February, 2004 -- Can't believe you can really travel and stay comfortably around this huge country for as little as $50 a day? It can be done. Australia's abundance of family-run motels, authentic country pubs, friendly B&Bs, and inexpensive ethnic restaurants offer a wide variety of great eating, welcoming accommodations, and some of the most amazing sights you'll ever see, without sacrificing fun, comfort, and adventure to a budget.
Our "$50-a-day" premise is based on the assumption of two adults traveling together who, between the two of them, have at least US$100, or US$50 per person, to spend per day on accommodations and meals. (We used a calculation of A$1 equals US65¢.) But fluctuations in the value of the Australian dollar against the U.S. dollar in recent years may mean you will get even more value for your money (or less) at the time you travel. Sightseeing, entertainment, and transport costs are extra, but we have unearthed loads of free and next-to-free ways for you to see the sights and get around without breaking the bank. Because airfare is likely to be the most expensive part of your trip, we provide tips on finding low-cost deals and packages.
But make no mistake: This isn't a backpacker's guide to Oz. Although the article includes the best backpacker-style accommodations and hostels, its aim is to suggest the best places to stay and dine at the best price. In fact, if you frequent the places recommended and follow our money-saving tips on transportation and sightseeing, you'll be traveling the same way most average Australians do. They would rather stay in a mid-priced country guesthouse that has a bit of charm, and eat at the cheap, fabulous Thai nosh-house, than pay a fortune to sit around a five-star resort's swimming pool eating $15 hamburgers. We've done the legwork -- ferreting our ways to nail down deals on airfares, listing package comapnies, locating adventure operators, and more -- all you need to do is pick and choose what suits you best!
1. Even if you never set foot in a youth hostel, an all-time great buy is membership in the Australian Youth Hostels Association (AYHA), (www.yha.com.au) or its U.S. counterpart, Hostelling International-American Youth Hostels (www.hiayh.org). It entitles you to a huge array of discounts.
2. Try to buy a discounted ticket. Many companies, particularly airline ticket consolidators ("bucket shops") that buy tickets wholesale, and some Australian tour companies, offer discounts for booking direct with them, rather than through a travel agent, to whom they must pay commission. Do check with the travel agent, too, to make sure you're getting the best deal, or if you have complex traveling needs.
3. When booking a hotel room at a major chain or renting a car from a major agency, be sure to ask whether you qualify for frequent-flier miles. If you have acquired a load of frequent-flier miles, they may be redeemable for award travel, lodging, and other travel needs.
4. If you are a senior or student, ask about discounts at every chance -- when booking your airfare, hotel, rental car, or sightseeing tour; buying theater tickets; or visiting museums or attractions.
5. Full-time students should arm themselves with an International Student Identity Card (ISIC), which offers substantial savings on rail passes, plane tickets, and entrance fees. It also provides you with basic health and life insurance and a 24-hour help line. The card is available for $22 from STA Travel (tel. 800/781-4040 in the U.S. -- if you're not in North America there's probably a local number in your country; www.statravel.com), the biggest student travel agency in the world.
6. If you're no longer a student but are still under 26, you can get an International Youth Travel Card (IYTC) for the same price from the same people, which entitles you to some discounts (but not on museum admissions).
7. Before you purchase travel insurance, check that you do not already have it as part of your credit card agreement or existing health insurance policy. Check to see if your current health insurance covers you fully for medical treatment and evacuation anywhere in the world and if your credit card company insures you against travel accidents if you buy plane, train, or bus tickets with its card. Your homeowner's insurance should cover stolen luggage. However, if you have paid a large portion of your vacation expenses up front, it might be a good idea to buy trip-cancellation insurance. Read through this article for in-depth explanations on policies and our recommendations for where to buy travel insurance.
8. In terms of airfare, the off-season runs from mid-April to the end of August. This is not only the cheapest time to fly from America, but it's also the best time to visit Australia! That's because Down Under winter (June, July, and Aug), when the days are balmy and nice, is more pleasant than the too-hot summer (Dec, Jan, and Feb).
9. Traveling on certain days of the week can save you money. Monday-to-Thursday departures can shave an extra US$60 off your airfare.
10. Consider a package. Whether you opt for an independent or group tour, package deals are terrific values because they typically include airfare (usually from Los Angeles), decent accommodations, some or all meals, tours, transfers, and other extras. The per-day price of a package (including airfare) can work out to be about the same as a night's accommodations in a midrange hotel.
