Taking a road trip through Australia is bound to be a crazy, fun, unforgettable adventure. While the journey should be as spontaneous as any road trip should be, there are some things that it’s good to know about beforehand. As a veteran roadtripper, I offer up the following tips and things I learned on my own road trip across the bottom from Sydney to Perth. (Why don’t you drive across Australia with me in two minutes via video?)
The Practical Stuff
Your Vehicle: Renting vs. Buying
Think hard about renting vs. buying a car. The cost/benefit analysis will vary greatly depending on where you are driving. Overall, buying a van is nice because you worry less about where you go with it and what happens to it (while at the same time I suppose you might worry more because if something happens it’s all on you and there’s no company to call and help you) and, though you will put up a lot more upfront, you will get a lot of your money back. However, selling it again, depending on where you bought it and are trying to sell it, can be a huge pain (beyond just trying to find someone to buy it at a good price, you will find different states have different rules on titles, etc. when buying/selling cars from other states).
When all was said and done I felt like we threw a lot of money just straight out the window, as the rental ended up being a lot of money (especially with insurance), but we were just really nervous about putting up so much money right at the beginning of a trip, about insurance and emergency assistance, and just really not wanting to deal with the time and process of buying and selling a van.
On the other hand, if your road trip is primarily a means of getting from point A to point B, or if you aren’t planning on taking your time and taking in a lot of side trips, a rental relocation might be just what you need. You’ll probably need to be a little flexible on your dates, but you can get a deal as cheap as $1/day for a van or even a motorhome. Some even include prepaid petrol and unlimited kilometers. If you’re relocating to/from Tasmania, they might also pay for your ferry. The deals are endless. But the time isn’t much more than necessary to get from here to there (i.e. usually three days between Sydney and Melbourne) and sometimes you have to pay for every kilometer you go over the minimum. It will still probably come out as cheaper than a regular rental. Good websites are standbyrelocs and Apollo, as well as the websites of specific rental companies.
Whether it’s your partner, best friend, or some random travelers you met in your hostel, if you aren’t traveling solo, you might want to do a test drive with your selected traveling companions. Taking a short road trip to somewhere within a few hours of your initial home base could be a life saver. If you’re at each other’s throats after just a few days together, obviously an extended trip isn’t going to work. You’re going to be spending nearly every waking (and sleeping) minute together. You’ll be squeezed together sleeping in the back of the van (or snoring over each other in hostel bunks) and working together to figure out directions, choose destinations, split costs, share meals, and much more. Your lives are going to be seriously intertwined for the duration of your trip. So no matter how great you think you get along with someone, it is well worth trying each other out first.
GPS and Maps
If you have access to a GPS (they can be bought for under $100 at Harvey Norman or even secondhand on Gumtree) that’s great but don’t forgo a real paper map. A roadmap of all of Australia is an invaluable tool because sometimes the GPS is just plain wrong, and you will be glad to create a better route with your map. (Not to mention it shows where caravan parks are and is all around better for planning a long road trip.) Still, you’re probably going to get lost at least once or twice. It’s a fact of life. But it’s also part of the fun of a road trip!
Invest in the CAMPS book (I think they’re up to CAMPS 5). We didn’t and we wish we did. It is a bit pricey (around $40-50) but you can probably get a secondhand copy (doesn’t matter much if it’s an edition old) for much cheaper. And it will save you a ton with free/cheap campsites. We also found we tended to meet more people like us (read: not families and grey nomads) that were more fun to socialize with at places from the book.
Also, consider other options. We stayed mostly at caravan parks, but while they tend to be the best for amenities and comfort (and often your only option if you want power – which we needed at least every couple days to charge phones/cameras/etc. or just save our sanity by watching a DVD), they aren’t the cheapest. The CAMPS book will help, of course.
However, one of our cheapest stays was a night we couldn’t find an open caravan park anywhere and ended up asking if we could stay in a hostel parking lot. We paid $10 and were still able to use their showers/toilets, kitchen, and TV/common room. Camping in national parks can also be good value, although in WA (pretty much the only place we used them) they’re actually a bit pricey if you are using it solely for a night’s stay and weren’t planning on visiting the park otherwise (because of the entrance fees + camping fees which alone can be $5-15 per person).
Be sure to check the entrance fees for national parks and attractions you want to visit on your trip. For example, once you’ve shelled out the big bucks to get to Kangaroo Island, you still have to pay more to get into Flinders Chase National Park, Seal Bay, Kelly Hill Cave, and the light stations; or buy a KI Parks Pass. Up in the Outback, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park costs $25/person.
