Ah, Australia. Swoon. If you’re going to be working or studying here, you’ll have plenty of time to explore. And you’d well and truly be a fool not to capitalise on that. If you’re reading this post out of the context of my series on moving to Australia and just want some travel tips, ignore those last bits! This is for you, too.
I’m really jazzed to share just a few of the places that make this sunburnt country so unique and enchanting, and make me never ever want to leave (I’m so not alone in this, speak to anyone who’s ever visited). I’ve written out travel tips and a couple sample itineraries that link out to more photos on older blog posts. Also read my more detailed travel guides on what to see & do in Sydney, The Illawarra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, The Whitsundays, and how to experience the Great Barrier Reef.
Hot tips for planning an amazing trip
First things first, if you are travelling to Australia as a tourist, you’ll want to get an ETA (Electronic Travel Authority, which is just a complex name for a travel visa). Really, all you need to do is apply for the ETA 601 online and pay the online processing fee of about $20 (“the ETA is free”, but, oh, there’s a fee for submitting online. You have to admire the work of the marketing team involved here, really sneaky stuff.) You should get an email back either the same day or the next day, and your visa (sorry, “ETA”) is automatically attached to the electronics in your passport.
Just an important side note that the American dollar is currently very strong against the Aussie dollar, meaning that prices are not what they appear here! It’s easy to forget to factor in the exchange, but your $30 hostel is really only costing you $21, so celebrate the decline of our economy with a few extra beers.
Australia is truly huge, in case you haven’t noticed, so the best method of travel is flight. Domestic flights are usually quite cheap, which also helps. We have 2 budget airlines, Tiger and Jetstar and both of these are bare-bones airlines, but they get the job done and they will get you pretty much anywhere. The next nicer option (i.e. more expensive) is Virgin Australia, and then lastly Qantas.
For flights within Australia, I usually look at Momondo and then look at the airline’s pages directly if I’m not seeing anything I like. A good price for a Sydney to Melbourne flight is about $80 one way, though you can get even cheaper ones during specials and you can get up into the $200’s if you’re really picky about the time of your flight (usually super early and super late are the cheapest times to fly, as well as weekdays.
That being said, there are some places that need to be experienced via road trip. VIC’s Great Ocean Road is one, and coastal NSW, both south and north of Sydney, is also stunning. There aren’t too many free campsites in Australia, but this app is pretty handy for finding the few there are and also finding nice paid camping spots along your route. It might be a good idea to rent a car if you would like to see smaller coastal towns, as that is your only way of getting there!
Be aware that public transport is only well built up around the biggest cities, and not far beyond them. From Sydney, you can get to Wollongong on the train (90min south) and down to Kiama, or Newcastle (2hrs north), but not much past that. Actually, you can get to Melbourne on the train, but it takes close to 15 hours, so..
Venture out to Perth and find that you’ll need a car to get beyond the city, and that applies to a lot of Australia. Whatever you do, don’t go cruising around in huge tour buses, it’s my most detested method of travel and it’s a great way to see nothing special.
On your road trip, fill up fuel whenever you see it, I can’t stress that enough. Multiple times, Cal and I have coasted on fumes into the servo and found that we only had 1 or 2L left in the tank. Even on the Hume Highway between Melbourne and Sydney, there are not heaps of stations, so skipping one could mean running out of fuel 20km from the next one and having to walk in 40C heat.
Where to stay
If you want to stay in a hotel, expect to pay big bucks. Hostels will only run you about $30/night and are usually quite nice. I won’t list every hostel I like, because that would take all night, but here’s my favourite in Sydney, it’s about 5 minutes walk from Central Station and in a great spot in town. Also, directly above a very tacky and very sweaty, but very cheap backpacker bar, ScuBar. You can even spring for 2 person or 3 person private rooms if you’re with people, it usually won’t cost too much more and will be worth it for the privacy. Most hostels you stay at will have kitchen facilities and all the bits for you to cook there if you want to save money that way.
(Almost all the times I’ve stayed in hostels in Australia, something weird has happened. In Melbourne, a middle-aged man rubbed lotion on himself in the room for 2hrs while maintaining direct eye-contact with us. In Sydney, an apparently homeless man in the bunk below me offered to give me a nighttime “massache”. And in Cairns, I found a used condom next to the bed. No thank you. BUT, don’t let me put you off hostels, it’s totally part of the experience.)
A really nice option is also Couchsurfing, where you can stay with locals for free. I’ve hosted a number of people and love getting to meet new friends from all over the world. Create an account and make a post about where you’re going, when, and who you are. You can even look at people’s profiles in the area and message them directly if they sound like future pals.
When to travel
Pay mind to the seasons. Summer is a miserable time to visit northern anywhere, since it’s the rainy season. Plus, it’s crazy hot. Winter, on the other hand, is an awful time to visit Tasmania, as it’s freezing down there. Even in June or July, Cairns will be warm enough to swim, so consider that a winter destination. Ditto Darwin and NT. Most of WA is best in spring or autumn, while VIC, NSW, and southern QLD are really good year round.
