Getting Around Australia: Buses, Trains and Planes

Maslin Beach, in the south near Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia. Marie Kimber photos.
Maslin Beach, in the south near Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia. Marie Kimber photos.

Caravans, Footpaths, and Walkabouts in Australia

By Marie Javins

australia transport picks
You can all over Oz on the old Greyhound. photo: Marie Javins

Whether you’re a jolly swagman or just a seppo* looking for a two-week holiday, Australia is a friendly, inexpensive, and English-speaking destination. Geographically, it’s nearly as vast as the continental United States, but the center is mostly desert.

The majority of Australia’s population of 25,499,884 lives on the coast. Don’t try to visit the entire country at one time — it is massive even when covered by airplane. Instead, focus on a few regions.

The most popular routes cover the East Coast from Cairns to Melbourne, with side trips to Alice Springs or Darwin thrown in.

Fly Across the Outback

If you have some spare room in your budget but not in your schedule, fly as much as possible. Qantas is the main Aussie airline but it has some regional competition, such as Virgin Australia that offers heavily-discounted fares on select routes.

Qantas offers the multi-leg Qantas Explorer which can only be purchased in conjunction with an international ticket and allows stops in up to 30 cities–much less than the cost of individual tickets.  Other Australia discount carriers include Jetstar and Tigerair.

Get the Airline Newsletters

There are actually a lot of ways on how you can fly to Australia without spending a lot of money. After you’ve decided to visit Australia, sign up for airline newsletters so you’ll know the latest promos and discounts. If the airline offers free membership to their programs, make sure to sign up. Travelers love to save money without compromising their comfort, and signing up for these newsletters and memberships can be your ticket to achieve this goal.

You’ll continue to experience comfort when you arrive in Australia because websites such as  Jayride.com offer airport shuttle services in Melbourne to travelers like you. Make sure to book for this service days or weeks before your arrival so you can save time from rubbing elbows with other travelers and locals.

Busabout

Australia’s national bus network is Greyhound Australia. It goes to places the train doesn’t go near. Bus passes are reasonably-priced, and coaches are comfortable. Be forewarned though — as distances are great and stops are few in the Outback, you may find yourself on more than one 20-hour bus trip. Local and regional bus companies often provide competing services on similar routes.

If you’re eyeing to use this transportation around Australia, sit down and research the routes of these buses. If you know locals in Australia, ask the best route to take if you want to reach a specific destination. This is especially important if you already prepared an itinerary for your trip.

Being prepared during your trip to Australia will make it very easy for you to tick off all of the items in your itinerary and ensure that you’re not wasting a lot of money during the process. Researching the routes and its corresponding payments will allow you to financially prepare for your trip and avoid any scams that are usually pulled off by the locals to scam foreigners.

Australia's train routes. Seat61.com photo.
Australia’s train routes. Seat61.com photo.

Australia by Train

Australian trains won’t get you off-the-beaten-path; in fact, they’ll barely get you to the beaten path itself. The seats and sleeper cars are comfortable even in economy class but the routes don’t cover most rural areas so you’ll have to supplement your rail travel with local buses or operators.

Each state has a different body that governs its rails, but info on most lines can be found at either “Australia by Rail” or at Western Australia’s rail site. A variety of passes covers the east and south, and substantial discounts are available to students and seniors. The beloved “Ghan” service has been extended from Alice Springs to Darwin.

The Man in Seat 61 Australia railroad travel tips

Drive Yourself

Renting a car in Australia is much like renting a car in North America or Europe, and many of the companies are the same. But “caravan” rental (“r.v.” to us Seppos) is far more common down under. Dozens of places offer caravan rental. Happy Car provides a comparison of every car rental company in Australia.

Try “Britz” or for the budget-minded “Wicked Campervans.” Many companies also offer 4WD rentals and motorcycle rentals.

Watch out for Roos! photo: Marie Javins
Watch out for Roos! photo: Marie Javins

If you’re leaning towards this direction, scout for car rental options before traveling to Australia. Reach out to at least three car rental companies and inquire about their costs and services.

Doing this ahead of time will allow you to make the most out of your trip and avoid wasting money from looking for transportation the moment you step in Australia.

