Ultimate Backpacking Guide to Australia…Growing up I always pictured Australia as a massive country that is barren and remote with a few beaches mixed in. The hit classic Crocodile Dundee left this major impression on an 8-year-old me. If I had to choose a few words to describe Australia, I would have chosen outback, beach, bikini, and surf. To be honest, these preconceived notions did not excite me a lot.
Coming from the US, I expected Australia to have some similarities to our home country. The cities would be full of skyscrapers. The culture would be mostly non-existent and dull. I did expect some differences from the US. There would be no mountains. The food would be bad. What is this Vegemite stuff Aussies raves about? To be honest, Australia wasn’t high on my list of places to visit. However, after years of traveling, we decided it was time to visit the land Down Under.
We spent three months backpacking in Australia. After purchasing a Subaru in Sydney we hit the road. Visiting every state not called Western Australia, we saw Australia in a whole new light. Not only was it full of surprises, but the beauty was also overwhelming and we did not want to leave. All of those pre-conceived ideas and beliefs were so wrong. Australia is the perfect place for epic road trips and an awesome backpacking destination. At the end of our trip, if I had to again choose four words to describe Australia, they would be outback, beach, bikini, and surf. But it means so much more to me now. Cheers mates!
Best Time to Visit Australia
Australia is a massive country that has different climates throughout the year. Depending on the place for travel, planning according to the season is crucial.
North Australia – The best time to visit Queensland, Northern Territory, and the northern part of Western Australia are during the winter months between June and September. The north is either tropical or arid. It gets extremely hot in the summer and many areas are prone to tropical storms. Roads in the north can be closed in the summer due to annual flooding.
South Australia – The best time to visit New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and the southern part of Western Australia is during the summer months between November and April. Believe it or not, Australia does get winter and it even snows in the mountains. Both Melbourne and Sydney get cold in the winter. If traveling during this time, don’t forget a jacket.
Visa to Australia
There are several visa options depending on the intended length of stay, age, and home country. For more information, please refer to the Australia visa and immigration website for all their visa options. These are the common visa options for visitors to Australia as of July 2018:
Electronic Travel Authority visa: Available for passport holders from the United States, Canada, Brunei, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, or South Korea. It costs $20 AUD and is valid for 12 months. Visa holders are eligible for stays up to 3 months, with unlimited entries into Australia for the duration of the visa. Learn more here.
eVisitor visa: Available for passport holders from Europe. It is a free visa and is valid for 12 months. Visa holders are eligible for stays up to 3 months, with unlimited entries into Australia for the duration of the visa. Learn more here.
Visitor visa: With a passport from countries not eligible for an ETA visa or eVisitor visa, a visitor visa will have to be procured. The visa cost ranges from $120 AUD to $1,000 AUD and has options of 3, 6, or 12-month visas. Learn more here.
Working Holiday visa: With a passport from an eligible country and under the age of 31, it is possible to get a one-year visa. This is popular for backpackers looking to work and then travel in Australia. Learn more here.
Currency and Banking
The Australian Dollar ($ AUD) is the national currency in Australia. It is historically a strong currency, although it saw some recent declines in 2017. Banks and ATMs are widespread throughout the country. National chains such as ANZ and Westpac are available in nearly every town. Most ATMs charge a $2 – $3 fee when using another bank card. At the time of writing in August 2018, $1 AUD = $0.74 USD or €0.64.
Transportation in Australia
Australia is massive in size so determining the right transportation in Australia is critical. For short stays, fly between major cities or rent a vehicle. For longer stays, renting or buying a vehicle is the best option.
Bus companies such as Firefly Express, Loka, and Greyhound offer direct route services as well as tours. They are flexible with hop-on hop-off packages. Direct bus routes between major cities cost between $75 AUD and $150 AUD. Tours can range from 3 days to 16 days. For example, Oz Experience (Greyhound) offers a 13-day tour from Melbourne to Cairns for $1029 AUD.
Cheap airlines such as Jetstar and Virgin Australia fly between major cities for cheap fares as low as $40. Make sure to pay attention to their baggage policies, especially their carry-on weight restrictions. They are known to physically weigh carry-on baggage at check-in and only allow 7 kg.
Renting a Campervan in Australia
Renting a vehicle makes sense for short and some longer stays in Australia. There are options to rent small vehicles or campervans. Australia has many campgrounds including free ones throughout the country. Renting a campervan would double as accommodation. Renting a smaller car would require stays in Airbnb, hostels, hotels or tent camping. Hire a campervan from Jucy, Hippie Camper or Britz while touring Australia, allowing greater flexibility on an itinerary. Campervans will end up saving money. Campervan rentals cost between $400 and $700 per week depending on the size and quality.
