Australia is huge but sparsely populated over much of its area, and you can sometimes travel many hours before finding the next trace of civilisation, especially once you leave the south-eastern coastal fringe.
Almost all modern Australian maps, including street directories, use the Geocentric Datum of Australia (GDA) as their grid reference, which is for all purposes identical to the WGS84 used by the GPS. You can locate most things on an Australian map or street directory if you just have the “GPS coordinates”.
Australia has a generally well-maintained system of roads and highways, and cars are a commonly used method of transport. All the mainland state capitals are linked to each other by sealed highways. Some parts are dual carriageway but many sections are one lane each way. Roads linking minor centres (or what can look like short-cuts on the map) can be narrow or gravel roads.
Major hazards on Australian roads are wildlife and large trucks. Be sure to take extra care when driving at dusk or in the dark, as the risk of animal collisions increases significantly. Major regional areas have sealed (paved) dual-lane roads, but isolated areas may have poorly maintained dirt roads or even tracks. Distances and speeds are specified in kilometres and fuel is sold by the litre. There are no tolls on roads or bridges outside of the urban areas of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. While public transport is usable in the cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, a car is handy, sometimes even essential, to get around anywhere else.
Australia drives on the left. Overseas visitors who are used to driving on the right should take care when they first drive, and again when they are driving on country roads with little traffic.
Generally, overseas licenses are valid for driving in Australia for three months after arrival. If the licence is not in English, an International Driving Permit (IDP) is required in addition to your licence. Licensing regulations and road rules vary slightly from state to state.
Australia’s low population density and large size makes for long driving times between major centres. Some indicative travel times, not including any rest periods, are:
- Sydney to Melbourne by car: 9–10 hours (900 km / 560 mi)
- Brisbane to Sydney: 12–13 hours (1,000 km / 620 mi)
- Perth to Sydney: 45 hours (4,000 km / 2500 mi)
- Sydney to Canberra: 3.5 hours (300 km / 185 mi)
- Adelaide to Melbourne: 8–10 hours (750 km / 465 mi)
- Brisbane to Melbourne: 19–20 hours (1,700 km / 1056 mi)
- Melbourne to Perth: 40 hours (3,500 km / 2175 mi)
- Perth to Adelaide: 32 hours (2,700 km / 1677 mi)
- Brisbane to Cairns: 22–24 hours (1,700 km / 1,056 mi)
- Adelaide to Sydney: 14-16 hours (1370 km / 850 mi)
It is almost impossible to predict your travel time just by knowing the distance. Seek local advice for the best route, and how much time to allow. The maximum speed limit on most rural Australian roads is 100 km/h. Sometimes this is increased to 110 km/h. Average speed is seldom above 80 km/h due to the poor road conditions and limited overtaking opportunities. On some national highways that traverse mountain ranges and travel through small towns, even averaging 60 km/h can be a challenge.
While major highways are well serviced, anyone leaving sealed (paved) roads in inland Australia is advised to take advice from local authorities, check weather and road conditions, and carry sufficient spare fuel, spare parts, spare tyres, matches, food and water. Some remote roads might see one car per month or less.
Cellular coverage is non-existent outside of major highways and towns and you should take some precautions in case of emergency. It is a good idea to advise a person you know and trust of your route and advise them to alert authorities if you do not contact them within a reasonable amount of time after your scheduled arrival at your destination. Carrying a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) or satellite phone should be considered when travelling in remote areas, especially where you may not be able to make contact for several days. Police will not automatically start looking for you if you don’t report in. Make sure you get one with a GPS built in. These can be borrowed from some local police stations, such as those in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. If you want to hire one, sort it out before you leave a major city, as you won’t find hire places in small towns. Expect to pay around $100 to hire for a week, or $700 to buy one. Don’t expect an immediate rescue even if you trigger a PLB.
Heat and dehydration at any time of year can kill you. If stranded, stay with your vehicle and do what you can to improve your visibility from the air. Do not take this advice lightly; even local people die out there when their car breaks down and they are not reported missing. If you do have to abandon your car (say you break down and then get a lift), call in quickly to the local police station, to avoid the embarrassment and cost of a search being started for you.
