My three months in Australia flew by. I saw a lot, experienced a lot, and, despite my best efforts, spent a lot. So what did I learn? What went right and what would I do differently? What nuggets of wisdom can I pass on to you? Settle in, this is a long one.
*All prices listed are in AUD unless otherwise noted.
Don’t Forget Your Visa!
This trip started with a quick reality check when I got to the Pittsburgh airport and realized I didn’t have an Australian visa, meaning I couldn’t even print my boarding passes because I wasn’t allowed on the airplane. Oh, snap.
In that moment, when I realized the automatic check-in machine was telling me I wasn’t authorized to travel, I vaguely remembered reading something about a visa for Australia. I knew I didn’t have it. I had been focused on dealing with the complicated visa issues surrounding Vietnam and counted on Australia being the easy part of the trip. I assumed I would just get a visa on arrival, no preliminary work required. It never really occurred to me that getting there would be a problem. We’re friends, right? I assumed I could show up and, as long as I left within 90 days, everything would be fine. Not quite.
Despite this early misstep and the remarkably unhelpful desk agent who could offer no information about how to remedy this situation, I switched into my ultra-calm problem-solver mode. No panic attacks here, folks (at least not on this day). Because I had my computer with me, I was able to just step to the side, connect to the airport wifi, and Google that shit. Turns out all I needed to do was fill out a quick online form, pay $20 AUD (around $15 USD), and my visa was electronically linked to my passport within a few minutes. Sorted.
Lesson learned: Stay calm. Panicking doesn’t fix problems. Just figure out what needs to happen and do it. Also, double check visa requirements well in advance of your flight.
There are 1,500 miles between Sydney and Cairns, which means I spent a lot of time in transit from place to place. I was on planes, trains, and buses…both daytime and overnight. Pretty much none of them were comfortable. And to add insult to injury, I wasted money on this aspect of the trip by not planning ahead.
So what did I do? I took a train from Sydney to Brisbane (because I thought it would be cool…it wasn’t), got a Greyhound hop-on-hop-off pass from Brisbane to Cairns, and flew from Cairns back to Brisbane (because I couldn’t get a good flight out of the country from Cairns).
What I Spent:
The below calculations are based only on the Sydney to Cairns part of the trip. My flight back to Brisbane was purchased using airline miles (no out of pocket expense) and was an add-on part of the trip that wouldn’t apply to most people.
Train – $130.25
Greyhound – $345
Total – $475.25 ($365 USD)
Now, about that train. I imagined a train ride up the Australia coast to be similar to a train ride up the California coast. I thought I would have amazing views of the ocean and beautiful scenery to keep me entertained for at least a few hours (while the sun was up anyway, it was an overnight train). I was completely wrong. There was nothing interesting to see and the seats were massively uncomfortable (although the Greyhound seats are also atrocious, so that’s probably a wash…don’t the people who design these things test them out?!). Further, the seats are assigned and they check to make sure you’re in the right one, meaning you can’t move into unoccupied rows to lie down. The train also cost about $21 more than the bus. Big ol’ fail.
Greyhound’s bus service is the main way backpackers get around Australia (besides camper vans) and most hostels offer pickups/dropoffs at the local station. You can either buy tickets as you go or get one of their hop-on-hop-off passes. The pass allows you to travel as many times as you want between the two terminal cities within three months, as long as you keep moving in the same direction (no backtracking if you miss something cool). I chose this option because I didn’t really know where I wanted to go and wanted to allow myself the flexibility to go to as many fun places as possible without having to worry about constantly buying tickets.
This might be a cost-effective approach if you have a bunch of time and are making a ton of stops. I, however, had only two weeks between volunteer projects (limiting the number of stops I had time for) and ended up only taking four buses (it would have been five, but I got a free transfer between Noosa Heads and Rainbow Beach as part of my Everglades tour). If I had paid for those four bus trips individually it would have cost $294 ($51 cheaper than the pass). If I had also paid for the Noosa-Rainbow leg of the trip it would have cost $328 (still $17 cheaper).
If I had gotten the Greyhound pass from Sydney to Cairns, it would have cost $435, which is pretty close to what the individual tickets would have added up to ($437, including Noosa-Rainbow).
Note: These calculations do not include intracity transport (ferries, subways, airport transfers, etc). I didn’t keep very good track of how much I spent on these, but be sure to factor some money into the budget for this, as some can be pricey (up to $15 a trip).