Buying a Car or Campervan in Australia
For those coming to Australia for longer periods, buying a vehicle will likely make sense. Buying a car in Australia is confusing and it is important to understand all the anticipated costs. Try and find a good vehicle that does not become a burden. Don’t buy the cheapest option available, it might not get you very far! Reliable cars are found on Gumtree, where you can find used vehicles with only 1 prior owner. On the low-end, a budget between $4,000 – $6,000 is enough for a Subaru station wagon, a converted campervan (people movers), or an older 4×4. Don’t get scared away by a higher price tag just yet. When finished with a road trip, you can sell the car, making this is a cheaper option than renting a vehicle. The key is getting the vehicle checked out properly to ensure the mechanics are sound. For more on buying a car or campervan, I suggest reading this full guide from Global Gallivanting.
Australia is a backpacker haven. There is a massive backpacker community in Australia whether it is a 2-week road trip, three months, or a year-long excursion on a working visa. Hostels and dorm beds are available throughout the country, and renting or buying a campervan is a good choice to explore all the sights. There are free campsites all over Australia, so while the costs of food and a dorm room are not as cheap as other regions of the world, there are ways to reduce costs and make this an affordable backpacking destination. There are useful Facebook groups and community boards for connecting with other backpackers. This is a great way to join others on road trips to share the costs of a car and petrol.
Food in Australia
Food in Australia is known for their meat pies, fish and chips, and bbq. A cheap meal in Australia is usually around $10 AUD. This can get you fast food or takeaway. We preferred to cook our own meals while in Australia, buying our groceries from Woolworths/Coles and cooking at our campsite each night. Cooking will save lots of money while traveling in Australia. However, with a higher budget, the restaurants in cities are super delicious.
Example Costs in Australia
Petrol – typically ranges between $1.20 and $1.50 per liter, but can get as expensive as $2.00 in the outback.
Beer (6pk) – $18 – $24
Cask wine (goon) – $12 – $18 (2L to 5L depending on quality)
Wine (bottle) – $7 – $12
Takeaway – $8 – $15
Coffee – $5
Dorm bed – $25 – $30
Apps for Australia
There are two apps to download before heading to Australia. Campermate is a free app that provides information on campsites, things to see, petrol, and lots more. WikiCamps Australia is a paid app that has tons of information and user comments. Download the comments so everything is available offline. WikiCamps has an extensive list of campsites and comments to help provide information and suggestions. It is a one-time cost of $7.99 AUD.
1. See the Islands of Queensland
Queensland is a popular destination for both backpackers and Aussies during the holidays. There are some pretty amazing places to visit such as the Whitsunday Islands, Fraser Island or the Great Barrier Reef. Whitsunday was one of our favorite places in all of Australia. If you like beach camping this is the place to do it! Queensland could be a road trip on its own, but we suggest making this part of a bigger trip. While the sights are incredible, long drives on the highway and fewer coastal sights than expected, it would be great to visit other areas of Australia too. For the top places to visit in Queensland and suggested itineraries, check out our Queensland guide.
2. Offroad in the Outback
The middle of Australia in most cases is nothing more than barren lands with dusty and flat horizons. Views are as far as the eye can see. And then suddenly out of nowhere, something appears and completely stuns you by its existence. A visit to the Red Center is one of the more memorable places in Australia. Stops at Kings Canyon, the West MacDonald ranges, Devils Boulders and the rock formations at the Breakaways Conservation Park were ohh so impressive. The grand finale, Uluru, is a place that no picture can truly capture. It is a spiritual place with amazing beauty that left us speechless. The Outback is a serious place and takes some planning, but the campfire nights, starry skies and endless deserts are remarkable. For more information, the top places to visit, and suggested itineraries, check out our Outback survival guide.
3. Dive the Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living organism on earth and extends from Bundaberg up to Papau New Guinea. Nearly two million people visit the Great Barrier Reef each year, and you should too. While there is damage to the reef and coral bleaching is occurring at an alarming rate, there is no better time to visit the reef than now. It is still one of the best snorkel and dive locations on earth. Tours typically originate from Cairns, the most accessible location to the reef. Diving or snorkel trips to the outer reef is a must! We loved our two days and one night trip with Coral Sea Dreaming. Read more about our sailing and dive excursion to the Great Barrier Reef.
