Australia on a Shoestring
Australia: the only landmass on the planet that is both a continent (the world’s smallest) and a country (one of the largest). It’s both a huge land, and a land of huge contradictions; the world’s driest inhabited continent that also happens to contain one of the world’s oldest rainforests – Daintree in Queensland – and the Lake Eyre region in South Australia that has the somewhat ironic distinction of being the very driest point of all. Tasmania to the southeast of the mainland enjoys the planet’s cleanest air, and yet global pollution has depleted much of Australia’s ozone layer to worrying levels over the last 30 years.
And Australia old, mind bogglingly so. Some of earth’s most ancient rocks and crystals (some formed not long after the planet itself formed) can be found in Western Australia. Then there’s the wildlife. More than 80 percent of its flora and fauna is totally unique to the globe, and much of it is frighteningly toxic. Australia, as Bill Bryson drily observed, “has more things that will kill you than anywhere else.”
Everywhere you turn there’s a natural phenomenon that’s taller, longer, lower, flatter, hotter, drier, older and more deadly than anything else in the world. It’s a wonder anyone would attempt to settle here, but come they did. Australia’s original human occupants; the Aborigines, migrated from Southeast Asia some 50,000 years ago, thrived rather magnificently and even added a few show stoppers of their own to Australia’s evolutionary annals, in the form of some of the world’s oldest, and most exquisite cave paintings.
Australia has transformed into a forward looking, cosmopolitan land of opportunity, though not without a struggle. Convict colonies, rabbit proof fences, forced adoptions and stolen lives and lands have made for a turbulent human narrative; perhaps unsurprising given the harsh backdrop. And while some contradictions remain, Aussie culture celebrates egalitarian values and the good things in life with a determined optimism. Australians are not complacent, but seem pretty happy with their lot, and despite devastating wildfires, floods and high living costs, they know how to thrive in the face of adversity. The ‘no worries’ attitude still prevails. While the strong Aussie dollar has certainly hit backpackers where it hurts too, the breathtaking natural beauty, hip hangouts and laid back, outdoor lifestyle continues to prove a huge draw for travelers.
It’s why Australia still regularly tops lists of most popular backpacking destinations.
Here, we show you how to stretch your travel budget and make the most of this epic country.
What to See
Australia is vast, with an array of potential itineraries. Most travellers stick to the populated coastal regions, with brief forays into the largely uninhabited interior for wilder bush and outback experiences. Follow the the city-reef-rock-rainforest formula, and take in urban cosmopolitan hubs, chilled coastal surf hangouts, tropical rainforests and of course, the outback. While you probably can’t see it all, here are some of the more popular destinations:
1. Uluru – the big, sacred rock in the ‘Red Centre’ of it all.
2. Kakadu National Park – Australia’s largest and fascinating national park and homeland to Mungguy and Bininj Aboriginal tribes and unique wildlife.
3. Sail the Whitsunday Islands on the Great Barrier Reef.
4. Surf on the Gold Coast at Byron Bay.
5. Sydney – Australia’s unofficial capital with that iconic harbor, Bondi; the city also has arguably the world’s most famous beach and the stunning Blue Mountains for nature and camping.
6. Melbourne – a cultured, art and foodie heaven with St. Kilda being a good place to party.
7. Camp on gorgeous Fraser Island.
8. Tasmania – off the beaten path, it’s the big island with friendly locals and great trekking.
9. Western Australia – beautiful and undeveloped with Ningaloo Reef, Perth, and Margaret River as highlights.
10. Wine country tour – Hunter and Barossa valley – taste the wines the Aussies keep for themselves.
11. Daintree and Cape Tribulation – an ancient rainforest far in the north of Queensland (see volunteering in ‘Best of the Rest’).
12. Drive the Great Ocean Road for iconic sea views and rock formations.
13. Outback – visit a homestead, rodeo or a gold mine to learn about settler era history; crocs and camel rides optional.
14. Darwin – a diverse town with a frontier-meets-university vibe.
How to Get Around
Greyhound buses are perhaps the cheapest and most popular way to get around, with an extensive network covering most of Australia. There are a variety of passes available right up to the unlimited ‘see it all’ option costing $2,777; it allows one year of unlimited travel up to 25,000km. Kilometers can even be swapped for a range of tours and hostel accommodation. (www.greyhound.com.au).
