Our travel blog to Australia for informed travel.
How to get around in Australia
Australia is huge but sparsely populated, and you can sometimes travel many hours before finding the next trace of civilisation, especially once you leave the south-eastern coastal fringe.
Almost all modern Australian maps, including street directories, use the Geocentric Datum of Australia (GDA) as their grid reference, which is for all purposes identical to the WGS84 used by the GPS. You can locate most things on an Australian map or street directory if you just have the "GPS coordinates".
There are restrictions on carrying fruit and vegetables (including honey) between states and even between regions of states that are involved in fruit growing. If you are driving long distances or interstate, or flying between states, don't stock up on fruits and vegetables.
Larger towns and cities have taxi services, which you will find a rather expensive. Uber is available here (along with the usual controversies), as well as smartphone applications such as GoCatch which can be extremely useful for finding a licensed taxi when none are available on the street.
When travelling alone, it is customary for a passenger to sit in front passenger seat, next to the driver, rather than in the back. If you prefer to sit in the back then it isn't really a problem though.
- See also: Driving in Australia
Australia has a generally well-maintained system of roads and highways, and cars are a commonly used method of transport. Most of the state capitals are linked to each other by good quality highways. Some parts are dual carriageway but many sections are one lane each way. Major regional areas have sealed (paved) dual-lane roads, but isolated areas may have poorly maintained dirt roads or even tracks. Distances and speeds are specified in kilometres and fuel is sold by the litre. There are no tolls on roads or bridges outside of the urban areas of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
Australia drives on the left. Overseas visitors who are used to driving on the right should take care when they first drive, and again when they are driving on country roads with little traffic.
Generally, overseas licenses are valid for driving in Australia for three months after arrival. If the licence is not in English an International Driving Permit (IDP) is required in addition to your licence. Licensing regulations and road rules vary slightly from state to state.
Australia's low population density and large size makes for long driving times between major centres. Some indicative travel times, not including any rest periods, are:
- Sydney to Melbourne by car: 9–10 hours (900 km / 560 mi)
- Brisbane to Sydney: 12–13 hours (1,000 km / 620 mi)
- Perth to Sydney: 45 hours (4,000 km / 2500 mi)
- Sydney to Canberra: 3.5 hours (300 km / 185 mi)
- Adelaide to Melbourne: 8–10 hours (750 km / 465 mi)
- Brisbane to Melbourne: 19–20 hours (1,700 km / 1056 mi)
- Melbourne to Perth: 40 hours (3,500 km / 2175 mi)
- Perth to Adelaide: 32 hours (2,700 km / 1677 mi)
- Brisbane to Cairns: 22–24 hours (1,700 km / 1,056 mi)
It is almost impossible to predict your travel time just by knowing the distance. Seek local advice for the best route, and how much time to allow. Averaging 100 km/h or more is possible on some relatively minor highways when they are straight and there are few towns. On other national highways that traverse mountain ranges and travel through small towns, even averaging 60 km/h can be a challenge.
While major highways are well serviced, anyone leaving sealed (paved) roads in inland Australia is advised to take advice from local authorities, check weather and road conditions, and carry sufficient spare fuel, spare parts, spare tyres, matches, food and water. Some remote roads might see one car per month or less.
Cellular coverage is non-existent outside of major highways and towns and you should take some precautions in case of emergency. It is a good idea to advise a person you know and trust of your route and advise them to alert authorities if you do not contact them within a reasonable amount of time after your scheduled arrival at your destination. Carrying a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) or satellite phone should be considered when travelling in remote areas, especially where you may not be able to make contact for several days. Police will not automatically start looking for you if you don't report in. Make sure you get one with a GPS built in. These can be borrowed from some local police stations, such as those in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. If you want to hire one, sort it out before you leave a major city, as you won't find hire places in small towns. Expect to pay around $100 to hire for a week, or $700 to buy one. Don't expect an immediate rescue even if you trigger a PLB.
