Getting around Australia takes a little planning. It's a huge country, only slightly smaller than Canada and the U.S., with big distances between major cities. Fortunately, low-cost airlines offer competitively priced flights on the main domestic routes, and highways connect most of the country.
Long-distance passenger trains (plus buses that connect at train stations for travel to outlying areas) are run by individual state governments in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and the southern part of Western Australia. There are no government-run trains in the Northern Territory and South Australia, and no passenger trains at all in tiny Tasmania. Read on to learn more about your options for getting to and around Australia.
Getting to Australia is a long haul -- approximately 14 to 16 flying hours from the West Coast of North America, and another four to five hours if connecting from the East Coast.
The majority of North Americans will arrive at Sydney International Airport (also known as Kingsford Smith) or Melbourne. Major airlines connecting the two continents are Qantas, United Airlines, Air New Zealand (via Auckland), Virgin Australia and Air Canada.
Flying within Australia is easy between major cities. The Sydney-Melbourne leg is the busiest with plenty of services, and fares for this 1.5-hour flight are quite competitive. Flights between Sydney and Brisbane also take 1.5 hours, while it's a long five hours in the air from Sydney to Perth.
Qantas, its low-cost subsidiary airline Jetstar and competitor Virgin Australia have most of the country covered. As all three carriers also operate international flights, it's important to ensure you're at the correct terminal for the correct flight.
Virgin Australia and Jetstar started as as low-cost, no-frills airlines where passengers paid extra for food and beverages (apart from tea/coffee/water). Nowadays they also charge a fee for checked baggage (carry-on baggage is free). Fares are cheapest when booked online.
Recently Virgin Australia introduced free dining and alcoholic drinks (from midday) on services between Perth and the east coast cities, and also launched a free wireless entertainment system.
A handful of smaller regional airlines also serve country towns and remote Outback areas. Regional Express Airlines, known as REX, flies to towns in NSW, South Australia and Victoria; Skytrans and competitor QantasLink fly to remote regions in northern Queensland from a base in Cairns, and there are other operators in Western Australia, Northern Territory and Tasmania. Aircraft range from 8- to 50-seat planes, and fares can be very expensive as there is often no competition on the route.
Air Travel Resources:
Car travel is popular in Australia, and most Aussies take to the road over Easter and during the six-week holiday season from mid-December to the end of January. North Americans will find it easier and cheaper to travel outside of peak season, particularly between February and April (before Easter) and in October or November when prices are cheaper and weather is pleasant.
All the major international rental car brands are based in Australia. Prices can be quite high at around $50 AUD or more a day, with lower rates for seven-day hire. Low-cost companies can charge half that price, but they may use older cars and/or restrict the areas of travel. Local company Bayswater Car Rental, which has depots in Sydney and Perth, is popular for its low rates and cheaper insurance.
North American drivers and anyone not holding an Australia, New Zealand or U.K. driver's license will pay higher daily hire rates regardless of the company they rent with. An international license is not required.
All rental car drivers will incur a charge, called an excess, if they damage the vehicle. This excess can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, and insurance can be purchased to bring down this cost.
Australians drive on the left side of the road and should only use the right-hand lanes on freeways when overtaking. Speed limits vary from 70 to 110 kilometers per hour (between 43 and 68 mph) on freeways and from 40 to 60 kilometers per hour (25 to 37 mph) on city and suburban streets. School zone speed limits of 40 kph are rigorously enforced. Police regularly carry out random breath testing (RBT) for drivers to detect alcohol levels. If you're caught with more than a 0.05 alcohol reading, you're under arrest!
Most metropolitan motorways in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne charge a toll, paid electronically via an e-tag device attached to a car's windscreen. Overseas travelers must pay toll costs within 48 hours of use (or three days for Brisbane tolls) or be fined. Visitors can purchase a 30-day toll pass from each state transport department. In NSW it's called an eMU pass, in Queensland it's a "go via" and in Victoria, a Melbourne Pass. (See links below.) To get a pass, drivers go online, pay a small set-up fee, and register their credit card and the license plate of their rental vehicle. The freeway toll machines detect the vehicle, then charge the toll back to their credit card.
