Getting around in Australia: the best ways to travel through this vast island nation

Destinations

Australia is the sixth-largest country in the world with very different regions and climates. Deciding where to go – and how to get there – requires some major planning.

At first glance flying and train fares in Australia look expensive (and a lack of competition does mean there are few bargains), but when you compare car-hire, insurance, petrol and accommodation costs, a flight from Sydney to Perth suddenly looks a little more appealing. If you’re short on time, you’re likely to rely on internal flights, or you could concentrate on visiting one region only.

When choosing the best way to get around Australia weigh up how much time you have, what level of luxury you require and your carbon footprint.

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If you’re short on time, you’ll need to take internal flights

Flying is the only way to do more than one state in a shorter stay. Australia’s main domestic airlines service major cities and key tourist sites like Yulara for Ayers Rock Resort with regular flights. Major players are Jetstar, Qantas, and Virgin Australia.

Traveling by long-distance bus is the best budget option

Australia’s extensive bus network is a reliable way to get between towns and cities, but distances are often vast so be prepared for long days, or nights. Most Australian buses are equipped with air-conditioning (essential in summer), comfortable seats and toilets; all are smoke-free and some have wi-fi and USB chargers. Ask about hop-on hop-off fares which give you more flexibility. Some operators also offer discounted fares for seniors, students and children.

The main bus companies in Australia are Greyhound Australia, Firefly Express, Integrity Coach Lines (in Western Australia), Premier Motor Service (NSW), and V/Line in Victoria, which runs a mix of buses and trains.

Another way to get around by bus is on a tour. Some offer the whole package including accommodation and meals; others are less formal options to get from A to B and see the sights on the way. Popular outfits running coach tours include AAT Kings, Adventure Tours Australia, Autopia Tours, Untamed Escapes, and Oz Experience (which partners with Greyhound coaches).

The Ghan railway train travels across Australia from Adelaide to Darwin © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

Experience Australia’s epic train journeys

Long-distance rail travel in Australia is something you do because you really want to − not because it’s cheap, convenient or fast. That said, trains are more comfortable than buses, and there’s a certain “romance of the rails” that’s alive and well in Australia. The most notable long-distance rail journeys in Australia are the Indian Pacific between Sydney and Perth, the Overland between Melbourne and Adelaide, Great Southern between Brisbane and Adelaide, and The Ghan between Adelaide and Darwin via Alice Springs.

Intra- and inter-state trains operators include Queensland Rail, which runs the high-speed Spirit of Queensland service between Brisbane and Cairns; NSW TrainLink from Sydney to Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra; and V/Line within Victoria, which links up with coach connections into NSW, SA and the ACT.

Road-tripping in Australia is an amazing experience

Whether you’re focusing your visit on one state or several, exploring Australia by road is the quintessential way to get around this vast nation. For 4WD or motorcycle adventures, you’ll also need specialist skills, guidebooks, maps and equipment. 

Choosing whether to hire a vehicle or buy one will depend how long and far you’re traveling. Here are some things to consider in the hire vs buy debate:

Hiring a car or camper means you’ve got a reliable vehicle

For a shorter trip car hire is probably more cost effective. You’ll be getting a newer, safer and more reliable vehicle. You get roadside support if you have any issues and your costs are fixed at the daily car hire rate. Large car-hire companies have offices in major cities and airports. Most require drivers to be over the age of 21 (sometimes 25). It’s slightly more expensive to do a one-way hire.

Campervans are also for hire in Australia, covering some of your accommodation costs. You still need to pay to overnight at campsites, or find designated spots where you can free camp. Australia based companies that hire campervans include Apollo, Britz, Hippie Camper, Jucy, Maui, Mighty Campers, Spaceships, and Travelwheels. To compare car hire deals go to CarHire.com.

All the usual advice applies for car and van hire. Read the contract. Understand the small print including accident excess cover (you can buy your own separately but you may need to put down a large “holding” deposit with the car hire firm). Make sure all your drivers have the appropriate driving licenses and travel insurance. Always thoroughly inspect the vehicle before leaving; note any pre-existing damage. In Australia you’ll also want to ask for unlimited kilometers as you’re most likely going to travel big distances. Find out if you can take the vehicle on unsealed roads.

Uluru at sunset from back of the campervan
Campervan travel means you save on accommodation costs © Emma Shaw / Lonely Planet

Buying a car or a van might be best for longer trips

Buying your own vehicle gives you the freedom to go where and when your mood takes you, and may work out cheaper than renting in the long run. The downsides of DIYing are the admin costs and repairs.

When you buy a vehicle in Australia you need to transfer the registration (Aussies call it “rego”, of course) into your own name within 14 days. Each state has slightly different requirements. When selling a vehicle you need to advise the state or territory road-transport authority of the sale and change of ownership name. If you just don’t change the registration or give the vehicle away, you’ll still be liable for subsequent fines and future rego certificates from the new owners.

