Planning a backpacking trip to Australia can be a big endeavor. Despite reading a guidebook from cover to cover, there are some things you just won't find out until you're actually on the ground. These are the 14 things I wish I knew before traveling to Australia.
When I first touched down in Australia, I didn't know what to expect. I had a one-way ticket, a Working Holiday visa, and two nights booked in a Sydney hostel. Despite having read my Lonely Planet from end to end, and despite knowing exactly what I wanted to do, I felt like there were a lot of gaps in the information I was able to find. I didn't know what I could do.
I grossly over- and under-estimated a good number of things. From budgets to transportation to travel jobs to booze, there was a lot of missing information. Granted, I was new to backpacking, but every country has its nuances.
These are the 14 things I wish I knew before traveling to Australia.
1. Be Realistic About What You Can See
We both know Australia is big, but many travelers underestimate just how enormous the country actually is.
Few realize that Australia is actually about the same size as the continental USA, which means flying from Sydney to Perth is about the equivalent of flying from New York to LA. New South Wales is the same size as Texas and Western Australia is a similar size to all of Western Europe (here's proof).
In short, there's no way you're going to see Sydney, the Great Barrier Reef, Perth, and that big red rock all in a two-week trip.
Australia is too big to be overly ambitious with the itinerary. Even the famous backpacker East Coast needs at least couple of months—I traveled from Sydney to Cairns in two months and it felt hurried. With so much to see it's inevitable that most Australia journeys are rushed, which really doesn't suit the country's chilled ambiance.
It can feel annoying to miss out on certain places, but it's important to be realistic about what you can see. You're better off slowing down and enjoying yourself rather than rushing around trying to see everything at once.
2. There are Travel Agencies on Every Corner
In Australia, there is a lot of competition for your business. The tourist infrastructure is very well put-together, which means traveling around the country is actually very easy. There are travel agencies in every town and in popular backpacker cities, it feels like they're on every street corner. Most hostels have booking desks as well.
While it can be tempting to pre-book for peace of mind, you can generally get much better deals once you arrive. Plus, you can keep a more flexible itinerary, which is helpful when you make new friends at a hostel and want to change your plans.
3. Save 10% at Hostels With a YHA Membership
With such a strong travel infrastructure in place, Australia is home to some of the best hostels in the world, only matched in quality to hostels in Western Europe. YHA (Youth Hostelling Association) Australia has a network of hostels all over the country, which are personally vetted, backed with their stamp of approval, and accepted into their network. When you stay at a YHA, you're guaranteed a certain standard of accommodation and facilities.
A YHA membership saves you at least 10% on YHA accommodations, plus discounts on over 700 tours and attractions. You can also buy ePACKS, a bundle of nights at a pre-approved rate, that you can use at any hostel in the country, regardless of what their standard rate is.
4. The Biggest Travel Expense is Beer
Limiting your alcohol spend is the best way to do and see more of Australia. It's difficult advice—trust me, I know—but with a bottle of beer costing somewhere in the vicinity of $8-$10 AUD, a few beers every evening can blow most budgets, which means less money for cool tours.
On a tighter budget, you could realistically travel in Australia on $70-$100 USD per day. You'll be mostly camping (with the odd night in a dorm), cooking all your meals, carefully selecting the paid attractions, and avoiding nights out.
With $120-$150 USD per day, you can experience most of the best of Australia. This budget includes sleeping in hostels and cheap accommodation, having the odd restaurant meal, plus incorporating tours and excursions.
Just remember that beer from the bottle shops is far cheaper than beer from the bars and Australia isn't short on nice places to sit and have a drink.
5. Yes, You Need a Visa to Travel to Australia
If you plan to visit Asia or Africa, it seems obvious that you'll need a visa for many countries. But since Australia is another Western English-speaking nation, many travelers don't even check. And trust me—you don't want to get turned away at the border. It's a long flight home.
Unless you're from New Zealand, you'll need to organize an Australian visa in advance.
Fortunately, they have a very straightforward electronic visa system, aka Electronic Travel Authority (ETA). The visa is electronically linked to your passport and must be applied for in advance of your arrival. It allows you to stay in Australia for up to three months, and it only costs AUD$20 if you're American or Canadian, free if you're an EU citizen.
Apply online at the Australian Immigration website and you should have approval in two to three working days.
One requirement of the ETA (and this is a big one) is to have a return or outbound flight. This is usually checked when you board your flight to Australia, but it's definitely checked when you arrive. Even if you're planning a longer trip and you intend to apply for a visa extension, it's essential to have an outbound flight within three months of your arrival.
6. Australia is the Easiest Place to Get a Working Holiday Visa
Australia is an easy adventure if you're looking for a first big trip away from home (or even a second or third!). With the exception of New Zealand, no other place in the world is as easy to obtain a Working Holiday Visa. I spent my first year away from home in Australia traveling and working in bars and restaurants to support my travels.
The Working Holiday visa must be obtained in advance and you'll need to enter Australia before you turn 31. While the visa allows you to work, you're only technically allowed to stay with one employer for six months, which means you'll need at least two jobs for the whole year. It's not a solution for finding permanent work—just quick and fun jobs on the road.
Americans get only one one-year Working Holiday Visa, but Canadians and EU citizens can get a one-year working holiday extension if they have done at least three months of farm work or fruit picking.
