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Getting around

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The vast scale of Australia makes methods of travel a major feature of any visit. In general, public transport plies only the major highways to capital cities, the bigger towns between them, and popular tourist destinations; to get off the beaten track you’ll have to consider buying or renting a vehicle.

If you’re travelling by road, check out the route on a map first because it’s very easy to underestimate distances and conditions – you may well be letting yourself in for a three-day bus journey, or planning to drive 500km on bad roads. Bear in mind what the weather will be doing, too; you don’t necessarily want to head into central Australia in a battered old car during summer, or into the northern tropics in the wet season.

By plane

Budget operators like Jetstar and Virgin Blue have joined national operator Qantas to slash ticket prices, so flying is now the most common means of interstate travel in Australia. As an idea of prices, a typical one-way flight from Sydney to Adelaide costs from around Aus$99 and from Perth to Darwin Aus$230. These three airlines cover the majority of interstate flights. Regional routes are served by smaller airlines such as Regional Express (Rex), which covers New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania; and state-based companies such as Skywest in Western Australia and Air North in the Northern Territory. If you are flexible about travel, many airlines offer massively discounted sale fares online – a huge saving in time as well as money considering the distances – so keep an eye on websites.

If flying with Qantas, you could save money with a Walkabout Pass, which is bought simultaneously to your international flight and adds up to six discounted flights. Visitors from the US or Canada also have the option of a Qantas AirPass, which adds in three discounted domestic flights. As ever, prices for all passes fluctuate according to the season, and, in the US and Canada, according to your departure point. If you know your travel plans and can face the extra effort, it is worth double-checking that the pass will actually save money; some travellers report that budget airline bargains can work out cheaper than the discounted flights included in a pass.

Sightseeing flights are available throughout Australia (local tourist boards can advise), and cover everything from biplane spins above cities to excursions to the Great Barrier Reef and flights over well-known landscapes. A good example is a flight from Alice Springs to Uluru in a small plane, which enables you to visit the Rock in a day, but also observe the impressive central Australian landforms from the air. At the top end of the market, Bill Peach Journeys (t02/9693 2233, whttp://www.billpeachjourneys.com.au) offers a twelve-day tour that ticks off Australia’s postcard sights (Aus$13,795, all-inclusive).

Air North t1800 627 474, whttp://www.airnorth.com.au.

Jetstar t13 15 38, whttp://www.jetstar.com.au.

Qantas Airways t13 13 13, whttp://www.qantas.com.au.

Regional Express t13 17 13, whttp://www.rex.com.au.

Skywest t1300 660 088, whttp://www.skywest.com.au.

Virgin Blue t13 67 89, whttp://www.virginblue.com.au.

By train

The southeast has a reasonably comprehensive rail service: interstate railways link the entire east coast from Cairns to Sydney, and on to Melbourne and Adelaide. Each state operates its own rail network. For rail enthusiasts, there are two great (or perhaps just long) journeys: the Indian Pacific from Perth to Sydney, travelling for three nights and 4.352km across the Nullarbor Plain (seat only Aus$716; sleeper Aus$1402; luxury sleeper with meals Aus$2008); and the seasonal Ghan, which takes three days to go from Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs (seat only Aus$716; sleeper Aus$1372; luxury sleeper with meals Aus$1973). Holders of backpacker, student or YHA cards receive a discount of around a third, while other travellers can save money on seat-only fares with a rail pass. Both services are operated by Great Southern Railway (t13 21 47, whttp://www.gsr.com.au), and are obviously more geared towards the adventure than simply the act of getting from A to B.

On these overnight services, a twin-share Red sleeper service provides washing facilities and converts from a day lounge into a sleeper, while the Gold service lays on a luxury en-suite cabin and all meals – the full “Orient Express” treatment. The seat-only option provides a reclining chair with generous legroom and a reading light, plus access to a lounge and buffet, DVDs and showers. There’s also the option of transportation for vehicles up to 5.5m long, with prices dependent upon the distance and direction travelled: while it costs Aus$799 from Adelaide to Darwin, the reverse journey is Aus$249, for example. Great Southern Railway also runs The Overland interstate service between Melbourne and Adelaide (11hr; from Aus$93), also with the option of car transport (from $149).

Other than these, there are a couple of inland tracks in Queensland – to Mount Isa, Longreach and Charleville, plus the rustic Cairns–Forsayth run and isolated Croydon–Normanton stretch – and suburban networks around some of the major cities. Only around Sydney does this amount to much, with decent services to most of New South Wales. There are no passenger trains in Tasmania.

