Australia is the sixth-largest country in the world: how you get from A to B requires some thought. If you're short on time, consider internal flights − they're affordable (compared with petrol and car-hire costs), can usually be carbon offset, and will save you some long travel days.
Van or car Travel at your own pace, explore remote areas and visit regions with no public transport.
Plane Fast track your holiday with affordable, frequent, fast flights between major centres.
Bus Reliable, frequent long-haul services around the country. Not always cheaper than flying but you'll get a better sense of scale.
Train Slow and not inexpensive, but the scenery is great! Australia has some bucket-list rail journeys so plan ahead.
Time pressure, combined with the vastness of the Australian continent, may lead you to consider taking to the skies at some point in your trip. Australia has a few low-cost carriers, but deals on the main airlines often compete on value when you add baggage (and reliability).
Airlines in Australia
For the highly organised, Qantas has a Qantas Explorer (www.qantas.com/us/en/book-a-trip/flights/qantas-explorer.html) deal where you link up to 30 domestic Australian destinations for less than you'd pay if you booked flights individually, though you must book them together.
Cycling around Australia is possible, but will take considerable fitness and excellent planning.
Transport If you're bringing your own bike, check with your airline for weight, costs and packing required. Within Australia, bus companies require you to dismantle your bike. Trains sometimes have separate bike-storage facilities on-board.
Legalities Bike helmets are compulsory in all states and territories, as are white front lights and red rear lights for riding at night.
Maps You can get by with standard road maps, but to avoid low-grade unsealed roads, the government series is best. The 1:250,000 scale is suitable, though you'll need lots of maps if you're riding long distances.
Safety In summer carry plenty of water at all times. Distances between towns can be gruellingly far. Avoid cycling in the middle of the day in hot weather. Drivers will not be expecting to see cyclists on most country roads. Wear as much high-vis outerwear as possible.
Unless you're crewing on a yacht or enjoying a Pacific cruise, boat travel isn't really a feasible way to get around Australia. Short-hop regional ferries will take you to places like Kangaroo Island and North Stradbroke Island and around the harbour of Sydney. Travel from Melbourne to Tasmania or back on the Spirit of Tasmania.
Australia's extensive bus network is a reliable way to get around, but distances are often vast. Most Australian buses are equipped with air-con, comfortable seats and decent toilets; all are smoke-free and some have wi-fi and USB chargers.
Greyhound Australia Runs in every state except South Australia and Western Australia. Offers flexible hop-on hop-off fares. Discounts for seniors, students and children.
Firefly Express Runs between Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide.
Integrity Coach Lines The main operator in WA.
Premier Motor Service Does the east coast from Eden to Cairns. Has flexible hop-on hop-off fares.
V/Line Covers all of Victoria with a mix of coaches and trains.
Guided Bus Travel
Another way to get around by bus is on a tour. Some offer the whole package including accommodation and meals; others are less formal options to get from A to B and see the sights on the way.
AAT Kings Big coach company (popular with the older set) with myriad tours around Australia.
Adventure Tours Australia Affordable, young-at-heart tours in all states.
Autopia Tours One- to three-day trips from Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney.
Groovy Grape Tours Small-group, SA-based operator running tours ex-Adelaide, Melbourne and Alice Springs.
Nullarbor Traveller Small company running relaxed minibus trips across the Nullarbor Plain between SA and WA.
Oz Experience Packaged itineraries for younger travellers, partnering with Greyhound coaches.
Car & Motorcycle
Exploring Australia by road is the quintessential way to get around this vast nation. Whether you're focusing your visit on one state or several, road trips are a popular Australian experience. Pick up a copy of Lonely Planet's Australia's Best Trips for more on 2WD itineraries for cars, vans and campervans.
For 4WD or motorcycles, you'll need specialist skills, guidebooks, maps and equipment. Contact one of the automobile clubs for specific recommendations.
Under the auspices of the Australian Automobile Association there are automobile clubs in each state, which is handy when it comes to insurance, regulations, maps and roadside assistance. Club membership (around $100 to $150) can save you a lot of trouble if things go wrong mechanically. The major Australian auto clubs generally offer reciprocal rights in other states and territories.
National Roads & Motorists Association New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory
Buying a Vehicle
Buying your own vehicle gives you the freedom to go where and when your mood takes you, and may work out cheaper than renting in the long run.
Downsides include dealing with confusing and expensive registration rules, roadworthy certificates and insurance; forking out for maintenance and repairs; and selling the vehicle when you're done – which may be more difficult than expected.
If you're buying a secondhand vehicle, keep in mind the extra costs on top of the purchase price when deciding your budget: stamp duty, registration, transfer fee, insurance and maintenance.
Registration When you buy a vehicle in Australia you need to transfer the registration into your own name within 14 days. Each state has slightly different requirements. It is usually something you can do online. Similarly, when selling a vehicle you need to advise the state or territory road-transport authority of the sale and change of name.
Roadworthiness Sellers are required to provide a roadworthy certificate when transferring registration in most states except WA, SA and Tasmania where inspections/certificates are only required in certain circumstances
If the vehicle you're considering doesn't have a roadworthy certificate, ask for a roadworthiness check before you agree on a sales price. This can cost $100 but will save you money on unknown repair costs. Road-transport authorities have lists of licensed vehicle testers.
