A vast island continent, Australia teems with natural and cultural treasures. Relax on gorgeous beaches along the sprawling coastline, or plunge below the water in Queensland to explore the Great Barrier Reef. Nature enthusiasts revel in exciting adventures in the interior, from trekking around majestic Uluru to spotting wildlife in tropical rain forests. But there’s more to life down under than outdoor activities. Cosmopolitan cities like Sydney and Melbourne entice with thriving dining and arts scenes, while world-class vineyards abound.
Sydney is Australia’s main international hub, though it is also easy to get international flights to Melbourne, Brisbane, Cairns, and Perth. You can catch nonstop or one-stop flights to Australia from New York (21 hours via Los Angeles); Chicago (19 hours via Los Angeles); Los Angeles (14 hours nonstop); Vancouver (14 hours nonstop); Toronto (20 hours via Los Angeles or Vancouver); and London (20–24 hours via Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, or Bangkok).
Because Pacific-route flights from the United States to Australia cross the international dateline, you lose a day but regain it on the journey home.
Sydney Airport (SYD) is Australia’s main air hub and the first port of call for more than half of the country’s visitors. Terminal 1 is for all international flights, Qantas and Qantaslink domestic flights operate out of Terminal 3, and Terminal 2 is for all other domestic flights (including Virgin Australia, Tigerair, and Jetstar). A rail link connects the terminals underground, and frequent shuttle buses run between them aboveground. There is an excellent range of shops and restaurants in the international terminal.
Brisbane International Airport (BNE) is southern Queensland’s main airport and rivals Sydney’s in quality and services. There are separate domestic and international terminals. Cairns International Airport (CNS), in north Queensland, is the hub for northern Queensland and visits to the Great Barrier Reef.
Melbourne Airport (MEL) is sometimes known as “Tullamarine,” after a neighboring suburb. International flights leave from Terminal 2; Qantas and Jetstar use Terminal 1 for their domestic operations. Virgin Australia makes up the bulk of the other domestic flights, which go from Terminal 3. Tigerair flies from Terminal 4.
South Australia’s main airport is Adelaide International (ADL). Domestic flights and a few services to nearby Asian cities land at Darwin International Airport (DRW) in the Northern Territory. The hub for the Red Centre is Alice Springs Airport (ASP), which only receives domestic flights. Perth International Airport (PER) is the gateway to Western Australia. International flights operate from Terminal 1; most Qantas and Qantaslink domestic flights leave from Terminal 4. Terminal 2 and 3 host Virgin Australia, Jetstar, Tigerair, Alliance Airlines, and some Qantas regional services.
Flights To Australia
Qantas is Australia’s flagship carrier. It operates direct flights to Sydney from New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and from Los Angeles to Melbourne and Brisbane. There are connecting Qantas flights to many other North American cities, and direct flights from various Australian airports to many Asian and European destinations. It’s part of Oneworld Alliance, and has excellent standards of safety and comfort. Qantas flights aren’t always the cheapest, but their Walkabout Air Pass includes three stops within Australia for the same price as your ticket from North America.
Jetstar is a low-cost local airline owned by Qantas, and has flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Cairns, Perth, Adelaide, and Darwin to Bali, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and Honolulu. Virgin Australia and Virgin Samoa fly to Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Zealand, Indonesia, and the Cook Islands, while Virgin Australia-owned budget airline Tigerair Australia flies direct from select cities to Bali and to other Asian destinations through affiliate carriers.
Flights Within Australia
Australia’s large distances mean that flying is usually the locals’ favorite way of getting from one city to another. In general, safety standards on domestic flights are high, flights are punctual, and there’s plenty of timetable choice. On routes between popular destinations like Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane there are often several flights each hour.
Organized boat tours from the Queensland mainland are the only way to visit the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns is the number-one point of departure, but boats also leave from Mackay, Airlie Beach, Townsville, and Port Douglas. Boats also run between the Whitsunday Islands. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority website has helpful advice on how to choose a tour operator and lists which companies are ecotourism-certified.
