pass; during school vacation periods, which are always busy, booking as much as a week ahead is smart.
Greyhound Australia’s Micro Passes let you travel between two destinations, with limited stops over 10 to 14 days, as long as you don’t backtrack.
Hop-on-hop-off Mini Traveller Passes are valid for 90 days and link most of the popular destinations. Travel from Melbourne to Cairns costs A$555. Mini passes can be bought for a range of destinations around Australia.
The Kilometre Pass, valid for 12 months, allows unlimited stops in any direction within the mileage you buy. Passes are available for 1,000 km (620 miles) for A$199, and then in increasing increments. A 2,000 km (1,240 miles) pass—enough to get you from Brisbane to Cairns—will cost A$439, and from there you can go up to A$2,819 for a whopping 25,000 km (15,535 miles).
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.