Just make sure that you’re aware of the road signs and routes around Australia so you won’t have to be stressed looking for directions.

Reselling Cars Can Be a Challenge

Travelers can buy and insure used cars in Australia, but re-selling can be difficult under time constraints when you want to go home. One way around this is to enter into a “buy-back” agreement, where the seller agrees to buy the car back for 30 to 50 percent of your purchase price.

Australians drive on the left. Seatbelts are compulsory, drunk driving is taken seriously, and kangaroos sometimes wander onto the road. Be cautious. North American AAA members have reciprocal rights with Australia’s AAA.

Travel in a Pack

When you have a limited amount of time or are traveling “on your Pat,**” consider going with a group. You may not be the sort of person who normally goes on group tours, but consider that all your arrangements are made and you won’t waste time digging up tickets and hotels.

Operators such as Contiki and the hop-on/hop-off Oz Experience cover most of Australia and offer inexpensive youth-oriented coach trips,

Local operators are recommended in rural areas where there is no other way around without your own vehicle. Areas such as Kakadu National Park, Uluru (Ayers Rock), and the Queensland Hinterlands are difficult to see by public transport.

Getting Around Australia: Buses, Trains and Planes 1
Salamanca Market in Tasmania

Bike Australia’s Coast

You’d have to have “a kangaroo loose in the top paddock” to bike the circumference of Oz, but there are several shorter routes that cyclists rave about. Australia has both a hill and a population shortage, making it a cyclist’s dream. Biking is not recommended on major highways, and bikers should drink plenty of water and always wear sunscreen.

Helmets are compulsory. Beware of enormous “road trains” in remote areas. Some outfitters offer supported bike tours. Find out about mountain biking in the Northern Territories at this website.

By Sea

The most famous sea voyage within Oz is the 10-hour “Spirit of Tasmania” trip from Melbourne to Devonport, Tasmania. The ship travels at night during low season but also offers day sailings during the Australian summer. 20-hour trips to and from Sydney are available three times a week.

Other Australian sea transport is primarily regional: Sydney’s harbor offers several ferries that will zip you to nearby communities, the Whitsundays are popular for sailboat and yacht rentals, and dozens of small ships will take you from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef.

To Thumb or Not to Thumb

GoNOMAD does not recommend hitching in Australia. Many people do it, but hitching is never completely safe and in Australia, some hitchhikers have encountered deadly situations. If you must hitch, use a backpacker service instead of standing by the open road.

  • “seppo” is Aussie rhyming slang for “American.” “Yank” rhymes with “tank,” thus a “yank” becomes a “septic tank,” and as everything is shortened in Australia, a “septic tank” becomes a “seppo.” Take it in stride. It’s Australian humor, not an insult.
  • “on one’s Pat” is Aussie rhyming slang for “alone.” “Pat Malone” rhymes with “alone,” and “on his/her Pat” is short for “on his/her Pat Malone.” Why do they do this? Don’t ask me… this “sheila” is completely confused by a culture where one talks on the “dog and bone” instead of the “phone” and where “dead horse” somehow means “ketchup.”
The author with Steve Irwin, famous crocodile hunter.
The author with the late Steve Irwin, famous crocodile hunter.

Finding the Crocs

Crikey! How does a budget-minded backpacker on walkabout get to the Crocodile Hunter’s “Australia Zoo” without a set o’ wheels?

No worries, mate. Courtesy shuttle buses make the rounds through Noosa, Maroochydore, Alexandra Headlands, Mooloolaba, and Caloundra. And if you’re coming from further afield, take the train to Beerwah or Landsborough and catch a courtesy bus there.

Greyhound Australia has morning and afternoon stops right outside the Australia Zoo’s gates. Catch it at Brisbane Transit Centre for the hour-long ride, or even board as far away as Byron Bay.

And if you can’t make it up to the Sunshine Coast, there are plenty of crocodiles, wombats, and Tasmanian devils at zoos all over Australia. Try the picturesque Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney, or just keep your eyes peeled as you wander through the country.

You’re bound to come across a kangaroo, wallaby, or kookaburra in your travels.

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