The Student Guide to Travel in Australia
Whether you’re an international student here for the Aussie uni experience or a local student wanting to explore more of the country, making time for a trip around Australia is a solid must. With its pristine coastline, red deserts, tropical rainforests, buzzing cities, multicolour reefs and unique wildlife, the island continent is as wild as it is beautiful and has so much to offer.
But the thing about Australia is it’s big. Like, seriously big. Roughly the size of mainland USA, in fact, and generally much more vast than the average traveller realises. And with so many millions of square kilometres to potentially cover, figuring out the best way to go about it without rendering yourself entirely broke can seem pretty daunting.
Don’t worry though. There are plenty of different ways to travel cheap in Australia, whether you’re wanting an organised tour or a do-it-yourself kinda trip by bus, van, train or plane.
A few points you might want to consider before thinking about travel options are:
- How much time do you want to spend on the road?
- What are your must sees?
- Coast vs outback?
- Adventure vs relaxation?
- Cities vs nature?
Once you’ve got a rough idea of your travel priorities, here are some ways you can go about putting together your ultimate Australia trip:
- Organised tours in Australia
- Flights in Australia
- Travel in Australia by bus
- Travel in Australia by train
- Travel Australia in a van or car
- Where to sleep on the road: camping vs accommodation
- Top money-saving tips for traveling Australia on a budget
ORGANISED TOURS IN AUSTRALIA
If you want an easy, hassle-free option for travelling around Australia, there’s actually a bunch of options out there for students that don’t cost an arm and a leg. These companies have special tailored packages and trips up for offer that cater to different interests, regions and trip durations.
Student Uni Travel have a number of Australian tour packages you can choose from that are organised by starting location. Pretty handy. The tours range from a couple of hundred dollars to a couple of thousand, with costs largely dependant upon how long you’re going for and what activities are offered while you’re on the road.
Choose between a 3-day best of Tasmania tour, a 6-day Uluru and Alice Springs adventure to the red centre, or an epic 28-day East Coast road trip, to name but a few. The cool thing about these guys as well is that they know they’re catering to students and really do their best to keep costs low. In fact, their policy states that if you find a cheaper price elsewhere, they’ll beat it.
Another great option to consider is booking something through STA travel, the world’s largest student travel company. Their website is super easy to use and they offer a whopping 90 Australian tours, with activity-specific sailing, surfing and driving trips, 4WD safaris, camping trips and even a big 28-day complete Australian adventure. There are some fun overnight trips as an option too, if you’re really short on time & money.
Tours range from the super cheap (a few hundred dollars) to the pretty pricey (in the thousands), but if you keep an eye on their website, there are often deals and savings on particular adventures. They also have a price beat guarantee and are reachable 24/7 if you need help with anything, which is always good to know when you’re on the road.
FLIGHTS IN AUSTRALIA
Both the fastest and the most expensive way to travel, Australia has a number of airlines to choose from if travelling by air. Thankfully, there are sometimes deals and discounts on popular routes, and it’s definitely your best bet if you need to get anywhere fast to make the most of those short, but oh so sweet, uni breaks.
However, the trade off is missing out on some extraordinary landscapes along the way. And even with the rare discount, flights tend to remain very expensive. Especially when compared to domestic and even international travel overseas. For instance, the flight from Melbourne to Sydney can easily cost over $100. Which is a lot of money for a one and a half hour trip!
Australia’s major airline operators are Qantas and Virgin, which service the majority of the country’s destinations. These are generally on the more expensive side, but extremely reliable.
Otherwise the more budget carriers are Jetstar and Tiger Airways. Tiger have a bit of a reputation for cancelling cheap flights last-minute, so we’d recommend working with larger time margins if flying with them. For the most part though, they’re totally fine and provide a much more affordable alternative.
For more obscure locations around the country, some smaller carriers like Rex do exist, but it’s quite rare you’ll need to fly with them as a tourist.
As a rule of thumb, what we’d recommend starting with is Skyscanner, an airline comparison website (also a handy smartphone app!). This will give you a concise overview of all the flight options you have for trips and how much they each cost, and they don’t charge you any extra fees.