Adored by romantics who consider Australia to have some of the world’s greatest train journeys, and given a bad rap by others because of their leisurely pace (just 80-90kph), Australia’s railways certainly offer a chance to get a sense of how vast the country is, without the strain of taking the wheel. Distances can be truly epic; Sydney to Perth is over 4,000km, with the world’s longest dead-straight stretch of track (478km traversing the arid Nullarbor Plain). At least there’s certain to be plenty of time to chill and get to know fellow travelers.
Rail Australia offers a variety of rail passes. The Ausrail pass, which starts at $765 and is good for three months, offers unlimited travel in basic reclining seats, on long distance services all over the country, and on some connecting coach services. There’s an on-board café and a hot shower with towels for each guest (though you may want to bring your own pillow). Rail passes represent outstanding value given they are only slightly more expensive than the price of a regular single ticket and, if you take an overnight train, you’ll save on the price of a hotel room while also experiencing some of the most memorable landscapes on the planet. Especially enjoyable are the fascinating, out-of-the-way towns at whistle stops along the journey. (passes.railaustralia.com.au)
Hitchhiking and Rideshares
Lots of people do it, but that doesn’t always mean it’s a good idea. Hitchhiking isn’t technically illegal, but in certain states it does constitute a traffic offense; be aware that hitchhiking is strongly discouraged in Queensland and Victoria. Perhaps the greatest threat to hitchhikers is the potential to end up in serious danger from the elements, particularly in summer. It’s essential to prepare properly, take adequate water and supplies, and be able to get to shelter if a ride doesn’t materialize.
For most people, however, personal safety is the biggest concern and, of course, there have been some pretty gruesome, high profile crimes against hitchhikers in recent years. That said, many still insist it’s the best way for a budget traveler to get around, and for every horror story, there are many positive ones. Read veteran backpacker Birgit’s take and decide for yourself: www.outback-australia-travel-secrets.com/hitchhiking-in-australia.html.
For many, hiring a car or campervan and taking a road trip represents the quintessential Down Under backpacker experience. There’s something iconic about the lure of days spent on dusty red roads and nights spent camping out under the stars to the sound of breaking waves and the crackle of a beach campfire. (Jack Johnson is optional). A good tip is to opt for an LPG vehicle
as it’s much cheaper to run. Purchase fuel mid week when it’s cheaper, and look for money-off coupons at supermarkets such as Woolworths and Coles. Here are some popular budget-conscious options to get around under your own steam:
• Hire a car or campervan – there are numerous rental agencies available offering a variety of deals. Apollo (www.apollocamper.com) and Mighty (www.mightycampers.com.au) are popular and well regarded.
• Buy a car – a popular option for many backpackers, and well suited to small groups or those planning on sharing. A good tip is to buy a dual Petrol/LPG option from a city with a lower cost of living, such as Darwin or Perth. Sell it on for a profit in more expensive Sydney or Melbourne. Consider a reliable, older 4WD vehicle, such as a station wagon, that can double as an occasional bed and allows you to take passengers to share costs. Opt for models with air con, an immobilizer and a tow bar. Try hostel notice boards or sites such as www.gumtree.com or Holiday Car Club (www.holidaycarclub.com).
• Relocation – if you want to experience life on the road but can’t afford a normal rental or don’t want the hassle of buying a vehicle outright, consider relocating a rental vehicle back to its home destination for as little as $1 per day. You’ll need to be flexible, and there will be a time limit on how long you are allowed to keep the vehicle, nominally based on a set amount of kilometers per day. Relocating a vehicle can make for a cheap way to cross the country so long as you don’t mind time constraints which may limit the opportunity for detailed excursions. Check out Standby Relocations (www.standbyrelocs.com).
The quickest way to cover Australia’s vast distances, if not the cheapest, is to fly. There are low cost, no frills options, and bargains can be found if you are prepared to travel at unpopular times. The main budget operators are:
• Tiger Airways (www.tigerairways.com)
• Jetstar (www.jetstar.com/au/en/home)
• Virgin Blue – check happy hour fairs (www.virginaustralia.com/au/en/)
• Regional Express offers a backpacker pass for unlimited air travel for two months (www.rex.com.au)
Where to Stay
Australia may not be the land of rock bottom hotel prices, but there are ways to find budget accommodation suitable for backpackers.