If you don't want the hassle of this paperwork and don't mind paying a little extra, your rental car company may hire out an e-tag to attach to your windscreen.
A GPS device is vital for anyone attempting to navigate around cities and out of them onto the freeways. These can be hired from rental companies or bought cheaply (around $100 AUD) from electrical stores. From Sydney it's a 10- to 12-hour drive to Brisbane and slightly less to Melbourne, although no one should attempt to drive such long distances on unfamiliar roads all in one trip. (We recommend making at least one overnight stop along the way.)
The Pacific Highway has several dangerous stretches; there are many sections where the road is undivided, meaning there is only one lane in each direction, and top speed in those places can be 100 kilometers per hour (60 mph). It is heavily patrolled by police in holiday seasons.
Car Rental Resources:
CityLink.com.au/1090.htm (Melbourne Pass)
Campervans, motorhomes and caravans can be rented from a variety of outlets (note that it may prove costly to rent a caravan, as a four-wheel-drive vehicle will also need to be rented to pull the van). Campervans are perfect for a couple without much luggage who doesn't mind roughing it. The cheapest versions will simply turn the back area into a sleeping area; other vans have a pop-up enclosed roof where the double bed is fitted.
Motorhomes are more luxurious and usually have a bed above the driver's cabin, another bed that assembles on the kitchen table, and often a small bathroom with toilet. There are many camping and caravan sites (called caravan or holiday parks) dotted along the coast of Australia and in regional towns, providing bathroom facilities, power, barbecue areas, a convenience store and often Wi-Fi.Jucy Rentals and Britz are popular local operators.
Campervan, Motorhome and Caravan Resources:
Australia's two iconic train journeys are the Indian-Pacific (IP) and the Ghan, privately run tourist rail services operated by Great Southern Rail. They are far from cheap but well worth taking for the sheer experience of traveling the length and breadth of the country in comfort with fascinating stops along the way.
The aptly named Indian Pacific links the two oceans from Perth to Sydney over 75 hours (three nights). The Ghan links Adelaide in the south with Darwin in the north in a journey spanning three days and two nights. Three classes of service are offered, from the all-inclusive Platinum with meals, alcoholic drinks and day tours in each destination to the economy Red Service that provides passengers with a recliner seat (like an aircraft), shared bathrooms, and meals and drinks for purchase in a separate dining car.
State-run long-distance trains (and connecting buses) cover a fair section of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and a portion of vast Western Australia (between Perth and the gold fields of Kalgoorlie, and between Perth and the southern town of Bunbury).
Queensland Rail offers great scenic train journeys on coastal and Outback routes at affordable rates. One of our favorites is the Spirit of Queensland, a 31-hour, 1,044-mile route between Brisbane and Cairns. There are traditional tourist trains as well, providing jaunts on barely used railway lines in remote areas that include tours and stays in country hotels.
In NSW it's possible to take trains in four directions from Sydney -- north, northwest, west and south -- to cities including Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra and the Outback towns of Moree and Broken Hill. Economy and first-class cabins with sleepers are available on long journeys such as the 12-hour and 14-hour trips to Melbourne and Brisbane, respectively.
In Victoria trains travel from Melbourne to the gold fields towns of Bendigo and Ballarat, the Murray River town of Swan Hill and the Great Ocean Road town of Warrnambool, with buses feeding off the main rail arteries.
Australia Train Resources:
Traveling long distances is also possible by coach (bus), with some trips cheaper than train travel. Greyhound Australia has the country covered, while smaller companies such as Premier and Murrays operate in certain regions. Greyhound has travel passes for hop-on/hop-off options. Vehicles usually have restrooms and video entertainment systems; newer coaches have USB charger points and some are introducing Wi-Fi. The only way to get around Tasmania without a car is by coach. Tassielink connects most of the small state, with services supplemented by regional operators.
Australia Bus Resources:
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--written by Caroline Gladstone