The daily ferries Spirit of Tasmania I and II take 10 hours to connect Melbourne with Devonport on Tasmania’s north coast. Make reservations as early as possible, particularly during the busy December and January school holidays.
Sealink Ferries transport passengers and vehicles between Cape Jervis on the South Australian coastline south of Adelaide, and Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island.
You can find out about ferry and cruise schedules for these and other scenic rides at most state tourism offices and on their websites. All operators accept major credit cards and cash.
Bus travel in Australia is comfortable and well organized. Long-distance buses, also called “coaches,” have air-conditioning, onboard toilets, reclining seats, Wi-Fi, and even attendants and videos on longer routes. By law, all are required to provide seat belts, and you are required to use them. Smoking is prohibited on all buses.
Australia’s national bus network is run by Greyhound Australia (no connection to Greyhound in the United States), which serves far more destinations than any plane or train services. However, Australia is a vast continent, and bus travel here requires plenty of time. The journey from Sydney to Melbourne takes 15 hours, Adelaide to Perth takes 39 hours, and Brisbane to Cairns takes 30 hours. If you plan to visit specific regions, it could be worthwhile considering flying to a major hub, then using buses to explore the region when you get there.
Oz Experience has hop-on, hop-off coach travel and tour packages aimed at budget travelers. Utilizing the Greyhound network, the packages take in both major cities and adventure destinations. Oz has a great selection of routes—you buy a pass, and then have unlimited stopovers along that route, booking each segment by telephone or online as you travel. For example, their Bruce Cobber Pass (A$599) takes you along the coast between Sydney and Cairns, including stops at Byron Bay, Magnetic Island, and the Atherton Tablelands, where you get a day tour.
You can book passes and individual tickets on Greyhound and Oz Experience online through their websites, over the telephone, or in person at their desks in bus terminals.
Endless highways, fabulous scenery, eccentric little towns in the middle of nowhere: Australia is road-trip paradise. Even if you don’t have time for major exploring, traveling by car can be a great way to explore a particular region at your own pace. Traffic in city centers can be terrible, so keep the car for the open road.
Driving is generally easy in Australia, once you adjust to traveling on the left side of the road. Road conditions on busy coastal highways usually pose few problems, though remote roads (even big highways) and routes through the desert are often a different story. When you’re preparing a driving itinerary, it’s vital to bear in mind the huge distances involved and calculate travel time and stopovers accordingly.
Most rental companies in Australia accept driving licenses from other countries, including the United States, provided that the information on the license is clear and in English. Otherwise, an International Driver’s Permit is required (but they’ll still want to see your regular license, too).
Gas is known in Australia as “petrol.” Self-service petrol stations are plentiful near major cities and in rural towns. In remote regions, they can be few and far between, so fill up whenever you can. In really out-of-the-way places, carrying a spare petrol can is a good idea. Smaller petrol stations often close at night and on Sunday, though in major cities and on main highways there are plenty of stations open round the clock.
On-street parking is usually plentiful in Australian cities, except in the traffic-heavy CBD (downtown area) of the big capitals. Electronic meters are the norm—you pay in advance, and there’s usually a maximum stay, which you should respect, as Australian parking inspectors are very vigilant. Paid parking lots are also common and usually clearly signposted. Outside the capitals, on-street parking is usually free, as are the lots outside malls and supermarkets.
Renting a Car
Australia’s cities have good public transport, so there’s not much point in renting a car if you’re staying in an urban area, especially one popular with tourists. Step outside city limits and a car is practically a necessity.
Intercity highways are usually in good condition, but more remote roads—even those that look important on maps—can often be unpaved or full of potholes. You can manage short distances on these in a car (for example, an access road to an attraction a few miles from the highway). For longer stretches and any Outback driving, a 4WD is necessary, as insurance generally doesn’t cover damage to other types of cars traveling such roads. Only rent a 4WD if you’re competent to drive one on tough surfaces like sand and bogs: rescue vehicles take a long time to get to the middle of nowhere.