If you do choose to fly to save time on your trip, definitely try to book in early to reduce costs!
TRAVEL IN AUSTRALIA BY COACH
A cheaper option than flying and an easy way to see more landscapes, buses are one of the most popular forms of student travel in Australia.
If you’re after a bit of structured adventure, there are some private bus companies you can look into. Stray service the East Coast from Sydney to Cairns and offer bus tours, day trips, activity packages and hop-on hop-off passes. Otherwise The Magic Bus Australia schedule monthly 3-4 week road trips with varying itineraries across Western Australia and sometimes to or from Melbourne. It’s a great way to meet new people and visit a few out-of-the-way places that aren’t accessed by the main public coaches.
A zone that’s hard to find transport options for is the arid desert and countryside between Adelaide and Perth, including the famous Nullarbor Plain that covers a whopping 200,000 square kilometres. The Nullarbor Traveller buses are a great option if that’s an area you’re keen on exploring. Also servicing South Australia and into the heart of Alice Springs are Groovy Grape.
Public buses are the cheapest and easiest option for traveling along the East Coast, with a pretty comprehensive network covering popular routes between Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and up through to Cairns.
Once you head west from Adelaide though, there are much fewer public bus options available and the distances are staggering, making it much less fun and affordable. Unless you’ve got an organised tour or are self-driving, it is generally cheaper and easier to fly to Western Australia than it is to catch public transport.
Greyhound Australia is the oldest and biggest bus and coach company in Australia, and the only one to service every mainland state. They run an extensive network and often have the most competitive prices. Greyhound offer hop-on / hop-off options and unlimited passes for different durations – really handy if you’re a bit of a spur-or-the-moment kinda student, or if you don’t want to plan everything ahead of time. There’s even a 10% student discount, although that’s just for tickets and not for passes.
There’s also Premier (East Coast only) and Firefly (East Coast + Adelaide) that offer a very similar service, and it’s worth comparing all three major companies to find the best deals.
Once in major cities, local bus networks can help you get around and often cost $2-5 depending on the trip.
TRAVEL IN AUSTRALIA BY TRAIN
Although there are a number of train routes across Australia, they’re not a very common form of transport outside of inner-city travel. Long distance train travel can be expensive and not a huge percentage of the country is actually serviced by rail.
Looking into a Rail Pass is the best way to save if you’re wanting to get around by train. The Queensland Coastal pass for instance starts at $209 for one month. Otherwise you’ll most likely be making use of $2-10 trains on city networks for making shorter, convenient trips.
If your heart really is set on an old-style train adventure, Great Southern Rail offers two main routes. The Indian Pacific is a four day, three night journey between Sydney and Perth, taking you through Adelaide, Broken Hill and Kalgoorlie. The Ghan also traverses Australia coast to coast, but through the red centre, linking Adelaide and Darwin.
The trains are pretty luxurious and take you through spectacular harsh landscapes in comfort, but they aren’t cheap. That, and you definitely won’t get the benefit of stopping wherever you like as you would by road. They do however remain an amazing experience and have low-season discounts, so keep an eye out if they tickle your fancy.
TRAVEL IN AUSTRALIA BY VAN OR CAR
Though driving your own car or van around the country can get pretty expensive solo, it’s actually often the cheapest option if you’ve got a friend or two along for the adventure. You can split the major costs and from there you have total freedom to travel at your own pace, making stops whenever you like. It’s also definitely the preferred mode of travel in Australia.
On top of being super cute, living out of a van is really useful for the obvious reason of not needing to worry about where you’re sleeping each night. Having a home on wheels is especially economical for long-term travel if you add up being able to cook on the road and save on meals. The downside is that all associated costs (rental, fuel, etc) are usually higher than with cars, and you often won’t be able to travel on very rough terrain. Cheaper van rental companies include Jucy, Wicked Campers and Hippie, but they’re still around $30-40/day on the most affordable and smaller end.
If travelling by van isn’t your thing or still too expensive, travelling Australia by car is an amazing option. Though petrol isn’t cheap – up to $2/L in the Northern Territory – getting a fuel efficient car and splitting costs makes it manageable. You can always pack a tent and have the option of camping along the way!
