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Planning a Vacation in Australia part 1

Key information for the intending visitor

The Simpson Desert in Australia

Australia is the world's sixth largest country, but most of it is dry desert and so of little or no interest.

This makes it easy to see the essential parts of Australia without requiring too much time or travel.

Part one of a two part introduction to Australia - see also part two.

Also part of a general series on travel to and in Australia - click the links on the right hand side for more articles.



Australia offers you an abundant range of travel experiences, all in one of the friendliest countries in the world.

Many of the places you'll visit have an idyllic climate as well as being located in areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Sydney has to be one of the world's most beautiful cities.  And if you prefer the outdoors, well - where to start!  Australia truly is one of the most wonderful countries in the world to visit.

Here's what you need to know when starting to plan an Australian vacation experience.


Australia is closer than you think

If you're like most people in Britain, Europe or North America, your perception of Australia is probably that it is impossibly far away.

While it is true that Australia is indeed a long way from Britain, there is almost nowhere in the world that is much more than two flights away from Australia.

A single nonstop flight of about 14 hours takes you from the east coast of Australia to the west coast of the United States, and most other cities in the US are typically one or at the most two flights away from there.  Only ten hours separates Honolulu from Sydney.

A longer flight with a refueling stop en route takes you to most major airports in Europe.

Getting to Australia

For Americans, nonstop flights operate from Los Angeles, San Francisco and even Dallas, variously to Sydney Brisbane and Melbourne.  Qantas operates some routes with the new A380s, other routes are served by 747s and other equipment.

United/Continental, Delta, Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand are among the other other major airlines offering service between the US and Australia.

In addition to nonstop travel there are a range of South Pacific island destinations you could incorporate into a vacation in Australia, plus Hawaii and New Zealand too.

Generally however we recommend that these days you do not break your journey on the way.  We feel that simply 'prolongs the agony' of the journey - better to get it all over and done with, and perhaps treat yourself to a free day or two relaxing upon arrival.

Many people, if planning a longer vacation, will choose to combine a visit to New Zealand with their time in Australia too.  The extra cost of adding a stop in NZ on the way to Australia (or flying on to NZ if you're coming from Europe) is not much.  The flight across the Tasman Sea is only about three hours when traveling between an Eastern Australian city (probably Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane) and a major NZ city (probably Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch).

Crossing the International Dateline

An interesting anomaly occurs when you fly west (eg from North America) to Australia.  As your journey progresses, you cross the international date line and, if westbound, you jump ahead a day.  One minute it might be Tuesday, the next minute it is Wednesday.

This means if you leave the US in the evening on, eg, a Monday, you'll arrive into Australia in the morning, but not on Tuesday; instead, you arrive on Wednesday morning.  You never had a Tuesday.

However, it balances out.  On your return, as you cross the dateline going east, you jump back a day and repeat the day you've just had.  Which makes for the even more remarkable circumstance that if you leave Australia in the afternoon on, eg, Monday, you arrive into Los Angeles on Monday morning - apparently earlier than when you left Australia!

By Sea

Cruise ships, once a rarity in the South Pacific, are becoming more common.  Itineraries are very different to a typical Caribbean or Mediterranean itinerary though - there is much more time spent sailing at sea and fewer port stops.

Cruise ships will often include Australia in their world cruise itineraries, offering a much more leisurely way to travel for people with lots of free time.  Some cruise lines also offer cruising around Australia and over to New Zealand and some of the nearby islands, usually during Australia's summer season only.

A very few people choose to travel by ocean freighter.  It is almost a three week journey by ship from Los Angeles to Australia, typically with a stop or two in New Zealand on the way.

Contrary to what some people expect or believe, there is no passenger ferry service between New Zealand and Australia.  It takes merchant ships three days to travel the almost 1500 mile journey between Auckland and Sydney.

Visa requirements

You need a current passport, of course, to travel to Australia.

You also need to have a visa prior to traveling (unless you are a New Zealander).  Many people, from many countries, can apply for a visa electronically over the internet allowing them to stay in Australia for up to three months.

People traveling on a US or Canadian passport (as well as various other nationalities) can obtain an Electronic Travel Authorization or ETA (A$20 fee), people traveling on a UK or EU passport can obtain an eVisitor approval (free).  You apply online and usually get an approval back within a minute.

More information on the types of visas and application processes can be found on the Australian government's website.