Rental companies have varying policies and charges for unusual trips, such as lengthy cross-state expeditions around the Top End and Western Australia. Ask about additional mileage, fuel, and insurance charges if you’re planning to cover a lot of ground.
Another popular way to see Australia is to rent a camper van (motor home). Nearly all have a toilet, shower, and cooking facilities; utensils and bed linen are usually included, too. Smaller vans for two can be rented for A$50–A$150 a day with unlimited mileage (there’s usually a five-day minimum).
In Australia, you must be 21 to rent a car, and rates may be higher if you’re under 25. There is no upper age limit for rental so long as you have a valid international driver’s license. Most companies charge extra for each additional driver. It’s compulsory for children to use car seats, so be sure to notify your agency when you book—most charge around A$9 per day for a baby or booster seat, or find them for free as part of certain deals.
Your driver’s license may not be recognized outside your home country. You may not be able to rent a car without an International Driving Permit (IDP), which can be used only in conjunction with a valid driver’s license and which translates your license into 10 languages. Check the AAA website for more info as well as for IDPs ($15) themselves.
Except for some expressways in and around the major cities, most highways are two-lane roads with frequent passing lanes but no barrier separating the two directions of traffic. Main roads are usually paved and well maintained, though lanes are narrower than in the United States.
Outside big urban areas roundabouts are far more common than traffic lights—some towns have dozens of them. Remember that when driving on the left you go around a roundabout clockwise and give way to traffic entering from the left and already on the roundabout.
Potential road hazards multiply in rural areas. Driving standards, which are generally high in Australia, become more relaxed. Road surfaces deteriorate, becoming potholed or uneven. Fine sand sometimes fills the holes, making them hard to see. Windshield cracks caused by small stones are frequent. Flash floods are also common during the summer months in northern Australia. Locals advise never crossing a flooded road. When in doubt, turn back or seek advice from the police before crossing.
Animals—kangaroos and livestock, primarily—are common causes of road accidents in rural Australia, especially at night. If you see an animal near the edge of the road, slow down immediately, as it may just decide to step out in front of you. If it does, hitting the animal is generally preferable to swerving, as you can lose control of your car and roll. However, braking too suddenly into the animal can send it through your windshield. Ideally, you should report any livestock you kill to the nearest ranch, and should check dead kangaroos for joeys (babies carried in their pouches): if you find one, wrap it up and call animal rescue or take it to the nearest vet.
“Road trains” are another Outback hazard: they’re truck convoys made of several connected trailers, totaling up to 170 feet. They take a long time to brake, so keep your distance and overtake them only with extreme caution.
Outback driving can be exhausting and potentially dangerous. Avoid driving alone, and rest often. Carry plenty of water with you (at least one gallon per person per day)—high temperatures make dehydration a common problem on the road. Don’t count on your cell phone working in the middle of nowhere, and if an emergency occurs never leave your vehicle: it’s visible, and provides you shelter from the sun and cold. Stick by the side of the road: sooner or later, someone will come along.
If you have an emergency requiring an ambulance, the fire department, or the police, dial 000.
Many major highways now have telephones for breakdown assistance; you can also use your cell phone if you have one. Otherwise, flag down and ask a passing motorist to call the nearest motoring service organization for you. Most Australian drivers are happy to assist, particularly in country areas.
Each state has its own motoring organization that provides assistance for vehicle breakdowns. When you rent a vehicle, check that you are entitled to assistance from the relevant motoring organization free of charge. A toll-free nationwide number is available for roadside assistance.
Emergency Services. 000.
National Roadside Assistance. 13–1111.
Rules of the Road
Speed limits vary from state to state. As a rough guide, 50–60 kilometers per hour (30–37 mph) is the maximum in populated areas, reduced to 40 kph (25 mph) near schools. On open roads, limits range from 100 to 130 kph (62–80 mph). Limits are usually signposted clearly and regularly and are enforced by police speed checks and—in state capitals—by automatic cameras.