11. Look for travel agents and consolidators specializing in cheap fares to Australia.
12. The quickest way between two points is not always the cheapest. Sometimes airlines and travel agents release spot specials for people prepared to travel via a lengthier route, or at short notice. If this is you, scour the travel sections of newspapers, and visit airline websites for the latest deals.
13. The cheapest fares are usually the ones with the most restrictions. With Qantas's (www.qantas.com) 21-day advance purchase fare, for example, you must pay for the ticket within 21 days after booking, stay at least a week, and no more than a month in Australia; you can't make stopovers, and you cannot change the routing once you have paid for the ticket. For many people, these conditions are fine for the trip they are planning.
14. Flying within Australia is expensive -- but not if you pre-purchase Qantas coupons. The coupons can cost less than half the regular fares. Only non-Australians can buy them, and you must buy them before you leave home.
15. Because air travel within Australia is so expensive, Qantas offers discounts of around 30% off regular fares for non-Australian passport holders. To obtain the discount, quote your passport number when booking your flight.
16. If you belong to a frequent-flier club, use your miles to contribute toward your airfare, or take advantage of any offers to buy miles at a reduced rate to reach an award level. If you are not already a frequent flier, join when you buy your ticket. The flight to Australia may earn you another trip!
17. To get even more frequent-flier miles, pay for your airline ticket on a credit card that gives you miles for every dollar you spend. Just be sure you don't get zapped with sky-high interest charges.
18. Airfare and accommodations will take the biggest bite out of your budget, so look for package tours that include both plane ticket and 5 or more nights' accommodations -- often at substantial savings for both.
19. If you get an apartment with a full kitchen, you can save money by not eating out at every meal. Australian cities and holiday destinations are awash with this kind of accommodations. Even if you only make breakfast every morning, you could save enough to splurge on a really special meal.
20. Try to avoid visiting Australia during the country's school holidays. Hotel and apartment rates in popular vacation spots like the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast, and Cairns in Queensland soar during the Australian school vacations.
21. Many accommodations chains offer discounted rates for customers of a particular car-rental company with which the hotel chain is partnered. When making your reservation or checking in, it never hurts to ask whether you qualify for a discount.
22. Bed-and-breakfasts are a friendly alternative to a cheerless motel room, and in Oz they're often quite cheap. Many pretty B&Bs charge A$75 (US$49) or less for a double room with breakfast-about the same as a motel room without breakfast.
23. Youth hostels and backpacker lodges are not just for the young. Some are almost as good as resorts, with a pool, a tour desk, and Internet access, and they often offer inexpensive meals. Many have basic but clean private rooms for under A$50 (US$33) for a double. As long as you can handle sharing a bathroom, these rooms are often the cheapest comfortable beds in town.
24. YWCA (www.ywca.org.au) has comfortable budget hotels in Sydney, Melbourne, and Darwin with private rooms, dorms, and family rooms -- a cut above the average backpacker digs.
25. Many pubs, especially those in the country, offer lodging. Staying in a pub can be a money-saving option if you don't mind sharing a bathroom (some have private bathrooms, but don't expect it) and coping with the din of drinkers in the bar downstairs (often until midnight Fri-Sat). The quality varies, but most rooms have a measure of historical charm. Rates can be as little as A$40 (US$26) for a double and are rarely more than A$75 (US$49); most include breakfast.
26. Most hotels accommodate kids up to age 12 (and even older) free of charge in your room if they use existing beds; if a hotel does charge extra for a child, it's usually only A$10 to A$20 (US$6.50-US$13) at most.
27. Bus travel in Oz is quite comfortable -- the buses are clean, the seats are comfortable, and you sometimes even get a video onboard. Passes from the two national coach companies, Greyhound Pioneer (www.greyhound.com.au) and McCafferty's, (www.mccaffertys.com.au) represent great value, especially as some of them include tours.
28. Train fares in Australia cost about the same as bus fares, if you travel in a sitting berth (the seats recline somewhat). If you want a sleeper cabin, fares get expensive fast. Check out the money-saving passes Rail Australia (www.railaustralia.com.au) offers.
29. Countrylink (tel. 1800/026-222; firstname.lastname@example.org) which oversees rail travel in New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland, offers advance-purchase discounts of up to 40%.
30. Before you book a rental car in Australia, consider whether you really need one. In major tourist towns like Alice Springs and Cairns, travelers fall into the trap of renting a car and then letting it sit outside their hotel the whole vacation, because every local tour company picked them up at the door. If you need a car only to drive into town for dinner, take a cab.