Heat and dehydration at any time of year can kill you. If stranded, stay with your vehicle and do what you can to improve your visibility from the air. Do not take this advice lightly; even local people die out there when their car breaks down and they are not reported missing. If you do have to abandon your car (say you break down and then get a lift), call in quickly to the local police station, to avoid the embarrassment and cost of a search being started for you.
Major cities around Australia have multiple outlets providing a wide range of rental vehicles from major international rental companies. In smaller towns car rental can be difficult to find. One-way fees often apply from smaller regional outlets.
Conditions upon the use of rental vehicles usually exist on travelling into or out of Western Australia and the Northern Territory or on the car ferries to Tasmania, Kangaroo Island and Fraser Island. Rental cars in capital cities usually have unlimited mileage. In small towns they usually only include 100 km a day before a surcharge is applied. Some companies allow travel on any gazetted road, while others forbid travel on a gravel/dirt road unless you hire a four-wheel drive. Always ensure you thoroughly check the vehicle for any damage, including all window glass and the roof panels, and document any found in detail with the renter before leaving the depot.
You must have a licence written in English or an International Driving Permit (IDP) from your home country to drive anywhere in Australia. Check the contract conditions carefully if you are under 25 and also check that your licence class matches the vehicle you wish to rent before you book it.
Smaller cars you can hire can be manual (stick-shift), whereas anything larger will mostly be automatic.
If you do not hold an Australian driving licence, some rental vehicle companies will require you to take a free driver knowledge test, aimed at tourists, that covers the basic road rules, or will take you on a short drive to assess whether you are competent behind the wheel.
A camper van is a vehicle, usually a minivan, converted into a motorhome (recreational vehicle), most often catering to the vast number of young European and American backpackers traversing the country. The East Coast from Sydney to Cairns is especially abundant with happy, hungover youths travelling around in these vehicles.
Britz and Maui tend to operate at the premium end of the campervan market, while the lower end of the market is fiercely competed: larger operators include Jucy Rentals, Hippie Camper, Spaceships and Wicked Campers. The last of these are instantly recognizable due to their lurid graffiti paint schemes, usually in the worst possible taste.
Camper vans vary widely in fitting and quality, with some featuring showers, toilets, kitchens and more, while others have little more than mattresses in the back. Check the extra charges very carefully and make sure that you are not paying the same or more for a lesser quality vehicle.
Don't assume hiring a camper will be a cheaper way of seeing Australia. The cost of fuel varies greatly depending on where you are. Fuel costs in outback Australia are much higher than urban areas. MotorMouth provides a 7 day rolling average of fuel prices for each city. Add on the cost of hire, etc., can often make travelling and staying in hostels a cheaper and more comfortable option — but the freedom of having your own four wheels may make up for it.
There is a substantial second hand market in cars and campers for backpackers wishing to do extended road trips around Australia. Take common-sense precautions if purchasing a car. Remember the importance of a thorough mechanical checklist, licensing, registration and insurance. State government services are available free of charge to ensure it is unencumbered by a finance arrangement and that it has not been previously written off as a result of an accident.
- Travellers Auto-Barn
- Wicked Campers are a camper van hire company that also sell older vans.
- Gumtree has a backpackers guide to buying camper vans in Australia. It also lists vehicles for private sale and from dealerships.
- Revs by entering a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), Revs tells you if there has any money owing on a car.
- Redbook is an Australian car pricing authority. Find out the market price of any vehicle.
Due to the large distances involved, flying is a well-patronised form of travel in Australia. Services along the main business travel corridor (Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane) are run almost like a bus service, with flights leaving every 15 minutes during the day.
The best fares are almost always available on the most competitive routes, whereas routes to remote destinations with fewer flights tend to be more expensive. It is worth noting that Qantas actually do often offer competitive prices, so don't ignore that option just because they are the national carrier. There are only a handful of main airlines in Australia, so it won't take long to compare their prices on domestic routes:
- Qantas, the only nation-wide full service airline, flying to major cities and some larger regional towns;
- Virgin Australia, a nation-wide airline, flying to major cities and a few larger regional towns;
- Jetstar, Qantas's discount arm with limited service and assigned seating.