Drunk driving, once a big problem in Australia, is controlled diligently. The legal limit is 0.05% blood-alcohol level, and penalties are so high that many Aussies just don’t drink if they’re driving. Seat belts are mandatory nationwide. Children must be restrained in a seat appropriate to their size. Car rental agencies can install these for about A$30 per week, with 24 hours’ notice. It is illegal to use a mobile-phone handset when driving.
Traffic circles, called “roundabouts,” are widely used at intersections; cars that have already entered the circle have the right-of-way. At designated intersections in Melbourne’s central business district, you must get into the left lane to make a right-hand turn (called a “hook turn”)—this is to facilitate crossing streetcar lines. Watch for the sign “right-hand turn from left lane only.” Everywhere, watch for sudden changes in speed limits.
The Australian Automobile Association has a branch in each state, known as the National Roads and Motorists Association (NRMA) in New South Wales and Canberra, the Automobile Association in the Northern Territory (AANT), and the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) in all other states. It’s affiliated with AAA worldwide and has reciprocal services to American members, including emergency road service, road maps, copies of each state and territory’s Highway Code, and discounts on car rental and accommodations.
CRUISE SHIP TRAVEL
Coral Princess Cruises runs three- to seven-night cruises along the Great Barrier Reef; its Across the Top trip continues to Darwin. There’s also a cruise between Darwin and Broome.
Pacific Dawn, Australia’s biggest cruise liner sails various one- and two-week Pacific and New Zealand cruises out of Brisbane, while Pacific Jewel runs “Island Hopper” tours and a short Brisbane to Sydney cruise. The Pacific Pearl also cruises the Pacific, leaving from Sydney. All three are owned by P&O, known in the rest of the world as Princess Cruises.
Princess Cruises’ huge Sapphire Princess sails between New Zealand and Australia at the end of its 33-day cruise from Seattle, Washington. The smallerDawn Princess travels between the Australian east coast, New Zealand, and the South Pacific, departing Sydney and Brisbane.
Regent Seven Seas’ Seven Seas Voyager docks at several points on Australia’s east and north coasts; including Sydney, Brisbane, and Darwin; on cruises to Indonesia, Singapore, and Papua New Guinea. Crystal Cruises’ Australia and New Zealand tours take in a range of popular destinations on the east coast and Top End, including Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns, and Darwin. Some cruises even encompass the beautiful coastlines of Western Australia and Tasmania. Silversea’s Silver Whisper follows a similar route plan and also encompasses Hong Kong.
Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth sails from New York and San Francisco to Sydney, and calls at Australian ports on round-the-world cruises, too. So do its Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria.
Australia has a network of long-distance trains providing first- and economy-class service along the east and south coasts, across the south of the country from Sydney to Perth, and through the middle of the country between Adelaide and Darwin.
Most long-distance trains are operated by various state-government-owned enterprises. The luxurious exceptions to the rule are the Ghan, Indian Pacific, and Overland, all run by the private company Great Southern Rail. Rail Australia is the umbrella organization for all of these services outside the country.
The state-owned trains are usually punctual and comfortable. Economy class has reclining seats, and on longer routes there are sleeper classes. Second-class sleepers have shared bathrooms and sometimes you share your cabin with strangers, too. In first-class you have the cabin to yourself and a small en suite bathroom. Meals are sometimes included. Comfort levels increase in Premium Red Service on the Overland, and Gold and Platinum Service on the Ghan and Indian Pacific and in the Spirit of Queensland’s’ RailBed carriages. The high-speed Tilt Train is aimed at business travelers and has business-class-style reclining seats.
Internet access is widely available to travelers in Australia. Top-end hotels always have some sort of in-room access for laptop users—usually Wi-Fi, otherwise, there are data ports. Note that in some establishments, you are charged a hefty premium for using this service.
Australia’s main telephone network, Telstra, has wireless hotspots all over the country, and 3G/4G coverage for smartphones and tablets is reliable in most populated areas. Fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s, as well as many cafés, offer free Wi-Fi for customers. Alternatively, you can buy prepaid data packages for your smartphone or tablet at news agencies and convenience stores, or purchase a prepaid mobile broadband USB or dongle from Telstra, Optus, Virgin, or Vodafone retailers.