A campervan is a vehicle, usually a minivan, converted into a motorhome (recreational vehicle), most often catering to the vast number of young European and American backpackers traversing the country. The East Coast from Sydney to Cairns is especially abundant with happy, hungover youths travelling around in these vehicles.
Britz and Maui tend to operate at the premium end of the campervan market, while the lower end of the market is fiercely competed: larger operators include Cruisin Motorhomes, Jucy Rentals, Hippie Camper, Motorhome Republic and Spaceships.
Campervans vary widely in fitting and quality, with some featuring showers, toilets, kitchens and more, while others have little more than mattresses in the back. They are generally suited for 2–6 travellers depending on the vehicle’s size. Check the extra charges very carefully and make sure that you are not paying the same or more for a lesser quality vehicle.
Don’t assume hiring a camper will be a cheaper way of seeing Australia. The cost of fuel varies greatly depending on where you are. Fuel costs in outback Australia are much higher than urban areas. Add on the cost of hire, etc., and staying in hostels will often be a cheaper and more comfortable option — but the freedom of having your own four wheels may make up for it.
Prices can change dramatically depending on the travel period. So don’t expect to find a cheap campervan rental over Christmas and new year’s eve for example. Suppliers also fix prices depending on availability. Like flight tickets, it’s always cheaper to book in advance.
Larger towns and cities have taxi services. Uber is available in major cities. There are several smartphone taxi booking applications such as myDriver, GoCatch that make finding a licensed taxi simple.
Outside of cities, towns may have a limited taxi service. Maybe one or two drivers who may be part time. Smaller or remote towns may have no service at all.
When travelling alone, it is customary for a passenger to sit in the front passenger seat, next to the driver, rather than in the back. However, if you prefer to sit in the back then it isn’t really a problem.
Due to the large distances involved, flying is a well-patronised form of travel in Australia. Services along the main business travel corridor (Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane) are run almost like a bus service, with flights leaving every 15 minutes during the day.
The best fares are almost always available on the most competitive routes, whereas routes to remote destinations with fewer flights tend to be more expensive. Qantas actually do often offer competitive prices, so don’t ignore that option just because they are the national carrier. There are only a handful of main airlines in Australia, so it won’t take long to compare their prices on domestic routes:
- Qantas, the full-service national carrier, flying to major cities and some larger regional towns;
- Virgin Australia, a nationwide full-service airline, flying to major cities and a few larger regional towns;
- Jetstar, Qantas’s discount arm with limited service and assigned seating.
- Tigerair Australia, Virgin Australia’s low cost carrier with a hub in Melbourne and flying to Sydney, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Alice Springs, Hobart, Mackay, Perth and Canberra, prices are very competitive, but delays are frequent and chance of flight cancellation quite possible.
Several airlines service regional destinations. Expect discounts on these airlines to be harder to come by, and for standard airfares to be above what you would pay for the same distance between major centres.
- Qantaslink, the regional arm of Qantas, covering the smaller cities in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia;
- Regional Express, covering larger towns & cities on the eastern seaboard and in country South Australia;
- Skywest, covering regional Western Australia, Bali and Darwin;
- Airnorth, covering the Northern Territory;
- Skytrans Airlines, covering regional Queensland.
- Sharp Airlines, covering several regional towns in Victoria and South Australia.
Visitors from areas with well-developed long distance rail systems such as Europe and Japan may be surprised by the lack of high-speed, inter-city rail services in Australia. A historical lack of cooperation between the states, combined with sheer distances and a relatively small population to service, have left Australia with a national rail network that is relatively slow and used mainly for freight. Nevertheless, train travel between cities can be very scenic and present opportunities to see new aspects of the country, and can be a cost-effective way to get to regional towns and cities, which tend to have more expensive flights than those between the state capitals.