- Tiger Airways Australia, one of Asia's largest LCC has a hub in Melbourne and flies to Sydney, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Alice Springs, Hobart, Mackay, and Perth, prices are very competitive.
Several airlines service regional destinations. Expect discounts on these airlines to be harder to come by, and for standard airfares to be above what you would pay for the same distance between major centres.
- Qantaslink, the regional arm of Qantas, covering the smaller cities in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia;
- Regional Express, covering larger towns & cities on the eastern seaboard as well as country South Australia;
- Skywest, covering regional Western Australia, Bali and Darwin;
- Airnorth, covering the Northern Territory;
- Skytrans Airlines, covering regional Queensland.
- Sharp Airlines, covering several regional towns in Victoria and South Australia.
- See also: General aviation
Scheduled aviation only flies to handful of the thousands of airports around Australia. There are numerous options to charter aircraft that may take you direct to smaller country towns or even offshore islands. The costs can be comparable to scheduled airlines if there are 3 or more people flying in a group. The Australian Private Pilots Licence permits private pilots to carry passengers and to recover the cost of the plane hire and fuel from passengers, but not to advertise for passengers or fly commercially. That said, if you check the web pages of local flying clubs, there are always private pilots willing to fly on a fine weekend if someone is willing to put in for the cost of the plane and fuel.
Visitors from countries with well-developed long distance rail systems such as Europe and Japan may be surprised by the lack of high-speed, inter-city rail services in Australia. A historical lack of cooperation between the states, combined with sheer distances and a relatively small population to service, have left Australia with a national rail network that is relatively slow and used mainly for freight. Nevertheless, train travel between cities can be very scenic and present opportunities to see new aspects of the country, as well as being a cost-effective way to get to regional towns and cities, which tend to have more expensive flights than those between the state capitals.
The long-distance rail services that do exist are mainly used to link regional townships with the state capital, such as Bendigo to Melbourne, or Cairns to Brisbane. In Queensland, a high-speed train operates from Brisbane to Rockhampton and Brisbane to Cairns. Queensland also has passenger services to inland centres including Longreach (The Spirit of the Outback), Mount Isa (The Inlander), Charleville (The Westlander) and Forsayth (The Savannahlander). There are also inter-city train services operated by Great Southern Railways on the routes Melbourne-Adelaide (The Overland), Sydney-Adelaide-Perth (Indian Pacific), Adelaide-Alice Springs-Darwin (The Ghan) however as noted above, these are not "high-speed" services, so if you do not enjoy train travel as part of your holiday in its own right then this is probably not for you.
Tasmania has no passenger rail services. The Northern Territory has the rail line linking Darwin to Adelaide through Alice Springs only, and the Australian Capital Territory has a single railway station close to the centre of Canberra.
Long distance train operators
- Great Southern Railways - A private train operator running tourist train services, The Ghan, The Indian Pacific and The Overland between Sydney, Broken Hill, Adelaide, Alice Springs, Darwin, Perth and Melbourne.
- NSW Trainlink Regional - Links Sydney to Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra, and regional connections to most New South Wales towns, including Dubbo, Coffs Harbour, and Wagga Wagga.
- V/Line - Train & coach services in Victoria, including combined Train and Coach services between Melbourne and Adelaide, Melbourne and Canberra.
- Queensland Rail - Traveltrain - Long distance passenger train services in Queensland
- The Savannahlander - A Queenstrain service that links Cairns with the outback town of Forsayth, using old heritage trains, and providing overnight accommodation and tours on the way.
- TransWA - State government run, operating train services to Kalgoorlie and Bunbury. TransWA also operates coach services to much of the state where former rail services operated in the past, especially the South West of the state.
No rail pass includes all train travel throughout Australia. However, if you are a train buff that intends travelling extensively by rail, there are some passes that may save you money. Plan your trip carefully before investing in a rail pass. Country train services are infrequent and can arrive at regional destinations at unsociable hours.
