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Planning a Vacation in Australia part 2

More information for the intending visitor

Sydney Harbor Bridge, Ferry, Opera House

Sydney's icons - the Opera House, Harbor Bridge, and even a ferry.  For sure, your Australian vacation will include time in Sydney.

Part 2 of a two part introduction to planning a trip to Australia.  See also part one.

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



Due to its vast size - and also its vast 'emptiness' in the middle, you'll need to be somewhat selective about where you go and what you choose to see and do in Australia - unless you've got months of time to enjoy 'downunder'.

Fortunate it is all good, and wherever you go and whatever you do, you are sure to enjoy yourself and the remarkable things that constitute this friendly country.


Driving in Australia

Australia, like New Zealand, drives on the other side of the road (compared to the US and Europe).

See this page for a discussion of how to drive on the left side of the road - it is easier than you think.  Australia uses metric measurements for distances and speeds.

If you're driving the main roads connecting the major cities around the coast, you'll enjoy good quality roads and easy driving conditions.  Much of the time you're on two lane roads (ie one lane in each direction) but there are some freeway (or 'motorway') sections as well, and traffic densities are usually moderate once you get out of the big cities.

However, if you start driving into the outback, or much north of Cairns into the rainforest, road quality will deteriorate and may become unsealed dirt tracks.

A word of warning as well.  If you start traveling 'off the beaten track' you might find yourself on a road where no other cars come for a day or more at a time, and definitely in an area with no cell phone coverage either.  If your car has a mechanical problem and breaks down, you could be stuck for a day or more until someone else passes.  Be sure to travel with an emergency kit of food and water - especially water.

Rental car companies may restrict where you can take their cars, and in general, most rental car companies do not allow you to take their cars off the main sealed roads.

Open road speed limits are typically 100 km/hr or 110 km/hr.  Until 2007, there were no speed limits on the open road highways in the Northern Territory, but there is now a 110 km/hr limit on most roads and a 130 km/hr limit on the major highways.

Note that Australia has fairly aggressive enforcement of speed laws, and many speed cameras, and it may attempt to collect fines from you back in your home country.  Victoria in particular is renowned for the severity of its enforcement activities.

Most of the major international rental car companies operate in Australia, and generally accept US drivers licenses with no problems.

Petrol prices vary across Australia, with the Northern Territory being the most expensive.  In late March 2010, prices were around about US$4.40/gallon (A$1.25/liter); by comparison, US prices were about $3/gallon at the same time.  In August 2011, prices were about A$1.33 - 1.40/liter, or about US$5.25 - $5.55/gallon.  US petrol prices were about $3.70 - $4 at the same time.

In other words, petrol in Australia is about 30% - 40% more expensive than in the US.

Don't be too focused on the cost of petrol if you're hiring a rental car.  Even if you were to drive 1000 miles while renting a car, you'd spend less than US$200 on petrol (assuming about 30 mpg) - making it one of the more trivial costs of an overall vacation.

Time Zones

Australia has a somewhat confusing approach to time zones.  It has three main time zones - one for the state of Western Australia, called Western Standard (or Daylight) time, a second for the states 'in the middle' - ie Northern Territory and South Australia, called Central Standard or Daylight time, and a third for the eastern states (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania) called Eastern Standard or Daylight time.

So far, so good, and that is simple and easy to understand.  But now for the complicated bits.

The central time zone takes an unusual time offset.  Whereas there are two hours between western and eastern times, as you'd expect, the central time zone is only 30 minutes behind the eastern time zone (rather than the one hour as common sense would suggest).  This non-standard timing was adopted in 1899, and attempts to return it to normalcy (most recently in 1994) have not been successful.

Now for the other somewhat confusing thing.  Just as not all states in the US observe daylight saving, the same is true in Australia too.  Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia do not observe daylight saving, the other (more southerly) states do.

Daylight saving is more or less the opposite of when we (in the northern hemisphere) have our daylight saving.  They switch to daylight saving on the first Sunday in October and switch back to standard time on the first Sunday in April.

The subject of time zones and daylight saving continues to be controversial in Australia as the country tries to create a more uniform and consistent approach.


Australia has its own currency, the Australian dollar (with one hundred cents making up the dollar).

At the time of writing (August 2011) the Australian dollar is unusually strong compared to the US dollar, with each Australian dollar being worth about US$1.04.

The smallest denomination coin is a 5c piece.  Other coins are for 10c, 20c, 50c, $1 and $2.

Bank notes are made out of a long lasting plastic material, and are in $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 denominations.

Credit cards are widely accepted, on much the same basis as in the US or other countries.  Small shops in small towns may not accept credit cards, larger stores in larger towns almost certainly will.  Visa and Mastercard  are most common, American Express slightly less so.

ATMs are located in many locations in the cities, and can usually be found in towns as well.  Most ATMs will accept most foreign bank cards.

There is a bank at the international airports that offers money changing services for all incoming flights.

We recommend you don't get any Australian cash in your home country, but simply change some of your home money into Aussie dollars upon arrival, either at one of the airport ATMs or at the airport bank.

We also recommend you be sure to keep a reasonable amount of emergency cash on hand as you travel around NZ (or any other country).  Sometimes you can find yourself traveling in an area with no ATMs, or the ATMs you do encounter are not working, and more stores than normal won't accept credit cards, then all of a sudden, you come across a 'must have' souvenir you want to buy, or perhaps have some sort of unexpected minor emergency, and if you don't have the needed cash, you can't buy the item or easily solve the problem.

Tipping (as in no tipping, please)

As a general rule, Australians seldom tip each other, although tipping is perhaps a little more prevalent in Australia than in New Zealand.

In both countries, there is no need for tipping.  People earn fair living wages without the need for tips to boost their income, and people provide good service without the need to be bribed to do so.

The closest to a tip these days is to occasionally round up a bill.  For example a restaurant bill of $57.40 could be rounded up to $58, or in rare unusual circumstances, $60.

In the past, Australians would refuse to accept a tip.  Many still will.  But some will now take your money, although they don't expect it, and rather than gratitude, they are quietly thinking to themselves 'stupid American giving me money for no reason'.

And, at the same time, other Australian will be looking at you hatefully, because your tipping practices are threatening to enjoy Australia's 'no tipping' lifestyle.

Read my lips :  Don't tip.

Electronic Issues :  Phones, Video and Power

Australia has four main cell phone companies - Optus, Telstra, Three and Vodafone.  Voice calls are on the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz frequency bands, and data service is on 850 MHz, 900 MHz, and 2100 MHz.

If you have a quad band cell phone, it should work fine in Australia with an Australian SIM.

Cell phone service is generally good in the major cities and medium sized towns, but once you get into less populous areas, it is 'catch as catch can', and you might find yourself traveling for hundreds of miles with no cell phone service available.

Electronic and electrical items use a distinctive three flat pronged and angled plug, the same as in China and New Zealand. rather than American wall plug connector.  Power is 230V and 50 Hz.

Australia uses the PAL system for its television and video, and is in a different DVD region.  If you are buying blank video-tape, you will have no problem using video tape purchased in Australia, but if you are buying a pre-recorded video, make certain, if it is a VHS tape, that it is in your home country's format (ie NTSC for North America).

If you are buying DVDs, make sure they are either coded for all regions or for your region (region 1 for the US) and also make sure it is compatible with your format (eg NTSC).

For more information

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

This article is part 2 of a two part introduction to planning a trip to Australia.  Please also visit part one for more about planning a vacation in Australia.

Related Articles, etc

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Originally published 26 Aug 2011, last update 30 May 2021

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