Driving is the best way to travel around Australia. Having access to your own set of wheels frees you from the constraints of routes and schedules and allows you to visit places off the beaten track.
Anyone over 18 can drive in Australia with their local licence, providing it is valid and that you’ve been in the country for less than six months. If you’re spending longer in Australia you should bring along an international driving permit or apply for an Australian driver’s licence.
Driving in Australia is easy. Traffic drives on the left and roads are generally well-maintained but motorways are usually restricted to the approaches to major cities and heavily travelled routes such as Melbourne–Sydney and Sunshine Coast–Brisbane–Gold Coast–Byron Bay. A regular car will take you virtually everywhere in Australia, but a four-wheel-drive is essential for beach driving or if you want to explore Fraser Island and the Cape York Peninsula.
There are some very long and boring stretches of road in Australia and fatigue is a big killer – make plenty of rest stops, drink plenty of coffee or cola and share the driving with someone else. Check noticeboards in hostels to see if another traveller wants a lift. Offering a lift is a good way to split your fuel costs as well as avoiding spending too much time behind the wheel.
Speed limits on most country roads are 100–110km/h, although the top speed limit is 130km/h on highways in the Northern Territory. On motorways the limit is usually 110km/h outside cities and 100km/h in built up areas. Minor roads in towns and cities are usually either 50km/h. It is compulsory to wear seat belts and it’s illegal to talk on a mobile phone while driving. You must not park facing oncoming traffic.
Watch out for road trains if you’re driving in the outback. These 50-metre-long semi-trailers can’t stop as quickly as a regular car so keep out of their way and make sure that you allow plenty of room to overtake one.
Also be alert if you’re driving in the countryside around dusk – kangaroos are active at this time and are unpredictable – often jumping into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Its not just kangaroos that you have to look out for, collisions with emus, camels and wombats are also a danger.
If you shop at Coles or Woolworths supermarkets you can get fuel discount vouchers that give you around a 4c discount per litre on fuel. You need to spend at least $30 on groceries to get a fuel discount voucher. Coles vouchers can be used for discounted fuel at Coles Express/Shell service stations and Woolworths vouchers can be used for discounted fuel at Caltex Woolworths/Safeway co-branded service stations.
You can also use the Woolworths Everyday Rewards card (a bit like a Nectar Rewards card) to collect and redeem fuel discounts and this has the advantage of allowing you to earn Qantas frequent flyer points for each dollar spent over $30 in each transaction.
If you’re a member of a motoring organisation you can use the facilities of their Australian counterpart. Each state has its own motoring organisation, although they all fall under the umbrella of the Australian Automobile Association (AAA). The various Australian motoring organisations are:
- AANT (Automobile Association of Northern Territory; NT)
- NRMA (National Roads & Motorists Association; ACT & NSW)
- RAA (Royal Automobile Association; SA)
- RACT (Royal Automobile Club of Tasmania; TAS)
- RACQ (Royal Automobile Club of Queensland; QLD)
- RACV (Royal Automobile Club of Victoria; VIC)
- RAC of WA (Royal Automobile Club of Western Australia; WA)
If you’re not a member of an auto club at home it’s worth joining one in Australia if you have your own car; particularly for the peace of mind and the potential savings of the roadside assistance. Roadside assistance can be contacted by calling 13 11 11 in any state.
Renting a car in Australia
Although expensive over a long period, renting a car is a good option if your time is limited and if you want to explore a particular region in depth. Car rental companies with branches nationwide are generally the most expensive although these companies do offer advantages such as airport pick-up and drop-off points, frequent flyer points and long-distance one-way rentals.
The standard insurance cover that comes with most car rental companies requires that you pay an excess of around $2000 before the insurance company pays out. Rental car companies will try and sell you insurance to cover this excess, but at around $20 a day this is overpriced and can substantially increase the cost of your car rental. A much better idea is to take out travel insurance that covers this excess or arrange rental car excess insurance before leaving home. This works out a lot cheaper than paying the excess cover that rental car companies charge.