Which brings us to our next point…
7. Fruit Picking is Seasonal and Regional—Do Your Research
The most abundant work for foreigners is fruit picking. It's a tough job and the hours are long, but it's well paid and you spend your days in the sun. Plus, there's a great atmosphere between workers.
Most people are doing it for one of three reasons: the experience, the cash, or the visa. Again, fruit picking isn't a permanent solution, but it's an end to a means.
That being said, fruit picking is entirely dependent on the harvest time. It's no use arriving in Margaret River for the surf season expecting to find work on a farm because their grape-picking season is at a completely time of year. You'll have no problem getting a job in Queensland in June and July, particularly on the sugarcane plantations, but in March, well, good luck.
So do your research. Fruit picking is all about being in the right place at the right time.
8. Take A Hop-On Hop-Off Bus All the Way Up the East Coast
While Australia has almost 20,000 miles of coastline, it's the 2,000-odd miles between Sydney and Cairns that receive the bulk of the visitors. With the Great Barrier Reef running alongside a single coastal highway, and the destinations being a mix of cute fishing villages and brazen party towns, the East Coast is an exuberant and diverse journey.
Traveling the East Coast is Australia's iconic backpacker adventure, with dozens of potential stops along the way—you'll see pristine beaches, meet travelers from around the world, and there will be lots and lots of partying.
There are many ways to do it but by far the easiest (and probably most popular) is a hop-on-hop-off bus ticket from Greyhound. You can stop at whichever destinations you choose, and you'll make plenty of new friends on the bus.
9. Municipal BBQ's Are a Great Place to Save Money and Meet the Locals
Every town in Australia has at least one municipal barbecue ground, often with a prime location in a park overlooking the ocean. You couldn't beat that view at a Michelin-star restaurant!
Each BBQ area has a series of large gas plates that are free for public use. They have a great social atmosphere, so bring a few new friends and you're sure to meet some more. Cooking your own meals reduces a large proportion of costs, and cooking at these BBQ grounds feels more like eating out than cooking in a hostel kitchen.
10. Whitehaven Beach is the Most Beautiful Beach You Will Ever See
There are likely many destinations on your Australia itinerary, and some of them you'll have to sacrifice for the sake of time, but the one you definitely don't want to miss is Whitehaven Beach.
Whitehaven Beach is a five-mile stretch of rippling white sand on Whitsunday Island. It's surrounded by the clearest turquoise waters you could ever imagine and the sand is so fine it squeaks beneath your feet.
The Whitsunday Islands are accessible by boat from Airlie Beach (stay at the Airlie Beach YHA) and by far the best way to visit is on a multi-day cruise. These two or three-night voyages are tailored towards backpackers—you'll visit a number of islands, with Whitehaven being the highlight. The sand is so pure that it's actually illegal to remove any of it!
11. Goon Will Save Your Wallet But Destroy Your Stomach
With beer costing the majority of your travel budget, there needs to be a better way. Well don't worry, there is. The word “better,” however, might need some redefining.
The only affordable alcohol in Australia is boxed wine, also affectionately known as goon. One 3.5-liter box is the same price as, if not cheaper than, a single beer in a bar.
If you're preparing for a big weekend on Fraser Island or even just a game of cards in the hostel with some new friends, goon is the answer to your problems. But watch out—you haven't had a real hangover until you've had a night out on goon.
12. Uluru Is More Than One Big Rock—Don't Miss It
It sounds bizarre—traveling into the middle of nowhere for a rock—but what a rock it is! Uluru might be the biggest most redolent rock on the planet, moving through a kaleidoscope of colors as the sun falls across the sky.
Uluru, or Ayer's Rock to use the colonial name, is the iconic image of Australia. Except it's not really Australian—it's proudly Aboriginal.
But there's more than just one rock. Few people are aware that 26 more huge red rocks lie just across from Uluru. The domes of Kata Tjuta are equally important to Aboriginal heritage, and they're just as much of a spectacle. They actually rise higher than Uluru.
You may visit Australia's red center for Uluru, but you'll probably find that Kata Tjuta is more impressive, both aesthetically and spiritually.
13. Rent a Campervan to Explore Wild Australia
Australia is a huge adventure. This is a place of wilderness and hinterland, a dry and barren land that evokes all the impressions of the desert and the bush. But it's not just about the outback, either—there are almost 20,000 miles of coast to discover.
I'm a big believer in the journey being as important as the destination. In most of Australia, the experience is all about what you see on the way. Freedom and flexibility make a campervan a great way to explore. Your bed and kitchen are in your vehicle, so you can stop and go anywhere.
Hiring a camper and traveling wild Australia is a real travel dream. It's surprisingly simple and the roads are awash with backpackers rumbling down the highways in their rented and painted campers.
14. Traveling to the West Coast is ALWAYS Worth It
The West Coast is wild and unspoiled, far off the beaten track when compared to the East Coast. This side of the country has always remained more undeveloped and uncultivated.
State capital Perth is a gleaming yet serene base which runs on a rhythm of work hard and play-much-harder. From here the adventure runs in two directions: north, to deserted beaches and achingly beautiful coastline, or south, to deserted beaches and an achingly beautiful coastline!
When comparing the East and West coasts, some prefer the unparalleled coastal splendor of the West, while others lean towards the greater number of destinations in the East. It's true that the West Coast is a little bit out of the way, but it's definitely worth it.
What's your best tip for traveling in Australia? Let us know in the comments below!
Disclaimer: This article was written in collaboration with YHA Australia. All text and opinions remain my own.
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