31. Fill up your rental car at a nearby gas station before you return it, not at the much-more-expensive car rental depot's pump.
32. Gas in cities is often cheaper on Mondays because most people fill up their tanks before the weekend.
33. Whether you go by air, rail, bus, or car, try not to backtrack. In a country as big as Australia, you can waste a lot of money retracing your steps.
34. Don't buy maps. Most visitor centers dispense free or next-to-free maps of the area. If you are a member of an automobile club with which the Australian Automobile Association (AAA) (www.aaa.asn.au) has a reciprocal agreement, you can often obtain free state, regional, and city road maps. The American Automobile Association, and the Automobile Associations in the U.K., Canada, and New Zealand, have such an arrangement with Australia. Pick up the maps before you leave, or collect them at the AAA offices in Australia.
Wining & Dining
35. The letters to look for when dining out in Oz are BYO, which means Bring Your Own: Buy wine or beer at the cheapest bottle shop ("liquor store" to Americans, "off-license" to Brits) you can find, and take it with you to the restaurant. That way you avoid the markup of 100%, 200%, or more that restaurateurs are so fond of adding. All you pay is a corkage charge of about A$1 to A$3 (US65¢-US$1.95) per person.
36. Go ethnic and you're almost guaranteed great food at low prices -- Indian, Cambodian, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Italian, and Thai are all pretty sure bets. The smarter Chinese restaurants are good, but often a tad pricey, and not always BYO.
37. An advantage of going out for Asian food is that dishes are usually shared, so small eaters can get away with not ordering a whole meal for themselves (great for families). Because one Asian main course is often enough for two people, the golden rule is to order and eat one dish first, then order a second if you need it.
38. In cities, head to an Italian sidewalk cafe for tasty pasta and stylish sandwiches. A focaccia sandwich with salami, provolone cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and arugula will set you back around A$8 (US$5.20) and keep you going 'til dinner.
39. Backpacker lodges, youth hostels, and universities almost always have restaurants or cafes attached, which serve up big portions of tasty, healthy food for not much money.
40. Tipping is not necessary, although it is common to tip 5% to 10% in restaurants and round cab fares up to the nearest A$1 (US65¢). Plenty of Aussies don't tip, so don't feel embarrassed about hanging on to your coins.
41. If you are traveling by car, keep a box of cereal and long-life milk in the trunk and use the hotel coffee cups as bowls. It beats paying A$10 (US$6.50) for the same thing in the hotel restaurant.
42. RSL (Returned and Services League) clubs and League clubs (as in Rugby League football) serve hearty meals-along the roast, chicken Kiev, and steak lines, with vegetables or salad, and bread and potato included-for around A$10 (US$6.50). You will have to sign in before you enter the club and put up with their uniquely lurid brand of neon-lit decor, but that's part of the fun. Kids' meals are about A$5 (US$3.25).
Tours & Sightseeing
43. Australian city councils are big on providing free entertainment -- for example, Sydney has free dance performances or concerts at Darling Harbour many weekends, and free lunchtime concerts in Martin Place most days; Brisbane has street performers at South Bank Parklands most weekends; and Darwin has free Sunday Jazz by the sea at the MGM Grand Casino in Dry Season. Check local newspapers for details.
44. You can often get half-price theater tickets on the day of the performance. Matinees are often around A$8 (US$5.20), cheaper than evening shows.
45. Walking tours can be half the price of bus tours, and they give you a good close-up view of the city and sights.
46. Skincare products, cosmetics, perfume, electronics, imported designer accessories, liquor, cigarettes, and other luxury items attract high duty in Australia. If you need to buy these products, get them in duty-free stores, which can be found in capital cities and major tourist destinations. You will need to show your airline ticket and passport to buy.
47. If you buy anything expensive -- jewelry, for example -- ask if there is a tax-free price for international travelers. Most non-duty-free stores selling high-ticket items offer tax-free prices to international travelers who show their airline ticket and passport.
48. Aboriginal artifacts make great souvenirs and gifts, but look for the shops just a block or two away from the center of town, which sell the same items a good bit cheaper than the ones on the main streets.
49. There are no cover charges at pubs, and drinks are cheaper than in nightclubs. Some have live entertainment, pool, and sports video screens.
50. Aussies love beer any time, but it never tastes better than during happy hour, that period from around 4 to 6pm when many city bars and pubs mark drinks down to half price or less. Happy hours are especially common Thursday and Friday, but any time of the week you are never far from a pub that makes an art fprm of brand-based specials.