You will need a credit card to rent a car as it is virtually impossible to rent a car without one.
We have set up a website at rentalcarguru.com where you can compare rental car rates among different rental car companies in Australia.
Renting a campervan in Australia
Campervans are a popular alternative to a rental car since they give you somewhere to stay. However they are more expensive than regular car rental and you’ll often have to pay to stay in a caravan park so you can have a shower. Also because you spend a lot of time sleeping in your campervan, you generally miss out on being part of the backpacker scene.
Campervan rental companies vary wildly. Large established players like Britz, Kea and Maui sell top quality vans that are professionally fitted out and ideal for a long trip; however cheaper campervan companies like Wicked or Travellers Autobarn will rent you a clapped out 15-year-old van with a shoddy conversion into a campervan. However Wicked are among the cheapest, they may rent you a van without a credit card and your van will have a funky paint job.
Several companies that rent fully equipped campervans complete with camping gear and prices are quite reasonable for longer rentals. Campervan rental companies include:
- Apollo Campervans
- Hippy Campers
- Kea Campers
- Maui Motorhome Rentals
- Mighty Campers
- Tasmania Campers
- Travellers Autobarn
- Wicked Campers
Buying a car or campervan in Australia
If you’re going to be travelling around Australia for several months it may be worth the trouble to buy your own car and sell it before you leave. Cheap reliable cars are generally large cars such as the Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore, which can cost a lot to run but are generally cheap to fix and service.
Ideally it’s a good idea to check hostel notice boards and buy your car from another traveller as it may come with camping equipment and you should be able to get a good bargain, considering that other travellers have a flight home to catch and are in a hurry to sell. Other good places to look are the classified ads in Friday’s Sydney Morning Herald and Herald Sun (Melbourne) and Saturday’s Age (Melbourne). The Trading Post, drive.com.au and eBay are also good spots to find a bargain. Buying a car privately, either from another traveller or through classified advertisements is usually the cheapest option, but it’s not always the best choice if your time is limited. Buying from a used car dealer is easier and the dealer will organise the paperwork to get the car transferred into your name. There are loads of used car dealers in the suburbs of the big cities.
Some car dealers that do a lot of business with backpackers offer a buy-back guarantee, where they offer to buy the car back from you at an agreed (lower) price at the end of your trip. You can usually get a much better price selling the car yourself but a buy-back guarantee is handy if you don’t want to waste precious time trying to sell the car when you have finished with it. If you buy from a car dealer that offers a buy-back guarantee, read the fine print and make sure that you are not required to pass a roadworthy inspection. Very few vehicles can pass a roadworthy after a trip around Australia and a buy-back guarantee with this condition is virtually worthless. The main car dealer that offers a buy-back guarantee is Travellers Autobarn.
Used cars need a certificate of roadworthiness before they can be sold – don’t buy a car without one as you’ll need to show it when you transfer the registration. You will also need to get a certificate of roadworthiness before you sell the car at the end of your trip. Many mechanics can assess your car and issue the certificate.
Once you have a roadworthiness certificate, take it along with the receipt, your driver’s licence and passport to the local department of transport; this department is known by different names in different states (refer to the list at the end of this paragraph). You will need to pay a fee, which is calculated according to the value of the car. If the annual vehicle registration is due, or if you are buying a car in a different state to which it is registered, this will also need to be paid. The registration (or rego) includes the minimum legal third-party insurance. You can count on these fees running to several hundred dollars. Each state’s laws vary, check with the department of transport in the state where you plan on buying or selling your car.
The motor registry/departments of transport in each state are:
- Transport Roads & Traffic (Australian Capital Territory)
- RTA (New South Wales)
- Motor Vehicle Registry (Northern Territory)
- Department of Transport and Main Roads (Queensland)
- Transport SA (South Australia)
- Department of State Growth – Transport (Tasmania)
- VicRoads (Victoria)
- Department of Transport (Western Australia)