Travelling Australia: How to see the best things without paying the worst prices

Travel Tips

By Tay Kinnear

I arrived in Australia, from the UK, having spent most of my life savings on the plane ticket to get there. Ironically, I wouldn’t even be there for that long. I wasn’t, like most people, travelling to Australia for a gap year, armed with years worth of money saved up and a job ready and waiting for me when I got there (although I would love to have done that many years ago). 

Instead, I was on a three-week trip to visit my best friend who was doing the thing I just said that I wasn’t doing myself. Three weeks. Three weeks on the other side of the world, with not much of a clue how I was going to pay for the rest of the adventure. We’d planned to rent a van when I arrived and travel down the East Coast from Cairns to Brisbane; I realized as soon as I arrived that taking the cost of the van and the cost of petrol, I was left with around 500 AUD for the following three weeks. 

Five hundred is not nothing. It’s a substantial sum of money and during the first couple of days I had no worries about how I was going to make the money last because five hundred seemed like a lot to me. However, one thing that surprised me in Australia was how everything comes with a price tag, nature included. I come from England but for the past three years I’ve lived in Switzerland where nature is just outside your front door and it’s all accessible and free. It’s one of the Swiss ideals that creates their culture of outdoor lifestyles and remains incredible important to the national zeitgeist. 

So I was surprised to learn, when we arrived off the plane in Cairns, that I couldn’t just take a walk in the forest by taking a bus from the city, or that if I wanted to swim in the sea, it wasn’t here. Later, I began to feel more and more frustrated by how everything required a tour guide or taking private transport disguised as public transport (please stop telling me this twenty dollar private coach into the jungle is a ‘bus’). 

Seeing as how I did not end up living on the streets of Cairns forever more, I’ll spoil the ending and say that I did not run out of money. I managed to make it on a road trip in Australia for three weeks with just five hundred dollars in my purse – and I saw koalas, lost phone signal in the jungle, and visited an island. It wasn’t a trip of luxury and sometimes involved some serious sacrifices, but if you’re interested in doing Australia on the super-cheap, then here’s some of my top tips and the story of how I did it (just…). 

Unless you’re planning to stay in one place during your stay in the country, I cannot recommend enough finding a group of people and renting a van together. Like the US, public transport in Australia is not very ubiquitous nor affordable like it is in most European countries and even taking a coach designed for tourists like you could cost you up to 300 dollars for a fairly short journey. Australia seems designed to rip off tourists. 

So, if you want to move around, grab yourself a good group of four friends and rent a little Juicy van for around 500 per person. The great thing about companies like Juicy is that you can pick up the van in one city and, because they have offices all around the country in major tourist destinations, you can drop it off at another location thousands of miles from where you started. This gives you a lot more freedom than if you were to have to drop it off where you rented it from.

One of the major reasons that I suggest renting a van as opposed to renting a car or making your journey on public transport is that the vans come with a place to sleep (yes, for all four of you!), a cooker, a fridge, and lots of storage. It means that if you need to stick to a very strict budget, you can eat instant noodles from the supermarket everyday, keep unused food in the fridge instead of throwing it out, and sleep in the van instead of paying for hostels even night. Suddenly you go from have necessities to pay for everyday like most people do whilst on holiday, to living in much the same money-saving way as you might back home. 

If you’ve made your way over to Australia, you probably have a couple classic Australian activities on your to-do list. You probably want to see a koala, scuba dive, spend a night on one of the islands, and maybe even go to the outback. The key to seeing as much as you can in Australia whilst spending as little as you can is to combine activities together – which means doing your research beforehand. If you can kill several birds with one stone it’s going to save you more time and more money than if you attempt to do everything separately (and therefore pay separately!).

One example of this that I did was to take advantage of some of the areas where you can see koalas in the wild just by taking a walk in that area. We decided to spend a night on Magnetic Island, which is one of the islands known for its beauty and its undisrupted nature. Koalas are still living freely on the island, aback from the touristic areas along the coast, and can be spotted fairly easily by walking along one of the pathways that runs around the island. It was a great way to finally enjoy some Australian nature (without a paid guide!), see one of the famous Australian islands and see a koala in the wild.

If you’re traveling around in a campervan, it’s temping to go to campsites in prime locations when you park up to sleep – and for good reason. There are many hostel-come-campsites for tourists and travellers, complete with on-site bars, shower facilities, and most importantly Wi-Fi. I do highly recommend stopping off at these types of campsites whilst on your trip – and some of them are reasonably priced – but these are not the only places you can stay.

Whilst we were meandering around the country, we parked up at a whole bunch of sites in the middle of nowhere; just a field and a block of toilets. And the best thing about these areas is that they were on a stop off between places we wanted to see and free. We even got chatting to a group of local Australians who were on a fishing trip. They invited us into their circle, offered us some goon (wine in a bag), and told stories about drop bears and tricking tourists.

If you know that you’re just stopping somewhere for the night and all you’ll be doing there is sleeping, aim for the free sites away from the cities. You’ll have a beautiful clear view of the night’s sky and you’ll probably sleep earlier, leaving you fresh-faced for the adventure the next day. Just be aware that there might not be electricity at the site, if your van needs charging.

One really hot tip for saving money is not to assume that the first prices you see are the best. Australia is somewhat set up for tourists – especially in the hot spots like Cairns, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney – so there are a lot of companies milling around tourist groups hoping to entice them with their “amazing deals”. Often these deals turn out to not be so amazing once you speak to other groups of people doing the same activities (e.g. diving at the Great Barrier Reef) and hear they paid much less than you.

As with a lot of things nowadays, online deals are often much cheaper and if you’re trying to see everything without paying everything, offers tourist attraction packages at sometimes half the price of what you’d normally pay. They have deals on attractions in all the classic Australian destinations, including the four mentioned above, and in some cases you might not have even thought of the activity they’re offering but now it’s piqued you’re interest enough to go!

Wherever you’ve ended up in the country, you can search your location on their website and up will come a list of attractions you can see or activities you can do in that area. All the discounts being offered are listed and you can pay online, which is great for if you’re running out of cash.

One of the deals that you can find is a bike hire offer, which is available in most of the cities you’ll probably be visiting. If you’re travelling around a lot in a van, being able to cover the city by bicycle feels great for restless legs that have been cooped up all day. Whilst I was travelling down the coast, we had a lot of ground to cover in only three weeks, which often meant eight hours in the van just to get to our next location (Australia is big!). Time spent using my legs, getting fresh air and being able to see a new place was priceless and I can absolutely recommend cycling when you can.

And if you do have a bigger budget than I have, Australia is one of the most beautiful places to skydive. On our travels, one of the girls in our van.

And if you’re really determined to budget as much as you can on your trip, here are some final little money-saving tips:

  • Ditch the bigger tourist bars for weird local ones and get chatting to some Australians about what’s good (or free!) in the area
  • Goon! If you’re not too worried about having the worst hangover of your life the next day, by a 2 litre box of good (wine in a bag). The more sugary, the cheaper. And it will probably last you six months.
  • Cook as a group. Take it in turns to choose a meal between you all and get on board with other people’s tastes. Or eat instant noodles for weeks on end – that words too.
  • Find out which part of travelling you enjoy (partying, exploring nature, sight-seeing, etc.) and then only do that part. If you don’t enjoy, for instance, doing out for drinks in the evening with fellow travellers then skip it. You do you.
Travel Tips