Australian roads and getting around
Before describing some transport options for traveling around in Australia it is important to say something about the roads and their conditions. In larger cities and towns the road network and general conditions are similar to that found in the US, with a few exceptions. Traffic circles, or roundabouts, are very common in Australia – much more so than in the US. These can speed up the traffic flow where traffic is light, since one does not need to stop at a stop sign or traffic light. However, when congestion increases they become hectic and Australian drivers may appear overly aggressive in taking their way entering such roundabouts (compared at least with American drivers – Europeans are familiar with such circles).
The major highways crossing Australia tend to go into the towns along the way, rather than bypassing them. This can slow your rate of travel considerably, though you may want to see the towns anyway. Australia tends to have fewer restaurants along routes than in the US – facilities are concentrated in the towns and although rest stops are fairly numerous, rest stops with bathrooms or trash cans are less frequent than in the US. Such stops are important, since gas (petrol) stations are notably less common than in the US (even in the cities) and bathrooms in restaurants are often not available to non-patrons or some restaurants may not even have bathrooms for customers.
Even small Australian towns have good information centers, usually staffed by people who can help answer your questions about local attractions and accommodations. This is something lacking in the US but common in Europe and other parts of the world. We have stopped at many of these to see their brochures, maps (even if we thought we knew our route), or to use the toilets that were available. Some even have pay showers.
On the open highway the traffic speed limits are set relatively high – not by US freeway standards – but rather given the condition of the roads. The asphalt is often undulating, with little to no shoulders, and in mountainous areas the roads tend to be narrower than US standards and the curves are sharper. Yet the speed limits can be unrealistically high – at least from an American’s perspective. Again, some European countries have similar roads, so European tourists may not find this unusual.
In essence, when planning travel by road across Australia, do not automatically equate the distances with similar distances in the US. Consider driving less per day, perhaps even half as much.
Driving at night is not recommended outside of built-up areas with lighting, as there are many Kangaroos (they come out near sunset and they enjoy eating the greener or newer grass next to the road) and even cattle (not all roads are fenced) and reflectors and road illumination tends to be less than in the US. Some rental vehicle companies prohibit driving at night.
There are many options for traveling around Australia. We note below the main options and their advantages/disadvantages.
Normal rental cars. While these are the least expensive option for driving, and are especially useful in towns and cities where parking spaces tend to be smaller and less numerous compared with the US, they have disadvantages. These include poorer visibility (cannot see over the numerous Toyota pick-ups and similar vehicles on the roads) and they cannot carry much luggage. International tourists with the intention of staying some weeks will usually have more luggage than can conveniently fit in the small rental cars.
A more serious limitation to most rental cars – and all of the larger vans and motorhomes – is that they are restricted (legally) to tarred (paved) roads – with a few exceptions. Many access roads to National Parks or other attractions will be dirt – good graded gravel roads by American standards and not problem for standard sedan cars. BUT you cannot take most rental vehicles on such roads. Do read the rental car contract fine print! Naturally you can risk not being caught (there are few police, let alone rental car company scrooges, patrolling the highways) but your insurance is not valid if something serious happens on such roads. That is a pretty scary thought, even if you are a careful driver. This is why we opted for 4X4 vehicles on our recent trip, despite their higher cost.
Rental vans and motorhomes
We rented a camper van on our first Australian trip and we generally enjoyed the experience. However these have some limitations, including:
1) you cannot legally drive on dirt roads.
2) they are not a respite from summer heat unless you get the more expensive vans that come with AC and showers and have electric hook-ups at a trailer (caravan) park (national parks generally don’t have these).
3) they are larger and require more care to drive and park, especially in towns and cities.
4) they are considerably more expensive than rental cars and even some 4×4’s.
Four-wheel drive vehicles (4×4’s)
We rented three different four-wheel drive vehicles on our last trip, mostly to permits us to travel freely on dirt roads. We had no intention of bashing our vehicle on really rough 4×4 roads – we merely wanted access to places and parks that would otherwise would be (legally) off-limits. The Toyota vehicles (Prado, Landcruiser and Hilux) had the advantages of being higher for better visibility (seeing over tall grass and other items along the roadside), had more space for our 4 checked bags and two carry-on backpacks, plus an ice chest. The last vehicle came with an electric refrigerator for keeping our food cold for the last 37 days. Larger vehicles are desirable for longer trips because you often want quick access to books, cameras, or specialized clothes or gear that can’t really be crammed into a small rental car.
A wide variety of lodging options exist in Australia, some of which do not exist in the US to any appreciable degree. We discuss these in turn.
Motels and Hotels
Large cities have plenty of motels and hotels and you can book most of them online or by phone. Smaller towns have a smaller selection of places, but even those towns have a caravan park. You may read about it online and they may not have online booking. For those occasions a phone call is the best way to go about making your reservation.