• Couch Surfing – find a bed for free! Members can advertise spare rooms, inflatables beds or couches or search for a place to crash. It’s a community minded site that emphasizes personal safety and encourages feedback. (www.couchsurfing.org)
• Hostels – Australia has an extensive network of hostels, from large dorms to smaller room shares, and there’s a huge array of choice. Try Australia Youth Hostels Association (www3.yha.com.au) or Hostel World (www.hostelworld.com/hostels/Australia)
• Camping – there’s a vast network of campsites catering to all budgets and tastes, and Australia has a huge choice of stores where you can buy camping equipment at reasonable prices. Camping in national parks is a fantastic way to stay in spectacular surroundings for just a few dollars a night. See the Australian National Parks Travel Guide and the Commonwealth National Parks. Camps Australia is a guide that describes itself as ‘the ultimate guide for the budget-conscious’ and is now in its 7th edition. The guide costs approximately $60 and can be ordered online or at various retails outlets across the country. (www.campsaustraliawide.com).
Australian Campsites lists free campsites across the country. See also the ‘Useful Apps’ section of this article for further camping related downloads.
• Hotels – if you want to splash out on something a little more luxurious without breaking the bank, try Budget Motels.
Many backpackers supplement their spending money by taking casual jobs in bars, restaurants or hostels; others may find work fruit picking or as a farm hand. You’ll need a working visa, which is only available for 18 – 30 year olds, is valid for one year, and allows for a maximum of six months employment with a single employer.
If you are working, particularly as a fruit picker or a manual laborer, you will need to ensure that your insurance covers you for extra activity.
A good place to start looking for temporary jobs is by contacting the local labor office or try these links:
• Workstay (www.workstay.com.au)
• Backpacker Job Board (www.backpackerjobboard.com.au)
• Fruit Picking Jobs (www.fruitpickingjobs.com.au)
• Willing Worker on Organic Farms details fruit picking opportunities across the country from farms with sustainable, organic practices. Many offer free meals, board and lodging in return for your services (www.wwoof.com.au).
Eating in Australia can be an expensive affair, with most restaurant meals costing more than many budget backpackers would spend in a day. Food options for those on a shoestring can seem limited at first but these thrifty tips can help to spread the cost whilst providing some healthy variation:
Home Grown Fast Food Chains
• Red Rooster is a fast food chain but with some good, budget-friendly deals and steals and healthy options. (www.redrooster.com.au).
• Sunshine Kebabs is another fast food chain offering good prices and health-concious choices. (www.sunshinekebabsaustralia.com.au).
• Healthy Habits is a sandwich franchise with tasty alternatives to burger and fries. (www.healthyhabits.com.au/).
• Bakers Delight is a bakery chain that serves tasty breakfast and lunch options. (www.bakersdelight.com.au).
• Henny Penny – a no frills KFC-style option (www.hennypenny.com.au).
• Noodle Box carries Asian favorites and 97 percent fat free healthy salads. (www.noodlebox.com.au).
• Big Dad’s Pies carries a range of pie related products and snacks. (www.bigdadspies.com.au).
Other Eating Options
• Australia is blessed with a variety of ethnic cuisines from around the world, and checking out local eateries, particularly Asian ones, is often a great way to access delicious grub at reasonable prices.
• All you can eat buffet options offer the chance to eat like a king on a limited budget. Try Star Buffet.
• RSL Clubs are clubs for ex-service people. Found in most towns, these clubs usually have a good value restaurant where non members are welcome. (www.rslservicesclubs.com.au).
• Eat at happy hours and enjoy food and drink at reduced rates – The Happiest Hour lists happy hours in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.
• Check Urban Spoon’s listings for cheap eats.
• Buy a camping stove and cook your own meals – purchase delicious, fresh produce at local farmers’ markets; your groceries will cost less than they would at supermarkets, and will taste so much better.
• Locate and use free BBQs located at campsites and national parks (meatinapark.appspot.com).
• Go fishing – catch your own dinner (but remember to check if permission is required)!
• Eat at your Hostel – the food is cheap, with meals generally costing under $10.
• Buy boxes of wine to drink rather than pay high prices for a bottle of beer in a bar or pub – Goon is popular
• Stay at a vineyard campground, take a tour and sample wine for free, safe in the knowledge you won’t have to drive.
Best of the Rest
• Internet can be slow and expensive. Opt for a low cost, prepaid 3G data SIM card from companies such as Three or Telstra if you need a regular connection. However, Wi-Fi is free at public libraries, and if you are happy to buy a coffee or a beer, you will find free, high speed Wi-Fi access is provided in many pubs, bars and coffee shops. McDonald’s is a popular option.