While trains are more comfortable than buses, they are often slower – for example, Brisbane to Queensland takes 31 hours by train but 29 hours by coach – and more expensive. Some also have potential booking problems – Queensland trains, for example, require a month’s advance booking during the holiday season.

Rail Australia (whttp://www.railaustralia.com.au) offers a range of rail passes, including the Rail Explorer Pass (Aus$690) that permits unlimited travel on the Ghan, Indian Pacific and Overland routes, or the Ausrail Pass (Aus$650 3 months, Aus$890 6 months), which lets you loose without limit on these routes plus coastal routes in Queensland and New South Wales. Book your seat when you buy the pass to ensure you get the full benefit – seats can get booked up on popular journeys. Western Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland also have their own passes available through main stations, but check any travel restrictions before buying – interstate routes do not overlap as far as passes are concerned.

By bus

Due to budget air fares, bus travel is no longer necessarily the cheapest way to get around, and is certainly the most tiresome. Even though the bus network reaches much further than the train network, routes follow the main highways between cities, and may mean arriving or departing at smaller places in the middle of the night. Nor are services daily, as you might think, especially in Western Australia, although on the plus side they can be faster than trains. The buses are about as comfortable as they can be, with reclining seats, air conditioning, toilets and DVDs. If possible, try and plan for a stopover every twenty hours – if you try stoically to sit out a sixty-hour marathon trip, you’ll need a day or more to get over it. Discounts (10 percent, or 15 percent if you buy your ticket before entering Australia) are available on many fares if you have a YHA, ISIC or recognized backpacker card such as VIP, or if you are a pensioner.

The major interstate bus company on the mainland is Greyhound Australia (t1300 473 946, whttp://www.greyhound.com.au), which covers the entire country. Along the east coast, Premier Motor Service (t13 34 10, whttp://www.premierms.com.au) calls in everywhere along the highway between Melbourne and Cairns, while in WA Integrity Coach Lines (t1800 226 339, whttp://www.integritycoachlines.com.au) goes from Perth as far as Port Hedland. Firefly Express (t1300 730 740, whttp://www.fireflyexpress.com.au) runs to Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide and usually has the cheapest fares for these routes. Tasmania is covered by Tasmanian Redline Coaches (t1300 360 000, whttp://www.tasredline.com.au) and Tassielink (t1300 300 520, whttp://www.tassielink.com.au).

Average direct one-way fares from Sydney are: Adelaide Aus$135 (23hr), Alice Springs Aus$440 (45hr), Brisbane Aus$95 (16hr), Cairns Aus$310 (45hr), Darwin Aus$740 (70hr) and Melbourne Aus$80 (12hr). Return fares are, at best, only marginally cheaper than two singles.

Where bus travel scores over air (aside from its environmental impact) is its plethora of passes, though bear in mind that you won’t save money over shorter routes and that passes are non-refundable. Greyhound offers a range of passes lasting between three days and twelve months on which you can break your journey as often as you like and travel in any direction, but not backtrack. Sample fares include the six-month Perth–Darwin “Western Explorer” pass (Aus$725, Aus$656 concessions); a one-year “Best of the East”, which goes everywhere between Adelaide, Uluru, Alice Springs, Mount Isa, Cairns, Sydney and Melbourne (Aus$1494, Aus$1348 concessions); and the “All Australian” pass (Aus$3087, Aus$2781 concessions). Year-long kilometre passes are more flexible, giving you unlimited travel up to 20,000km in any direction until you have used up the distance paid for – these work out around 10¢ per kilometre. Tasmania has its own passes, starting from Aus$208 for seven days’ travel within a ten-day period.

By car

To explore Australia fully you’ll need your own vehicle. Only then will all the national parks, isolated beaches and ghost towns that make the country so special be within reach. If your trip is of three months or more, buying a vehicle may also be the cheapest way to go. On shorter trips renting is the best bet – if not for the whole time then for short periods between bus rides, thereby allowing you to explore an area in depth.

Most foreign licences are valid for a year in Australia. An International Driving Permit (available from national motoring organizations) may be useful if you come from a non-English-speaking country. In 2011, fuel prices started at around $1.30 per litre for unleaded, with diesel about five percent more: prices increase by ten to fifteen percent along the Outback highways and can double at remote stations. The rules of the road are similar to those in the UK and US. Most importantly, drive on the left (as in the UK), and remember that seat belts are compulsory at all times, and that the speed limit in all built-up areas is 50kph or less. Outside built-up areas, maximums are either 90kph or 110kph on longer stretches – except in the Northern Territory, where common sense is your only limit between towns. Whatever else you do in a vehicle, avoid driving when tired – get out of the car every two hours – and don’t drink alcohol; random breath tests are common even in rural areas, especially during the Christmas season and on Friday and Saturday nights. One rule that might catch you out in town is that roadside parking must be in the same direction as the traffic; in other words, don’t cross oncoming traffic to park on the right.

