Australia on a shoestring: your bumper guide

by KERRYN BURGESS·
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The kangaroos haven’t lose their bounce, the tropical fruit is ripening nicely, Sydney Harbour remains sparkling and Melbourne’s cool cats are still sipping Negronis and grazing on bar snacks.

Image by Mark Broadhead

The Aussie dollar might be rising and rising, but some of Australia’s best travel experiences remain its most affordable. Beat the exchange rate with our tips for travelling in Oz on a budget: how to fly for less, what to see for free and where to find cheap sleeps.

How to get a cheaper flight

For air travel between major Australian cities, Tiger Airways, Jetstar and Virgin Blue are almost always cheaper than Qantas. In terms of glamour, Tiger is the airborne version of a suburban bus service, but it’ll get you where you need to go.

For regional travel, check out Rex airline’s backpacker pass. Available only to international travellers, it gives you one or two months of unlimited Rex air travel. Rex doesn’t fly the major inter-city routes, but it’ll take you to places most Australians haven’t been to, such as Broken Hill, Kangaroo Island, King Island and Coober Pedy.

Here are 5 more ways to beat airline costs:

  1. Compare fares with all those airlines at www.webjet.com.au before you book direct online with any airline.
  2. Fly on Saturday afternoons, Sunday mornings, Tuesdays and Wednesdays for the cheapest flights.
  3. Fly without checked baggage.
  4. The airport trains from Sydney and Brisbane airports are quick and convenient, but if you’re three or more people it can be cheaper to take a taxi into the city.
  5. Be aware that some budget airlines fly to Melbourne’s Avalon airport. Buses from here to the city take longer and are more expensive than buses from Melbourne’s main airport, Tullamarine.

A road trip starting from $1 a day

Campervanning is a fantastic way to get to Australia’s wild places. Sleeping to the sound of surf and waking up to a chorus of kookaburras are quintessential Aussie experiences. And if you’re really flexible, you can get paid to do it.

Seriously: sign up for a relocation rental. The relocation company assigns you a vehicle, a route, a timeframe, and sometimes even a fuel allowance. Right now, you could take a six-bed motor-home from Alice Springs to Adelaide in five days for $1 a day – and receive $150 towards fuel. The mileage allowance of 2000km is almost enough to get you to Uluru (Ayers Rock) and back as well – you’ll pay slightly more for those extra kilometres. Here's how:

  • Check out www.standbyrelocs.com
  • Plan your itinerary carefully to be sure the mileage allowance covers what you want to do
  • Read the fine print
  • Fill the fridge with fresh fruit and vegetables before you hit the outback, where prices rise dramatically
  • Swap drivers regularly so everyone gets a break – you don’t realise how big Australia is till you get behind the wheel

Top five eats under AU$15 in five great cities

For less than the price of a burger back home, you could build a whole day (or night) around some of Australia’s best eating experiences. The price on the menu is the price you pay – tipping is appreciated but not expected except at fine-dining restaurants.

  1. Take-away fish and chips, Doyle’s on the Wharf, Sydney ($12.80)
    Catch the ferry from Circular Quay to Watson's Bay to this Sydney seafood institution, where you get a serve of sea air with your fish and chips. Walk it off in the almost-adjacent Sydney Harbour National Park.
  2. Mussels barigoule, chorizo & aioli, Melbourne ($14)
    A little bit grungy and a whole lot cool, Gertrude Street is quintessential hipster Melbourne. Grab a bar-stool in the window at Cutler & Co, graze from the bar menu and gaze at the passing parade of bike couriers, trams and graphic designers.
  3. Sourdough, lachscchinken and ripe tomato, Adelaide Central Market, Adelaide (market price)
    Get to the heart of South Australia’s superb foodie scene at the market, where the artisan breads and Barossa cured meats are among the country’s best.
  4. Lamb cutlet and minted yoghurt from the bar menu, The Crosstown Eating House, Brisbane ($5)
    You could order the entire bar menu here and still have change from 20 bucks. Come for the easygoing vibe in the airy 1920s building, stay for the cutlet and the gin-marinated olives.
  5. Tropical fruit, Parap Village Markets, Darwin (market price)
    For Saturday breakfast under a shady tropical tree, head to Parap markets to feast on papaya, coconut and mango with a squeeze of fresh lime.

Top 10 free museums and galleries

Looking for culture – or, as it’s known locally, culcha? The permanent collections of Australia’s major museums and galleries are absolutely free to visit. Admission charges kick in only for special travelling exhibitions.

  1. Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney
  2. Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
  3. Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney
  4. Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
  5. Queensland Museum, Brisbane
  6. Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane
  7. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
  8. National Museum of Australia, Canberra
  9. NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) International, Melbourne
  10. Ian Potter Centre (National Gallery of Victoria) - Australian art, Melbourne

Top five free wildlife experiences

Spoiler alert: you won’t see kangaroos hopping down the main street of Sydney. But you don’t need to pay big bucks for zoo admission to see Australia’s native wildlife, and you don’t need to go far to see it in its natural habitat either.

  1. Tidal River campground, Wilsons Promontory National Park, Victoria
    Tidal River is especially popular with wombats, and they’re not shy of humans. It’s 225km south-east of Melbourne.
  2. Zumsteins, Grampians National Park, Victoria
    About 270km north-west of Melbourne, Zumsteins is to kangaroos as the mall is to teenagers.
  3. Bennetts Ridge campground, Euroka, Blue Mountains National Park, New South Wales
    Only an hour from downtown Sydney, kangaroo sightings are virtually guaranteed here in the mornings. ($7 vehicle fee)
  4. Depot Beach campground, Murramurang National Park, New South Wales
    It’s the photo op that brought you to Australia: kangaroos on the beach. Murramurang is about 280km south of Sydney ($7 vehicle fee)
  5. Alligator Creek campground, Bowling Green Bay National Park, Queensland
    Wallabies (the cutest you’ve ever seen), not alligators, are the draw at this campground 366km south of Cairns.

Cheap sleeps

If you’re not lucky enough to have a mate with a Brisbane bolthole or a Perth pied-à-terre, there are still plenty of options for accommodation that doesn’t cost the earth. Check out the online deals for 'mystery hotels' - try Wotif or lastminute.com.au. You won’t know exactly where you’re staying until after you’ve paid (and it’s non-refundable), but there are some serious bargains to be had if you’re flexible, especially at the four- and five-star level.

You’ve heard of Australia’s famous surf beaches, but you might not know that Melbourne has more than 15,000 couch-surfers, and Sydney has more than 13,000. Couch-surfing? It’s on online network of hosts offering free beds to travellers, and travellers looking for free beds. About 70% of couch-surfers are aged 18 to 29. Find a couch at couchsurfing.org.

Prefer a whole house, not just a bed? House-swapping is also an option if you’ve got a place of your own to offer; in exchange, you could end up in a three-bedroom townhouse near Bondi Beach, a rainforest hideaway near Cairns, or a surfside spot on the Great Ocean Road. Try aussiehouseswap.com.au or houseswapholidays.com.au.

Cheap cheeps

Invest in a local SIM for your smart-phone to avoid global roaming charges with your home plan. Australia’s biggest telcos are Telstra and Optus, but the other, smaller companies have some of the most competitive prepaid rates.

For travellers, Three is well worth considering because away from Three’s coverage area it roams onto the Telstra network for voice calls (Telstra has by far the best rural coverage of all the mobile networks). However, if you’re planning a lot of rural travel combined with internet use, watch out for Three’s roaming data charges. Telstra might be a better bet in that case. Other providers are Vodafone and Virgin Mobile.