• Save on entrance fees to Sydney’s top attractions with a flexible Sydneypass Card by iventure.
• There are always free events, markets and festivals happening, so be sure to make a point of checking local tourism websites for what’s happening around town. Local events can be a great way to get a feel for the vibe of the city and meet the community, rather than sticking to a well-trodden tourist trail.
• Volunteer is a great way to give something back. Consider a single day of volunteering, or plan ahead and find a volunteering opportunity that offers accommodation and meals as well. Do keep in mind that stints which include free lodging tend to be the exception rather than the norm. Try Volunteering Australia’s website for links to opportunities across the country.
The Austrop Foundation is one project that relies on volunteers and offers accommodation and meals asking only for a donation. Located at Cape Tribulation in the stunning rainforest just off the coral sea of northern Queensland, volunteers will be expected to assist with maintenance of the research station, the bat house and the 25 acre grounds; a worthy way to get close to nature. Volunteer stints usually last two to three weeks.
Free (or very cheap) Things To Do Around Australia
• Take a free walking tour at 10:30am and 2:30pm everyday (www.imfree.com.au).
• Ride free shuttle buses that loop the city (www.sydneybuses.info/free-shuttles/free-shuttle-information).
• Sydney Olympic Park at Homebush (www.sydneyolympicpark.com.au).
• Australian National Maritime Museum (www.anmm.gov.au).
• The Rocks Discovery Museum (www.rocksdiscoverymuseum.com.au).
• Sydney Observatory (www.sydneyobservatory.com.au).
• Royal Botanic Garden (www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au).
• Museum of Contemporary Art (www.mca.com.au).
•VArt Gallery of New South Wales (www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au).
• Take a free walking tour (www.imfree.com.au).
• Victoria Police Museum, World Trade Centre
• State Library of Victoria (www.slv.vic.gov.au).
• Melbourne City tourist shuttle bus.
• Adults can visit Melbourne Museum, Scienceworks and Immigration Museum for $20 each, or two museums for $16 each.
• Tower Hill (www.wgenterprises.org.au).
• Captain Cook’s Cottage.
• Hellenic Museum (www.hellenic.org.au).
• Koorie Heritage Trust (www.koorieheritagetrust.com).
• Museo Italiano (www.museoitaliano.com.au)
• Old Treasury Building (www.oldtreasurybuilding.org.au)
• Royal Exhibition Building – Australia’s only World Heritage listed building
• GoMA and Queensland Art Gallery (www.qag.qld.gov.au).
• Visit the Mount Cootha Lookout for great views of Brisbane.
• Watch Turtles hatching on the beach at Mon Repas.
• Hop on and off the free Perth Central Area Tourist Bus.
• Take a free i-city tour (www.cityofperth.wa.gov.au).
• Ride the Perth Ferry from Perth City to the south.
• The Art Gallery of Western Australia (www.artgallery.wa.gov.au).
• Western Australia Museums in Perth, Albany, Geraldton and Kalgoorlie-Boulder.
• Broome Historical Museum (www.broomemuseum.org.au).
• Grab a free bike at Hurtle Square or Cannon Backpackers and explore Adelaide.
• Art Gallery of South Australia (www.artgallery.sa.gov.au).
Australian Capital Territory
• Hop on the free Canberra Centenary Loop Bus to the National Museum of Australia (www.nma.gov.au).
• Australian War Memorial (www.awm.gov.au).
• National Film and Sound Archive (www.nfsa.gov.au).
• Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery (www.tmag.tas.gov.au).
• Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (www.qvmag.tas.gov.au/qvmag/).
• Enjoy a tour and free samples at the family owned Federation Chocolate Factory.
• See cute model villages and quirkily carved dehydrated carved apples at the Tasmanian Appleheads and Model Village.
• Australian Golf Museum (www.ausgolfmuseum.com).
Free Apps, Guides and Planners
• Australia Flight domestic search.
• Australian Travel Guide by Triposo.
• GPS My City (www.gpsmycity.com).
• gRadar Lite weather app.
• GPS CoPilot.
• Camp In Australia (www.campinaustralia.com.au).
• Aussie Backpacker (aussiebackpacker.com.au).
• Backpackaround (www.backpackaround.com).
• TNT Downunder (www.tntdownunder.com).
• YHA Backpacker Essentials magazine free apps.
• The Canberra Guide.
• A fantastic selection of free PDF planners, guides and apps from Visit New
• 60 Great Short Walks Tasmania.
• Experience Western Australia.