Read my travel guide series on what to see & do in Australia’s best destinations, City Guides: Down Under
- Update: Check out The Sydney Project, an entire section of my blog dedicated to activities in and around Sydney & the South Coast.
- Adelaide & wine country
- The Great Barrier Reef & northern QLD
- The Whitsundays: Hamilton Island
- Wollongong & the Illawarra
Sample Itinerary 1: South Coast & Great Ocean Road (9-14 days)
- Fly into Sydney and stay 1 or 2 nights in Australia’s biggest city.
- Hire a car and drive 3 hours south on your first day, stopping in Wollongong or Kiama for lunch. Visit the Kiama Blowhole if the surf is up, and make it to Jervis Bay for the night.
- Wake up and visit the breath-taking Hyams Beach in the morning. Book a scuba or snorkel trip in the afternoon. Stay another night or drive 90min to Bateman’s Bay and stay in a hostel.
- Drive 3 hours to Mallacoota, VIC and spend the afternoon hiking the sand dunes or Genoa Peak.
- Drive 2.5 hrs onward to Lakes Entrance and spend a relaxing day by the sea.
- Drive 3.5 hrs to Wilson’s Promontory National Park. Spend at least one day hiking, Mt. Oberon is a quick day hike.
- Drive another 2 hours to Dromana, on the Mornington Peninsula, and soak up some sun before driving another hour to stay in St. Kilda.
- Leave the car behind and take the tram into Melbourne for a poke around. Go shopping on Chapel St., have coffee by Degraves Subway, wander the Laneways, and have dinner on the Yarra at South Bank. The Merrywell has great burgers.
- Drive an hour from St. Kilda to stay in either Geelong or Torquay at the start of the Great Ocean Road
- Drive 2 hours along the Great Ocean Road, stopping for lunch in Lorne, and reach the 12 Apostles. Make it back to either Torquay or St. Kilda.
- Return your rental car to the Melbourne airport and fly back to Sydney to catch your flight home.
Sample Itinerary 2: Sydney, Melbourne, and the Reef (9-12 days)
- Fly into Melbourne and spend 2 or 3 days visiting St. Kilda Beach, Luna Park, The Laneways and Arcades, and searching for the best coffee.
- Take a train to South Yarra station or tram to the corner of Toorak & Chapel to go out for the night on Chapel St., starting off at Imperial, and working your way down the street to Pawn & Co., Lucky Coq, and finishing the night at Revlover.
- Visit Phillip Island and watch the Penguin Parade.
- Fly to Sydney and spend 3 days exploring Circular Quay, the Rocks, the Northern Beaches, and downtown.
- Take in some of Sydney’s best beaches on the 6km Bondi to Coogee Walk.
- Have lunch at Scarborough Hotel that overlooks the coast, right near the train station of the same name.
- Fly to Cairns for good access to the Great Barrier Reef (I prefer Port Douglas, it’s 1hr away by shuttle bus). Depending on your time constraints and budget, consider booking a 3 night liveaboard dive trip with 11 included dives, I highly recommend this company. (read my full post on the Reef here)
- If you’d prefer a shorter trip, book a 1 day tour to the outer Reef that includes 2 scuba dives and 1 snorkel, I went with this company from Port Douglas and dove with a Minke whale.
Sample Itinerary 3: West Coast Australia (8-12 days)
- Fly into Perth and spend a couple days exploring. Take a short trip to Rottnest Island to see quokkas and relax on Cottesloe Beach.
- Hire a car and drive south, staying a day or 2 in nearby Fremantle.
- Drive 90min to Myalup Beach and enjoy some sun and snorkelling.
- Drive an hour south to Busselton and walk along the world’s largest wooden jetty.
- Base yourself in Busselton for a day or two of wine tasting in the world famous Margaret River, 30 min away.
- Scoot back up to Perth slowly to return your car and fly out.
- With more time, drive farther north and explore Kalbarri National Park.
- Visit the unbelievable Pink Lake (one north of Perth, which is where I visited, and another in southeast WA)
Sample Itinerary 4: Best of Queensland & northern NSW (12-16 days)
- Fly into Cairns and shuttle 1hr to Port Douglas to experience the Great Barrier Reef on a dive trip (read my full post on how to experience the Reef)
- Take a short flight from Cairns to Hamilton Island to lounge on the beach and cruise around the stunning Whitsundays. Take a boat trip to unbelievable Whitehaven Beach.
- Fly to Brisbane to explore this beautiful city and take trips to Fraser Island and the Sunshine Coast for great beaches.
- Fly from Brisbane to the Gold Coast to lounge in the sand and enjoy the crazy nightlife scene. Be sure to check out Coolangatta for great beaches.
- Bus from the Gold Coast to artsy Byron Bay in far-north NSW (or fly to nearby Ballina).