Location: Sydney, New South Wales
I suppose being an Australian immediately qualifies me for giving out advice on my home country, however, what separates me from the average Australian Bruce is that I have traveled around half of Australia, and in that time I’ve definitely learned a lot about how to get around down under on a small budget. Australia can be an expensive place to travel when you look at the high cost of living in cities like Sydney and Perth, however, as a traveller I’ve found that a lot of that expense is up to you. Siu On and I drove between Perth and Sydney over a period of five months last year, and in that time we learned how to make our money go further. This article is geared towards people who are planning to drive around Australia as a cost effective means to travel, however, the advice offered here is applicable to anyone wishing to travel through Australia on a budget.
First of all, you need to be realistic about one thing: Australia is BIG.
Let me repeat that… AUSTRALIA IS BIG.
To visit all of Australia you’ll need to set aside a large chunk of time, something like 4 to 12 months would be more realistic, especially if you plan on driving around yourself. Distances between places can be very long; for example, you can drive 6 hours in Europe and pass through 4 different countries, in Western Australia you could drive 16 hours and still be in Western Australia, and not see anything except red dirt and the odd kangaroo carcass by the road.
As a result of Australia being so large, transport and fuel prices is also high. There is a reason why more Perth people have been to Bali than they have to Melbourne, because flying is not always a cost effective option, neither is taking the bus which will chew up more of your time than it’s worth. This is why I recommend either hiring or buying a vehicle to get around.
Choose your wheels
You should either find a good vehicle hire place that suits your budget, or purchase a good vehicle:
- Hiring : This will suit people who don’t want the trouble of selling the vehicle after your travels, or don’t want to buy any extra gear (e.g. tables, chairs, sleeping bags etc). It’s also cheaper to hire a vehicle for longer periods of time, however there are additional costs with hiring and some strict rules to abide by. Hiring a vehicle is always going to be more expensive overall when compared to buying a car, but it can be easier in the long term.
- Buying : If you plan on staying in Australia for a long period of time then buying will be for you. When buying a car make sure that you run a check on the registration through the Department of Transport in the State that you are purchasing the vehicle in, and also pay to have a mechanic check the car out (I cannot stress this enough!). Personally, I would go with a car like a small 4×4 or something with a high clearance over a van, as the fuel economy is generally better, and most vans have very high miles on them and haven’t been looked after well. A car also blends in better in cities and can take you to more off road places; something like a Subaru Forester or a Rav 4 (like our trusty Bea), works great. Otherwise be sure to have any potential van thoroughly checked out before you purchase it.
Don’t get me wrong, I love vans and dream about the day that Siu On and I can deck out our very own Bea version 2.0 van; however, we have heard more horror stories from backpackers than we did good ones. And we understand that most people don’t have $50K to drop on a brand new decked out Sprinter, let alone $7K on a beat up van whose engine is about to die. For more detailed information read our DIY Vanlife Around Australia article.
Buyer beware (especially with vans)
Let me tell you about our friends.
A totally awesome and fun couple that we met in Sydney last year, who were on their travels around Australia. They were badly ripped off by a car dealership and were sold a 1997 model van as a 2006 model. The car had a lot of mechanical problems and they ended up spending more money than what they paid for the car in mechanic fees, and lost a lot of travel time due to this. The dealership wouldn’t allow them to have the car checked by a mechanic, nor did they confirm the registration and car details before they bought it. Now you might say that they were in the wrong for not checking things first, but this is not the first time we’ve come across traveller who have told us similar horror stories, and when they see us living out of our car with no mechanical problems told us ‘I wish we had done that’.
This is a true story. It really sucks that this happened to two awesome people, but the lesson here is that you have to be careful! If a deal is too good to be true, then it’s most likely not true. Always have the vehicle checked by a mechanic, and check the registration details of the vehicle with the Department of Transport before you purchase it. Do your due diligence on any potential vehicle because, unfortunately, not everyone has your best interest at heart.
Choose your bed
After transportation, accommodation costs is your next biggest expense. A private room with an ensuite in the heart of the city, even for a hostel, will cost upwards of $100 dollars per night; even dorm rooms in Australia can cost up to $30 a night! To save on accommodation costs look to stay outside of major cities; even a few suburbs away will reduce the price. Also, make friends with people who won’t mind you staying with them, give couchsurfing a try, or call up that long lost cousin of yours and reconnect with old family stories in their living room, where hopefully you’ll be sleeping in for the next few nights for free.