For anyone planning to explore Australia, I would highly recommend looking into the camper van option. It allows you so much more flexibility and the option to stop anywhere that looks interesting (or skip places you thought you wanted to go to but that aren’t that cool when you get there). You also don’t lose as much time on travel days. With Greyhound, the bus often leaves only once a day and if that’s somewhere around the middle, the whole day is lost even on short trips because there’s not enough time on either side of the bus journey to do more than check in/out of your hostel and eat. And speaking of eating…utilizing hostel kitchens is a great cost saver, but it can be difficult to shop for groceries when you have to either use everything up in a few meals or carry food with you on the bus. This is especially true if you are traveling alone (making it harder to use things up in a short time). Having the option to transport pantry staples (cooking oil, spices, condiments, etc) makes eating in so much easier.
The down side, though, is that camper vans are only cost effective if two or more people are sharing the price. If you’re traveling solo and aren’t into sharing close living quarters with travelers you meet on the road, chances are you’re going to be using the bus/hostel system. Based on my experience, I would recommend trying to plan out your trip as much as possible in advance so you can determine if the pass is the best option or whether you’d be better off getting bus tickets as you go.
I approached this trip with the I’m-trying-not-to-plan-so-I-can-be-spontaneous attitude and it didn’t really work on this front. I booked the train before I left home because I knew I needed to be in Brisbane on a certain day but I didn’t think ahead to what would happen after that. If I had, I may still have gotten the Greyhound pass (from Sydney to Cairns instead of Brisbane to Cairns) since the cost was just a couple dollars difference and would have allowed me to add additional stops essentially for free. But I definitely wouldn’t have booked the train.
One last note:
There is another bus line called Premier that also runs along the east coast. I did not use them, but I heard from several people that they have some challenges to consider. The cost is sometimes lower than Greyhound, which sucks people into buying tickets with them instead, but the bus stations are often far from town (requiring expensive taxi or shuttle rides) and they leave at very random and inconvenient times (like 2 am).
Staying in Hostels
Hostels come in all shapes and sizes. The amenities they offer (or don’t) can vary significantly in quality. Travelers want different things from their stay, so be sure to check for what’s important to you. For example, I don’t care about drink specials or movie nights, but I am traveling with my computer and prefer to have lockers available. I also want wifi and get annoyed if it’s advertised but sucks so badly it might as well not be there (which happens). Overall, most hostels will meet your basic needs (giving you a place to sleep), but a few extras are nice, even on a budget.
Some people are concerned with the safety of hostels, especially solo female travelers. I never once felt unsafe and don’t think it’s necessary to pay extra for a private room (although that’s an option if you want it, but note that these are significantly more expensive).
Finding a good hostel
I’ve recently discovered that HostelWorld.com is my favorite hostel directory. Others include YHA (you can also pay for a membership that gives you discounts on their hostels) and Hostels Australia (if you have one of the free membership cards, available at all participating locations, you get $3 off per night). You can also just Google hostels in whatever city you’re going to.
Mixed Dorms or Gender Specific?
I’ve stayed in both and don’t see a huge difference. I’ve never felt unsafe sharing a room with guys, although ladies be warned, quite a few sleep in their underwear (or less) and don’t care who sees. If a female-only dorm is the same price or just a dollar or two more, I might go that route since girls seem to keep better tabs on their body odor. Overall though I find this to be entirely up to personal preference and comfort levels.
Where I stayed (including links):
Noosa Heads – Noosa Flashpackers – $25/night x 2 nights
This was one of my favorite hostels in Australia. The wifi connection was fast and reliable, each bed was assigned a large locker for valuables, and a decent breakfast was included (they had cereal, which is a big selling point for me, plus they put out peanut butter in addition to jam, so I was able to make a PB&J for later). The kitchen was large and clean with plenty of fridge space for guests’ food. The bathroom facilities were all separate (the toilets, sinks, and showers were in three different places) so no one monopolized the whole set at once. Although some rooms had en suite bathrooms, mine didn’t, which is how I prefer it. Having the bathroom outside the sleeping area means that you aren’t waking people up (or being woken up) if you need to get up early or come back late.
Rainbow Beach – Pippies Beachhouse – $24/night x 2 nights (plus $4 for a locker)
The rooms were okay here, although the mattresses were the squeaky plastic kind and the walls were thin enough to hear conversations in the next room over. The internet was a bit spotty and breakfast was just toast and jam. The kitchen was a bit cramped, but I didn’t buy groceries here, so I didn’t use it at all. There was only one main bathroom in area where I was staying and it was the kind you’d find in a house (shower, toilet, and sink in the same large room), which meant you sometimes had to wait your turn to use it. Also, the locker were very small and had to be rented separately.
Agnes Water – Beachside 1770 – $26/night x 2 nights
This hostel was pretty good and just a few minutes walk to the beach. The wifi was very good and the common area was pretty decent. The kitchen was small but well-equipped and there was plenty of fridge space. Breakfast was just toast and jam. I stayed in a 10-person dorm with an en suite bathroom. It was fine when I was there because there were only two or three others staying in the room at a time. If all the beds had been full though it would have been crowded and the bathroom situation would likely have been more of a problem. The rooms did have lockers available for use with your own lock.