Gas certificate In Queensland, if a vehicle runs on gas, a gas certificate must be provided by the seller in order to transfer the registration. In the ACT, vehicles running on gas require an annual inspection.
Immobiliser fitting In WA it's compulsory to have an approved immobiliser fitted to most vehicles (not motorcycles) before transfer of registration; this is the buyer's responsibility.
Changing state of registration Note that registering a vehicle in a different state from the one it was previously registered in can be time-consuming and expensive. It's something to be aware of when planning to sell.
Renewing registration Registration is usually paid annually Australia-wide, but most states and territories also give you the option of renewing for three or six months.
What to Look For
It's prudent to have a car checked by an independent expert − auto clubs offer vehicle checks, and road transport authorities have lists of licensed garages − but if you're flying solo, here are some things to check:
- tyre tread
- number of kilometres
- rust damage
- accident damage
- oil should be translucent and honey-coloured
- coolant should be clean and not rusty in colour
- engine condition: check for fumes from engine, smoke from exhaust while engine is running, and engines that rattle or cough
- exhaust system should not be excessively noisy or rattly when engine is running
- windscreen should be clear with no cracks or chip marks
When test driving the car, also check the following:
- listen for body and suspension noise and changes in engine noise
- check for oil and petrol smells, leaks and overheating
- check instruments, lights and controls all work: heating, air-con, brake lights, headlights, indicators, seat belts and windscreen wipers
- brakes should pull the car up straight, without pulling, vibrating or making noise
- gears and steering should be smooth and quiet
Larger car-hire companies have offices in major cities and airports. Most companies require drivers to be over the age of 21, though in some cases it's 18 and in others 25.
Suggestions to assist in the process:
- Read the contract cover to cover.
- Most companies will demand they put a 'hold' on a sum on your credit card to cover their insurance excess. This is released after the car is returned in one piece, but budget that into your finances.
- Ask if unlimited kilometres are included; it's almost essential in Australia as extra kilometres will add to your costs considerably.
- Find out what excess you'll have to pay if you have an accident; it's usually charged no matter who is at fault.
- Check if your personal travel insurance covers you for vehicle accidents and excess.
- Check whether you're covered on unavoidable unsealed roads (eg accessing campgrounds).
- Some companies also exclude parts of the car from cover, such as the underbelly, tyres and windscreen.
- At pick-up inspect the vehicle for any damage. Make a note of anything on the contract before you sign. Take photos, though they're usually not considered evidence if you get into a dispute.
- Make sure you know the breakdown and accident procedures.
- If you can, return the vehicle during business hours and insist on an inspection in your presence.
The following websites offer last-minute discounts and the opportunity to compare rates between the big operators:
Having a 4WD is essential for off-the-beaten-track driving into the outback. The major car-hire companies have 4WDs.
Renting a 4WD is affordable if a few people get together – something like a Nissan X-Trail (which can get you through most, but not all, tracks) costs $100 to $150 per day; for a Toyota Landcruiser you're looking at $150 to $200, which should include unlimited kilometres.
Check the insurance conditions, especially the excess (the amount you pay in the event of accident and which can be up to $5000), as they can be onerous. A refundable bond is also often required – this can be as much as $7500. The excess and policies might not cover damage caused when travelling off-road (which they don't always tell you when you pick up your vehicle). Some also name specific tracks as off limits and you may not be covered by the insurance if you ignore this.
Choosing a Vehicle
2WD Depending on where you want to travel, a regulation 2WD vehicle might suffice. They're cheaper to hire, buy and run than 4WDs and are more readily available. Most are fuel efficient and easy to repair and sell. Downsides: no off-road capability and no room to sleep!
4WD Good for outback travel as they can access almost any track for which you get a hankering, and there might even be space to sleep in the back. Downsides: poor fuel economy, awkward to park and more expensive to hire or buy.
Campervan Creature comforts at your fingertips: sink, fridge, cupboards, beds, kitchen and space to relax. Downsides: slow and often not fuel-efficient, not great on dirt roads and too large for nipping around the city.
Motorcycle The Australian climate is great for riding, and bikes are handy in city traffic. Downsides: Australia isn't particularly bike-friendly in terms of driver awareness; there's limited luggage capacity, and exposure to the elements.
Third-party insurance With the exception of NSW and Queensland, third-party personal-injury insurance is included in the vehicle registration cost, ensuring that every registered vehicle carries at least the minimum insurance (if registering in NSW or Queensland you'll need to arrange this privately). It's recommended that you extend that minimum to at least third-party property insurance – minor collisions can be incredibly expensive.
Comprehensive cover Consider taking out comprehensive car insurance if you want your own vehicle insured, even when the accident is not your fault. An uninsured driver will be hard to extract money from especially if you're not going to be in Australia for long.
A few simple actions can help minimise the impact your journey has on the environment.
- Ensure your vehicle is well serviced and tuned.
- Travel lightly to reduce fuel consumption.