If you’re out of the city then look for free campsites. Most free campsites won’t have any facilities like toilets or drinking water, however, these are usually not too far away for you to drive to if you need. Some of the best places I’ve stayed were at free campsites where I had the whole place to my self. Waking up to the peaceful sounds of birds and waves in my tent is better than waking up in any hotel bed I’ve ever slept in.
In Western Australia there are a lot of free sites which you can easily find through researching online, South Australia is a little hit and miss with a lot of previously free campsite changed to fee paying sites. In Victoria we found free camping a little harder to come by, however they do exists and like New South Wales, free camping is permitted in State Forest areas – but always check for signs indicating that camping is not allowed to avoid being fined and moved on. Making friends with other traveller is a great way to find free campsites, we found many free ones just by chatting with people at campsites, and most are happy to share their spots with you.
Choose your meals
Food prices vary a lot in Australia, and from our experiences buying food in tiny towns will be more expensive than from major cities, this is because the buying power in the small towns is lower, and they can’t get the economies of scale by purchasing food items in bulk like the large supermarkets in the cities can. The food choices in the cities is also much better, however the price and quality of food from the farmers markets in the country definitely wins over the city. Siu On and I usually stocked up on staples in the cities, and bought fresh fruit and veg from the farmer markets in the towns.
Cooking your own meals will always be more cost effective than eating out, and you don’t have to live off baked beans and 2 minute noodles! Siu On and I had our own $5 dollar meal challenge, where we tried to eat for less than $5 a meal – and it is definitely possible! I will be putting up some of our favorite $5 meals in the not to distant future, since this is something we get asked a lot about.
Choose your budget
This is the boring part but it’s probably the most important part of planning a budget trip in Australia. Always have some savings, even if you plan on working here, it will help you get by in case you are not able to find work. Also make sure you have some extra savings on top of that for any unforeseen and unaccounted expenses, like car problems. You don’t want to cut your trip short because you spent all your money replacing the engine in your van. Siu On and I managed to get away with spending $1000 a month for two people on the road for everything, and that lasted us 5 months before we got to our minimum savings level. So with this in mind, had we saved around $14K, we could have easily made it around Australia in a year without having to stop to work. Food for thought there.
Whilst you are traveling around Australia, remember to keep tabs on your spending because it is easy to go over board here. For example, in Perth its not uncommon to spend $30 on a meal, $5 on coffee and then have to fill up the tank at $1.20 per litre because you missed the cheap fuel day (which is generally a Tuesday or a Wednesday). Sure it’s fine to indulge every once in a while, just don’t make it a regular habit or you’ll burn through your budget in no time.
Choose your own cheap adventure
Cities are always going to be more expensive with Sydney and Perth sitting as Australia’s most expensive cities; followed by Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, and then Darwin and Hobart. There are a lot of free and inexpensive things to do and see in the capital cities, however, staying in them and paying for things like transport and food will put a dent in your budget. Even out your city stays with longer stays in other parts of Australia. And you can read about some of my cheap city articles for Perth, Canberra and Melbourne.
Nature is actually very inexpensive to hang out in compared to the cities, so my biggest piece of advice for budget travel in Australia is to get outdoors and explore. You usually won’t have to pay to go to the beach, and a National Park fee generally is inexpensive (like $12 per car!) compared to how much you’ll spend in a city. Siu On and I recently paid the huge sum of $17 per day, per car, to go to Kosciuszko National Park, yet we did things fun things like hiking, swimming and camping which made the cost worthwhile.
Another way to travel around Australia on a budget is to share your travels. If you don’t have any one to get around with, there are a lot of people who advertise for ride shares to help with travel costs. Personally, I haven’t done this, but I have met a lot of backpacker who have and can only say good things about it. Check out sites like Gumtree or travel forums, and always remember to keep your safety first – if it doesn’t seem or feel right, don’t do it!
In the end you can travel around Australia for as cheap as you are comfortable. I’ve met people who have push biked across Australia, who only camped and lived off tinned beans and 2 minute noodles and spent almost next to nothing to do it; so it’s really up to you how low you can go. You really can choose your own adventure in Australia on a budget.
In addition to these pearls of wisdom, I’ve answered a few of our most asked questions here, but if you have some that you have desperately want answered then drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or let us know through Facebook or Twitter, and we’ll happily answer them for you!
Photography by Jelena Stipanicev.