There are a bunch of car rental companies to choose from, but it’s often easiest to check out comparison websites like RentalCars.com, or Vroom Vroom Vroom and DriveNow, which all also compare vans. Rental cars can start from around $18-25/day, depending on the trip duration.
If you’re only around for a short time, renting is probably the way to go. Otherwise for longer trips it can actually be a lot cheaper to buy a car or van outright and then sell it before you leave (Hot tip: You’ll generally get a higher resale price if you re-sell your vehicle in the north or west of Australia). Check out CarSales, Gumtree and even Facebook Marketplace if you have a Facebook account. You can usually find a used car from $1500-2000, depending on what you’re after.
If you’re flexible with your dates and route, there’s a nifty system offered by a few rental companies called relocation where they give you the route and dates to basically drive a car or van from point A to point B. This can be ridiculously cheap. Like, $1/day cheap with Jucy, for instance. Keep an eye out for any trips being offered on TransferCar and imoova as well.
Fuel saving tip: if you’re shopping at Woolworths or Coles, Australia’s leading supermarket chains, check your receipts. You can save between 4-8 cents per litre with fuel discounts, which definitely adds up on long trips. Also, avoid filling up on weekends and public holidays, as petrol is usually more expensive!
WHERE TO SLEEP ON THE ROAD: CAMPING VS ACCOMMODATION
With so many amazing national parks and vast stretches of bushland, camping is definitely a part of the culture here and a great way to save money. In fact unless you have a home on wheels or have scored free accommodation, it’s definitely the cheapest way to travel around Australia on a budget. This is also often the only option if you’re visiting very remote areas and can’t afford luxury resorts.
Caravan parks are your most costly options and not always worth it, unless of course you’re in a caravan. We recommend instead downloading the app WikiCamps (worth every cent!) which gives you access to a database of caravan parks, camping grounds and even free camping spots nationwide. It’s really handy and you can compare site locations, costs and facilities using their map. Sites can cost anywhere between $0-35/night, depending on where you are.
If camping is not for you, hostels are probably the cheapest way to go. Communal dorm rooms cost around $20-30/night depending where you are, and can be a great way to socialise and to save money on food by making use of the kitchen area. Check out Hostels Australia and HostelBookers for price comparisons.
Top money-saving tips for traveling Australia on a budget
- Eating out in Australia is yummy, but expensive! If you do want to treat yourself, think about going out for breakfast or lunch rather than dinner as it’s generally cheaper. Sundays and public holidays can often have a 10% surcharge, so be mindful of that too. RSLs and Surf Clubs are found in almost every town and offer relatively cheap food (and drink) options. Same goes with takeaway joints, like fish n’ chips, Thai and chicken shops.
- Fuel saving tip: if you’re shopping at Woolworths or Coles, Australia’s leading supermarket chains, check your receipts. You can save between 4-8 cents per litre with fuel discounts, which definitely adds up on long trips. Also, avoid filling up on weekends and public holidays where you can.
- Alcohol is really expensive here – often $12 for a pint of beer or $8 for a glass of wine! If you want to bar-hop, look for happy hours and drink specials. Or, pick your poison from the bottle shop and BYO. Which brings us to the infamous “goon”. This is basically our version of cask wine and it costs around $14 for 4L. It’s a quick favourite for the traveller on a budget and somewhat of an Aussie staple when it comes to cheapies.
- If you’re from a country where tipping is the norm, just know it’s not at all required in Australia! It’s growing more common and is always appreciated if you’re really pleased with the service, of course, but is not a necessity.
- Tap water in Australia is clean and safe to drink (unless indicated otherwise). Definitely buy a reusable drink bottle and opt to refill where you can. Good for your wallet and for the environment!
- Organised activities and tours can be expensive. Look into coastal walks, hikes, city walking tours, museums and art galleries as these more often than not are free!
So there you have it! Though Australia is gigantic and might seem a bit daunting to travel around, there’s actually a whole bunch of different options there for doing it on the cheaper side.
Whether you’re buying a second-hand van to road trip for a few months or snatching up bargain airline deals to fly to another city for the weekend, you’ll be glad you took the time to explore this amazing country.