The main hazards are boredom and fatigue, and animal collisions – a serious problem everywhere (not just in the Outback) at dawn, dusk and night-time. Driving in the Outback is by far the most dangerous tourist pursuit in Australia and every year several people get killed in single-vehicle rollovers or head-on collisions, particularly Europeans on short see-it-all holidays in cumbersome 4WDs or motorhomes. Beware of 50m-long road trains: these colossal trucks can’t stop quickly or pull off the road safely, so if there’s the slightest doubt, get out of their way; only overtake a road train if you can see well ahead and are certain your vehicle can manage it. On dirt roads be doubly cautious, or just pull over and let the road train pass.

Roads, Outback driving and breakdowns

Around the cities the only problem you’ll face is inept signposting, but the quality of interstate main roads – even Highway 1, which circles the country – isn’t always great and some minor routes are awful. Conditions, especially on unsealed roads, are unpredictable, and some roads will be impassable after a storm, so always seek reliable advice (from local police or a roadhouse) before starting out. Make it clear what sort of vehicle you’re driving and remember that their idea of a “good” or “bad” road may be radically different from yours. Some so-called “4WD only” tracks are navigable in ordinary cars as long as you take it easy – high ground clearance, rather than four-driven wheels, is often the crucial factor.

Rain and flooding – particularly in the tropics and central Australia – can close roads to all vehicles within minutes, so driving through remote regions or even along the coastal highway in the wet season can be prone to delays. The stretches of highway between Broome and Kununurra and Cairns to Townsville are notorious for being cut by floods during the summer cyclone season. Several remote and unsealed roads through central Australia (the Sandover and Plenty highways, the Oodnadatta, Birdsville and Tanami tracks, and others) are theoretically open to all vehicles in dry winter weather, but unless you’re well equipped with a tough car, don’t attempt a crossing during the summer, when extreme temperatures place extra strain on both driver and vehicle.

On poor roads and dirt tracks, the guidelines are to keep your speed down to 80kph, stick to the best section and never assume that the road is free from potholes and rocks. Long corrugated stretches can literally shake a vehicle apart – check radiators, fuel tanks and battery connections after rough stretches; reducing tyre pressures slightly
softens the ride but can cause the tyres to overheat, making them more prone to punctures. Windscreens are often shattered by flying stones from passing traffic, so slow down and pull over to the left.

At all times carry plenty of drinking water and fuel, and if you’re heading to the Outback let someone know your timetable, route and destination so that a rescue can be organized if you don’t report in. Carry a detailed map, and don’t count on finding regular signposts. In the event of a breakdown in the Outback, always stay with your vehicle: it’s more visible to potential rescuers and you can use it for shade. If you’re off a main track, as a last resort, burn a tyre or anything plastic – the black smoke will be distinctive from the average bushfire.

Car, 4WD and campervan rental

To rent a car you need a full, clean driver’s licence and to be at least 21 years old, rising to 25 for 4WDs and motorcycles. As ever, double-check the small print before signing: mileage limits, extras and extent of accident cover. The multinational operators Hertz, Budget, Avis and Thrifty have offices in major cities and at airports, but a lack of competition makes standard rates expensive at Aus$70–90 a day for a small car. Local firms – of which there are many in the cities – are almost always better value; expect around Aus$50 a day with unlimited kilometres. One-way rental might appear handy, but is usually very expensive: at least Aus$200 extra for the drop-off fee.

Four-wheel-drive vehicles are best used for specific areas rather than long term, as rental at around Aus$120 a day is steep even without fuel. Campervans, typically a Toyota Hiace, cost from Aus$90 a day for a two-berth campervan in low season (up to Aus$160 in high season) with unlimited kilometres – good value when you factor in the saving on accommodation costs – plus one-way rental is often possible. Like cars, most campervans are limited to sealed roads, but they give you the chance to create your own tour across Australia. Remember, though, that the sleeping capacity stated is an absolute maximum, which you wouldn’t want to endure too long. Furthermore, in the tropics the interior never really cools overnight unless you leave the doors open – which brings the bugs in. Consider sleeping outside under a mozzie dome or inner tent. Larger operators – nationwide firms like Britz, Apollo and Kea, for example, plus larger local outfits – rent 4WD campervans fitted with 180-litre fuel tanks that are only limited off-road by your 4WD experience or roof heights. Average prices for 4WD campers average Aus$180–200 per day year-round. The downside of all campervans is that they are thirsty and require drivers to appreciate the altered driving dynamics of an already high vehicle fitted with a heavy body. Overseas renters regularly drift off the road, overcompensate and roll a heavy camper. Finally, a few companies such as Spaceships rent modern hybrid campervans. These are basically converted “people-movers” that make up in driving comfort and fuel-economy what they lack in accommodation; a good option if you have a tent, too.

