Quite simply, outback Australia is big.
If you travel between Adelaide and Darwin, you’re looking at a distance of 3000km alone.
That’s like travelling from Los Angeles to Cincinnati or from Paris to Ankara (Turkey) by road! And that’s with no side trips!
So to help you with trip planning, we’ve put together some practical, budget-minded tips about getting around the outback in cars, planes, trains, buses and even motorcycles.
1. Self Drive
In our opinion, a self-driving trip in a car or 4WD is THE BEST way to see the outback.
That’s really easy: you can choose to go wherever you want, whenever you want.
What’s more, if you share fuel costs with someone else (or several other people), then getting around the outback in a car is the cheapest ways for getting around the outback.
You’ve got two real options with cars in Australia: hire a car or buy a car.
Our tip: if you’re looking to do this as cheaply as possible and you’re going to be here for more than 3 months, BUY a car.
Renting a car to see the outback is a better option if you’re only here for a short amount of time.
However, there are quite a few hidden costs and traps to be aware of when renting a car to see the outback. Costs like the ‘premium location charge’ and restrictions on where you can drive are very common.
Also, you’ll want to make sure you hire the right vehicle.
Many people make the HUGE mistake of hiring an expensive 4WD when they don’t need one. There are HUNDREDS of places you can visit in the outback in an ordinary 2WD sedan.
Our ‘Do You Need a 4WD to See the Outback‘ article will help you to decide which vehicle you need to see the most popular outback destinations.
Driving in the outback is generally safe but it’s VERY different to driving in the city or in Europe or America, so there’s some things you need to know.
Although there’s a lot fewer cars on the road out here, and the roads are often straight for hundreds of kilometres, the distances between places are HUUUUGE!
Like Coober Pedy to Alice Springs, which is 680km of almost straight road and not a single traffic light or town.
There are four things you really need to be careful of when driving on these roads:
- driver fatigue
- speed (the speed limit is now 130 km/h in the Northern Territory)
- road trains
- and animals
Our Driving in Australia page gives you tips on how to deal with all of these hazards.
In the last 10 years or so, we’ve noticed that campervans have become popular with many tourists for travelling in the outback.
It’s easy to understand why, as they sleep anywhere from 2-6 people and are a home on wheels which lets you pull up anywhere you fancy. You can also get 4WD models, usually based around the Toyota Troop Carrier, an outback icon itself.
Most campervans come with a basic kitchen, so the only thing you’ll need to worry about is where to find a shower and a loo (although with 1000s of kilometres of bush, finding a tree to pee behind is never a problem!)
Campervans cost between $90 to $200 a day.
The following companies are a good place to start, as they offer a choice of 4WDs or vans and offer one-way rental. Even better, all companies have offices in every major Australian city, as well as in Alice Springs:
- Mighty Campers ph. 1800 670 232
- Britz 1800 331 454; Synonymous with 4WD bush campers in Australia!
- Jucy ph. 1800 150 850
- Kea Campers ph. 1800 252 555
- Maui 1300 363 800;
- Wicked Campers ph.1800 246 869 .The fully fitted out, brightly pained hippy-style vans that look so much fun. Priced from $60/50 per day for one to eight weeks’.
Something you should think about is campervan rental relocations.
This is where a campervan hire company needs their vehicle brought back to its home base, and they offer REALLY cheap rates (sometimes as low as $1 per day) for people to drive them from point A to point B.
Make sure you ask the campervan companies about rental relocations. You might save HUNDREDS of dollars.
Flying is one way of getting around that will suit some people but not others.
Unfortunately, there isn’t huge choice of airlines flying to the Alice Springs or Ayers Rock, which are both at the heart of the outback.
This means that flights to these places are more expensive than elsewhere in Australia.
Qantas: 13 1313; http://www.qantas.com.au flies to Alice Springs and Uluru (about $260 each way from Sydney).
Virgin Australia: 13 67 89; http://www.virginaustralia.com.au fly to Alice Springs & Uluru.
However one way to cut down on costs is to grab a bargain fare to Darwin or Adelaide and either start a road trip or buy a ticket on the Ghan. Cheap flights to Adelaide and Darwin are much more easy to find.
Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar 13 15 38; www.jetstar.com.au all fly to Adelaide and Darwin.
For much more information, including tips for getting cheap tickets, check out our Cheap Airfares in Australia page.
Travelling in the outback by bus is something that you might want to think about if you’re not in a hurry.
Lots of travellers and locals use the big Greyhound Australia buses between Adelaide, Alice Springs and Darwin.
Are they slow?
Are they cheap?
Depends on the ticket!
Are they one of the best ways to really appreciate how big the outback is? Absolutely!