Sellers are required to provide a roadworthy certificate when transferring registration in most states. If the vehicle you’re considering doesn’t have a roadworthy certificate, ask for one before you agree on the price. This can cost $100 but will save you money on unknown repair costs. Road-transport authorities have lists of licensed vehicle testers. Note that registering a vehicle in a different state from the one it was previously registered in can be time-consuming and more expensive, something to be aware of when planning to sell at the end of your trip.

It’s prudent to have a vehicle checked by an independent expert before you buy it and state-based automobile clubs (for example the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria) offer vehicle checks. Road transport authorities (RTAs) have lists of licensed garages to book in with directly. 

a van driviing the isolated Pentecost River Crossing on Gibb River Road
Be prepared to drive dirt roads like this at the Pentecost River Crossing © Alex Couto/ Shutterstock

Beware of common driving hazards  

There are a lot of things to think about when hitting the road in Australia. Here are some risks to be aware of:

There may be animals on the road, particularly at night

Many Australians avoid traveling once the sun drops because of the risks posed by nocturnal animals on the roads. Kangaroos are common on country roads, as are cows and sheep in the unfenced outback. Kangaroos are most active around dawn and dusk and often travel in groups: if you see one hopping across the road, slow right down, as its friends may be just behind it. If you injure an animal while driving, you can call the local wildlife rescue line, which are sometimes signposted along the route. 

Drive slowly and carefully on dirt roads in the countryside 

Unsealed road conditions vary wildly depending on the road and the weather. Cars and vans perform very differently on dirt when braking and turning corners. Don’t exceed 60km/h (37mph); if you go faster, you won’t have time to respond to a sharp turn, animals on the road, or an unexpected pothole. A wet dirt road means mud, and can quickly become impassable – something to keep in mind if traveling in tropical northern Australia during the summer “wet season” (November to April).

Look out for road trains on the highways

A lack of rail infrastructure in Australia means you’re likely to cross paths with road trains (trucks with two or three trailers stretching for as long as 50m) on the highway. Overtaking is risky. On single-lane roads in more remote places, get off the road when a truck approaches, they don’t slow down for cars. Stones or debris can clip your car as it passes so get as far out of the way as possible.

In remote areas fill up with fuel at every chance

In cities and towns, petrol stations are plentiful, but distances between fill-ups can be huge in the countryside so pay attention to your fuel gauge and those yellow road signs announcing the next road house. Filling your tank whenever you can is the best precaution, especially if need to take a diversion thanks to a flooded road or some other weather-related event. Electric recharging spots are popping up all over Australia, making hybrid and electric road trips a viable alternative.

Do not ignore tiredness when driving 

Be wary of driver fatigue; driving long distances (particularly in hot weather) can be utterly exhausting. Falling asleep at the wheel is a very serious risk. Stop and rest regularly − do some exercise, change drivers and have a coffee. Do not drive if you’re feeling drowsy.

Adventure on Fraser Island
The only way to get around the all-sand island K’gari (Fraser Island) is by 4WD, or on a tour © Getty Images

Drive responsibly and minimize your impact

If you’ve committed to buying a car or van and driving around Australia, there are some ways to minimize your environmental impact on your journey:

  • Ensure your vehicle is well serviced and tuned.
  • Travel lightly and drive slower to reduce fuel consumption.
  • Stay on designated roads and vehicle off-road tracks (if you’re 4WDing).
  • Don’t drive on walking tracks and avoid driving on vegetation. Cross creeks at designated areas.
  • Always take all your rubbish if you’ve been camping overnight.
  • Consider ride-sharing with fellow travelers where possible.

Road trip around Australia on this 3-month-long itinerary 

You have a 90-day tourist visa and you want to see all of Australia, right? It’s not possible to see everything, but you can conceivably do both coasts and the outback if you’re prepared to keep moving (ideally taking turns behind the wheel with travel companions if you’re driving this route). 

We suggest you begin in Perth. Drive the west coast via Albany (to the south); up to Broome via Ningaloo and the Pilbara; then over to Darwin. Turn south through Alice Springs and detour via Uluru. Continue straight down the Stuart Highway to Adelaide, then make your way to Melbourne either inland, or via the more scenic coast. Now you’ve got about a month to six weeks to get to far north Queensland via the beaches of Southern New South Wales, the waterfalls inland from Byron Bay and the Daintree rainforest north of Cairns. If you skip Sydney and Brisbane (you’ll be dusty by now and finding places to park is a pain), you can always pop back via bus or plane after you’ve offloaded your vehicle – which has just had an extra 20,000km (12,400 miles) added to its mileage.

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