The country code for Australia is 61. To call Australia from the United States, dial the international access code (011), followed by the country code (61), the area or city code without the initial zero (e.g., 2), and the eight-digit phone number.
Calling Within Australia
Australia’s phone system is efficient and reliable. You can make local and long-distance calls from your hotel—usually with a surcharge—or from any public phone. There are usually public phones in shopping areas, at train stations, and outside rural post offices. You can use coins or phone cards in most public phones; credit-card phones are common at airports.
All regular telephone numbers in Australia have eight digits. There are five area codes: 02 (for New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory), 03 (Victoria and Tasmania), 04 (for cell phones), 07 (for Queensland), and 08 (for Western Australia, South Australia, and Northern Territory). Toll-free numbers begin with 1800, and numbers starting with 13 or 1300 are charged at local rates anywhere in the country.
Calls within the same area code are charged as local. Long-distance call rates vary by distance and are timed. When you’re calling long distance within Australia, remember to include the area code, even when you’re calling from a number with the same area code. For example, when calling Canberra from Sydney, both of which have an 02 prefix, you still need to include the area code when you dial.
Local Directory Assistance. 1223.
Calling Outside Australia
To call overseas from Australia, dial 0011, then the country code and the number. Kiosks and groceries in major cities sell international calling cards. You can also use credit cards on public phones.
The country code for the United States is 1.
You can use AT&T, Sprint, and MCI services from Australian phones, though some payphones require you to put coins in to make the call. Using a prepaid calling card is generally cheaper, and Skype calls can be made for free with a steady Internet connection.
It’s worth buying a phone card in Australia even if you plan to make just a few calls.
Telstra, Australia’s main telephone company, has a prepaid phone card you can use for local, long-distance, or international calls from public payphones. There are many other calling cards in Australia as well, often with better rates than Telstra’s, and many can now be used from your mobile phone. The best way to find one is to ask in a convenience store or newsagent’s: they usually have a selection on hand, and you can compare rates to the country you’re calling to. Access codes can also be purchased online.
Unlike in previous decades, most modern mobile phones (particularly smartphones) have advanced, multiband technology, which means they can be used in virtually any country where mobile reception is available. However, do your research before you travel, as most providers charge hefty fees for standard international roaming. The best option is to contact your provider to see if they have special international roaming and data passes, which significantly reduce these costs. Be aware that you normally pay for incoming calls as well as outgoing calls, so when overseas, text messaging is usually much more economical. The other roaming expense to watch out for is data usage, which can be as much as several dollars to look at one Web page on your smartphone. To avoid exorbitant charges, keep data roaming switched off on your phone while overseas, and access local Wi-Fi spots instead.
If you just want to make local calls, consider buying a new SIM card (your provider may have to unlock your phone to use a different SIM card) and a prepaid service plan from a local provider (such as Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, or Virgin Mobile). New SIMs are usually inexpensive, and you’ll then have a local number and can make local calls at local rates. Mobile data packages are also available. If your trip is extensive, you could also simply buy or rent a cell phone in your destination, as the initial cost will be offset over time.
Alternately, save on call and text costs by utilizing one of the many free instant messaging services now available on smartphones and tablets (such as WhatsApp, Viber, and Facebook’s Messenger app). They’ll deliver instant messages to your contacts anywhere in the world, wherever you have Internet access.
Nearly all Australian mobile phones use the GSM network. If you have an unlocked phone and intend to make calls to Australian numbers, it makes sense to buy a prepaid Australian SIM card on arrival—rates will be much better than using your U.S. network. Alternatively, you can rent a phone or a SIM card from companies like Vodafone. Rates start at A$5 per day for a handset and A$1 a day for a SIM. You can also buy a cheap, pay-as-you-go handset from Telstra, Virgin Mobile, or Optus. Cell-phone stores are abundant, and staff are used to assessing tourists’ needs.
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
Australian customs regulations are unlike any other. As an island long isolated from the rest of the world, Australia is free from many pests and diseases endemic in other places, and it wants to stay that way. Customs procedures are very thorough, and it can take up to an hour to clear them.
