’s one of the most exciting, varied destinations on the planet, but current exchange rates mean it’s a lot more expensive than it used to be. The days of three dollars to the pound are now but a happy memory. However, there are ways to ease the burden on the wallet…
“Australia is becoming the newwhen it comes to tourism – we’re too expensive, and difficult to get to.” – Clive Dorman, Sydney Morning Herald. In other words, Australia’s tourism officials are petrified about the damage that the soaring Aussie dollar will have on visitor numbers.
Timing it right
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BOOK YOUR OWN ADVENTUREThe following sites are usually my first port of call when booking a trip - so I recommend them as somewhere to start when booking your own holiday.
HOTELS: Hotels.com (£) or Agoda (£)
FLIGHTS: Skyscanner (£) Kayak or Roundtheworldflights.com
CAR HIRE: Car Rentals (£)
GUIDE BOOKS: Amazon (£)
TOURS AND ACTIVITIES: Viator (£)
The secret to finding relatively cheap deals to Australia is picking the right time of year to go. Almost all of the cheapest deals are for flights between mid-April and mid-June. This is when the weather isn’t the best in the southern Australian cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, but not its worst either (July and August can be surprisingly cold). However, the wet season in tropical Queensland and the Northern Territory tends to end in early to mid-May. May and June can be the perfect time there – largely dry, lots of sunshine and before the flocks arrive from the southern states for a spot of winter sun. And, of course, with the barrage of public holidays in April and May, you can take a longer trip without having to take an unmanageable amount of time off work.
Reef, rock, Opera House and…
Woah, there. That’s the classic, overdraft-inducing mistake. Think not of Australia as a country to ‘do’ in a few weeks, but a continent to tackle a section or two of, and you’ll have a much more rewarding experience. That’s in terms of both expense and not spending the entire time getting from A to B. It’s best to pick perhaps two bases and explore the surroundings properly. Uluru, for example, is magnificent – particularly the base walk. But unless you’re prepared to camp, accommodation there is monopolistically overpriced. Also, part of the magic comes from driving for days through the desert to get there – the power is lost somewhat when you fly in and fly out. Which cities to pick as a base depend on your tastes. Adelaide, for example, is within easy reach of numerous major wine regions, a superb outback sampler in the Flinders Ranges andgalore on Kangaroo Island. Cairns as a city is pretty unspectacular, but it’s the perfect jumping-off point for reef, rainforest and adventure sports trips. You can easily spend two or three weeks in and around Sydney too – there’s wine-tasting in the Hunter valley, dolphin-watching and dune-bashing at Port Stephens, walking and canyoning in the Blue Mountains before you even start exploring the cute coastal towns.
The Secret Sites
The major key to saving a small fortune is to start thinking like an Australian, especially when it comes to web research. The sites with the best deals Down Under are often strong in the Australian market and weak elsewhere, while sites you’d use for Europe or North America miss the biggest bargains. For accommodation, Wotif.com is unquestionably the best place for a steal. It has plenty of mystery hotels – where big four and five star places sell off spare rooms cheap without revealing themselves – and strongarms many hotels into offering exclusive deals. If you want a well-located four star for under $150 in peak season, that’s where you’ll find a decent list.
Similarly, Webjet.com.au is brilliant for finding cheap internal flights with airlines such as Jetstar, Virgin Blue and Tiger – don’t be fooled by a travel agent into thinking Qantas has a monopoly. Webjet does charge an absurdly high ‘processing fee’, however – so use it to find the flight you want, then book direct on the airline website.
In terms of car hire, VroomVroomVroom.com.au is good for wheedling out deals buried deep in the rental companies’ booking systems.
Where shall I stay?
If on a budget, apartment rental is almost always the best bang-for-buck option in Australia. Stayz is the place to start looking for sub-$150 deals. It’s also worth considering a private room in a hostel – often available for between $60 and $80 a night. Australia’s hostel scene is arguably the best in the world and standards are extremely high at many – if not all – of them. Specialist hostel sites such as Hostelworld and TravellersPoint have more reliable reviews than Tripadvisor, and should help weed out dire party hostels.
There are also some cities – notably Cairns – that are overstocked with accommodation outside of peak season. This means that the ordinarily expensive chain hotels flog off unused rooms on the cheap for much of the year. Again, Wotif.com excels in finding them.
How do I eat?
In the cities, pubs use meat as a weapon of warfare. In Sydney, in particular, numerous pubs will offer decent steaks (and often chicken schnitzels and pasta dishes too) for between $5 and $10 in a loss-leading attempt to get people to buy beer. Food courts – usually found underground in city centre shopping malls – invariably offer a range of decent enough feeds in the same price range.
If it’s a restaurant meal you’re after, then Australia mercifully has a strong BYO – Bring Your Own Wine – culture. Ethnic restaurants – especially Thai, Vietnamese and Greek joints in less touristy suburbs such as Newtown in Sydney – are notoriously amenable to this. Buy the drop you want in the local bottle shop for much less than the house plonk, and the restaurant will add a couple of dollars as a ‘corkage’ charge.
And, of course, there’s always the traditional barbie option. Many beachside parks have public barbecues where you can stick a couple of coins in, then grill up the goodies you bought in the supermarket.
The best things in life…
… are free. Nowhere is this more true than Australia. In Sydney, for example, you can happily spend days walking the coastal tracks, frolicking in the surf and watching the bats fly over the Botanic Gardens.
What the web will tell you:
“Invest in a local SIM for your smart-phone to avoid global roaming charges with your home plan. Australia’s biggest telcos are Telstra and Optus, but the other, smaller companies have some of the most competitive prepaid rates.” – Lonely Planet. Even if you’re not using a smartphone, the SIMs usually come with some pre-paid credit and can save you hefty sums when calling to make bookings and enquiries on the ground.
What you might not find on the web all that easily
Even if you’ve absolutely no intention of going near a YHA Hostel, YHA membership is worth getting. That card is your passport to an extraordinary range of discounts, from 10% off Greyhound bus tickets and various tours to cheap deals on pizzas and concession rates at Sydney’s Moonlight Cinema. A year’s membership costs £15.95 (£9.95 if under the age of 26) from YHA.org.uk, but you’ll find the list of offers at YHA.com.au.
This article was originally written for the Independent.