How To Get Around Australia

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Ah yes, this is something some tourists may not quite think to ask when first planning a visit. Australia is about the size of Continental Western Europe or the main bits of the USA. So assuming you’re not limiting yourself to one city while you’re here (and yeah, some do just come and visit the Sydney Opera House, climb the bridge, ride a ferry, go to the zoo and the Blue Mountains, and then go home), you’ll need to figure out how you’re getting around this big brown land.

Your basic choices are: Plane / train / bus / drive / boat. Or walk or bicycle, but we’ll skip that for this particular explanation. And yogic flying is generally not recommended due to the distances involved.

Flying used to be very expensive, but airline competition in the last few years means it’s no longer necessarily the most pricey way to travel. Qantas and particularly Virgin Blue and Jetstar are now fighting for your airfare dollar, and the cheapest plane tickets are often not much more than the cost of a bus. So if you’re not interested in seeing the scenery along the way (apart from clouds and nice views of the cities as you flew in and out), and especially if you’re flying between capital cities and in a hurry, this is the way to go. Smaller local airlines cover some of the regional cities.

Note however that the cheapest air tickets are generally non-refundable and non-changeable, so you need to be absolutely certain of when and where you intend to fly. Check all the terms and conditions carefully, like that doozy with Jetstar whereby if you’re not checked-in 30 minutes before takeoff, they won’t let you board, full stop. Ground transport can also add a bit to the cost (a taxi could be more expensive than a cheap airfare), though most cities have relatively inexpensive airport buses. (Sydney and Brisbane also have airport trains.) Oh, and expect to pay extra for food and drink on Jetstar and Virgin.

Trains and buses continue to be a good option for some trips. Apart from Darwin by train, they generally serve the city centres, which may mean no extra time or money for ground transport. Booking ahead will often get discounts, and passes can be bought for extended bouts of travelling. They also serve the smaller towns, whereas you can generally only get to the bigger cities by plane.

The scenery can be terrific, indeed the (fairly expensive) tourist trains such as The Overland, Ghan and Indian Pacific use this as the drawcard. Sipping champagne while watching the countryside rolling past outside the window sounds pretty civilised to me (as long as the company is good), though they’re not known for their speed.

The Melbourne to Sydney and Brisbane XPT trains are a little less salubrious, but still reasonably comfortable, and a little faster. If you’re looking for TGV-style very fast trains in Australia though, you’ll be disappointed.

Bumping around in a bus (major operators: Greyhound, Firefly) making quick stops for meals at road houses may be a little less comfortable than a train, but you’ll get where you’re going on the cheap, and buses go to plenty of the smaller towns where planes and trains don’t stop.

Driving is also an option. Many overseas backpackers either buy an old car for the length of their holiday, or rent cars for particular trips. Obviously this is the way to go if no public transport serves where you’re going, and a taxi isn’t do-able, or you just want to do things at precisely your own pace.

Visitors from overseas should make sure they have a licence in English or an International Driving Permit. And for gawd sake don’t forget we drive on the left, and read up on the fiddly rules for where you’re going. (Hook turn, anybody?) If heading out into the bush from a big city, you may want to plan to make the first part of the trip by other means if heavy traffic freaks you out, and if going into the remote areas, take appropriate precautions: food, drink, comms.
The main candidate for travelling by boat is to from the mainland to the northern side of Tasmania. There are various classes of fare (the trip is overnight) and they can take cars on the boat. Avoid of seasick, natch.

So in summary, weigh up your options according to the priorities: destination vs money (some services have travel passes) vs time vs comfort.

PS. Please note: No, there is no bridge to New Zealand. And Uluru is not a day trip from Sydney.

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