All animals are subject to quarantine. Many foodstuffs and natural products are forbidden, including meat, dairy products, fresh fruit and vegetables, and all food served on aircraft. Most canned or preserved foods may be imported, but you have to declare them on your customs statement and have them inspected, along with wooden artifacts and seeds.
Airport sniffer dogs patrol arrivals areas, and even an innocent dried flower forgotten between the pages of a book could cause problems. If in doubt, declare something—the worst-case scenario is that it will be taken from you, without a fine.
Otherwise, nonresidents over 18 may bring in 50 cigarettes (or 50 grams of cigars or tobacco) and 2¼ liters of alcohol. Adults can bring in other taxable goods (that is, luxury items like perfume and jewelry) to the value of A$900.
Fresh ingredients, friendly service, innovative flavor combinations, and great value for your money mean that eating out Down Under is usually a pleasant experience.
Australia’s British heritage is evident in the hearty food served in pubs, roadhouses, and country hotels. It all seems to taste much better than food in Britain, though. Roast meat and potatoes; fish-and-chips; pasties and pies swimming in gravy; flaky sausage rolls; sticky teacakes and fluffy scones—all are cheap and tasty counter staples and give the big fast-food franchises a serious run for their money.
Meals and Mealtimes
Australians eat relatively early. Breakfast is typically between 7 and 10, and eating it out (usually at a café) is popular. Options range from toast or cereal through fruit and yogurt and muffins, pastries, and hotcakes to a full fry-up—eggs, bacon, sausages, baked beans, hash browns, tomatoes, and mushrooms. Morning coffee and afternoon tea are popular in-between meals, and many cafés serve late or all-day breakfast and brunch on weekends.
For most locals, lunch is usually lighter than dinner: a salad or a sandwich, say, usually between 11:30 am and 2:30 pm. Dinner is the main meal and begins around 6:30. In the cities, dining options are available outside these hours, but the choices are far more restricted in the countryside and smaller towns, where even takeaways can close at 8:30 pm.
At most restaurants, you ask for the bill at the end of the meal. At sandwich bars, burger joints, takeaways, and some cafés, you pay upfront. Visa, MasterCard, and American Express are widely accepted in all but the simplest eateries.
Regardless of where you are, it’s a good idea to make a reservation if you can. In some places (Sydney, for example) it’s expected. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.)
The electrical current in Australia is 240 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC), so most American appliances can’t be used without a transformer. Wall outlets take slanted three-prong plugs and plugs with two flat prongs set in a V.
Consider making a small investment in a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit. Most laptops and mobile-phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts), so require only an adapter. These days the same is true of small appliances such as hair dryers. Always check labels and manufacturer instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked “for shavers only” for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers. Many hotels can supply you with an adapter upon request.
The most common types of illnesses are caused by contaminated food and water. Mild cases of traveler’s diarrhea may respond to Imodium (known generically as loperamide) or Pepto-Bismol. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids; if you can’t keep fluids down, seek medical help immediately.
Infectious diseases can be airborne or passed via mosquitoes and ticks and through direct or indirect physical contact with animals or people. Some, including Norwalk-like viruses that affect your digestive tract, can be passed along through contaminated food. Speak with your physician and/or check the CDC or World Health Organization websites for health alerts, particularly if you’re pregnant, traveling with children, or have a chronic illness.
Shots and Medications
Unless you’re arriving from an area that has been infected with yellow fever, typhoid, or cholera, you don’t need to get any shots or carry medical certificates to enter Australia.
Australia is relatively free from diseases prevalent in many countries. In the far north there have been occasional localized outbreaks of dengue and Ross River fever—just take the usual precautions against mosquito bites (cover up your arms and legs and use ample repellent), and you should be fine.
Familiar brands of nonprescription medications are available in pharmacies. Note that Tylenol is usually called paracetamol in Australia.