- Drive slowly – many vehicles use 25% more fuel at 110km/h than at 90km/h.
- Stay on designated roads and vehicle off-road tracks.
- Drive in the middle of tracks to minimise track widening and damage, don't drive on walking tracks and avoid driving on vegetation.
- Cross creeks at designated areas.
- Consider ride sharing where possible.
- Check out the electric-car options at major dealers.
For more info, see www.greenvehicleguide.gov.au.
Fuel types Unleaded and diesel fuel is available from petrol stations sporting well-known international brand names. LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) has waned in popularity with fewer places stocking refills – it's best to have dual-fuel capacity. Electric recharging spots are popping up all over Australia, making hybrid and electric road trips a viable alternative.
Costs Prices vary between the city and country and depend on the day of the week. At the time of writing petrol hovered around $1.50 a litre, but under certain conditions it can be as high as $2 per litre.
Availability In cities and towns, petrol stations are plentiful, but distances between fill-ups can be huge in the countryside so pay attention to your fuel gauge. On main roads there'll be a small town or roadhouse roughly every 200km.
License to Drive
To drive in Australia you'll need to hold a current driving licence issued in English from your home country. If the licence isn't in English, you'll also need to carry an International Driving Permit, issued in your home country.
Australians drive on the left-hand side of the road and all cars are right-hand drive.
Give way An important road rule is 'give way to the right' − if an intersection is unmarked (unusual), and at roundabouts, you must give way to vehicles entering the intersection from your right.
Speed limits The general speed limit in built-up and residential areas is 50km/h. Near schools, the limit is usually 25km/h (sometimes 40km/h) in the morning and afternoon. On the highway it's usually 100km/h or 110km/h; in the NT it's either 110km/h or 130km/h. Police have speed radar guns and cameras and are fond of using them in strategic locations.
Seat belts & car seats It's the law to wear seat belts in the front and back seats; you're likely to get a fine if you don't. Small children must be belted into an approved safety seat.
Drinking & driving Random breath tests are common. If you're caught with a blood-alcohol level of more than 0.05%, expect a fine and the loss of your licence. Police can randomly pull any driver over for a breathalyser or drug test. Best just to drive sober and make it alive. Drug testing is also a possibility.
Mobile phones Using a mobile phone while driving is illegal in Australia (excluding hands-free technology).
For up-to-date information on road conditions around the country, check the following:
Australian Bureau of Meteorology Weather information and road warnings.
Department of Planning, Transport & Infrastructure SA road conditions.
Live Traffic NSW NSW road conditions.
Main Roads Western Australia WA road conditions.
Road Report NT road conditions.
Traffic & Travel Information Queensland road conditions.
- Roadkill is a huge problem in Australia, particularly in the NT, Queensland, NSW, SA and Tasmania. Many Australians in rural areas avoid travelling once the sun drops because of the risks posed by nocturnal animals on the roads.
- Kangaroos are common on country roads, as are cows and sheep in the unfenced outback. Kangaroos are most active around dawn and dusk and often travel in groups: if you see one hopping across the road, slow right down, as its friends may be just behind it.
- If you injure an animal while driving, call the relevant wildlife rescue line:
Parks & Wildlife Service Tasmania
Behind the Wheel
Fatigue Be wary of driver fatigue; driving long distances (particularly in hot weather) can be utterly exhausting. Falling asleep at the wheel is a serious risk. Stop and rest regularly − do some exercise, change drivers or have a coffee.
Road trains Be careful overtaking road trains (trucks with two or three trailers stretching for as long as 50m); you'll need distance and plenty of speed. On single-lane tracks get right off the road when one approaches. Stones or debris can clip your car as it passes.
Unsealed roads Unsealed road conditions vary wildly and cars perform differently when braking and turning on dirt. Don't exceed 70km/h on dirt roads; if you go faster, you won't have time to respond to a sharp turn, stock on the road or an unexpected pothole.
Hitching is never entirely safe, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch should always let someone know where they are planning to go.
All of Australia's major towns have reliable, affordable public bus networks, and there are suburban train lines in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.
Melbourne also has trams (Adelaide has one!), Sydney and Brisbane have ferries, and Sydney and Canberra have a light-rail line.
Taxis operate in all major cities and towns, which is especially handy if you're having a few drinks out. However, not every city has a pool of mobile app-booked taxi drivers – yet.
Long-distance rail travel in Australia is something you do because you really want to − not because it's cheap, convenient or fast. That said, trains are more comfortable than buses, and there's a certain long-distance 'romance of the rails' that's alive and kicking.
Shorter-distance rail services within most states are run by state rail bodies, either government or private.
The most notable long-distance rail journeys in Australia are run by the following:
- Great Southern Rail Operates the Indian Pacific between Sydney and Perth, the Overland between Melbourne and Adelaide, Great Southern between Brisbane and Adelaide, and The Ghan between Adelaide and Darwin via Alice Springs.
- Queensland Rail Runs the high-speed Spirit of Queensland service between Brisbane and Cairns.
- NSW TrainLink Trains from Sydney to Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra.
- V/Line Trains within Victoria, linking up with buses for connections into NSW, SA and the ACT.