And if you are going to be traveling in WA, you should consider getting a national park pass. There’s a holiday pass that’s good for four weeks’ unlimited entry to all parks. It costs $40 per car. So if you’re visiting four or more parks it’s worth it (as it’s $11/car for each national park). You may think you won’t be visiting that many parks, but they are everywhere (Pinnacles, Cape Le Grand, Stirling and Ningaloo, to name just a few) and are so broken up that you could easily find yourself visiting a few in one day. Or, like us, find yourself skipping half the things you’d wanted to do because you didn’t know about the fees and don’t want to shell out $40.
Petrol and Other Costs
Budget well for petrol. If you see a cheap price, fill up there and then because prices vary greatly place by place and hour by hour! The further out you get from civilization, the higher the prices will be and you’ll just have to rely on advice from fellow travelers on where to find the best priced petrol. (You can check prices in some areas online or find out about the cheapest stations on the local radio or TV news.) Or you’ll just have to settle for the one place within range of your tank. (This is another scenario where a GPS is nice because while a map shows where some petrol stations are, the GPS can tell you much more specifically if you can make it to the next one or not.) Also, it’s good to note that it’s petrol, not gas. If you ask for gas you will be getting something totally different and paying a lot for it!
On a related note, do your grocery shopping in big bursts at Coles or Woolworths. If you spend over $20 or $30 you can get a few cents off each liter at their associated petrol stations (Shell and Caltex, respectively).
Also, always keep extra change. Some caravan parks and campsites charge $1 or $2 for a shower. And if you’re on a long trip, you’ll probably want to do laundry at some point. You also might have to feed parking meters on occasion.
Some Other Tips
• Bring binoculars. We realized early on that we really wished we had a pair, and we could NOT find any for sale anywhere. (At least not under $100.) You will want these, believe me.
• Always take the scenic route. Which reminds me…
• You can’t avoid unpaved roads. If you rent a vehicle they will tell you you can’t drive on unsealed roads. Forget it, even if you try you will accidentally find yourself on one at some point. Most of them suck, but some are OK and generally you’re car/van will be alright.
• Don’t expect to have phone reception very often. We had Vodafone, but apparently Telstra has better coverage. If you want to be sure you’ll be able to contact someone in case of an emergency, you’ll probably have to look into buying/renting a satellite phone.
• Learn to love McDonald’s. Internet access for just 50 cents! (That is if you have your own laptop/smart phone and like ice cream cones.)
• Make use of tourist info centers. That side trip to see the world’s largest rocking horse (yes this does exist near Adelaide) or giant lobster may end up being a highlight of your trip!
• Don’t drive at night. You will read/hear this over and over again, but it’s so true. Dawn and dusk are also very risky. Animals DO come out by the roads at this time and hitting a kangaroo (or emu!) will not only scare the crap out of you but also probably do some damage. I cannot begin to convey how many dead kangaroos (and other animals) we saw on the side of the road everywhere. Even outside of these times, be careful and watch your surroundings. We were lucky… and just plain careful. We had some close calls, and a car in front of us on the Nullarbor hit a kangaroo right in the middle of the day, so it’s always a possibility.
• Bring some good sources of entertainment. Especially if you’re not traveling in the summer (and even if you are, if you’re in WA/NT/QLD where they don’t do daylight saving), the sun goes down pretty early. Then it’s just you and your van. You may find people to mingle with around your campsite, but otherwise you’ll need something to keep yourself from going crazy. We watched DVDs on our laptops every time we had power. (I would recommend some TV series box sets: lots to watch on just a few DVDs.) We also played a lot of cards, and halfway through the trip broke down and bought a Trivial Pursuit travel-sized game (all Aussie trivia which helped us learn some random facts while we traveled). That’s not to mention things to keep you entertained when you’re actually driving. (Burn lots of CDs or get an ipod attachment if you’re vehicle doesn’t already have one!)
• Don’t over plan and don’t try to do everything. Be spontaneous, take things as they come. Things might go wrong, you might have to take days out to fix a problem with your car. You might find a fantastic new road has opened, cutting your travel time in half. You might just hear about some amazing place you hadn’t planned on visiting. The weather might force you to wait it out a few days. Or you might meet some awesome people who you want to travel with or who offer you a place to stay for a while. Go with the flow and have fun!
Hopefully these tips are helpful in planning your own Australian road trip. If you’re interested in finding out a bit more about my own experiences, read my Epic Aussie Road Trip series or watch the video to experience the drive across Australia in just two minutes!