Specific Issues in Australia
Australian health care is excellent, with highly trained medical professionals and well-equipped hospitals. Hygiene standards are also high and well monitored, so you can drink tap water and eat fresh produce without worrying. You may take a four weeks’ supply of prescribed medication into Australia (more with a doctor’s certificate)—if you run out, pharmacies require a prescription from an Australian doctor. The quickest way to find one is to ask your hotel or look under “M” (for Medical Practitioner) in the Yellow Pages.
Sunburn and sunstroke are the greatest health hazards when visiting Australia. Remember that there’s a big hole in the ozone layer over Australia, so even on cloudy days the rays of light coming through are harmful. Stay out of the sun in the middle of the day (the hottest hours are generally 11 am–2 pm) and, regardless of whether you normally burn, follow the locals’ example and slather on the sunscreen. Protect your eyes with good-quality sunglasses, and try to cover up with a long-sleeve shirt, a hat, and pants or a beach wrap whenever possible. Keep in mind that you’ll burn more easily at higher altitudes and in the water.
Dehydration is another concern, especially in the Outback. It’s easy to avoid: carry plenty of water and drink it often.
No rural scene is complete without bush flies, a major annoyance. These tiny pests, found throughout Australia, are especially attracted to the eyes and mouth in search of the fluids that are secreted there. Some travelers resort to wearing a face net, which can be suspended from a hat with a drawstring device.
Some of the world’s deadliest creatures call Australia home. The chances of running into one are low, particularly in urban areas, but wherever you go, pay close heed to any warnings given by hotel staff, tour operators, lifeguards, or locals in general. The Outback has snakes and spiders, while on the coast there’s everything from sharks to octopi, stonefish, and jellyfish. In northern Australia, rivers, lakes, billabongs, and even flooded streams and creeks are home to estuarine crocodiles. The best advice is to always be cautious, and double-check the situation at each stop with the appropriate authority.
Australian coastal waters are also home to strong currents known as “rips.” Pay close attention to the flags raised on beaches, and only swim in areas patrolled by lifeguards. If you get caught in a rip, the standard advice is never to swim against it, as you rapidly become exhausted. Instead, try to relax and float parallel to the shore: eventually the current will subside and you will be able to swim back to the shore, albeit farther down the coast.
New Year’s Day; Australia Day, January 26; Good Friday; Easter Monday; Anzac Day, April 25; Christmas, December 25; Boxing Day, December 26. There are also several state- and territory-specific public holidays
The most expensive part of your trip to Australia will probably be getting there. Australian hotels are generally cheaper than similar establishments in North America, as is food.
Australians use debit cards or PayPass wherever possible to pay for things—you can use your credit card, or pay cash, always in Australian dollars. ATMs are ubiquitous; it’s very hard to change traveler’s checks.
Prices for goods and services can be volatile at times. A 10% Goods and Services Tax (or GST—similar to V.A.T. in other countries) applies to most activities and goods, though some unprocessed foods are exempt.
Banks never have every foreign currency on hand, and it may take as long as a week to order. If you’re planning to exchange funds before leaving home, don’t wait until the last minute.
ATMs and Banks
Your own bank probably charges a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you do at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
PIN numbers with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in many countries. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
For most travelers to Australia, ATMs are the easiest—and often cheapest—way to obtain Australia dollars. Australia’s biggest banks are Westpac, ANZ, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, and the National Australia Bank. Their ATMs all accept Cirrus and Plus cards. Smaller state-based banks are also common, but some may not accept foreign cards. Major cities often have branches of international banks like Citibank or HSBC.
Before traveling, check if your bank has an agreement with any Australian banks for reduced ATM fees. For example, Bank of America customers can use Westpac ATMs to withdraw cash without incurring a fee.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you’re going abroad and don’t travel internationally often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost, but you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank’s number is usually printed on your card.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you’ll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill.
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases, you’ll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Dynamic currency conversion programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don’t always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn’t an option.
Most Australian establishments take credit cards: Visa and MasterCard are the most widely accepted, American Express and Diners Club aren’t always accepted outside the cities. Just in case, bring enough cash to cover your expenses if you’re visiting a national park or a remote area.
