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Everything You Need to Know About Getting Around Australia

SmarterTravel

Getting around Australia takes a little planning. It’s a huge country, only slightly smaller than Canada and the U.S., with big distances between major cities. Fortunately, low-cost airlines offer competitively priced flights on the main domestic routes, and highways connect most of the country. Long-distance passenger trains (plus buses that connect at train stations for travel to outlying areas) are also available in some parts of Australia. Read on to learn everything you need to know about Australia transportation.

Australia by Air

Getting to Australia is a long haul—approximately 14 to 16 flying hours from the West Coast of North America, and another four to five hours if connecting from the East Coast. Flights from Europe typically connect in Asia and take nearly a full day.

The majority of North Americans will arrive at Sydney International Airport (also known as Kingsford Smith), Melbourne, or Brisbane. Major airlines connecting the two continents include Qantas, United Airlines, Air New Zealand (via Auckland), Virgin Australia, and Air Canada.

Flying within Australia is easy between major cities. The Sydney-Melbourne leg is the busiest with plenty of services, and fares for this 1.5-hour flight are quite competitive. Flights between Sydney and Brisbane also take 1.5 hours, while it’s five hours in the air from Sydney to Perth.

Qantas, its low-cost subsidiary airline Jetstar, and competitor Virgin Australia have most of the country covered. As all three carriers also operate international flights, it’s important to ensure you’re at the correct terminal for the correct flight.

Virgin Australia and Jetstar started as as low-cost, no-frills airlines where passengers paid extra for food and beverages (apart from tea/coffee/water). Nowadays Virgin Australia offers complimentary snacks and beverages (as well as meals on select routes), and allows passengers to check a single bag for free. Jetstar is more restrictive, with a strict carry-on baggage allowance (and hefty fees if your hand luggage is overweight) and no food included. Jetstar permits one complimentary checked bag. Fares on most Australian airlines are cheapest when booked online.

A handful of smaller regional airlines also serve country towns and remote Outback areas. Regional Express Airlines, known as REX, flies to towns in New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland, and Victoria, with limited service in Western Australia; Skytrans flies to remote regions in northern Queensland from a base in Cairns; and Par Avion operates in Tasmania. Aircraft on these regional airlines are often quite small, and fares can be expensive, as there may be little or no competition on the route.

Renting a Car in Australia

Car travel is popular in Australia, and most Aussies take to the road over Easter and during the six-week holiday season from mid-December to the end of January. North Americans will find it easier and cheaper to travel outside of peak season, particularly between February and April (before Easter) and in October or November when prices are cheaper and the weather is pleasant.

All the major international rental car brands are based in Australia. An international driver’s license is not required if your own driver’s license is written in English. Prices can be quite high, with lower rates for seven-day hire. Low-cost companies charge less, but they may use older cars and/or restrict the areas of travel. Local company Bayswater Car Rental, which has depots in Sydney and Perth, is popular for its low rates and affordable insurance.

All rental car drivers will incur a charge, called an excess, if they damage the vehicle. This excess can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, and insurance can be purchased to bring down this cost.

Australians drive on the left side of the road and should only use the right-hand lanes on freeways when overtaking. Speed limits vary from 70 to 110 kilometers per hour (between 43 and 68 mph) on freeways and from 40 to 60 kilometers per hour (25 to 37 mph) on city and suburban streets. School zone speed limits (usually 40 kph) are rigorously enforced. Police regularly carry out random breath testing (RBT) for drivers to detect alcohol levels. If you’re caught with more than a 0.05 alcohol reading, you’re under arrest.

Most metropolitan motorways in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne charge a toll, paid electronically via an e-tag device attached to a car’s windscreen. Overseas travelers must pay toll costs or be fined. Visitors can pay online or purchase a 30-day toll pass through a service called Linkt. To get a pass, drivers go online, pay a small set-up fee, and register their credit card and the license plate of their rental vehicle. The freeway toll machines detect the vehicle, then charge the toll back to the associated credit card.

Prepare for long distances if you’re driving in Australia. From Sydney it’s a 10- to 12-hour drive to Brisbane and slightly less to Melbourne, although no one should attempt to drive such long distances on unfamiliar roads all in one trip. (We recommend making at least one overnight stop along the way.)

Take particular care when driving in the Outback or other remote regions. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is highly recommended (and some rental car companies won’t let you take other types of vehicles into the region). Bring plenty of water, especially if you’re traveling during the hot summer months. Keep in mind that gas stations are few and far between, so you’ll want to fill up when you can.

Australia Campervans, Motorhomes, and Caravans

Campervans, motorhomes, and caravans can be rented from a variety of outlets (note that it may prove costly to choose a caravan, as you’ll also need to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle to tow it). Campervans are perfect for a couple without much luggage who don’t mind roughing it. The cheapest versions will simply turn the back area into a sleeping area; other vans have a pop-up enclosed roof where the double bed is fitted.

Motorhomes are more luxurious and usually have a bed above the driver’s cabin, another bed that assembles on the kitchen table, and often a small bathroom with toilet. There are many camping and caravan sites (called caravan or holiday parks) dotted along the coast of Australia and in regional towns, providing bathroom facilities, power, barbecue areas, a convenience store, and often Wi-Fi.

Jucy and Britz are two of the most popular local operators.

Australia by Train

Two of Australia’s most iconic train journeys are the Indian-Pacific (IP) and the Ghan, privately run tourist rail services operated by Journey Beyond Rail Expeditions. They are far from cheap but well worth taking for the sheer experience of traveling the length and breadth of the country in comfort with fascinating stops along the way.

The aptly named Indian Pacific links the two oceans from Perth to Sydney over four days and three nights. The Ghan links Adelaide in the south with Darwin in the north in a journey spanning three days and two nights. You can opt for a longer journey with the Ghan Expedition, which runs over four days and three nights.

Journey Beyond also recently introduced its Great Southern service, which runs between Adelaide and Brisbane over up to four days.

Queensland Rail offers great scenic train journeys on coastal and Outback routes at affordable rates. One of our favorites is the Spirit of Queensland, a 25-hour, 1,044-mile route between Brisbane and Cairns. There are traditional tourist trains as well, providing jaunts on barely used railway lines in remote areas that include tours and stays in country hotels.

In NSW it’s possible to take trains in four directions from Sydney—north, northwest, west, and south—to cities including Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra, the Blue Mountains, and the Outback towns of Moree and Broken Hill. Economy and first-class cabins with sleepers are available on long journeys such as the 11-hour and 14-hour trips to Melbourne and Brisbane, respectively.

In Victoria trains travel from Melbourne to the gold fields towns of Bendigo and Ballarat, the Murray River town of Swan Hill, and the Great Ocean Road town of Warrnambool, with buses feeding off the main rail arteries.

In Western Australia, Transwa links destinations such as Perth, Kalgoorlie Boulder, and Kalbarri.

Australia by Bus

Traveling long distances is also possible by coach (bus), with some trips cheaper than train travel. Greyhound Australia has the country covered, while smaller companies such as Premier and Murrays operate in certain regions. Greyhound has travel passes for hop-on/hop-off options. Vehicles usually have restrooms, USB charger points, and Wi-Fi. The only way to get around Tasmania without a car is by coach. Tassielink connects most of the state, with services supplemented by regional operators.

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Original reporting by Caroline Gladstone. Sarah Schlichter contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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