The long-distance rail services that do exist are mainly used to link regional townships with the state capital, such as Bendigo to Melbourne, or Cairns to Brisbane. In Queensland, a tilting train operates from Brisbane to Rockhampton and Brisbane to Cairns. Queensland also has passenger services to inland centres including Longreach (The Spirit of the Outback), Mount Isa (The Inlander), Charleville (The Westlander) and Forsayth (The Savannahlander). There are also inter-city train services operated by Great Southern Railways on the Melbourne-Adelaide (The Overland), Sydney-Adelaide-Perth (Indian Pacific) and Adelaide-Alice Springs-Darwin (The Ghan). However, these are not “high-speed” services and actually cost more than flying, so if you do not enjoy train travel as part of your holiday then this is probably not for you.
Tasmania has no passenger rail services. The Northern Territory has the rail line linking Darwin to Adelaide through Alice Springs only, and the Australian Capital Territory has a single railway station close to the centre of Canberra.
Long distance train operators:
- Great Southern Railways – A private train operator running luxury tourist train services, The Ghan, The Indian Pacific and The Overland between Sydney, Broken Hill, Adelaide, Alice Springs, Darwin, Perth and Melbourne.
- NSW Trainlink Regional – Links Sydney to Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra, and regional connections to most New South Wales towns, including Dubbo, Coffs Harbour, and Wagga Wagga.
- V/Line – Train & coach services in Victoria, including combined Train and Coach services between Melbourne and Adelaide, Melbourne and Canberra.
- Queensland Rail – Long distance passenger train services in Queensland, including its flagship Spirit of Queensland service between Brisbane and Cairns.
- The Savannahlander – A privately-run train service that links Cairns with the outback town of Forsayth, using old heritage trains, and providing overnight accommodation and tours on the way.
- TransWA – State government run, operating train services to Kalgoorlie and Bunbury. TransWA also operates coach services to much of the state where former rail services operated in the past, especially the South West of the state.
No rail pass includes all train travel throughout Australia. However, if you are a train buff that intends travelling extensively by rail, there are some passes that may save you money. Plan your trip carefully before investing in a rail pass. Country train services are infrequent and can arrive at regional destinations at unsociable hours.
- Discovery Pass. Use any NSW Trainlink services (trains and coaches). Get anywhere in NSW, and north to Brisbane and south to Melbourne.
- Queensland Rail Coastal Pass and Queensland Rail Explorer Pass.
Local public transport:
Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Wollongong and Newcastle have train and bus services integrated into the city public transport, with trams also running in Melbourne, Adelaide, and Sydney, and ferries in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. The remaining capital cities have bus services only. See those city guides articles for public transport details.
Some regional cities and towns have local bus services, but see the destination guides for service information, as frequency can be poor and weekend and evening services non-existent.
Bus travel in Australia is cheap and convenient, although the distances involved for interstate connections are daunting. Greyhound has the largest bus route network. There are no bus services from the other capital cities to Perth.
- Firefly Express, 1300 730 740 (local rate), +61 3 8318 0318 (international callers), firstname.lastname@example.org. Firefly Express has services connecting Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
- Greyhound, 1300 473 946 (local rate), email@example.com. Greyhound travels to over 1100 destinations in Australia daily every day of the year. It has a variety of ticketing options allow you to travel at your own pace, hopping on and off as many times as your ticket allows.
- Murrays, +61 13 22 51, firstname.lastname@example.org. Murrays has services connecting Canberra with Sydney, the NSW South Coast and snowfields.
Sydney, Brisbane, and Perth have ferries as part of their public transport system. Some smaller roads in the regional areas still have punts to carry cars across rivers and canals. The islands of the Barrier Reef have some scheduled services, and there are a few cruises that cross the top of Australia as well.
However, large inter city ferry services are not common.
- The Spirit of Tasmania. The only long distance ferry route connects Tasmania to the mainland and carries cars and passengers on the route across Bass Strait daily between Melbourne and Devonport.
- Sealink connects Kangaroo Island, Australia’s second largest southern island to mainland South Australia with regular car ferries.
- Sea SA offers an short cut across the Spencer Gulf between Adelaide (Wallaroo) and the Lucky Bay on the Eyre Peninsula. The service has been suspended frequently, but is operating as of Dec 2018.