Avis whttp://www.avis.com.au.

Budget whttp://www.budget.com.au.

Europcar whttp://www.europcar.com.

Hertz whttp://www.hertz.com.au.

Holiday Autos whttp://www.holidayautos.com.au.

National whttp://www.nationalcar.com.au.

Rent-A-Bomb whttp://www.rentabomb.com.au.

Thrifty whttp://www.thrifty.com.

Apollo Motorhome Holidays whttp://www.apollocamper.com.au.

Backpacker Campervans whttp://www.backpackercampervans.com.

Britz Australia whttp://www.britz.com.au.

Kea Campers whttp://www.keacampers.com.

Maui whttp://www.maui-rentals.com.

Spaceships whttp://www.spaceshiprentals.com.au.

Travellers Auto Barn whttp://www.travellers-autobarn.com.au.

Wicked Campervans whttp://www.wickedcampers.com.au.

Buying a car

Buying a used vehicle needn’t be an expensive business, and a well-kept car should resell at about two-thirds to half the purchase price at the end of your trip. A good place to evaluate vehicle prices and availability online is at whttp://www.tradingpost.com.au.

If you don’t know your axle from your elbow but are not too gullible, car yards can provide some advice – some in Sydney even cater specifically to travellers – but don’t forget you’re dealing with used-car salesmen. Buying privately saves money. Backpackers’ notice boards in exit points from Australia are the best places to look. A huge advantage of buying from backpackers is that you usually get all sorts of useful stuff thrown in – camping gear, eskies and spares. The disadvantages are high mileage and low maintenance. Unless you know what you’re doing, call in the experts: state automobile associations offer rigorous pre-purchase inspections for about Aus$200, which isn’t much if it saves you from buying a wreck.

You’ll also need a roadworthiness certificate to have the vehicle transferred from its previous owner to you. This means having a garage check it over; legally, the previous owner should do this, and theoretically it guarantees the car is mechanically sound – but don’t rely on it. You take this to the local Department of Transport with the certificate, a receipt of purchase, your driver’s licence and passport; it is then registered in your name for a percentage of the price. WA-registered cars are a special case because a new roadworthy certificate is not necessary when the car is sold.

If the annual vehicle registration is due or you bought a vehicle interstate, you’ll have to pay extra for registration (aka “rego”), which is around Aus$700–1000 depending on the state and engine size. Note that cars with interstate registration can be difficult to sell: if possible, go for a car with the registration of the state where you anticipate selling.

Registration includes the legal minimum third-party personal insurance, but you might want to increase this cover to protect you against theft of the vehicle, or even comprehensive insurance. Joining one of the automobile clubs for another Aus$90 buys you the peace of mind of free roadside assistance (within certain limits), and discounts on road maps and other products. Each state has its own, but membership is reciprocal with overseas equivalents.

By motorcycle

Motorcycles, especially large-capacity trail bikes, are ideal for the Australian climate, although long distances place a premium on their comfort and fuel range. If you aim to return to your starting point, look out for dealers with a buy-back option as bikes can be more difficult to sell privately than cars. Whether you’re planning to ride off or on the bitumen, plenty of water-carrying capacity is essential in the Outback. Outback night-riding is risky due to the possibility of collisions with wildlife; make sure your lights and brakes are up to it and keep your speed down to under 100kph. Motorcycle rental has become widely available from the main southern cities. All types of models are on offer so talk to the rental outfit about your plans before you commit. In Sydney, Bikescape (whttp://www.bikescape.com.au) has a good selection. The Adventure Motorcycling Handbook (Trailblazer; whttp://www.adventure-motorcycling.com) is a definitive manual for preparation and riding off the beaten track and includes Outback tracks.

Hitching

The official advice for hitching in Australia is don’t. A better option is to line up lifts through backpackers’ notice boards and share fuel costs. This gives you the chance to meet the driver in advance, and most likely stop to see sights en route. In out-of-the-way locations, roadhouses are a good place to try as the owners often know of people who’ll be heading in your direction. We strongly advise against a thumb on the open road. If this is the only option, never hitch alone and ensure you are dropped at a settlement. Remember that you don’t have to get into a vehicle just because it stops: choose whom to get in with and don’t be afraid to ask questions before you do. Ask the driver where he or she is going rather than say where you want to go. Try to keep your pack with you; having it locked in the boot makes a quick escape difficult.

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