Currency and Exchange
Australia has its own dollar—assume all prices you see in Australia are quoted in Australian dollars. The currency operates on a decimal system, with the dollar (A$) as the basic unit and 100 cents (¢) equaling A$1. Bills, differentiated by color and size, come in A$100, A$50, A$20, A$10, and A$5 denominations, and are made of plastic rather than paper—you can even take them swimming with you. Coins are minted in A$2, A$1, A0.50¢, A0.20¢, A0.10¢, and A0.05¢ denominations.
If Crocodile Dundee is your idea of an Aussie style icon, think again: Melburnians and Sydneysiders are as fashion-conscious as New Yorkers. In the big cities, slop around in shorts and you might as well wear an “I’m a tourist” badge. Instead, pack nicer jeans, Capri pants, skirts, or dress shorts for urban sightseeing. A jacket and tie or posh dress are only necessary if you plan on some seriously fine dining.
Things are a bit different out of town. No Aussie would be seen dead on the beach without their “thongs,” as flip-flops are confusingly called here. Wherever you are, your accessories of choice are high-quality sunglasses and a hat with a brim—the sun is strong and dangerous. Carry insect repellent and avoid lotions or perfume in the tropics, as they attract mosquitoes and other insects.
A light sweater or jacket will keep you comfy in autumn, but winter in the southern states demands a heavier coat—ideally a raincoat with a zip-out wool lining. You should pack sturdy walking boots if you’re planning any bushwalking, otherwise, sneakers or flats are fine.
Australian pharmacies stock all the usual hygiene products (including tampons and condoms) and toiletries, plus a whole lot of fabulous local brands often not available overseas. There’s also a mind-boggling range of sunscreens and insect repellents, so have no qualms about bringing everything in travel-size bottles and stocking up when you arrive. Oral contraceptive pills are usually prescription-only, though emergency contraceptive pills are available over the counter. Grocery stores and supermarkets frown on your using too many plastic bags—carry a foldable canvas tote or reusable shopping bag, and you’ll blend in perfectly.
PASSPORTS AND VISAS
To enter Australia for up to 90 days you need a valid passport and a visa (New Zealand nationals are the exception). These days, instead of a visa label or stamp in your passport, citizens of the United States (and many other countries) can get an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA). This is an electronically stored travel permit. It saves you time both when you apply—the process is all online—and when you arrive in Australia.
To obtain an ETA for Australia you must: (1) hold an ETA-eligible passport; (2) be visiting Australia for tourism, family, or business; (3) stay less than three months; (4) be in good health; and (5) have no criminal convictions. The Visitor ETA allows you as many visits of up to 90 days as you like within a 12-month period, but remember that no work in the country is allowed. If you’re visiting Australia on business, a Short Validity Business ETA might be more appropriate. Technically, both are free of charge, but you need to pay a service charge by credit card. Children traveling on a parent’s passport also need an ETA. You can apply for the ETA yourself or your travel agent can do it for you.
If you don’t meet the ETA requirements or need a different kind of visa, you should contact your nearest Australian diplomatic office well in advance of your trip, as processing other visas takes time. Equally, if you plan to stay longer than three months you must obtain a paper visa. If you travel to Australia on an under-three-month ETA and later decide to extend your visit, then you must apply for a visa at the nearest Australian Immigration regional office.
At present, Australia doesn’t require a notarized letter of permission if only one parent is traveling with a child, but it’s always best to err on the side of caution and take along such a letter if you can.
Everyone leaving Australia pays a departure tax, euphemistically known as a Passenger Movement Charge. It’s included in your airline ticket price. There’s also a 10% V.A.T. equivalent known as Goods and Services Tax (GST), which is included in displayed prices. There is a GST refund for visitors on purchases totaling more than A$300 made in one store. You need to keep the receipts for these and present them at the Australian Customs Services booths that are after passport control in international airports. The tax is refunded to a credit card, even if you paid cash for the purchases. Allow an extra 30 minutes for this process.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.