These are similar to KOA’s in the US, but they are probably better and more numerous in Australia than in the US. Many towns, even small ones, usually have them. They are a mix of places to set up a tent or park a camper van and many, if not most, have cabins for rent. The price and type of amenities you find in caravan parks depends on the size of the town. Larger towns have nicer caravan parks, some of which will have swimming pools. The majority of caravan parks have communal kitchens with grills and perhaps more amenities (microwave, kettle etc) for those people who are tent camping or car camping to cook their meals. More sophisticated caravan parks have large communal kitchens with TV and tables for you to enjoy your meal right there. The cabins are fully equipped so you can cook and eat in your cabin. Most caravan parks have laundry facilities and internet access, although you may be limited in amount of data you can use and it can be slow.
Camping in parks or along the roadside (free camping)
Camping in most national parks or state parks is more problematic than in the US. Few parks provide trash cans (rubbish bins). This means that whatever trash you produce you have to take it with you. Also, very few parks have showers and many have outdoor latrines for toilets. This may be fine for a few days but if you have an extended trip, this may be undesirable for your traveling companions. Few national parks provide hookups at their campsites for water and electricity or waste disposal, so for those people traveling in a camper van or RV the only option are the caravan parks where such amenities are often available. These might be some distance from the park itself.
There are many free campsites throughout Australia, especially on highways in the outback. Some of these sites have a latrine or outdoor toilet and perhaps water, but most don’t have trash cans and even fewer will have showers. If you are on a tight budget and are not too concerned about possible safety issues this may be an option. We have stayed at some of these – both for the dark skies for astronomical observation and for convenience. There are books you can purchase that discuss where to find such sites.
While most people on vacation would not want to consider cooking their own meals, this approach can have important advantages while traveling in Australia. Firstly, meals at restaurants – including fast food restaurants – are, on average, more expensive than in the US. Cooking your own meals can save you a lot of money and time and if you care about healthier eating, it is the best option. Cooking your own meals also gives you great flexibility since restaurants have less generous hours than you may be accustomed to in countries like the US. In the countryside and in small towns many shops are closed on Sundays and this sometimes includes restaurants. Restaurants in particular may be closed 2 or 3 times a week or they may have restricted hours so you may get to your destination too late to find restaurants open.
By staying in fully furnished cabins in caravan parks we were able to cook most of the time we were in Australia. On our 70-day trip we ate out only 7 times – and 3 of those were invitations from locals. In order to do this you have to be willing to make periodic stops at supermarkets (always good to do anyway) which are available in most towns. A refrigerator or ice chest is needed if you want to keep items like milk, cheese, yogurt or any meats cold. Your cabin would have everything you need to cook and keep food cold so you only have to worry about transporting items from point a to point b.
Fast food is becoming more widespread in Australia, but you still see these types of restaurants only in larger towns. Small towns will have some kind of restaurant but don’t expect a McDonald’s (they appear to be the most common fast food restaurant in Australia – their website says more than 900).
In order to be fully functional now-a-days, a traveller should have access to internet and a cell phone while on the road. We purchased a chip for a Vodafone phone we had previously purchased in South Africa. For less than $30 US we converted that phone to a local phone. Then we just purchased minutes as we needed. You can do that online and it is very convenient since you can thus have internet anywhere there is cell phone reception.
The cell phone was very useful – especially when making caravan park or motel reservations while on the road (your best plans can change). Often you are asked to provide a cell phone number where you can be contacted. This was very important on more than once occasion because in smaller towns many caravan parks close their reception office as early as 5:30 pm. If you have a reservation they can contact you to ask you what time you are arriving and they will often provide instructions about where to look for your key etc if you arrive after hours. If you don’t have a reservation it is best not to wait until it is too late in the day to either call or book online, otherwise you risk getting to a place when their offices are closed. Many caravan parks have a number you could call in such cases, but we would recommend always trying to book ahead or call and let them know you will be arriving after hours. Then arrangements can be made to meet your needs.
In order to use internet with our laptops we had to purchase a modem and then add Gigabytes to that plan as needed (also online). It took us more than 3 hours to purchase both our cell phone chip, minutes and the modem. We did this the moment we arrived at our first destination (Darwin for our most recent trip) and it was immensely useful.
If you have a smart phone you may still have to check whether your plan at home works in Australia and how expensive that is. Bear in mind that by getting a local chip your calls become local calls and they are less expensive than what you may pay if using your smart phone plan from home. This may apply to internet use as well. Always best to check with your provider at home to see what are your options if visiting Australia. If the phone calls or internet use will end up being too expensive you may be better off purchasing an inexpensive phone or a chip and buying a modem and data plan to use internet.
This is another item you should purchase upon arrival. It saved the day many times for us and generally eases your driving uncertainties. Sometimes you have to use both GPS and Google Maps to make the best decision about what route is best suited for your needs. This requires both a GPS and internet access.
A GPS requires the maps for Australia, and it may turn out that it is less expensive to purchase a GPS in Australia with the maps preloaded than to bring your US GPS and purchase the map database online.
Our recommendation is to check online before your trip what shops you have to visit to acquire the three items mentioned above. It will take a bit of your time, but afterwards you will be glad you have these items.