When it comes to adrenaline-pumping adventure, no one does it quite like the Aussies. And there’s no better time than now to get your fill of skydiving, bungee jumping, reef diving, and more. Summer in the U.S. means winter in Australia, and that equates to big savings for budget travelers. Low season Down Under brings cheaper airfare, fewer crowds, and none of the toxic box jellyfish that make swimming in the waters off the north eastern coast downright dangerous during wet season. Read on to find out how to create your own Australian adventure on a budget.
Airfare to Oz will be your biggest expense by far, but flying to Australia during its low season can mean paying substantially less than at other times of the year. Flights from the West Coast are the cheapest—Qantas currently has summer fares from Los Angeles to Sydney as low as $691 plus tax. Student fares on the same route are more expensive (STA offers a student fare on Qantas for $846 plus tax), but these fares allow for stays of up to a year while regular fares only allow stays of up to 30 days. Prices are higher from the East Coast, but still cheaper in the low season. At press time, Travel CUTS, for example, had a student deal with United for $1,199 plus tax for flights from Boston to Sydney. If you were to travel during peak season, you’d easily pay hundreds more for airfare.
Once you’re there, travel within Australia is cheap—hostels generally run between 15 and 25 Australian dollars (AUD). And with the currency exchange rate in favor of the U.S. dollar, it’s very easy to live on a budget (at publication time 1 USD was equal to 1.45 AUD).
Australia is a large country—about the same size as the continental U.S. If you’re short on time, your best bet is to pick a couple of cities and use domestic air carriers like Qantas or Virgin Blue to cover the large distances.
If time is less of an issue, the best way to see everything is with Oz Experience, a hop-on, hop-off bus service. This “adventure transport system” prides itself on getting you to all the main attractions, as well as those off the beaten track. Oz is like a guided tour without a strict itinerary or cheesy guides. The drivers go out of their way to entertain (they love to sing and play games), and they can also help you book accommodations and give you ideas of what to do in each place.
Different Oz Experience passes cover specific routes. You can complete the route your pass covers in a week or two, but, with all passes good for 12 months, Oz also gives you the flexibility to get on or off wherever you want along the way. For example, the Bruce pass (priced at 595 AUD [$452], less for ISIC holders) can bring you from Sydney to Cairns in nine days, but you’d be a fool if you didn’t hop off in places like Surfer’s Paradise or Brisbane.
Oz Experience is geared toward the backpacker type, typically between the ages of 18 and 24, although there is no set age limit. If you’d rather travel without the raucous atmosphere, McCafferty’s or Greyhound buses follow similar routes.
Australia is filled with “must-see” destinations like Ayers Rock, the Sydney Opera House, and the Great Ocean Road. While traveling with Oz Experience you’ll be able to see those places, as well as a few others that should get adventure junkies all worked up. While I could write for days about all the places you should go, here are a few excursions not to be missed:
- Fraser Island: Easily accessible from Hervey Bay, Fraser is best experienced through a self-guided 4WD camping safari. This way your group can explore the “largest sand island in the world” at your own pace. On your tour, you can swim in Lake MacKenzie and hike to the top of Indianhead and watch the dolphins, sea turtles, and sharks down below. You’ll cook and camp on the beach—just watch out for dingos! YHA offers three-day/two-night packages starting at 195 AUD ($136) per person; most hostels in Hervey Bay offer similar packages.
- Airlie Beach: Airlie is the gateway to the Whitsundays Islands, which is where you can find Whitehaven Beach, widely considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Here you can let out your inner sailor as part of the crew on one of ProSail’s racing yachts on trips ranging from two to six days. Prices vary by trip length and the type of boat you choose to sail. If you’re on a tighter budget, try a half-day sailing excursion priced from 75 AUD ($52) for students and from 79 AUD ($55) for adults.
- Cairns: There’s no better starting point for getting to Cape Tribulation and the Great Barrier Reef, than Cairns. ATA runs incredible three-day/two-night packages up to Cape Trib starting at 287 AUD ($200) per person with accommodations at PK’s Village. Tours include a day on the reef to snorkel or dive, a Daintree River cruise (to look for crocs), and transportation from Cairns. During your stay you can hike around the only place in Australia where the reef meets the rainforest, or just enjoy relaxing on the beach.
When booking any package, check out all the options before buying. Try to find packages that include as many extras as you can get, such as pre- and post-tour hostel stays. The YHA Fraser Island tour, for example, includes all camping and cooking equipment, two nights’ stay at the YHA Colonial Log Cabin hostel, two meals at the hostel, camping and ferry fees, and a brief overview of how to drive a 4WD vehicle.
By using the same company for all your tours, you also can snag additional savings. For example, Koala Backpackers offers Fraser Island safaris for 190 AUD ($133) per person and Whitsunday sailing for 285 AUD ($199) per person. Get a package deal for both and you’ll pay 435 AUD ($304) per person—a savings of 50 AUD ($35). You’ll meet a wider variety of people, however, if you go with different companies in each location.
You don’t need your wallet to experience every adventure this country has to offer, as there are heaps of free activities to indulge in. In Byron Bay, you can hike up to the lighthouse at the top of Cape Byron or enjoy whale watching between July and October. Get your surf on at one of Australia’s world-famous beaches like Bondi Beach in Sydney or Bell’s Beach in Torquay where a number of surf competitions are held each year. If you’re tired of being outdoors, take a free tour of the XXXX Brewery in Brisbane.
Travel agencies abound in Australia, and besides other travelers who are often quite happy to give advice, they’re your best resource. They know the local travel companies and can advise on which might be best suited for your travel style. STA is probably the best known, but there are many others up and down the coast.
If you want more information before you leave, check out Australia.com to locate an “Aussie Specialist” in your area. These specialists are travel agents certified by the Australian Tourist Commission, and as a former Aussie Specialist myself, I can tell you that they can answer most any question you may have about travels Down Under. And once you’re on the road, make sure you’ve saved room in your backpack for a trusty guidebook—I prefer Let’s Go or Lonely Planet. They’re both great resources for the budget traveler.