Airlie Beach – Backpackers by the Bay – $25/night x 1 night
I liked the rooms in this hostel because they felt more homey than the others. They were four-person rooms with decorated walls, small lockers, and sliding doors that opened into the common courtyard. The kitchen was on the small side, although there was plenty of room in the fridge for my stuff. Breakfast was available for $3 (but there was cereal and the makings for PB&J). The wifi was good when it worked (it went down halfway through my stay), but you had to buy it unless you had booked your room directly through them, in which case you got two hours for free. They were, however, very helpful in choosing and scheduling tours, even offering some discounts.
Cairns – Gilligan’s – $25/night x 2 nights
Lots of hostels cater to the party crowd, but you can usually steer clear of these aspects if you want to. Gilligan’s, though, is like backpacker Vegas. This place is huge in comparison to most hostels, with six floors and multiple wings. It’s also much flashier and you pay for everything (including wifi and lockers, if you want one bigger than your purse). If you book the cheap room, like I originally did, it will back up against the nightclub and your walls will shake until the early hours of morning (I heard horror stories and paid to upgrade to the all-girls wing before I experienced this firsthand). I also heard many stories about people whose roommates were as obnoxious as you might expect backpacker Vegas-goers to be; I was lucky to be staying with seven very respectful girls. On the plus side, there’s a huge travel agency in the lobby with staff members who can speak knowledgeably about and book you on any tour you want, the restaurant offers backpacker meals each night (these are basic and not awesome, but they are $4), and if you’d rather cook, the kitchens are giant. My stay here was decent, but I can see how it could be very bad. Probably only stay here if you are looking for a party and don’t mind the possibility of getting peed on by a drunk roommate (pro tip: choose the top bunk!).
Daintree – PK’s Jungle Lodge – $25/night x 2 nights (discount from being booked through Cape Trib Tours)
I stayed here as part of my rainforest tour, so the location was obviously pretty awesome. The rooms themselves are very basic (cement floor, plain walls, plastic-covered mattress), but I suppose that makes it easier to keep clean in a tropical environment. The bathrooms were in a separate building and similar to what you might find at a summer camp or public pool. There were lots of stalls, lots of sinks, and lots of showers (with changing areas!), so you never had to wait. The kitchen looked awful…dark, dirty, and not a place food should come from. The bar/restaurant was overpriced but cleaner. There was no wifi and no locker option (although there were fewer people coming and going, so I wasn’t too uncomfortable not locking my things up). If this level of accommodation had been in a city I wouldn’t have been too impressed, but my expectations relax in the wilderness.
Brisbane – Brisbane City Backpackers – $26/night x 3 nights
I have mixed feelings about this hostel. The room I stayed in was great. It was a large four-person room in the all-girls wing (requiring separate key card access) with comfortable mattresses (although there was no ladder to the top bunk, which seemed a little weird). The bathroom was cramped, with stall doors hitting each other if they were open at the same time, weird boxed off areas of the shower right where you needed to stand, and no counter space at two out of three sinks. But it was never crowded, so that was cool. There was a pool and a sundeck, which I was really into. The whole eating/kitchen situation was not good though. First of all, there were no dishes or utensils in the kitchen. You had to get them from reception (and leave a deposit), which then left you to decide whether you did this every single time you ate (like I did) or whether you kept these dishes in your room, trying not to break them during your stay. It also meant that if you just wanted a fork you still had to get, and deal with, a plate, bowl, mug, spoon, and knife. The kitchen itself was the dirtiest I’d seen (except for PK’s), even though it was cleaned daily. I don’t know if there was just a particularly messy group staying there at the time or what, but it was gross. Finally and most importantly, the wifi was a disgrace. Technically there was free wifi, but only in the kitchen/dining area, and it was dial-up slow. Some websites wouldn’t even load and I used up all of my patience trying to check my email. You can pay to upgrade to faster service, but I heard through the grapevine that it’s really not that much faster, just a scam to get more money out of you. Oh, and no free breakfast here.
Total – $353 for 14 nights ($270 USD)
There’s a lot to do in Australia, especially along the Queensland coast. As a backpacker, you will be forced to rely on organized tours to see many of the main highlights. Even the cheaper options aren’t always that cheap, but if you want to see the sights, you sign up anyway.