Traveling within Australia

Australia - often referred to as the 'Island Continent' - is the world's sixth largest country (the top five, in order, are Russia, Canada, US, China and Brazil).  It measures about 2200 - 2400 miles from west to east in its broadest parts, and between about 1000 - 2000 miles north to south.

A distinctive feature of Australia is that most of its inland area comprises relatively featureless desert, with most of the population living in a narrow coastal band ranging along the south coast from Adelaide (in the middle) and then east past Melbourne and then up the east coast, past Sydney and to Brisbane, beyond which the population density reduces.

Other places like Perth, Darwin, and Alice Springs/Ayers Rock are relatively isolated, surrounded mainly by desert.  Indeed, Darwin is so remote that it is closer to fly to Singapore than it is to Sydney when you are in Darwin.

Needless to say, most people choose to fly when traveling between most places in Australia.

Air travel

Australia has three main domestic airlines - Qantas, Jetstar (a low cost subsidiary of Qantas) and Virgin Blue.  All three operators have excellent safety records and provide acceptably good service similar to that offered by most other airlines in the world today.  Most, if not all, of the usual tourist destinations have good air service connecting them to other parts of Australia and its tourist hot spots.

In addition, there is a fourth carrier, Tiger Airways which has experienced a bit of an 'on again, off again' record in the market.  This is a Singapore Airlines subsidiary.

There may be ways you can add some travel within Australia on to your international flights to/from Australia at discounted rates, and sometimes there are various types of travel passes also available - these travel passes tend to offer discounts compared to buying regular point to point or roundtrip domestic tickets.

Bus/coach travel

Few people travel by bus, although the journeys between Adelaide - Melbourne - Sydney - Brisbane are manageable (they vary from about 450 - 550 miles).  Other distances are much longer - eg Brisbane - Cairns, which is 1100 miles, or Adelaide - Alice Springs, which is 900 miles.

While bus travel is definitely a bargain, there is a hidden cost - the time you are spending traveling on a bus instead of enjoying your vacation.  Bus travel in Australia makes about as much sense as it does in the US.

So if you're on a tight budget and spending three months in Australia, bus travel is great.  But if you're willing to spend a bit more and only spending three weeks, then probably forget about bus travel.

The major interstate bus operator is Greyhound.  In addition to regular point to point fares, they also have a variety of passes giving you discounts if you plan on doing a lot of bus travel.


Think more of an Amtrak level of regular train service within Australia than a Eurail type of service.  Trains are infrequent and slow, and for much the same reason as applies with Amtrak - the country is too big and the population too sparse to support fast regular trains.

 Countrylink operates most of Australia's regular trains in Victoria, NSW and Queensland.

There are also some luxury tourist trains that are expensive but wonderful experiences.  Most prominent are two named trains - the Ghan (travels between Adelaide, Alice Springs and Darwin) and the Indian Pacific (travels between Sydney, Adelaide and Perth).  Details on these luxury train journeys can be found here.

Ferry between Tasmania and Melbourne

There are two vehicle and passenger ferries, the Spirit of Tasmania I & II, that make 11 hour overnight crossings in both directions between Port Melbourne and Devonport (a short distance from Launceston) in Tasmania.

During busy periods, they add a day sailing as well and travel at a faster speed so as to allow adequate time in the schedule for loading and unloading in each port.

These are large and fast ships, each capable of carrying up to 1140 passengers and 500 vehicles at 27 knots.  Although the weather in Bass Strait (the water between the south of Australia and Tasmania) can sometimes lead to rough crossings, both vessels have stabilizers which take the edge off all but the worst weather.

This can be a great way of traveling while you sleep, and of course most fares includes overnight accommodation in a cabin as well, so you're getting your night of accommodation, a mini cruise ship experience, and transportation, all for the one price.  I've enjoyed ferry sailings and recommend it as a nice change of pace and variety of experience as part of your Australian vacation (assuming you plan to include Tasmania in your itinerary, of course).

Many people choose to take the ferry one way, either to or from Tasmania, and fly the other way (perhaps to/from Hobart in the south of Tassie).  You can hire and return cars to the ferry terminals at both ends of its crossing.

If you are renting a car, you should check to see if the rental car company allows you to take your car across Bass Strait to/from Tasmania, and/or if it allows one way rentals between Tasmania and the mainland.

For more information

This is part one of a two part introduction to planning your Australian vacation.  Please continue on to part two for additional information about planning an Australian vacation.

Click the links in the top right of this page for additional helpful information about travel to and in Australia.

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Originally published 26 Aug 2011, last update 30 May 2021

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