We’ll warn you: it’s a BIG, slow day from somewhere like Adelaide to Alice Springs – a full 21 hours on the bus, so make sure you charge your iPod before you get on. And pack a book or two.
They show movies and have an on board toilet, and they do have comfy seats so you can save at least one night’s accommodation costs by sleeping whilst travelling
The bus stops frequently for meals (some would say TOO frequently!), and you can also hop on and hop off if you have the right kind of ticket.
Greyhound Australia: 1300 473 946; www.greyhound.com.au
If getting around the Outback as cheaply as possible if a priority for you, and you don’t want to drive, then a trip on the Ghan might be the answer.
The Ghan departs Adelaide for Alice Springs on Sunday and Wednesday (18 hours), continuing on to Darwin on Tuesday and Friday (another 24 hours).
It returns from Darwin to Alice Springs on Wednesday and Saturday, continuing to Adelaide on Thursday and Sunday.
We were critics of the expensive tickets on the Ghan until recently, when friends took it up to Darwin and then down to Adelaide.
The ‘Daynighter’ seats have been turned into full recliners so that you can actually sleep in them and the food has improved 1000%. We can’t wait to try a trip to Darwin on the Ghan.
If you’re an overseas visitor, you can get some amazing deals on sleepers on the Ghan (you’ll need to show your passport).
Bookings and further information for the Ghan:
Great Southern Railway: ph 13 21 47; http://www.gsr.com.au/
6. By Motorcycle
Seeing the outback on a motorcycle is something we’ve can recommend.
One of the best things about this is travelling as part of a group, as the group camaraderie really makes the trip.
However, riding in the outback is not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced rider. You’ll need to be prepared for the long distances, changing road conditions, fatigue and hazards like road trains, animals and other road users!
Yet, riding a motorcycle in the outback brings you much more in touch with the passing environment as you’re not sitting in a car, separated from the elements.
So you not only get a sense of freedom, you also feel intimately connected to the surrounding landscape.
You’re also a bit of an oddity on the road, and other travellers will pull up and talk to you a lot about where you’re going and what you’re doing.
You’ll need to be well-prepared if you’re getting around the outback on a motorbike.
In my many trips to across the outback, I’ve found that trip planning was absolutely critical.
My biggest lesson was that you’ve got very limited carrying space on a bike, so you need to be quite ruthless and careful with what you bring along.
In fact, for some people staying in motels or cabins might be a much better option rather than riding with an overloaded bike.
It’s also much more of a challenge to ride long distances than it is to drive them, so fatigue is a big issue.
If you’re planning on motorcycling the outback, then buying your own bike (or bringing your own) is probably the best choice.
You can hire motorcycles in capital cities, but once you leave the cities, the costs of hire skyrocket.
We haven’t done it (yet), but lots of people do: travel the Stuart Highway and other outback roads on a bicycle.
If you’re thinking about getting around the outback on a bicycle, then there’s a book called Cycling the Outback by Craig Bagnall and Nikki Brown.
Unfortunately, the title is a bit misleading.
It should be called ‘Cycling the Top End, Western Australia’s coastline and Queensland’s Tropics’ as there’s no mention of the real outback -the Red Centre- in there at all. And South Australia doesn’t even get a mention!
I guess the term ‘outback’ is a good marketing term, though.
Which is why you places like Broome and Cairns are hilariously marketed at ‘the outback’ when they’re on the coast!
However, the book looks as if it would give you come very good practical advice on trip preparation and planning. You can buy the book directly from the authors: here.
Whilst it’s a lot LESS popular now than it was in the 1970s and 80s, it is still possible to hitch rides around Australia.
Even guides like Lonely Planet still say that hitching is relatively safe in Australia. Yes, despite outback ‘mythology’ about backpacker murderers, there are relatively few incidents where hitchhikers have been hurt or murdered in Australia.
We’ll state right here that we’ve NEVER done this, but we’ve met plenty of people who have.
First up, we recommend that you don’t watch the movie Wolfe Creek (and if you have, please remember that it’s MADE UP).
Secondly, people have told us that you have to be very patient and not in a rush to go anywhere.
We’ve also been told that travelling alone helps, and writing a sign with your destination on it.
Have WE picked up hitchhikers?
The answer is yes, we have – especially women. Amanda will nearly always pick up another woman – provided there’s room in the vehicle.
If you’ve got lots of time, and you’re self-confident, then hitching might be an option for you.
Remember, however, to trust your gut feeling before accepting a lift. If someone looks suspicious, they probably are – don’t get in the vehicle with them.
This is especially true if you’re a woman. Use commonsense – and let your friends and family back home know where you’re headed so someone can retrace your steps.
Most of all: Be safe. Don’t take unnecessary risks.
A Final Word
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