- Discovery Pass. Use any NSW Trainlink services (trains and coaches). Get anywhere in NSW, as well as north to Brisbane and south to Melbourne.
There are four passes that all include Great Southern Railways (GSR) services and optionally NSW Trainlink and Queensland Rail that are available to overseas travellers only. Remember that NSW Trainlink operate the XPT services from Sydney to Melbourne, so passes that include NSW Trainlink can also be used on that service.
- Rail Explorer Pass- GSR only ($450 for 3 months)
- Trans Aus - GSR + NSW Countrylink. ($598 for 3 months)
- Aus Reef and Outback - GSR + Queensland Rail. ($672 for 3 months)
- Ausrail Pass - GSR + NSW Countrylink + Queensland Rail ($722.00 for 3 months, $990.00 for 6 months)
Local public transport
Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Wollongong and Newcastle have train and bus services integrated into the city public transport, with trams also running in Melbourne and Adelaide, and ferries in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. The remaining capital cities have bus services only. See those city guides articles for public transport details.
Some regional cities and towns have local bus services, but see the destination guides for service information, as frequency can be poor and weekend and evening services non-existent.
Some trains allow you to carry your car with you on special car carriages attached to the back of the train.
The Ghan and the Indian Pacific allow you to transport cars between Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Alice Springs, Perth, and Darwin. You cannot remove your car at any of the intermediate stations.
There are no longer any motorail services in Queensland.
Bus travel in Australia is cheap and convenient, although the distances involved for interstate connections are daunting. Greyhound has the largest bus route network. Note that there are no bus services from the other capital cities to Perth.
Many major Australian cities have ferries as part of their public transport system. Some smaller roads in the regional areas still have punts to carry cars across rivers and canals. The islands of the Barrier Reef have some scheduled services, and there are a few cruises that cross the top of Australia as well.
However, large inter city ferry services are not common.
- The Spirit of Tasmania. The only long distance ferry route connects Tasmania to the mainland and carries cars and passengers on the route across Bass Strait daily between Melbourne and Devonport.
- Sealink connects Kangaroo Island, Australia's second largest southern island with regular car ferries.
- Sea Saturday offers a short cut across the Spencer Gulf between Adelaide and the Eyre Peninsula, running daily car ferry services.
It is legal to hitch hike in some states in Australia, so long as certain guidelines are followed. However, it is less commonly done than in neighbouring New Zealand. In Australia hitch hiking is often frowned upon by locals and police, especially in metropolitan areas.
Hitch hiking is illegal in Victoria and Queensland. It is also illegal to stand on the verge or walk along freeways (often called "motorways" in New South Wales) in all states (effectively making hitch hiking illegal in many practical places, in all states).
If forced to hitch hike due to an emergency you may find a motorist willing to take you to the nearest town to obtain help. (Many major inter-city highways and freeways have emergency telephone units to request help.)
It is common to see a tourist hitching in rural areas. The best time to hitch hike is early morning. The best location is near, but not on, the main exit from the town you are in.
Cycling the long distances between towns in Australia is not common, and most long distance highways in Australia have poorly developed facilities for cyclists. In some states, former railway lines have been changed into rail trails. Rail Trail Australia website has good material of routes off the main highways that are much safer.
Nevertheless some intrepid travellers do manage to cover the longer distances by bicycle, and have a different experience of Australia. Long distance cyclists can be encountered on the Nullarbor and other isolated highways.
In Western Australia long distance cycle trails have been developed, and are well worth checking out.
Trips and routes need careful planning to ensure the correct supplies are carried.
To cycle between Sydney and Brisbane you would have to allow 2–3 weeks with around 80–100 km per day.
Walking through some parts of Australia is the only way to experience some particular landscapes. In Tasmania the Central Highland Overland Track and the South Coast Track are good examples of walking/hiking holiday to do items. The Bicentennial National Trail is one of the longest trails in the world, stretching from Cooktown in Northern Queensland, to Healesville.
(Thanks to WikiVoyage.org)