What are the best ways to travel around Australia?

Sunburnt deserts, deep-blue oceans, snow-capped mountains and bustling cities – Australia's myriad landscapes easily propel it to one of the most sought-after destinations in the world.

uluru-ayers-rock

With its vast size and immense distances between cities, getting around Australia can be a significant undertaking — but it doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive as transit options abound. Plus, it’s one of the very best places on the planet for an extended adventure.

How can I get around Australia?

You can get anywhere in Australia relatively easily, if not quickly. Because of the vast distances across thinly populated expanses, a smart trip around the country could easily involve planes, trains, buses and cars, with each mode used when it makes the most sense.

Flying
Pros
  • Cover distances quickly
  • Skip large unpopulated areas
  • Easily explore far-flung parts of Australia
Cons
  • You miss experiencing everything you fly over
  • You’ll need to arrange local transport at your destination
Train
Pros
  • Comfortable over longer distances
  • Often scenic
  • Good for exploring metropolitan regions
Cons
  • Much of Australia lacks train service
  • Outside of the east coast, service is mostly limited to expensive cruise trains
  • Many services are not frequent
Bus
Pros
  • Expansive network
  • Frequent local stops make it easy to explore a route, such as a segment along east coast beach towns
  • Passes can make travel affordable
Cons
  • Slow and uncomfortable
  • Dozens of operators both public and private make planning a challenge
  • Not always cheaper than flying over long distances
Driving
Pros
  • Freedom
  • Ability to explore areas with limited or no other transport options
  • Can be economical in the short-term or through ride-sharing services
Cons
  • Long drives can be taxing and monotonous
  • Petrol and expenses can quickly mount up

Travelling by plane in Australia

Flying around Australia is convenient, and with a bit of planning can be surprisingly affordable. The major carriers are:

  • Qantas: the national airline, works in tandem with its budget subsidiary Jetstar
  • Jetstar: the budget subsidiary of Qantas, flies to all major cities
  • Tiger Air: a budget carrier serving the main cities
  • Virgin Australia: a full-service airline with an extensive network

Besides the main airlines listed above, a network of small regional carriers provide service to virtually every corner of Australia. The main considerations are:

  • Fares: airfares in Australia are very dynamic, with frequent sales. When shopping around on busy routes like Melbourne to Perth, compare all the major airlines. Conversely, you may find choices very limited on routes of interest to tourists but otherwise thinly patronised, such as Sydney to Alice Springs, a town deep in the Outback and gateway to Uluru.
  • Time: the time savings of flying Melbourne to Perth as opposed to driving (4¼ hours flight time versus 36 hours of non-stop driving over 3,400km of roads) are stark. Strategically placed flights can make it possible to see a lot of different parts of the country, even if you’re pressed for time.

Fly Adelaide to Darwin (3¾ hours)
Fly Brisbane to Cairns (2½ hours)
Fly Melbourne to Perth (4¼ hours)
Fly Sydney to Alice Springs (3½ hours)
Fly Melbourne to Sydney (1½ hours)
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TIP: Qantas markets various airpasses under the names Explorer and Walkabout. However, the pricing of these schemes, which are marketed to people outside Australia who use Qantas to reach the country, may not be good value as the prices of domestic flight segments are not fixed. Use the Qantas booking engine to put together a multi-city itinerary with actual prices. In fact, simply buying tickets separately by shopping different airlines may be cheaper.

Travelling by train in Australia

Australia has useful regional rail systems around Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Intercity trains link up cities along the east coast, and long-distance tourist trains across the country offer luxury and adventure. However, trains don’t serve most of the nation and it’s hard to imagine a train-only trip around the country.

Also remember that in Australia, the journey can be as beautiful as the destination. Yes, you can take an intercity train between Sydney and Melbourne, but it runs far inland and you’ll miss the incredible drive along the coast.

Regional trains in Australia

The three main regional rail networks (Adelaide and Perth have smaller networks):

  • New South Wales: Lines from Sydney serve popular areas like Canberra, the Blue Mountains and the coast
  • Victoria: Lines from Melbourne serve coastal towns and the historic gold towns inland
  • Queensland: Lines from Brisbane include the resort area of Gold Coast to the south and the long coast to the north
Intercity trains around Australia

The three main routes of interest to visitors are all are along the popular east coast.

Melbourne to Sydney (11¼ hours/2 daily)
  • One train runs during the day, one runs overnight
  • The night train includes sleeper cars with cabins (compartments) for one or two
  • Train runs far inland, so no coastal views
Sydney to Brisbane (14¼ hours/1 daily)
  • Train runs north overnight, south by day
  • Departure and arrival times in Brisbane are inconvenient
  • Serves the popular beach town of Coffs Harbour
Brisbane to Cairns (24 hours/5 times per week)
  • Train is named ‘Spirit of Queensland’
  • Has regular seats and ‘railbed’ seats that convert to flat beds
  • Follows the coast; popular stops include Rockhampton and Townsville
Cruise trains across Australia

Australia’s only true long-distance trains are operated by Great Southern Rail and are marketed mostly to tourists. The Ghan and The Indian Pacific traverse the country with luxurious trains where all passengers have cabins that sleep one or two people. Gourmet meals are included. These trains make a few extended stops along the way for sightseeing. The daytime Overland is a hybrid in that it serves a popular travel route at affordable prices but only runs twice a week. Drinks and meals are sold in a cafe car.