4. See the Sights on the Great Ocean Road
The Great Ocean Road is known mostly for the 12 Apostles, but there is so much more to see. This is one of the best road trips in Australia. The coastline has sections of the drive directly along the ocean. Rock formations erupt from the ocean floor creating endless amounts of photo opportunities. The desolate beaches are incredible to explore. Cape Otway is smack in the middle of the GOR, a nice detour through a rainforest with some of Australia’s best waterfalls. One of our lasting memories was the amazingly cute Koalas which can be seen in the wild. From wildlife, waterfalls, beaches, rock formations, and scenic drives, the Great Ocean Road is one of the best road trips in Australia. Read more about the Great Ocean Road and all the top places to stop.
5. Explore New South Wales
Millions of people visit New South Wales every year, which isn’t a surprise since Sydney is the largest city and airport in Australia. Sydney is a cool metropolis with amazing beaches, but venturing away will lead to a very gratifying experience. If there was an award for hidden gems and the least talked about beaches and rock pools, NSW would be right at the top of the list. From Royal National Park, Kiama, and the Bombo Headlands there is so much to explore. Epic views and hiking in the Blue Mountains top the list of what to see. With the whitest sand in the world, Jervis Bay is worth the 3-hour drive from Sydney. There are so many reasons to check out New South Wales. Read our guide to the best places to visit in New South Wales.
6. Go Hiking in Tasmania
Often looked at as the redheaded step-sibling of mainland Australia, Tasmania has so much raw beauty and mountainous terrain that cannot be offered anywhere else. We wonder why Aussies seem to dismiss Tasmania as a place to visit. Maybe they are just jealous. Tassie coastlines are some of the best in the country, especially the Tasman Peninsula, Freycinet, and the Bay of Fires. Hiking is plentiful with options ranging from easier day walks to extremely advanced treks in the remote wilderness. Some of the best walks are Cradle Mountain, Frenchmans Cap, Pine Valley, and the Western Arthurs. Tasmania is the place to be in Australia for solitude and incredible nature. Check out our Tasmania guide for the top places to visit and the best hikes.
7. Get off the Beaten Path in Western Australia
By far the most remote and unique landscapes in Australia belong to WA. It is home to only 2.5 million people but with 2.6 million sq kilometers to explore. Western Australia would be in the top 10 in size if it were its own country. WA offers a different vibe and experience for touring Australia. Driving is extremely long, but the highlights make up for the long distances. It is important to have a proper car, gear, and time to visit WA. Known for the best beaches in Australia, one of the best reefs in the world, and massive canyons, WA has tons to offer. Some of the highlights are Margaret River, the Kimberleys, Broome, Karajini, snorkeling or diving at the Ningaloo Reef, Purnululu, Rottnest Island, William Bay National Park, and Esperance among many others!
Should You Go to Australia?
Absolutely! Australia has so much diversity and natural beauty, it could take decades to truly explore every nook and corner of this massive country. It’s best to visit for at least two to three weeks and pick a smaller area to explore more in-depth. While it is common to think it is possible to rush through Australia and see the entire country, the driving distances are very long and take a toll. With that said, below are some suggested itineraries based on length of stay.
1-Week Road Trip Options in Australia
Visit the Sydney attractions, explore the coastline in Royal National Park and hike in the Blue Mountains.
Drink coffee and check out the graffiti in Melbourne before an epic Great Ocean Road trip.
Fly to Alice Springs and visit the best of the Outback: Uluru, Macdonald Ranges, and Kings Canyon.
Road trip from Brisbane to Airlie Beach visiting Fraser Island and the Whitsundays.
2-Week Road Trip Options in Australia
Check out the Sydney attractions and drive down the coast to the Great Ocean Road visiting Royal National Park, Jervis Bay, Bombo Headlands, Melbourne, and the GOR.
Explore Melbourne and then a road trip to the Great Ocean Road followed by a few days hiking in the Grampians and finish off visiting wine country in Adelaide.
Road trip from Brisbane to Cairns with stops at Noosa, Fraser Island, the Whitsundays, Wallaman Falls, the waterfall circuit, the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest.
Explore all the best sights of the Outback around Alice Springs (Uluru, West Mcdonald Range, and Kings Canyon) and then drive up to Darwin to explore the parks in Northern NT.
Visit the top sights in Tasmania from the Tasman Peninsula, Freycinet, Bay of Fires, Cradle Mountain, Mount Field, and a multi-day hike.
One-Month Itinerary Options for Australia
Drive from Sydney to Cairns visiting New South Wales and Queensland.
Explore two weeks in Queensland and drive to Adelaide with two weeks in the Outback.
Venture out west driving from Perth to Darwin.
See all the best sights of Tasmania from the two-week trip, plus add-on several epic multi-day treks such as Mount Anne, Western Arthurs, Frenchmans Cap, the Overland Track, or Pine Valley.
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