My best tip here is to really think about your must-do tours before you get started. There are countless fun things being offered at every stop along the way, but you may need to pass up some of these early on to afford the really great stuff later. Consider skipping adventures you’ve already had (or could have) somewhere else (ziplining, paddleboarding, surfing, etc) and focus on the only-in-Australia options (diving in the Great Barrier Reef, Fraser Island, the Whitsundays, etc).
Below are the tours I chose. Each is linked to a separate blog on the outing, but I’ve also included a brief overview, plus pricing, here.
Noosa Everglades – $199 – This wasn’t my best choice. It was nice, as most trips into nature are, but it wasn’t what I expected and was a way overpriced. I’d skip this one and spend more time doing reef trips if I had a do-over.
Fraser Island – $170 – This was cool. The tour felt a little rushed, but we hit the highlights (although I didn’t see any dingos…sad face). I’d put this in the must-do category but would skip the tours where you drive yourself around, as they are a lot more expensive to see the same things.
The Whitsundays – $149 – The best tour of the trip. I definitely recommend Ocean Rafting as the tour group of choice, although the area is stunningly beautiful, so I’m sure the others are nice too. Don’t miss Whitehaven Beach.
Daintree National Park – $144 (not counting the accommodation costs) – I definitely wanted to see this and I’m glad I did. I do wish I’d had more time and flexibility as to where I could go. The park is huge and I’d like to have seen more, but given the circumstances, this was probably the best I could do. If you do this tour, definitely stay at least one night (preferably two) at one of the lodges so you have a bit of time to explore on your own (but watch out for those crocs!).
Scuba Diving the Great Barrier Reef – $260 (including $70 for the intro dive and a discount from Gilligan’s) – I loved this tour as well. The GBR is huge and I’m sure there are thousands of great snorkeling and dive spots, but without wanting to pay for a multi-day liveaboard trip, this was probably the best option I had. The intro dive was definitely worth it.
Total Spent – $922 (just over $700 USD)
A significant amount of my time in Australia was spent volunteering. I helped out at Farm Animal Rescue for a month and Brindle Creek Sanctuary for about three and a half weeks. Both positions were incredible and gave me the chance to do something I love: help animals. It was a pleasure to be a part of both of these projects and the great work they do, plus they both came with perk of free food and accommodation.
Projects like these are a great way to save money during long trips. Not only did I have nearly two months with no expenses at all, but I was able to feel like a temporary resident of the area, rather than a traveler just passing through in a couple of days.
So how do you find projects like this? Check out Workaway.info and/or HelpX.net. Both have a huge number of listings around the world covering everything from the type of work I did to helping a family care for children, working in a guest house, or assisting in a renovation project. The possibilities are endless. Both require a small fee (around $30) for a year-long membership, although you can browse projects without signing up (the fee gives you contact info for the various projects). There’s a lot of cross-over between the two, but some projects are only listed on one or the other, so maybe try one to start and if you get to a point where you can’t find another project, check out the other one. The downside of these sites is that you probably won’t get a response from every project you email. Keep trying though…I’ve booked four amazing projects so far and the fee is nothing compared to the months of free accommodation I’ve gotten out of it.
If you still need some inspiration, check out my post on why everyone should have at least one long-term volunteer experience in their life.
Finding vegan food wasn’t very hard in Australia. While it’s true that there wasn’t nearly as much as I was used to in LA (but, seriously, LA is vegan heaven, so that’s to be expected), there was still plenty. Gardein and Tofurkey are both available in certain places, although too overpriced to be practical. I mostly skipped fake meats during these three months but was happy to find vegan butter (Nuttelex). When I was cooking regularly, I ate a lot of lentils, quinoa, veggies, oatmeal, and chocolate. During the times I was eating out, I was able to find vegan options easily. I even found Lentil As Anything, the most awesome vegan restaurant in Sydney.
Pro Tip: Download the Happy Cow app. It lists vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants and shops around the world, searchable by location, visible on a map, and provides directions to get there from your location.
It was also reasonably easy to find cruelty-free toiletries as long as there were decent-sized stores around. Aim for Coles, as it’s the cheapest and most like a major US grocery store. Woolworth’s has good options but is more expensive. IGAs are small, local grocery stores that usually have more limited options (from my experience).
I had a fantastic three months in Australia. I’ve wanted to visit the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree, and the Blue Mountains for a long time. Now I have. I spent two incredible weeks in Sydney, learned a little bit about rugby, and cuddled kangaroos. There weren’t really any downsides.
I will say, though, that I was ready to move on when my three months were up. As cool as Australia is, it’s also very much like the US. As I became more settled in my new identity as a backpacker, I also became more and more restless to go somewhere that felt completely different. Luckily for me, Southeast Asia is pretty different. The next few months will be nothing like my time in either Australia or the US and I’m looking forward to the new adventures that I’ll have here. Stay tuned for those!