The Ghan (Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs, one per week)
  • Adelaide to Darwin: 53 hours
  • Adelaide to Alice Springs: 25½ hours
  • Alice Springs to Darwin: 23½ hours
The Indian Pacific (Sydney to Perth via Adelaide, one per week)
  • Sydney to Perth: 3 days
  • Sydney to Adelaide: 24 hours
  • Adelaide to Perth: 41 hours
The Overland (Melbourne to Adelaide, two per week)
  • 12 hours

Travelling by bus around Australia

A thick network of buses cover Australia. Major cities and the states and territories all have publicly-run services that link small towns and cities. Private carriers cover popular routes along the east coast, and Greyhound offers cross-country, long-distance services with oodles of stops between major cities.

Things to consider:

  • Buses are cheap and offer a good way to get off the beaten track, as well as to popular areas like the beach that you can’t usually get to via planes or trains
  • There are gaps in coverage, most notably across the forbidding Nullarbor Plain in southern Australia
  • Over long-distances, buses on routes with no competition may be more expensive than flying and take considerably longer
  • Passes, such as those offered by Greyhound, can allow you to explore in depth for a reasonable cost
  • Long-distance buses typically are large with 2 + 2 seating, air-con and a toilet. Some show movies and have power points or USB plugs
  • Bus tours aimed at backpackers and other tourists offer multi-day escorted tours. There are dozens of operators, including Nullabor Traveller, which spans the namesake stretch of southern Australia.

Major operators are:

Greyhound
  • Has a large network covering much of Australia outside of Western Australia
  • Its sole WA route is to Broome in the north of the state; from here you have to switch to Integrity Coach Lines
  • Passes come in several flavours including ones based on kilometres travelled, or specific routes with unlimited stops
Firefly
  • Runs Adelaide­–Melbourne–Canberra–Sydney
Integrity
  • Covers Western Australia from Broome to Perth
Premier Motor Service
  • Has service along the east coast from Cairns south to Eden on the New South Wales coast, via Brisbane and Sydney
  • Offers Value Bus Passes that allow unlimited hop on and hop off travel along one segment of the coast
Sample bus trips between Australian cities

Adelaide to Alice Springs (20½ hours)
Brisbane to Cairns (29 hours)
Cairns to Alice Springs (35 hours)
Brisbane to Sydney (19 hours)
Sydney to Melbourne (12 hours)
Melbourne to Adelaide (12 hours)

TIP: On popular east coast routes, be sure to compare fares between bus operators, as each has various specials and discount schemes.

Travelling by car around Australia

While days on the open road through barren tracts of land have their own inherent appeal, distances can be very long, especially through the vast Outback. Still there’s no denying the freedom that comes with having your own wheels, whether it’s exploring one region in depth, getting far off the beaten path, not worrying about a schedule or enjoying one of Australia’s iconic drives.

Considerations include:

  • Australian roads are generally in good condition and road rules are straightforward
  • Petrol/gas is expensive
  • If your home country license is in English, that’s all you need; otherwise you’ll need an International Drivers License
  • Consider using a short-term, local car rental to explore an area before moving on via plane, bus or train
Vehicle options
Vehicle rental
  • Major car rental firms operate across Australia (rates are competitive)
  • For exploring remote areas, a 4WD is essential, while for the ultimate freedom and adventure, a campervan lets you roam at will
  • Most rental rates include unlimited kilometres, but be sure to confirm this
  • One-way rentals of any vehicle type can incur a hefty surcharge
Vehicle purchase
  • Can be economical for an extended visit to Australia
  • The complexities of buying, selling and licensing the vehicle are labyrinth
  • Each state and territory has its owns rules and regulations
Ride sharing
Iconic drives around Australia

Australia is full of popular driving routes that both capture the country’s essence and offer superb scenery. Here are some suggestions:

Great Ocean Road:
Near Melbourne, this 243km drive covers world-class coastal scenery, including the iconic 12 Apostles, towering rock formations jutting out of the ocean.

Red Centre Way:
A 5-day route from Alice Springs that captures the scenic drama of the Outback, including Uluru.

Great Barrier Reef Drive:
A 140km route from Cairns to Port Douglas takes in the namesake world-class wonder offshore and the fabled Daintree Rainforest on land.

What about Tasmania?

Located 240km south of mainland Australia, the island state of Tasmania can be reached by air and sea.

Ferry
  • Spirit of Tasmania ferry runs one to two trips a day from Melbourne to Tasmania
  • Trips take 10 hours
  • Options include booking a cabin for a night sailing and bringing a vehicle
Flying
  • Australia’s four main airlines offer frequent flights from Melbourne and Sydney at competitive prices
Rome2rio, based in Melbourne, Australia, is organising the world’s transport information. We offer a multi-modal, door-to-door travel search engine that returns itineraries for air, train, coach, ferry, mass transit and driving options to and from any location. Discover the possibilities at rome2rio.com